Written by Sean Li • October 21, 2019
New York City is home to some of the best restaurants in the country. Among them, Kopitiam stands out with its delicious take on Malaysian and Chinese flavors. Spearheaded by partners Moonlynn Tsai and Kyo Pang, Koptiam serves up Nyonya cuisine to hungry diners in the Lower East Side. We sat down with Moonlynn Tsai to learn about her journey to Kopitiam, one of Bon Appétit’s picks for America’s Best New Restaurants 2019.
CaterCow: Have you always been interested in food and cooking?
Moonlynn: I'm an industry baby. My parents owned restaurants in San Diego and growing up I tried to do everything I could steer as far away from restaurants as possible! But then college hit and you're out there fending for yourself, which was when I started to cook.
Fast forward a couple years, I was living in Orange County, surrounded by an abundance of fresh produce. Living with four guys, my kitchen became a playground to cook and test out recipes.
CC: What are some of your earliest food memories?
MT: I traveled to Taiwan a lot when I was younger to visit my sweet maternal grandma who, to this day, is hands down the best cook I've ever met. She would get so excited when we visited. Even if it was just me and my brother, she would call us down for lunch to a table filled with (I'm not exaggerating) 6-8 different dishes. Everything she does is homemade, from fermenting baby ginger to spending a whole day frying shallots. She is single handedly the person who inspires me the most in terms of food.
CC: What was your career path leading up to Kopitiam?
MT: I've been working since I was 15. After years of filing papers in my parents’ corporate office, I went to college to pursue psychology or teaching. I did odd jobs in college like translating Chinese to English at a San Diego hospital and working as an extra on the TV show Veronica Mars. Later, I worked in my parents’ restaurant, moving up from server to management. In my early 20's I moved to the Bay Area and helped start a craft beer bar. It occurred to me that beyond just cooking, I really enjoyed the operational aspects of the restaurant.
Afterwards, I moved down to LA to help open a Taiwanese farm-to-table restaurant in Silverlake and realized it was the most 'in my element' I had ever felt.
CC: What are your hopes for Kopitiam as you continue to grow?
MT: I believe what makes Kopitiam special is the community we are so lucky to be a part of and also our young team’s heart and drive. We are still in what I call the infancy stage, but we are slowly becoming more self-sustaining. I am personally hoping that both Kyo and I can take some time off for a quick trip to Asia, or just breather time overall! But again, this is the #startuplife and we wouldn't have it any other way.
I also hope that we can grow outside of just a restaurant. I recently launched a Kopitiam Community Initiative in which people from the community can nominate startups, community sports coaches, etc. to win a team meal on the house!
CC: What are you most excited about right now with Kopitiam?
MT: I love that we get visitors from Malaysia who are so excited about our food. Oftentimes, they haven't been home in so long and our food abates some of their homesickness. On the other hand, it's been wonderful seeing guests who have had no experience with Malaysian cuisine trying our food. Overall, we are very excited that we are able to promote Malaysian food and culture to NYC!
Cover picture via www.kopitiamnyc.com