LONDON: IT is a long way to come; from Buntong, a suburb in Ipoh, famous for its kacang putih to a venue just minutes away from Oxford Circus here, which is famous for its high-end shops.
Here in London is where Gopal’s Corner is right now, brought to the city by the Gopal brothers, Sugendran and Summan, a legacy from their parents, Padma and Gopal, who started their first eatery — a shed under a big rain tree in Buntong in the 1970s.
The new Gopal’s Corner by Roti King in Market Hall West End is one of several eateries that occupy what used to be British Home Store (BHS) — its neighbour being John Lewis — just a stone’s throw away from Oxford Circus tube station.
I met Sugendran, or Sugen as he is popularly known, on the third day of the outlet’s opening at the new place.
He has two other outlets, one in Victoria Market Hall just above Victoria Station, and Roti King in Euston — all very strategic locations for roti canai and mee goreng mamak hunters.
As the crowd quickly built up after reading about the opening on social media and a pre-opening write up in The Independent, no less, Sugen was stuck to his corner, kneading and flipping his roti canai, or flaky bread, to the amazement of new customers.
His employees tended to their tasks at hand. One making mee goreng mamak or kari laksa, and nasi daun pisang, another taking orders while preparing teh tarik. Two workers had called in sick, hence the worried look on Sugen’s face as he assessed the queue.
“We are looking for a central kitchen and soon, everything will be prepared there. At the moment, we are using Victoria as a base to prep the food and they bring it over here,” said Sugen while sipping his drink on a much-needed break.
The first day had seen a big crowd at the new Gopal’s Corner.
Of the more than 7,000 visitors to the new place, more than 1,000 were at Gopal’s Corner, said Sugen, who made his first roti canai when he was in his early teens to help out the family business after school.
He is now 41 and a father of three.
“My first job was cleaning and making drinks. I got paid RM5 a day. My mum, Padma, 69, taught me how to cook and dad, Gopal, 74, taught me how to do business.
“It was my uncle who taught me the skills to make roti,” said Sugen of his journey into the culinary business that had seen his food being reviewed by The Guardian, raved by food bloggers and influencers, as well as his being interviewed by The Independent.
Now, he and his team make 600 to 700 roti canai a day for all the three outlets and that’s a lot of flipping to do daily.
I first met Sugen when he was running a small stall between Yum Yum Thai and another eatery, the name of which I had forgotten, at Oriental City in north London, a huge business centre where Malaysians levitated to in search of Malaysian food. That was in 2003.
He went home in 2004 to get married to Kalpana and came back to open up several others, such as Taste Malaysia in Willesden, then at Kopi Tiam, sharing a space at a Malaysian eatery in Leicester Square, and then Roti King in Doric Way, Euston.
Wherever there’s a smell of roti canai or murtabak being made, whether from stalls at Malaysian carnivals in Brickendonbury or from Malaysian festivals in Trafalgar Square, there would always be long queues of hungry customers, even when the weather was bad.
So, what is the secret, Sugen?
“I think people like the
taste, quantity and quality. And there’s a lot of love and passion too,” he said.
The fact that Sugen is a likeable and pleasant man has something to do with it too, I am sure.
“My brother, Summan, has been my strength from the very start,” he said, paying tribute to his younger brother, his right-hand man he could not do without.
Together they have built up a good team to manage all the three outlets their parents would be proud of.
However, Sugen said a good roti canai maker was difficult to find. When and if he opens a fourth outlet, that will be one main consideration.
Dishes served at the three outlets are basically the same — roti canai with lamb or chicken curry, dhall, dosai, banana leaf rice, mee goreng mamak Ipoh style and kari laksa. He orders 150 to 200 banana leaves from Sri Lanka daily for his outlets.
The locals are getting more adventurous in their choice of food.
“We have added lamb chop with satay flavour only at this new outlet,” said Sugen.
His customers are a good mix of Malaysians and locals, tourists, shoppers and office workers.
Needless to say, Malaysians who step off the plane at Heathrow and yearn for roti canai will make a beeline to his eateries. Many are already his steadfast clients who follow him wherever he goes.
But some have just been initiated through word of mouth.
Sugen is brave to open up another outlet when there were already several Malaysian eateries that did not even see a new year. But he is not one to be afraid of failure.
“It has been a lot of hard work, with zero finance. We worked hard to save money. We tried a few times, we failed. But we never gave up. We continued. A fourth one is coming next year, hopefully.
“If you want to start a restaurant, you have to understand the food. You have to know how to do it, have the knowledge and work hard. Never give up. Don’t give up. You might fail here and there, but always try to come back,” said Sugen as he walked back to his station to continue his work.