People 3 minutes 25 March 2024

Here's How First-time Restaurateur Jenelle Tan Boldly Defies the Odds in the Industry

With dishes donning edgy names such as "3 Girls with a Dirty Guy", Jenelle Tan, owner of newly MICHELIN Selected restaurant Sambal in Penang, shares how she rose above the naysayers and the countless challenges faced by introducing a unique and modern concept in Penang.

When Jenelle Tan opened Sambal in early 2021 as a first-time restaurateur, she crafted offerings that felt most natural to her.

Take this example of a dish called "3 Girls with a Dirty Guy," a representation of her grandmother’s recipe for salted fish pork patty served alongside steamed baos, accompanied by char siew sauce with the restaurant's signature Sambal Butter. This twist certainly deviates from the traditional dish that’s usually served with rice or congee. Another notable creation is "Udang (prawn) Entangled" — a hybrid dish combining Thai-inspired glass noodles and drunken chicken; a tribute to her mother’s recipe, where the secret to its comforting, aromatic, and creamy prawn bisque lies in the chicken stock made from scratch and premium Shaoxing wine.

Sambal Penang's 3 Girls with a Dirty Guy
Sambal Penang's 3 Girls with a Dirty Guy

The Case for Fusion Cuisine

Many initially questioned the authenticity of this Asian Fusion restaurant, particularly in Penang, where locals tend to hold traditional, unadulterated flavours to the point of virtue. "A lot of people told us this concept wouldn't work. I just put my head down and moved on, continuing to pour my heart and soul into it," shares Tan. "People have misconceptions about what fusion entails, it simply involves combining local ingredients with European techniques and flavours, and vice versa. We use local produce and prioritise sustainability through practices such as farm-to-table and nose-to-tail cooking. Every part of the ingredient is utilised across our food and beverage menu."

For Tan, Sambal represents the most sincere fusion: the blending of culinary traditions with innovation. The restaurant pays homage to cherished family memories and life experiences that she has experienced.

Born and raised in Penang, a metropolitan city renowned for its rich culinary and cultural diversity, Tan was exposed to a myriad of food experiences. During the festive seasons, she would feast on traditional Teochew Chinese food cooked by her mother, grandmother, and aunties. “My exposure to food is that food is love — it nurtures the soul, body and mind,” she enthuses.

Cloud kitchen days.JPG

Tan has over a decade of experience in hospitality, including roles as a hotelier and a restaurant consultant. However, it wasn't until the pandemic that she embarked on opening her own restaurant. "The pandemic presented one of the toughest times. I had no choice but to return to Penang when one of my consulting projects was paused indefinitely. With an empty shop lot, I set up a cloud kitchen to cover expenses. We offered down-to-earth comfort food — dishes that are more traditional than what we serve today at Sambal," she candidly shares.

At the end of November 2020, now business partner, Esther Lim, joined Tan on this journey and the Sambal we know today was born.

It’s no coincidence that Sambal’s menu articulates the same ethos as Tan’s fortnightly family tradition of gathering together over flavourful and comforting meals that the ladies would prepare. A significant aspect of Tan’s touch is locating those pleasure points where diners encounter this gratifying fusion of nostalgia and familiarity, intertwined with modern tastes.

L-R: Char Siew Bip Rice & Teow Chew Nang
L-R: Char Siew Bip Rice & Teow Chew Nang

Two dishes from the early days still grace Sambal’s menu: The Char Siew Bip Rice that one sees now is elevated from the initial crispy pork crackling served with fluffy rice, a drizzle of soy sauce, and a perfectly runny sunny-side-up egg. Another beloved dish is Teow Chew Nang, comprising handmade Teochew noodles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, dried shrimps, and crispy pork crackling. "The noodles are handmade, and the key to this dish is the texture of the noodles and the smokiness of the wok hei (breath of wok). The recipe is as authentic as it can get, passed down from my grandmother. Sometimes, I have her give my team a refresher course on the cooking techniques when she visits the restaurant," she fondly shares.

Many chefs credit their career trajectory success to industry mentors or chefs they aspire to be; Tan attributes hers to her 94-year old grandmother. “My grandmother is my everything. She is a very giving and loving person, and she has been caring for us.”

Sambal's Loaded Empings
Sambal's Loaded Empings

One further example is with the Loaded Empings, inspired by the Thai-style green mango salad, yet incorporating elements of Nyonya flavours such as ginger flower and toasted coconut flakes for a light, bright, and refreshingly Malaysian twist. “Our rendition showcases our identity, which is breathing new life into well-acquainted recipes.” she shares.

L-R: Tan with her grandmother and with business partner, Esther Lim
L-R: Tan with her grandmother and with business partner, Esther Lim

A Leader Who Serves

Women play an integral yet nebulous role in the food industry. When asked about the part she plays, Tan does not limit herself to being just a chef or a business owner, “I would say that the most important role to me is being a friend. I call my team my allies." For Tan, the culture cultivated at Sambal is one where the team can openly voice out their concerns, fostering open communication. "Customers from all walks of life come through our doors. We can't anticipate what might happen, and service recovery is crucial to address the root cause of any issue. My team knows that I have their backs, and they can freely come to me with any problem."

The Road to Success

“Explore the world, never be afraid of hard work or failure, and never give up,” says Tan when asked what she would tell to her younger self. Finally, after three years, Sambal makes it to The MICHELIN Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Reflecting on this recognition, Tan says, “We did not expect this at all. MICHELIN was only something of an imagination, definitely not something within arm’s reach. It was a very surreal moment when we received the news that we were selected in the Guide. For my young team who are mostly in their 20s, this recognition puts hope in their eyes, and a conviction that anything is possible if you persevere and keep your head held high,” she confides.

Team Sambal: Kelvin , Esther, Jenelle, and Jason
Team Sambal: Kelvin , Esther, Jenelle, and Jason

Sambal’s head chef, Kelvin Ching, and sous chef Jason Ng have been integral to the progression of Sambal. "I am always supported and am very grateful for my team. They are always receptive to my ideas," she shares.

As with most women in the industry in recent years, it is clear that Tan does not feel hard done by the system. “In this day and age, we work as hard as we can, and we have shown the world what we can achieve; executing it very well — or even better than expected,” she earnestly concludes.

Sambal is located at 300 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, 10300, Malaysia. Message +60 17-567 4778 for reservations.

All images are courtesy of Jenelle Tan and Sambal.


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