Catering and Storytelling – interview with Jessica Nathan (3 August 2010)

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jessicanathanIntroduction

Brenda James, a columnist on this website, suggested I ask David and Jessica Nathan if they were interested in the interview. Though eager, I was wondering how their story (which is essentially a story about a catering business) would fit in here. Still, I persevered and I’m really pleased with the answers Jessica provided. Therefore, without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Jessica Nathan …


Aneeta: Jessica, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Jessica: No, thank you for this opportunity Aneeta, I really appreciate it. And apologies for the delayed response.

Aneeta: Let’s start with a little about you. Please tell me, where were you born, where did you grow up, where do you live now and what do you do for a living?

Jessica: OK, I was born in Kuching, lived there most of my schooling life and then moved to Peninsular Malaysia after my SPM. I had initially intended to further my education to Korea as a taekwondo instructor (I had completed my black belt and was competing regularly then), however my family felt this was not a suitable career choice for a female member of the family. I left for Semenanjung shortly after that.

I started working in Holiday Villa Subang, which was my first foray into the world of hospitality, food & beverage.

I currently live in the Ampang area in KL with my husband David, our 5 year old son Jamie and our labarador-doberman cross Zoe.

I think I have been blessed to say that I get to do for a living the thing that I have grown as a brand and a company that is . I oversee the cuisine development at Aubergine and am also quite keen on exploring photography. I know its very amateur quality, but I still like to shoot as much of the images posted on our facebook or blog – if it isn’t we will always credit the photographer.

Aneeta: I know about your work from both my association with Brenda and also from your facebook entries. For my readers’ benefit, please tell me a little more about Aubergine Catering. What is its history and what’s special about it?

Jessica: It started back when both David and I were working in the hospitality and nightlife industry in KL. We were keen to start a family and wanted to take a little break from the strenuously long hours of the industry, so I moved out of the equation first, but still not quite knowing what it is I wanted to do. I am again blessed that my husband is very supportive of any venture that I may have had some draw towards, however his bottom line statement always remained, “be passionate about it and love it, the rest will follow”.

So without much experience and financial backing we started Aubergine back in 2001-2002. The early days were filled with so much uncertainty especially with manpower and resources for our events and it’s remained a constant struggle for us throughout the years.

I guess what is special is special about Aubergine is that it is something we built from scratch and hope to grow the brand into one that is associated with premium quality cuisine and service without the hefty price tags. We have tried not to compromise in terms of quality and also in being able to innovate constantly with cuisine and on-going global, regional and local trends. Our custom-made approach to clients, each time, every time is not appreciated by all, as most Malaysians want immediate or instant gratification, same with proposals. We decided when we started that we will not have any set menus or courses to choose from, although this makes plenty of sense from a cost-control and inventory measure, we found it that if finance ruled Aubergine’s philosophy, then the creativity will be greatly stifled. We wanted to go with the custom-made approach to creating menus and experiences to our clients as we felt that this meant we get to know the client’s objectives and use that information to create the concept, as opposed to a concept that has been pre-designed and pre-budgeted for no one in particular, just a general concept.

Aneeta: Of all the events you’ve done, which three stand out and why?

Jessica: Oh wow, they are all special. But I guess if I had to choose 3, it would be a combination of nostalgia, beauty and memorable. I would say our absolute very first event, all those years back, still is fresh in my memory as we were so fresh and new and had simply no idea about portioning. The client was Standard Chartered – it was a staff appreciation gathering at a KTV lounge in Bangsar! The event itself went with relative smoothness, we had close friends who came as well-wishers for our 1st event and became part of the crew! We over budgeted the food quantity, not wanting to run out of food on the 1st event, we ended up eating the food for the rest of the week thanks to freezer and microwave technology. We weren’t the only ones eating, our friends who lived nearby came to eat and then da bao as well!

The other would be a wedding we did for one of our earliest clients who back then celebrated her 30th birthday and then came back to us after her caterer had pulled out last minute. We had minimal web presence for a while and tracking us seemed a bit tricky from what feedback we for from her. So it was a nice twist of fate that she supported us during the early days and we ended up doing her wedding in Tanarimba, Janda Baik. It was a beautiful ceremony followed by a cocktail reception with their family and closest friends some who had travelled great distances to be there.

greenspaceLastly I would say was our recent Heineken Green Space event. When we heard of the concept we loved what they stood for and knew we had to get in on the action. So we proposed a global cuisine pairing with beer idea and Heineken accepted it and we implemented it on 19th June this year. The sweetener for the event was as it went as well as we could have anticipated or planned, we also had very close friends whom normally we would have wished been there, but this time they were in town by chance, so it was a bit surreal in a good way.

Aneeta: Clearly, there is a creative element in what you do. My question, though odd as it may seem, is this: is there any form of storytelling in how you prepare for a particular event.

Jessica: Well I suppose there is. We made a decision when we started that we will take a custom-made-approach-to-our-clients, each time, every time. which meant no fixed menus and even for a simple kid’s birthday party or a corporate luncheon. We took this stance as we wanted to have something extra to offer our prospective clients. We didn’t want to go down the discount path as it would mean we would potentially need to compromise on quality of the cuisine served, which is something we promised ourselves we will never do, regardless of the client’s budget. So we decided and ventured forward.

We were very fortunate in our early days as we had a few very special people who believed in us, even more than I’d say we believed in ourselves. They were encouraging and gave us jobs that we won’t have normally acquired given our relative inexperience in the field, at the time. So in that sense I find that we have been blessed with knowing great, positive, forward-thinking people.

Our story is about telling the client’s story, through cuisine. We take our time to put things together as we want, whenever possible, to find out more about the client’s needs and wants, try to balance it out and ensure that their guests are satisfied and maybe even a little impressed with the cuisine, although that is never our primary objective.

The custom-made approach has also proven to have its downsides, in terms of lead-time. clients who are in a rush, simply can’t get a menu out of us as quickly as  we do spend time getting to know the client, understand their audience, how they behave and what makes them tick and turns them on. It’s a bit like courtship, its kind of tricky in the beginning but you are glad you invested the initial time spent together!

We would just like to be able to impart to all our clients that whatever we do, it will be made with love, over what makes sense. Love trumps practicality!

Aneeta: Jessica, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Jessica: Well I guess I have said quite a bit, just to everyone to take a bit of time, relax a little and savour what’s around us, slow down that pace, just a bit, for a short little while and soak it all in!

Aneeta: Jessica, thank you.

Jessica: Aneeta, thank you very much for this opportunity.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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