Kyo Pang

Lower East Side, NYC
If you follow New York food culture at all, you will know Kopitiam. For countless weeks after this Malaysian coffee shop-turned-eatery opened, all that we saw on our timelines was the Kaya Butter Toast paired with a coffee. The food FOMO worked and we had to go try it for ourselves. At first, we were skeptics of a sweet sandwich (fluffernutters ruined us), But upon first bite, we were dreamily transported to a joyful Malaysian summer, when the humidity is so hot you automatically are covered with a glistened glow. We were sold on the food. We were also further sold when we met chef/co-owner (and did we mention James Beard Semifinalist?) Kyo Pang. We sat down with Kyo a few months ago to discuss how she got into the business, as well as hear some hunger-inducing descriptions of her favorite dishes.
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Full name, age, where are you from?

Kyo Pang, 34, born and raised in Penang, Malaysia.

What was growing up like for you and did you have family meals growing up?

I grew up in a very traditional Baba Nyonya family, I was already helping in the kitchen when I was 7 years old. Every 1st and 15th of the Lunar month, all girls and women in the family are obligated to prepare meal for the family for praying and blessing.

What meal most reminds you of your childhood?

Kaya Toast and Soft Boiled Egg, that was what my grandma would make. She made it for me every day before I would go to school. I used to ask why I couldn't have more than 2 eggs. She would always tell me, sometimes we learn to appreciate things when we can’t have enough.

How did you get into this industry?

In 2014, my dad had a midlife crisis became depressed, he almost gave up on himself. After I spoke to him, it seemed like his face would light up whenever he talked about food. I felt that I had to do something for him. Coincidentally around the same time, my mom called me and told me that the restaurant I used to hang out at with my dad had to close down. The owner had passed away and his sons didn’t want to take over. That restaurant had been there for 50 years, I felt that I had the obligation to continue the legacy. I quit my job as an event planner and  registered Kopitiam as a company. Within a month I had all the paperwork done and I started to sell from street fairs. Within 4 months, I rented a 210sq ft flower shop and turned it into an eatery / coffee shop. Everyone thought I was out of my mind. That was my first little corner for myself, and that’s the story of Kopitiam's beginning.  

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What is your current role and how has the pandemic affected you?

I’m the Founder and Executive Chef at Kopitiam. The pandemic didn’t hit us until beginning of March this year, and we had to let go of most of our staff during mid-March for their safety. We will begin gradually bringing everyone back when things start getting better. Because most of our staff were either very young teenagers or older single parents, I didn’t want them to risk their health and safety due to this pandemic. At the beginning of COVID, there was only me and my business partner running the business from front and back.  

What do you think working in this industry during this time has taught you?

To be consistently patient, passionate, and to keep going. My family always wanted me to stay out of this industry because they understood how hard this business is and how tiring it can be. Growing up, I thought the same and always wanted to pursue a more "idealistic" career. After I got into this industry, I felt that I could understand my parents more, the more I cook, the closer I’m to them. My grandmother used to say, cooking is like life, it all comes in circle. Nothing is easy in life, but if we consistently are patient and passionate with what we do, we are able to keep going with more positive energy.

What's your fave item on this menu? off menu?

My favorite item on our menu is the oyster omelet. When I was a kid, my family always brought me out to eat and that was the must order item on the menu. When I came to the states, I realized many places didn’t have the oyster omelet prepared the way I had it back home. That was when I decided to bring this dish to our menu to share with the foodies.

Off menu is either Kueh Teow Th’ng (flat rice noodle cooked in duck broth and topped with fish ball and duck meat) or Prawn Noodles. These two dishes we sometimes bring into our weekly specials, and they are my favorite dishes for breakfast or lunch back home.

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Once it is completely safe to eat out again and socialize, where is the first place you would go for dinner and what would you order?

I think I would just like to bring my wife out to dinner.

Anything exciting coming up for you?

I have some new plans, but I can only share when it’s the right time =)

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