It’s hot in the kitchen but Najib Hamid is unperturbed by the rising temperature. The look he wears is one that tells of utmost concentration, his hands moving deftly like clockwork as the frying pan he’s holding on to catches fire, sending a sheet of flames up in the air. “Service please!” he calls out two minutes later, setting down a piping hot plate of sumptuous, silky coated carbonara on the counter. On the surface, the affable chef exudes a calm and collected persona, fuelled by a zealous passion to revitalise the local dining scene into a more robust profile befitting Malaysia’s culinary mecca status.
If the name Najib does not ring a bell, his culinary endeavours under the nickname Jibby – hint (Jibby East and Jibby Chow) – will. Currently helming the position of managing director and group chef of the Serai Group, Najib has been responsible for introducing numerous creative dining concepts around the Klang Valley synonymous with the group’s name. Since its inception back in 1990 by his mother-in-law Rina Abdullah, the Serai Group has flourished to comprise six distinctive brands under the umbrella, including Serai, Serai Thai, Satay Bar, Jibby & Co, Jibby East and Jibby Chow.
As part of our Prestige KK July 2018 issue, Prestige sits down with Najib who hails from Kota Kinabalu to talk cooking philosophy, the ever-competitive game of F&B and fickle food trends.
Taking On The Iron Chef Role
I’m no Gordon Ramsay but everyone knows I respect all of my staff as equals regardless of ethnicity or gender. Once you’re inside my kitchen, you have to focus. I’m very strict with certain things and I expect everyone to follow instructions. You don’t cross that line.
You Can’t Put A Price On Experience
A chef I worked with told me that experience cannot be bought and that money will come later. Though I did not have a specific mentor, I was lucky to work with so many great chefs who shared their knowledge with me. The experience was priceless.
Managing Customers’ Expectations
Sometimes you get customers who comment on your food and you can never win. It’s about how you educate them.
Staying Relevant In The F&B Game
In the F&B business, food comes first followed by service and the entire dining experience. You may be selling nasi lemak for RM15 and less than 200m away someone is selling it for RM10. Just down the road another vendor sells it for RM5. What’s the difference between your nasi lemak and theirs? Never say you are perfect because there is always room for improvement as you are learning every day.
Staff Motivation and Mindset Is Key
It doesn’t work if you swear at them. I try to educate them and take a different approach. I can’t change everyone but if I can change one out of 10 staff, it’s still good enough.
Food Trends: Yay or Nay?
Food is our religion and the most important thing in Malaysia is to offer comfort food. Food trends may come and go but it is not an everyday staple. What we’re trying to offer is comfort food that our customers can eat every day but with an interesting creative twist.
What Every Young F&B Entrepreneur Should Know
My advice to them is what’s the rush? A good chef may not necessarily be a good businessman. Work for others and gain as much experience as you can before you even consider opening a restaurant.
Read the full cover story in Prestige Malaysia July 2018 issue.