Hubert Burda Media

Claudia Sondakh: Consumed By Passion

The founder and owner of Plentyfull is on a mission to inspire a new era of conscious dining.

Foodie and restaurateur Claudia Sondakh was admittedly precocious as a child. “I was the pickiest eater,” she confesses. “When I was little, I had a tricycle I would cycle around in the living room [during meal times] and I’d eat one spoonful of food for each round — that was how bad it was.” Even her childhood aversion to sushi was overcome by a moment of fierce competitiveness, rather than encouragement from her father, Indonesian businessman Peter Sondakh of the Rajawali Corporation. “My dad always told me, You have to try everything at least once and he wanted me to taste sushi, saying I was missing out on the best thing ever,” Sondakh recalls. She finally gave it a shot at age 10, only because she was out for dinner with family friends and she saw their four-year-old eating sushi like a champ. “I felt like I was being a wuss for not trying it, so I went for the sushi,” she says. “And when I tasted it, I thought it was the best thing ever.”

Now far more adventurous when it comes to food, Sondakh counts ice cream, pizza and pungent, runny unpasteurised cheeses as a few of her indulgences. But her passion lies more with educating diners on the possibilities of wholesome cuisine. After all, the svelte 39-year-old is the force behind Plentyfull, the 132-seat, 4,000-sq-ft restaurant in Millenia Walk that was launched in August. Bringing together a brasserie, a patisserie and the local gourmet grocer Little Farms, the dining concept has trained its focus on presenting healthy, flavourful dishes suited to the Asian palate.

As a regular visitor to Los Angeles — “The land of health fads,” as Sondakh calls it — she saw opportunity in exporting its farm-to-table philosophy and taste for eating seasonally, to offer food in Singapore that was as nutritious as it was appetising. “Right now, there are a lot of extremes, such as raw cafes, vegan, vegetarian, but we’re in Asia, we’re Asian, you can’t eat that every day; you want some spice and flavour,” she says. Eating well, especially with Asian flavours, was what Sondakh felt was most sorely needed and she sought inspiration from the cuisine of her childhood — Thai and Indonesian food made from scratch.

Rather than launch a restaurant on a whim, Sondakh spent years preparing for her F&B venture, the idea for which had germinated years before as a result of her experience going through a 21-day detox diet of only cooked meat and vegetables, after consulting a homeopath for sinus issues. She had also taken up a challenge issued by a personal trainer to abstain from eating anything that came from a bottle or a packet.

At around the same time, Sondakh was letting go of her fashion business, Robe Raiders — the online boutique for pre-loved luxury goods she co-founded in 2011, which later merged with shopping platform The Fifth Collection in 2015 — and she saw it as a chance to explore a new path. The food and beverage industry, an environment she had grown up in because of her family’s involvement in the hospitality business, seemed a good fit. “The one thing that has been consistent throughout my life, including childhood, is my love of cooking and food,” Sondakh says. Her husband of three years, Evan Kwee, director of Pontiac Land and the executive director of Capella Hotel Group Asia, was her sounding board and wise counsel. “I told him, I really need to do this cooking thing. I need to get it out of my system because if I don’t do it now, I’ll never know,” she recounts.

The intensive nine-month Cuisine Diploma programme at Le Cordon Bleu Paris appealed to Sondakh, but Kwee recommended she earn work experience instead, which she agreed was the better option. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to abandon my husband on our first wedding anniversary!” she admits with a laugh. So in November 2014, she embarked on an internship at Capella Singapore, which offered a full rotation through the hotel’s banqueting arm, including its pastry, cold and hot kitchens, pushing herself to the limit. “The first two weeks, I was so exhausted — so exhausted — because you’re not used to standing for so long and you’re constantly moving,” she says. “But I remember at the end of every day, when I came home, I felt very fulfilled, because I was able to see something from zero to [completion], I did it with my hands and I was involved, so I felt really satisfied.”

At work, nothing was off limits to Sondakh. Besides decorating a 2.3-m tall nine-tier wedding cake under three days with Executive Pastry Chef Chek Yong Sam and replenishing the buffets during an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants event (her friends were among the guests but didn’t notice her in her chef’s uniform), she washed dishes, scrubbed freezers and did stock take — everything kitchen staff would do. “I remember on my first official off day, I actually felt really lost,” Sondakh recalls. “And I told my husband, maybe I should just go back in to work, in case I’m missing out on learning something.”

What was intended to be a four-week attachment at Capella Singapore turned into an 18-month stay, during which chef Sam, took her under his wing, teaching her not only about pastry but also about working through management and human resource issues, knowing her eventual goal was to open a restaurant. “I actually wanted to explore more of the culinary side,” she says. “But chef Sam — who’s still a friend — was a good teacher and I think in life, when you find a good mentor, you want to [hold on].”

The intensely immersive year and a half of pulling 10- to 12-hour shifts five times a week prepared Sondakh well for running and managing her own establishment and staff. “I see a lot of restaurant owners open a restaurant because it’s fun, but they don’t realise the hard work that goes on behind it,” she says. “I wanted to be able to empathise with not only the kitchen staff but also the service staff, because I felt if you’re a business owner and you realise what they go through, you understand them a bit more.” And in spite of the long hours she devoted to the kitchens of Capella Singapore, her family was fully supportive of her ambition. “I did warn them, You may not see me for a while,” she says. “But they were understanding, so that made it easier for me to go big or go home.”

Staying faithful to Sondakh’s philosophy of wholesome Asian-inspired cuisine, the menu at Plentyfull places vegetables on equal footing with meat, instead of presenting them as an afterthought or a forlorn supporting actor. And the vegetable-focused offerings seem to have caught on. “Once people taste the food, they understand it,” Sondakh says. “I’ve been reading reviews and comments that some who don’t usually eat vegetables actually like eating them here, which is nice.” A dish that’s quickly become one of the restaurant’s signatures is the Little Farm’s Vegetable Dip, complete with exotic-looking varieties such as purple carrots, purple cauliflower and florets of Romanesco broccoli. “It’s funny — people ask us if we dye the vegetables, because they’re not used to so much colour,” Sondakh explains. “But that’s the thing, you need to educate people that nature can produce so many amazing things if you give it a chance and time [to work its magic].” Portions of Plentyfull’s menu also reflect Sondakh’s personal journey. Thai roasted chicken with garlic, cilantro and a mean chilli jam is a dish her Thai mother, Poungkaew Panichpulpoca, has always prepared for her, while the Queen’s Cake, a strawberry sponge layered with rose cream, lychee and raspberries, was conceptualised by Sondakh and chef Sam for her gay best friend’s birthday one year.

One who holds her mother’s and grandmother’s culinary and baking skills in high regard, Sondakh’s fascination with good food stems from her childhood spent in the kitchen surrounded by rich aromas and flavours. Since she was about five, Sondakh would help out whenever there was cooking taking place at home. “I’d be my mother’s taste-tester, she’d try out recipes and I’d give her comments,” Sondakh reminisces. “She’d bake and ask me if it tasted nice, I’d say the other version is better and she’d write it down.” Sondakh now cooks at home whenever she has time and prepares her own kale chips and kefir. “I force Evan to take some things and I try to get him to like it,” she says. “Especially when I have kids, [my philosophy on food] will definitely address the way they eat.”

Her family also has influenced her in other ways. Despite growing up in privilege, Sondakh credits her upbringing with keeping her grounded. “My mum always told me: ‘This comfortable lifestyle is not an entitlement, it’s because your dad worked so hard for it, so it’s a blessing, not a right,’” she says. Even with help at home, Sondakh and her siblings had to do chores, and until she was in high school, the eldest of three was tasked with cleaning her own bathroom, doing laundry and ironing clothes. “[My mum] said: ‘I don’t want you to go to college and not know how to survive in life,’” Sondakh explains.

As for running a business, her father’s guidance is hard to ignore, though Sondakh may joke about being scarred from facing off against him in Monopoly at age six. (The elder Sondakh would playfully bargain whenever he purchased property tokens she owned). But at seven or eight, Sondakh displayed an unmistakable instinct for entrepreneurship, carving her own rubber erasers and trying to sell them to her parents. It’s no wonder then that by 2000, Sondakh would dive into business with Retail Therapy, the fashion and accessories retail venture she launched with her friend Dora Wong.

But whittling down her professional priorities was something she had put off until now. “My dad’s advice to me — which I finally listened to after so many years, because I’m stubborn — is to focus,” she explains. “I have many interests and he says I need to focus on one and get it right. So I think with this whole journey with the internship and the restaurant, my dad is [thinking]: You’re finally listening to me.”

Sondakh expects to stay put in the F&B industry for the foreseeable future and going by the positive reviews of Plentyfull’s food offerings, relaxed ambience and philosophical simplicity, her first restaurant enterprise holds promise. She acknowledges that the risk-taking culture ingrained in her family tempers the fear of failure and makes it easier for her to run her own establishment, but she stays down-to-earth about how far she’s come in the business game. “When you have a dad who’s so successful, it’s as if [what I’ve done] is just a small dot compared to what he’s achieved,” Sondakh muses aloud. “It’s about trying to reconcile that, but also reminding yourself you need to start somewhere.”