Over a year ago, Kevin Burzell and his fiancée Alysson Wilson sat at a café in Burma during their second trip to Asia, and began discussing a five-year plan to open a restaurant. The plan would provide a roadmap to creating a sustainable business that would allow them to live, work, and return to Asia once a year. Now, over a year into their five-year plan, Chef Kevin Burzell looks ahead to the future of Kedai Makan. With any luck, Seattleites will not have to wait four more years to experience Kedai Makan the restaurant, and there may be time still for Kevin and Alysson tie the knot.
Photo provided by Kevin Burzell
It was purely intentional. I lived in Germany for a few years and I was cooking there. So I was convinced that I was going to come back to Seattle and hopefully open up something German. I met Alysson, and before we came back to Seattle, we said, "Let's travel a little together." So we went to Asia, and that was our first trip. I just fell in love with it. I was so taken by the food. I got to Seattle for the first time -- I guess that was five years ago -- and I was, for lack of better word, confused. I was thinking, "What am I going to do?" or "What am I going to cook? I can't just go pure German anymore." I just couldn't do it. I found myself always at home messing with Malaysian food, Laotian food, Cambodian food, Vietnamese food. I was fortunate enough coming from a small town in Germany to a place like Seattle where all of those [ingredients] were available.
I heard of Jerry Traunfeld, and I heard he was opening a place that had some Indian influence. I heard he was looking for cooks and I was like, "I'm applying there." That was a phenomenal experience to work with Jerry [at Poppy] everyday. He has the most amazing palate. He demands the best out of his cooks, and you have to give it to him. I was lucky to work for him for a few years. That helped me a lot with technique. He knows so many people. He knows all the farmers in Seattle.
After Poppy, we went back to Asia for a while, and after that, it was like, "I'm not even going to mess with any other cuisine. It was just going to be Southeast Asia." I worked with a cook named Mike Webster at Poppy. We ended up meeting on a bus somewhere, and he said that he was working at Monsoon. I went in and talked to Eric [Bahn] and I started working at Monsoon. Then, he opened Ba Bar and I started working there. Eric is great; we got along great.
For your five year plan, what led you to start out at the Broadway and Virginia Mason farmers markets instead of a food truck or a temporary space?
We tried out for this farmers market slot and we were fortunate enough to get it. We decided we had to move. We decided that if we're going to start this, we had to go all the way. So I left Ba Bar a month and a half before we even started. I was working on recipes every day.
We know that Wiley [Frank] and PK [of Little Uncle] had done the farmers market and even before that, about eight months earlier, we were talking to a good friend of ours, Rachel Marshall, who does [Rachel's Ginger Beer]. She's an old friend and she was doing the farmers market. We were kind of talking about that idea. Everyone at the farmers market has been very welcoming. They liked our concept. It's just been phenomenal. We're so lucky to be there. You're working alongside the best farmers in the state. They're just good people there, and it's a good atmosphere. It's [also] a lot of hard work, don't get me wrong. A lot of the farmers there work exceptionally hard. We're not rolling in cash. It's a lot of physical work.
Where did most of your knowledge of Asian food come from, and considering how foreign this must've been for you starting out, how did you start building up this knowledge?
It's hard not knowing a language well enough. My Thai got ... well, it was never fluent. It was never conversational. I knew kitchen terms and I could talk to a stall and tell her how I wanted my Som Tam (papaya salad), and how I wanted certain dishes. That's how you order it is you go up to a stall and say, "Oh I want a little of this, and a little more nam pla." You always customize it a little bit.
In both trips to Asia, we did a lot of research. Whatever town we were in, whether it's Kuala Lumpur or Mandalay, we asked, "What dishes are coming from those places specifically?" You can take Hokkien Mee in KL (Kuala Lumpur), which is a totally different dish from Hokkien Mee in Thailand. The café where it was invented is still there. So you can order the original dish and go on to taste, taste, taste. In Asia, you're fortunate enough to still have places that are 40, 60, 80, 100 years old and they're still cooking the same way, still using charcoal fires and woks. You just have to go there, taste, and learn. You have to try to hang out at as many kitchens as you can, and talk to as many cooks as you can. A lot of them won't give you anything. You can try, and if they don't give you anything, you can just come back the next day, order the food, watch, take notes, and again, try talking to them. Sometimes, if you go back there five or six times, they might eventually let you in on a small secret.
Is there a pressure for you to skew your dish or menu to suit more American tastes?
We've decided to not do that at all, for better or for worse. We're never going to have stars on our menu like, "Oh, how spicy would you like that?" Our dishes are going to be how it's going to be. Some people are not going to like that and we understand. That's fine. It's a cuisine that is hard to cater to everybody's palate. Not everybody is going to like true Southeast Asian food with a lot of shrimp paste and a lot of spice.
At one of our pop-ups at Skelly and the Bean, we had a fish head curry. I remember that day, we had Jerry Traunfeld and Matt Dillon, They were all sitting there at the table. We asked them to give it to us and tell us what they think. Jerry was saying, "This could be a little spicier. Don't dumb it down." Fair enough. He's right. We're not going to dumb it down, for better or for worse.
Are there any unique challenges you face in cooking at a farmers market environment instead of a restaurant kitchen?
It's a challenge everyday. We're using propane. There's basically a three burner camp stove that Wylie and PK let us borrow. But yeah, there's been a new challenge every week. One of the challenges is that we create the challenge in that we change the menu every week. So you can get set up and you realize, "Oh, I need an extra burner."
Of course, you deal with the elements. There was this one Sunday -- maybe a month ago, it might've been longer. It was super hot. It was at Broadway, and I decided to do fried chicken that week. It required two rather large pans of oil at a high temperature and I was just so sweaty and so hot. Customers were complaining saying, "It's really hot over here." It was a bad idea. I thought it'd be a nice summer dish like, "Oh fried chicken in the park with some rice." Though, we've had some people come and ask when we'll do that again, and it won't be until it gets a little cooler in Seattle, which will come. Summers are short in Seattle.
Are there plans to go brick and mortar?
The five year plan was intended to be something we could do in five years. That was 14 months ago. Things have grown much faster than we've thought in that time. Obviously, we'd like a full-time space. Where and what neighborhood, that's the real challenge. We think we know the size. We want something small, a small bar with just fun food. We're not going to do tasting menus at $350. We just want good Malaysian cuisine that's reasonable and fun, in a fun and electric atmosphere. We think we'll get there.
Does part of your five-year plan include time to plan a wedding?
(Laughs) We've been engaged for far too long. The subject comes up, and [the response is] always, "When we have time." We'll see. The few times we've tried to plan something, it's just never worked out. Hopefully soon!
Don't miss part two of this week's Grillaxin with Kevin Burzell.