Chef on the go
If Garuda and Komodo food trucks don’t start appearing around New Zealand in the coming years it won’t be for want of trying.
When it was suggested, only half in jest, that Burhanuddin [Burhan] Bitju, 44, might become an Indonesian KFC Colonel Sanders and sell nasi rendang outside the NZ capital of Wellington he didn’t laugh away the idea.
“Why not?” he replied. “We all need a goal. I look around and there are openings everywhere.
“Next year I’ll bring a young entrepreneur from Indonesia to see what can be achieved. Of course there are risks – but no risk, no gain.”
When Burhan’s guest arrives the first thing he should note is how his Macassar-born host has adapted to the small South Pacific nation he entered as a student about eight years ago, even to the weather where winter temperatures often struggle to rise above single digits.
“My parents were rightly concerned that I should have a profession,” said Burhan. “My father was a teacher and my mother a cook who sold her wares in the market.
“As the eldest of four children I often helped deliver her foods. That gave me much knowledge about customers and marketing.
“After graduating as an engineer from Hasanuddin University I was urged to enter the bureaucracy for the security and a pension. But I wanted to be in business.”
So he turned his back on supervising concrete pours on building sites to stirring vegetables in a hotel kitchen. Then he started a catering company but that didn’t still his restless spirit.
When he wasn’t cooking he was reading, certain his talents could do more than pay the bills, or “just keep going round in circles.” He’d never been out of Indonesia but reckoned his future was overseas.
To turn dreams into reality he needed two things – the international language and a globally accepted qualification. He studied English, scanned the Internet and eventually clicked onto Wellington.
Here he met Bill Russell who runs Education Network Indonesia, a business linking students from the Republic with NZ educators. He recommended the Wellington Institute of Technology.
After graduating in professional cooking Burhan soon found work. With income and security he brought his wife Indriani Taha and daughter Gabriella from their tropical home to the world’s windiest city 7,000 kilometers south east of Macassar.
It wasn’t an easy transition.
“My wife was most unhappy for the first three months,” he said. “She missed family and friends and couldn’t speak English. Shifting home is tougher for women.
“We were spending NZ$400 [Rp 3.6 million] a week on phone calls to Macassar. It was our daughter’s rapid adjustment to her new life and school that persuaded us to stay.”
Gabriella started school with the traditional cium tangan [pressing the teacher’s wrist against her forehead], a gesture of respect which delighted staff but didn’t fit NZ’s egalitarian culture.
The little girl, who is now 10, accepted the situation and immersed herself in her alien environment. “She’s doing well because she finds school fun,” said her Dad. “I think the system in Indonesia is too rigid.”
Burhan became a Wellington Hospital chef serving staff and patients and Indriani also found work in the same building. Lesser couples might have come home exhausted every evening ready to put their legs up on the sofa.
But Burhan’s feet were too itchy for a man with the get-up-and-go spirit Kiwis admire. He saw a niche – Wellington had about 20 Malaysian eateries but no Indonesian restaurants.
Others had tried but failed. Wellington is a high-income public service city; people eat out but are fussy about the authenticity of the cuisine.
Paying high rents and establishment costs for a shop in a prime location would be prohibitive. Why not go mobile? The Indonesian model was the popular kaki lima [literally five legs, but meaning a hand cart kitchen] which cook food on the roadside.
That wouldn’t work in NZ with its strict hygiene regulations, but a more modern version of the same idea might.
He bought a small truck once used to serve coffee for NZ$7,500 [Rp 67 million]. Employing his engineering skills for the first time he installed more equipment, painted the bodywork, named it Komodo [‘Indonesian food with bite’], and with a partner set out to serve.
This year he added a second truck called Garuda [‘like the eagle we’re flying high’] which he runs with Indriani after they finish work at the hospital. They park at fairs and events, like the regular Sunday morning fruit and vegetable market on the Wellington waterfront. It’s a great location but competition is fierce.
Ten other trucks selling fare from France to Mexico prove the city’s multiculturalism. Burhan offers four takeaways – nasi bakar [barbecue rice], nasi rendang [beef with rice], mie bakso [noodles and meatballs] and sate ayam [chicken satay].
“It’s important to be friendly and understand local tastes,” he said. “Kiwis want flavor but not too spicy. They ask questions. I tell them Indonesia is more than Bali; I’m getting travel brochures from the Embassy to hand out. I want to create a strong customer base.
“I accept all comments and see criticisms as chances to improve. Knowledge leads to success. The kitchen is open so customers can see how I work and know everything is clean.”
Unlike other migrants trying to do business in NZ, Burhan doesn’t complain about the health and safety regulations. “When the food inspectors come around I don’t get anxious or try to hide things,” he said.
“Although it’s not like this in Indonesia I accept that rules are necessary to protect the public. I’ve never had trouble getting permits – council staff don’t try to make things difficult.
“I urge other Indonesians interested in overseas opportunities to have the courage to change their way of thinking. I want to help people study and work here. But they must have properly researched goals and put in lots of effort.
“The money we’ve spent on airfares and other expenses has been an investment in our family’s future.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 August 2015)