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A Malaysian Pop-Up, Subject of a New Film, Was Born of a Cross-Country Romance

Daniel Hautzinger
Mike Alesi and Jennifer Pou-Alesi work in a kitchen
Mike Alesi and Jennifer Pou-Alesi got married after a long-distance romance right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. Photo: Courtesy Three Top Productions

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Right after Jennifer Pou-Alesi and Mike Alesi got married, they went not on a honeymoon but straight into lockdown in a Chicago apartment as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. With Mike laid off from his work in restaurants and Jennifer waiting for a visa to work, they literally had to build a new life together as a married couple. They decided to start cooking and selling the food of Jennifer’s home country of Malaysia under the name Kedai Tapao

More than three years on, they continue to host quickly sold-out pop-ups, like an upcoming one at the Logan Square bar Spilt Milk on August 6 starting at 4:30 pm that highlights the food of Malay grilled fish stalls. 

The owners of those stalls and other low-key establishments in Malaysia are a major source of inspiration to the couple, who have spent lots of time with Pou-Alesi’s food-loving family touring the country’s eateries. 

“I appreciate those cooks as much as I appreciate [chef] Thomas Keller or somebody,” says Alesi, who does most of the cooking for Kedai Tapao while Pou-Alesi handles desserts. “I’ve worked in the industry for like ten years now, and the work ethic and love and care that I find in the stall owners or the little corner shops in Malaysia, and how much effort they put into their food—it’s just incredible. It keeps me engaged as far as cooking goes. There’s always something new to learn.”

Ikan bakar (grilled fish) on a banana leaf with a side of kerabu (cucumber salad) on a tableKedai Tapao explores the diverse, multiethnic food of Malaysia, such as ikan bakar, or grilled fish. Photo: Courtesy Kedai TapaoPou-Alesi’s family are outstanding teachers. Her mother is an excellent cook, by Alesi’s account, and cooks alongside him in Malaysia, sharing recipes and little tips that she downplays. Pou-Alesi’s father once ran a kopitiam, or coffee shop, and also sold the ubiquitous Southeast Asian dish of chicken rice. He points out the techniques of cooks in Malaysia to Alesi, or asks the vendors questions about their process for his own curiosity and Alesi’s benefit. 

“The last time we were in Malaysia, I gained twenty pounds,” Alesi says with a rueful chuckle.

Pou-Alesi herself found over time that she enjoyed and had a talent for baking, but didn’t initially consider it as a career. Eventually, she ended up in Chicago to stage at a restaurant and learn more about pastry, and found herself in the same kitchen as Alesi. They started dating, a story recounted in a recent short film entitled Love and a Malaysian Takeout Shop by Three Top Productions, a new company aiming to tell the stories of the people behind Chicago pop-ups and restaurants. 

Alesi had already been interested in Malaysian food when he met Pou-Alesi, having encountered it on a trip through Southeast Asia with his friends. But two years of dating Pou-Alesi long distance and flying back and forth to Malaysia allowed him to immerse himself in the cuisine. The first meat he ate after being vegan or vegetarian for several years was in a Malaysian dish.

“It’s bombastic,” he says of Malaysian food. “There’s everything going on.” 

“It’s very complex,” Pou-Alesi says of the cuisine, with “flavors of the three main races of where I grew up: Chinese, Malay, and Indian.” (There are also numerous other important ethnic groups in the multicultural country.) She mentions butter chicken as an example—not the Indian butter chicken that Americans might think of, but a Chinese-style dish with a sauce made of evaporated milk and butter, chicken seasoned with curry powder and oyster sauce, and a topping of fried curry leaves and other aromatics. Alesi summarizes the cross-cultural combinations of the cuisine as “curry leaves and oyster sauce.”

The melange of influences found in Malaysian food is evident in the shopping trips Alesi and Pou-Alesi take to prepare for a Kedai Tapao event. They buy ingredients from grocery stores in the Vietnamese enclave of Argyle Street, the Indian mecca of Devon Avenue, and Chinatown, as well as the Korean market Joong Boo. 

Such diversity is audible in Pou-Alesi’s family home: Alesi notes that they speak three different dialects of Chinese, along with English and Malay.

“Sometimes we mix all of it in one sentence,” Pou-Alesi says. 

“There are three aunts that all speak different [languages], and seeing a triangle of people talking and each translating for the other one is so special,” Alesi says. As someone who didn’t grow up in Malaysia, he notices such idiosyncrasies that Pou-Alesi’s family and other Malaysians take for granted.

Alesi may not have grown up in Malaysia, but he has learned to cook its food well: people from the region love Kedai Tapao. Ian Szetho, the director of Love and a Malaysian Takeout Shop, recently got married and had Kedai Tapao cater one of his wedding events. “A lot of my family is Malaysian, and one of them was like, ‘I hate rendang, [an intensely flavored braised meat dish]’ and they had it from [Kedai Tapao], and they were like, ‘You have literally changed my mind on this entire food group.’”   

Eunice Wangadi, one of the producers of Love and a Malaysian Takeout Shop, grew up near Malaysia in Singapore and Indonesia and says that Kedai Tapao’s food was “better than even my memories of it.” 

Two pieces of the Malaysian dessert kuih pulut tai tai on a banana leaf on a plate with kaya jam in the middlePou-Alesi first came to Chicago to learn pastry at a restaurant, and now makes Malaysian desserts like kuih pulut tai tai with kaya jam for Kedai Tapao. Photo: Courtesy Kedai Tapao

Wangadi and Szetho met as students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the third member of their team, Matt Hebron, was also studying. None of them work in the food industry or film production for their day jobs, but Wangadi has culinary training and Hebron and Szetho both have experience with cameras and editing. Szetho approached his two friends and they decided to form a production company together. They’re currently throwing around ideas for their next film.

“Because food is so personal, I wanted to see the stories of the people behind the food, because it made me enjoy the food experience even more,” says Wangadi. “It made me want to come back. It made me have a very personal relationship and [be very] loyal.”

Pou-Alesi and Alesi also appreciate the personal aspect of their business, and how the food they serve has come to mean something to people, like Szetho, who decide to serve it for their wedding. “It’s really touching when people approach us and want us to cater for that big day,” says Pou-Alesi.

Such catering and a roughly monthly pop-up are currently all that Kedai Tapao offers, since both Alesi and Pou-Alesi still have full-time jobs in kitchens. But they’re beginning to plan a brick and mortar location. “I don’t want to put a timeline on it, but we’re working towards it now,” says Alesi. 

A physical restaurant would be the culmination of an ongoing labor of love, with an emphasis on the “love,” as Wangadi points out. “Food is such a big part of how Jenn and Mike met,” she says. “Kedai Tapao has become almost the fruit of their love. Without Malaysia, without their connection, their chance encounter, Kedai Tapao would not have been a thing.”

Alesi says his interest in Malaysian cuisine would probably not have grown as much had he not met Pou-Alesi. But now, thanks to the food he has shared and cooked and learned about with her and her family, he wants to share it with others. “It’s all in honoring the people who did it first,” he says. “I’m not here to say I’m coming up with something great; I’m not. I just really, really appreciate the food and I want everybody to taste it.”