“How long have we got?”
That was his reply when I asked what were the challenges of setting up the establishment. Then I heard the various obstacles, some stemming from some really odd requirements. That hasn’t dragged him down, though – in fact, he’s still as enthusiastic as ever about his undertaking.
You’d think that after setting up six companies, Robert Gilliland would take it slow. Not in the slightest. The serial entrepreneur is now focused on his latest project, Drift Dining and Bar. Occupying the ground floor of the Bidara Condominium (just behind Hotel Istana), this well-received “Modern Australian” restaurant is almost reaching its first year in business.
Here is an abridged history lesson prior to Drift: Robert first got bit by the entrepreneurial bug back in 2007, when he was approached by an investor to help set up a company in Southeast Asia. He didn’t stop at one, though – within three years, Robert started three companies in three different countries. It was during his time in the region that he saw its potential.
“The plan for this (Drift) was done in 2013 (in Uganda), and to see this two years later is awesome.”
Why did it take so long for Drift to come to fruition though? Why here, why now? “Seven years ago, this wouldn’t have worked. People wouldn’t have appreciated the nuance,” Robert says. It’s true – look around. The local food scene has moved away from franchises (with inconsistent output) and has welcomed young (and old) entrepreneurs giving the industry a go, each with their own take on atmosphere and menu items. This was what Robert was waiting for – a transformed landscape.
“Malaysians intrinsically love food. There’s space to be able to provide them with good food, but we needed a certain level in the rest of the industry before we could execute what we wanted. Now is a super-exciting time!”
Drift’s core team consists of Robert himself, head chef Angus Harrison, sommelier Donna Freeman. All three boast illustrious credentials of their own – Robert spent seven years as a sommelier, Angus was the head chef of Luke Mangan’s Salt Tapas in Bali, and Donna is regarded as one of the top sommeliers in Australia.
Before you even step into Drift, you can see that it stands out aesthetically. Robert even took the liberty to spruce up the area just outside its entrance, despite it not being his responsibility. It’s a means of setting the scene, if you will. “We actually repainted the bus stop/taxi stand. We were going to paint it black (to fit Drift’s aesthetics), but we could be fined if we did. So we went for something in the middle… If DBKL don’t fix the footpath here, I’ll do it.”
There are three main areas in Drift – one where the tables and chairs are taller; another where they are shorter; and a speakeasy. The tables are small to facilitate plate sharing and makes for a more intimate setting. The split between high and low furniture means that you can have separate groups in Drift, and none affect the other’s experience.
It’s not about the food…
“We go out to socialise and experience, not to eat – you can eat anywhere… ‘Drift’ is a feeling, it’s a movement. It’s what a night should be,” Robert comments on the purpose of Drift and its layout.
It doesn’t matter what happens at the back, when you guys come in and sit down, you have an amazing time. Nothing else matters.
Take a look at the website, and you’ll read that Drift serves “Modern Australian” cuisine. We’re no stranger to Korean, Japanese, French and Indian cuisine, but what exactly is “Modern Australian”?
“Basically, it’s transcontinental or modern European. In Australia, we don’t have our own cuisine, and our chefs are classically trained. It’s all about using fresh produce to make the best possible food,” Robert comments.
Looking through the menu, you will see Asian and Moroccan influences in the dishes, and that’s because of Angus’ experience with the related ingredients. The menu is limited to less than 20 items, and can change daily based on produce.
“It’s an evolution [from Bali]… It’s not fusion, it’s like a mix between all the different cultures and different cooking styles with modern techniques and a bit of flair,” Angus comments on his menu.
“I’ve always been taught that you eat with your eyes first, so it’s what you’re presented with first, then the flavour, and everything else… Woo!”
Robert and Angus shared their numerous challenges when the restaurant just started (some hilarious, some garnered incredulous looks, some… really not suited for publication) but they agree that the most important part that keeps Drift running is the people.
“It’s not what me, or Angus or Donna’s done, it’s what they do everyday… We want people to love being here as much as we do,” Robert says. In fact, it’s tattooed on his arm – “Amazing things with amazing people”. Currently, the team is 17-strong.
“There’s nothing they do that we wouldn’t do.”
For all you budding entrepreneurs out there, Robert has this wise piece of advice. “Do it. Fail quickly, do it.”
To the ones looking to embrace a job in the culinary arts, don’t be fooled by the glamourisation of the industry. Angus says, “Keep going, keep going, keep going. Learn as much as you can. Step outside of the kitchen and start creating other things.”
As for Robert’s future plans for Drift?
“How long have you got?” ◆
The fine people at Drift have graciously provided the recipe for one of their dishes below. So don those aprons and let’s get cooking!
“There is such an amazing variety of cultures and cooking styles with nationalities from all over the world that converge in Australia especially Sydney and so many fantastic chefs to learn from using the best produce around, I would say modern Australian is an influence of many cultures and nationalities using the freshest and finest ingredients and creative modern cooking technique.” – Chef Angus Harrison
Steamed Manilla Clams Ginger Soy
Clams – 800 g
Ginger thinly sliced- 3 gm
Shallot thinly sliced – 20 gm
Dark soy – 8 ml
Fish sauce- 5 ml
Sweet soy- 35 ml
Oysters sauce- 30 ml
Chinese cooking wine – 10 ml
Sesame seed oil- 5 ml
Caster sugar – 8 gm
Chicken stock- 250 ml
Red chili thinly sliced 6 gm
Garlic thinly sliced
Vegetable oil – 5 ml
Shallots thinly sliced – 20
Young ginger – thinly sliced
Fresh mint leaf – 3 gm
Fresh coriander leaf – 3 gm
Half fresh lime
Sesame seed oil 5 ml
The first thing you need to do is rinse and soak your clams in flowing fresh water for at least one hour the longer the better. By doing this the clams spit out the sand in side leaving you with the perfect clam with no sand ready to be cooked.
Once your clams are soaking, with a sharp knife, let the chopping begin. Thinly slice your ginger, chili ,shallot and garlic. Once sliced, mix them all together in a bowl.
Once the clams are well soaked, strain the water and dry well. Combine the clams with the ginger, garlic, chili and shallots. Then in a medium size pot add your vegetable oil, heat the pot until smoking hot then add your clams and thinly slice the ginger, garlic, chili and shallots. Stir quickly with wooden spoon making sure its fried off for one minute. Then add your soy, sweet soy, oyster sauce, Chinese cooking wine, oyster sauce, sesame oil and finish with caster sugar and chicken stock. Mix well then put the lid on the pot and let it steam out the clams for 2/3 minutes. Once the clams start to open they are ready to rock. Once clams have opened, turn off the heat as they will over cook and become rubbery.
Okay so we are ready to serve. In a deep ceramic bowl spoon out the clams into the bowl then you will be left with a delicious rich Asian inspired broth with a complex depth of flavours. Pour the broth back over the clams.
To truly drive this dish home we will finish with the garnish visually, textually and flavour wise. This completes the dish. Once it hits the dinner table you truly feel like you’re in South East Asia. So in a bowl mix together your thinly sliced ginger, garlic, chili, shallot, your fresh mint and coriander leaves. Sprinkle this garnish over the top of the clams and finish with a drizzle of sesame seed oil and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
Photo credit: Robert Gilliland & Ian Ng
Drift Dining and Bar (5pm – late, Mondays to Saturdays)
Ground Floor Bidara Condo
38 Jalan Bedara
Off Jalan Nagasari
(Directly Behind Hotel Istana)
50200 Kuala Lumpur