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When I first met Ili Sulaiman in 2015, she was in the full swing of her first venture, DISH by Ili. She was the hearbeat of her tiffin food delivery brand – juggling everything from shopping at wet markets and cooking, to delivering orders and marketing. What stood out about her even back then, was her selfless and giving attitude to the fellow startups of this community. She embodies the core approach of food – sustenance through sharing.

Read also: How Durrie Hassan is driving impact with Carlton-Mansfield Capital

A lot has happened since. Today, Ili is a co-founder of Agak Agak, a restaurant with a unique apprentice program catered to the underserved community. Her goodwill has marked a turning point in the dining scene, and earned her a rightful place on the Malaysia Tatler Generation T 2017 list. We find out what fuels the flame of the lovable Ili, and her mantra that food establishes great decisions and unforgettable moments. 

What is your fondest memory of food?
“Those that take place in the family kitchen. Grandmother would be the head chef, surrounded by her ‘sous chefs’ – an ensemble of aunts and cousins – everyone pitching in to make an amazing meal. It’s a showcase of teamwork that’s filled with chatter, banter and laughter. It’s beyond the food itself, it’s what happens behind the scenes.” 

What’s your philosophy on food?
“Three things: First of all, good quality flavours and good quality ingredients. Second, cooking from the heart. Whether it’s a family recipe or something you love to eat, do it from a good place. Third, sharing it. It’s all about sharing the story behind the food, and eating it with people you care about.”

For newbies to the kitchen, what’s the best way to get started?
“I always believed that people who love to eat know how to cook. If you have a good palette for flavours, it’s a matter of wanting to go to the kitchen to experiment. For starters, learn the basics. Perfect a nasi goreng, then move on to nasi biryani and paella.” 

Tell us your first goodwill experience of food.
“I think we’ve lost that Malaysian-ness of passing food or ingredients over the neighbour’s fence. That’s what neighbourhoods are about: community. What reignited that was when I met with Agak Agak co-founder Basira Yeusuff, who shared about an apprenticeship program she’d started. She’s been mentoring an autistic young man for three to four years now. From not knowing the difference between cooked garlic and onion, he now manages the baking line, ices cakes and prepares the food from the central kitchen. That’s more than just passing plates from neighbor to neighbor, it’s what you’re doing in locus of people to make a difference in their lives.”

As a figurehead of the foodpreneuer industry, what advice do you have for fellow apprentices?
“Be honest in everything you do, how you conduct business, speak to people, deliver items, food, everything. Even if it’s not something you like to do, do it with heart. If you’re undergoing a tough challenge, be honest with yourself and determine if it’s right for you. This mantra has kept me sane.”

How did you and Basira come to the decision to turn into social course?
“We were friends of the industry and I found we had similar values. When I was offered this space in APW, I decided to partner with Basira and we got to work drafting the initial idea of Agak Agak and submitted it to a MaGIC social enterprise accelerator program. In June 2016 we graduated, and construction began the following month. We launched in November and in February 2017, we welcomed our first batch of apprentices. Our actual business model is the program, which has a social that makes it sustainable and profit-driven. The restaurant is the by-product. Using our services, catering system and food delivery are all different ways people can contribute.”

 Besides the social impact and culinary training, what else do you wish to impart through Agak Agak?
“We all come from different backgrounds with baggage, but it’s about how to work on strengths instead of weaknesses, in building a career. Agak Agak also strives to change the mindset of people towards the industry. We break down the walls between the cook and customer, to encourage open discussions. Finally, it’s about showcasing Malaysian flavours and food, to put our name on the road map and embrace Malaysian hospitality.”

What’s your idea of success?
“It’s simple. A nice place to stay, nice kitchen to cook in, Netflix, great Internet, people I love, that’s it. I just want to enjoy the now, to appreciate the simple pleasures – that’s success.”

Our Generation T 2017 style maven shows and tell: Jenn Low of Wanderlust + Co on how to accessorise for different occasions. 

Credits for main photo:
Hair and makeup: Cindy Hor 
Styling: Syahlia Sari

Tags: Entrepreneur, Social Enterprise, Generation T, Agak-agak Initiative, Ili Sulaiman, Foodpreneur