The pandemic forced her to close, but it's also provided time and space to reflect on what's most important about running her own restaurant.
By Ange Branca as told to Alexandra Jones
Ange Branca grew up in Malaysia, cooking traditional cuisine in her grandmother’s kitchen. After a career as a corporate business consultant, she returned to her culinary roots and opened Saté Kampar, a BYOB serving Malaysian street food and home cooking, on Philadelphia’s East Passyunk strip. The restaurant, which was nominated for a James Beard award in the Best New Restaurants category in 2017, closed in May 2020.
2020 was going to be a very exciting year for Saté Kampar. It was our five-year mark, and I was looking forward to a really good year for people—not just Philadelphians, but people traveling to Philadelphia—to come and eat at our restaurant.
I started to get worried in January because I’ve got family in Malaysia and some in Hong Kong. We were extremely concerned that good information and leadership about coronavirus didn’t exist here at that point.
It was a Monday in March. At Saté Kampar every Monday, we would have happy hour and sell our meats for a really good price, and people would pack into the restaurant to get this great deal on saté. I thought, we’ll do our last service on Monday, we’ll close Tuesday. And then we didn’t have saté happy hour at all. It was kind of an abrupt decision, but it was the right call.
Since then, every day has been different. I just remember being so stressed because we didn’t know what to do. Some of our team were more comfortable staying at home. Some wanted to continue to work because that was the only way of supporting their family, but we wanted to make sure it was safe.
We decided not to serve saté for the time being, because the whole idea of the restaurant was to create an experience, and at the time, that was not the focus. We changed the whole concept and organized it so that no more than two people would work at any time. Our staff would cook the comfort food of their culture. The menu was anything from chicken tinga to adobo to Hong Kong-inspired noodles to a vegan meal. It was a very nice way for our customers to appreciate the people working in our kitchen over the last five years.
That lasted from mid-March to mid-May. I had a couple of Malaysian staff, and we were talking about the food that we were craving. There’s this is Malaysian burger—the ramly burger—that we all love and haven’t had for so many years. We decided to make that, and it just took off. Those two things really sustained us and allowed our staff who needed hours to come back to work. We were also packing 200 boxes a week for frontline workers at hospitals.
At the same time, we knew that our lease was coming to an end in June. When we found that space, it was not a restaurant. There was no kitchen, no hood, the plumbing and electrical weren’t to code for a restaurant. We invested a lot of money to build the space out, and the rent we were paying was the rent of the space before that. After converting it into a restaurant, the value appreciated—even more so because we became, very early on, one of the top restaurants in the city.
I believe the landlord thought we needed to pay more because of the appreciation of the value that we brought to the space. But that was not in the contract, so he found other ways to charge us for things that we weren’t supposed to be paying. We wanted him to come to the table and renegotiate the next five years—it was a pre-negotiated lease, but there were a lot of things we needed to discuss, and he ignored all our requests. Of course, when the pandemic hit, there was no way we would be able to stay for the next five years with a 15 percent rent increase.
I love the space we built. It was a really, really difficult decision. I cried for a week. Thankfully, we have a wonderful community of friends, restaurateurs, and customers who offered to help break down everything. In two weeks, we moved everything out. I have a couple of really good friends who have helped me with warehouse space to store things while I figure out what to do next.
At the time, my hope was that we would find a better landlord to work with, a place to open up again, and we’d use all this equipment. I was thinking this wouldn’t last that long. But four months later, here we are. Still homeless.
We still had a team who wanted to work, so I hustled for work. We found spaces where we could continue to make food for frontline workers, and that was how we survived for about a month. That ended when cases went down and there wasn’t as much of a need. We also had to move out of some of the spaces we were using because restaurants were opening back up with outdoor dining.
So then we decided to do pop-ups. We’ve become very nomadic. It’s fun, but pop-ups are extremely tiring. It’s very challenging to set up in a space and then break down again. We still have a really big following—I’m so grateful to all my customers who continue to stay in touch and follow us.
I am always looking towards bringing Saté Kampar, or some version of it, back again. But right now, with the capitalist system that we’re in, it doesn’t make financial sense. I’m a numbers person, so when the numbers don’t make sense, it’s hard for me to say, yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Some days, I feel like I just need to step away and not worry about it so I can come back with a fresh mind and think clearly. But things change every day—how clearly can I think today when tomorrow is all messed up again? Everything I’m doing is a reaction to the curveballs being thrown at us every single day.
With the experience that I went through, knowing things are uncertain for business owners, I wanted to look for a space and a landlord who understands that kind of uncertainty. Because the current construct of a lease is very fixed. Whether good times or bad, this is the rent—nothing changes. That doesn’t work in a situation of uncertainty. On top of that, leases haven’t really gone down much. While restaurant businesses have seen a plunge of 80 to 90 percent, leases have not gone down more than 30 to 40 percent.
Money is still the only measure. Not so much community value. Restaurants have always been a place where communities come together, and creating diversity in restaurants and small businesses is key to the beauty and the fabric of a place. When leases and rent and the whole capitalist structure do not support that systematically, it becomes a challenge to survive.
I’m glad to see the conversation happening around the James Beard Awards. When Saté Kampar was nominated in 2017, it was a shock. Historically, the perception of a James Beard nomination is that it’s for fine dining restaurants. I know that since we were nominated, they have tried to put some effort into changing that perception, but it still exists.
There are a lot of diners who are James Beard followers, and they go around the country eating at nominated restaurants. They came to my restaurant in the months after the nomination, and I probably had the most negative feedback and negative reviews ever during that time, about the fact that my restaurant wasn’t fine dining. Not just on social media, but customers telling me that this is not what they typically consider a James Beard-nominated restaurant.
They brought expensive wines, and I did not have wine glasses for them. I would not bring the food out in courses—my food comes out when it’s ready. I had to explain that that’s not the experience we were going for. Saté is street food. It’s not an appetizer like most people think here in the US. The restaurant is named Saté Kampar for a reason—it’s the main feature.
I struggled a lot in the first few months of the nomination. I also developed a fantastic following of people who understood what I set out to do, and who understood that the beauty of a restaurant that wants to stay true to its experience and its ethnicity should be celebrated, not westernized into a French-style service. But there’s still a majority who assume that in America, it doesn’t matter what cuisine you cook—you’ve got to Americanize it.
The experience we set out to create is why we were nominated, but it was not the experience some people associate with a James Beard restaurant. I wish the foundation would do more to educate the general public about the diversity of the culture, the chef, and the story of what their nominees are trying to create. How we execute that, I think, is the next step.
I grew up in my grandmother’s kitchen, so I’m just cooking what I know best. But culinary schools today are teaching the French method, and there is nowhere in the syllabus that teaches any other method. That creates a general perception—not just for the public but in the industry—that there’s only one method of doing things, when there are many. To really succeed, we need a lot more people supporting restaurants to express their true heritage and how they approach food—to let the chef give them the experience instead of allowing the diner to define the experience.
One thing I have a deep passion for is bringing back the diversity in cuisine that has disappeared because of the pandemic. Restaurants like mine, and Poi Dog, and so many mom-and-pop restaurants in South Philly—the Southeast Asian hole-in-the-wall places that we would walk into and discover amazing Cambodian food—a lot of these places have closed. A lot of the East and West African restaurants in West Philly have not reopened yet. I don’t know if they will come back, but it’s very sad to see them gone. I want to bring it all back in a different way.
I’ve learned over five years as a restaurateur of an ethnic cuisine that there’s so much work that goes into educating the public—telling the stories of the chef and the food, learning to translate my culture for somebody who doesn’t have the same experience. I want to use that knowledge to support other chefs and owners in the same space. I’m trying to figure out what can financially sustain me while I do something like that that I’m passionate about.
There’s so much conversation about cultural appropriation and who can cook what food, and the thing I keep coming back to is the Muhibbah Dinner Series. It’s this charity pop-up I used to do. Each chef cooks one dish that tells the story of their heritage. In Malay, “muhibbah” means people of different cultures coming together. Even before bringing back Saté Kampar, I’m trying to figure out how to bring back the Muhibbah experience.
Your food is your heritage and the story of your culture. You first allow a chef to share their heritage so that you can learn about it and appreciate it. Before you cook someone else’s food, it starts with learning and appreciation. And when you have enough of that, you’ve learned how to cook that cuisine.
Why not allow these different cultures to shine first, instead of profiting from them? That way, everyone benefits. Only when that starts to happen will we have a better appreciation of cultures without appropriation. It doesn’t happen the other way around. You don’t try to cook someone else’s cuisine in whatever form you want that tastes good to you, that is more “acceptable” to your culture.
This goes back to the question of why does a business exist? Does the business build a community that is better for everyone, or is it just a profit-making thing? How do we change the thought process when we go out to eat? I want to be part of changing that conversation.