CHERAS, Sept 22 — A hidden gem in the Yulek neighbourhood of Cheras, Ebony & Ivory is a small family-owned café with plenty of charm.
The colourful “rainbow corridor” that greets you as you approach provides an oasis of calm in an area that’s nothing if not bustling.
Owner Cheong May Lee and her husband Ejay Loi imbue the space with their humble, fuss-free personalities. The fare — the very definition of “comfort food” — may appear humble too but satisfies like so few meals do these days.
Many of Ebony & Ivory’s meals revolve around rice bowls, topped with salmon sashimi on one, steak on another. Crunchy and slippery, spicy and savoury — the fantastic pork bulgogi bowl is a feast of flavours and textures.
But the most popular has to be Ebony & Ivory’s signature rice bowl — filled to the brim with creamy scrambled eggs and umami-tinged bonito flakes — which tastes like home even if you’ve never had this growing up.
It’s what Ivy Chang, the café’s most fervent fan, orders most days when she visits. Some customers discover their favourite cafés; May managed to discover her favourite customer — the first, in fact, to taste her pork bulgogi bowl — in Ivy, a fellow foodie.
Ivy says, “Every time I step into this café, I feel as though I am visiting an old friend’s house. I came across Ebony & Ivory when it was newly opened and I’d bring my work buddies. Lunch here magically swept away the tense morning and prepared us to continue the battle in the afternoon. Simply satisfying.”
For all the customers enthusing about the food, May started Ebony & Ivory four years ago as her private haven for making coffee only. No surprise as she used to be the manager at Three Little Birds D7 Sentul. Yet coffee wasn’t always her passion.
She recalls her first time drinking specialty coffee at Artisan Roast TTDI: “Back then I was a piano teacher so I had a lot of free time in between classes. Initially I had the idea for a music centre that served coffee which was why I wanted to learn more.”
That love of music offers some clue to the name of the café — ebony and ivory often refers to the black and white keys on a piano. However, a different family contribution might have mattered more as May reveals: “My mum named it. Coffee also comes in black or white, you see.”
Whether you prefer your coffee black or white (i.e. without or with milk), be sure to ask Michael Woon, the barista manning the coffee counter; he’ll be more than happy to recommend the right cuppa for you based on your preferences.
Michael is another serendipitous discovery of May’s who became part of the Ebony & Ivory family. (Nearly every customer assumes he is her younger brother; like Ivy, he was another devoted regular.)
He says, “I used to stay in Cheras; back then I was still a customer during my days off. Usually for the scrambled eggs rice bowl and a cup of filter coffee. I always admired how May turned a simple cup of coffee into a sweet fruity tea.”
With May, the young barista had one of the best trainers in town. Which didn’t mean the going was easy in the beginning — “I’m not the gentle type,” quips May wryly.
Perseverance is key and the trait everyone in this family, whether by blood and by bond, shares. Michael says, “May trained me from scratch. It was tough the first year when I needed to correct my foundation. From sensory flavour balance to coffee calibration. Every morning when May arrives, she will get an espresso shot from me to understand our coffee performance that day.”
Today May is happy to have her earnest protégé take charge of the bar so she can focus on baking. And even then, as business has picked up over the years through word of mouth, she realised swiftly she needed more hands on deck.
“My little sis Joey is now also part of our business growth. She’s our second baker after leaving her 9-to-5 job. Helping me with the loaves and round cakes actually; all I do is pass the recipes and guide her.”
Expect a rotating selection of freshly-baked breads and cakes as well as hand crafted desserts: cempedak loaves and tiramisu; Victoria sponge cakes and refreshing watermelon cakes; matcha rolls with red bean and strawberries; French apple tarts and baked lemon cheesecake; and the oh-so-wobbly crème caramel pudding.
The mouth can’t help but water.
Even May’s mother-in-law was roped in; she’s the friendly auntie in the kitchen. May shares, “In a way it’s a family business though that was not part of the plan. I think they were just being helpful in the beginning and somehow they ended up with me.”
Of course, no one has been a bigger supporter of May’s dreams than her husband Ejay. Many assume he had food-and-beverage (F&B) experience like May but he was a musician by trade.
May explains, “I was overly ambitious: running it on my own just to make 30-50 cups of coffee in Cheras. It became overly busy till I needed my husband to help me — by quitting his drum teaching. We both learned to cook along the way.”
The sacrifice was made out of love but also to undergo the journey together, as husband and wife, as partners in life. May says, “I felt guilty too at some point. Thank God the business is doing better each year.”
Naturally no journey is without bumps. When the pandemic hit and the movement control order (MCO) began in March, Ebony & Ivory was not spared. Without dine-in business during those early months, the easy way out was to sit and wait, hoping things would revert back to “normal.”
O, that way madness lies.
Shakespeare knew better, as did May. She is made of sterner stuff. Pivoting quickly by switching to delivery, she and her café family toughed it out.
As a result, business only dropped 30 per cent — substantial but a lot less severe compared to other similar F&B outlets, some of which gave up the ghost the moment things got rough.
May shares, “It was super tiring during the delivery-only period. Imagine all those orders and calls must be handled by the same person — me — while my hubby had to be the delivery boy. We deliver on our own; it was the only way to keep the costs low.”
Small details like these matter, improving margins but also the customer experience — seeing the same friendly face that would greet them with their favourite meals — and subsequently, customer loyalty.
The team has no complaints. Despite coffee sales dropping drastically since customers are more likely to order meals than beverages, Ebony & Ivory managed to retain all their staff throughout MCO and beyond.
“The demand for food and cakes were higher — we were baking like crazy! Considered very blessed lah, a lot of people became jobless or got heavy pay cuts. Adapting is the only way.”
Thus when dining in was permitted once more, Ebony & Ivory regulars returned to see the same happy, generous smiles at the café. Adversity brings out the best in some of us; the Ebony & Ivory family has only grown stronger.
Family is a big part of life for most of us. For May, family isn’t just helping make her dreams come true — it’s what's making those dreams more meaningful as they build something special... together.
Ebony & Ivory Coffee
No. 4A, Jalan Kaskas 4, Taman Cheras, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily (except Mon closed) 10am-6pm
Tel: 012-508 0510