Brian Sullivan: Flavours feeling taste of successBy Brian Sullivan, Special to The Eagleberkshireeagle.comPosted: 05/23/2013 12:10:37 AM EDTMay 23, 2013 4:12 AM GMTUpdated: 05/23/2013 12:10:37 AM EDT Thursday May 23, 2013
The lyrics to that Broadway musical song say that "it’s where the underworld can meet the elite." You know, it’s 42nd Street. Others meet there, too.
Talk about finding your soul mate. This charismatic couple had each taken separate journeys halfway around the world before making eye contact for the first time at a 1999 holiday party hosted by the Malaysian counsel general in New York City. And, yes, it was on 42nd Street.
Chin Lee and Sabrina Tan were introduced that evening. They had been invited to the gathering because they each knew people who knew people. So, the next time you leave Flavours of Malaysia, on McKay Street, on the heels of one of the best meals currently being served in the Berkshires, then tell the couple to thank those people who knew those people.
It will be four years for the restaurant at its current location this fall, and while it is both a city and North Street success tale, it’s also a rather fortuitous and courageous story that borders at times in the telling on incredulous. I don’t do restaurant reviews, but as people reviews go, I’m happy to share.
Both were separated when they met. Sabrina, who has a mental toughness about her that allows the owner and head chef at Flavours to firmly cement her feet into the sand when she has to, had set three warning signs in stone about her social future.
"If I was going to meet another Advertisementman," she said, "then there were three things he couldn’t be. One was Chinese-Malaysian, the second was he couldn’t be younger than I was, and finally, he couldn’t be married."
Strike one, two and three. So much for the plan. She met Chin and her future was signed, sealed and delivered.
Both were born in Malaysia to Chinese parents. But the odds of one day owning one of the region’s premiere restaurants had to be incredibly steep.
Chin, who said he aspired at one time in life to be a comedian, was selected as one of 100 students by the Malaysian government to study abroad and attend college in the U.S. He graduated from Farleigh Dickinson University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
"They selected 88 Malaysians, 10 Chinese and two Indians," said Chin, who tests his comedic skills nightly as the front man and congenial host at the restaurant. With his Chinese features evident, Chin will tell a new customer that his name is Bruce -- "Get it?" he continues, "Bruce Lee."
OK, maybe the act needs a little work. But you won’t find a friendlier host, and you will be hard-pressed to locate a more dedicated chef than Sabrina. All orders are made from scratch with fresh meat and vegetables. All meals are gluten free with no MSG added.
She’s the chief cook and bottle washer. "If I’m not here, then we close that day," she said.
But it wasn’t always that way. She admitted to being born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Now her culinary creations are going willingly onto silver spoons and into the mouths of her growing base of regular customers.
"My family had its own cook when I was growing up," she said. "I came from a very privileged family. I was a bit of a tomboy as a kid and I hated taking home-economic classes in school. My first stir fry that I ever made was inedible."
But Sabrina’s mother could cook up a storm, and it turns out the petal didn’t float very far from the flower.
The sequence of events unfolded quickly over a few years. Sabrina had a friend from Taiwan who was living in Lenox. She visited and "fell in love with the Berkshires." The couple hosted dinner parties at their home in Lee, and her dumplings in particular were so delicious that people clamored for more dinner parties.
Chin was working at an auto dealership, but the pair decided to roll the dice and set up shop in a space located within the EconoLodge in Lenox.
"It was a stepping stone," said Sabrina about the original Flavours location. "It was trial and error."
It was worse than that. The pair were using their mortgage money to pay the rent for their restaurant space in Lenox.
"We were behind on the mortgage by six months at one point," she said.
Then "Lady Destiny" shone through the darkening clouds. The former Brazilian Grill restaurant had suddenly vacated the McKay Street site and the owners of the North Street building, who also were regular customers at Flavours in Lenox, were seeking to fill the void. The owners actively tried to recruit Chin and Sabrina to relocate.
"It was a good idea," Sabrina said. "But we didn’t have the money. If you move, then there are always renovations to be made, and we weren’t ready to pay for that. And the place needed a lot of work. It was a mess."
The building owners were adamant, helped with some of the renovation costs, and it wasn’t long before Flavours had its new location and chapter in its history.
"We probably have more parking back here than businesses on North Street," Chin said. "I love it."
Few can find Malaysia even with a map. But there is a map on the wall in the restaurant showing its location. Customers, meanwhile, are having no trouble navigating to McKay Street and finding a menu that features a blend of Asian tastes and cuisines.
Sabrina works the kitchen. Chin works the crowd. "We’re a good team," Sabrina said. "We seem to be able to reach each other’s mind."
And when Chin’s comedy goes over the top? "I just ignore him," deadpanned Sabrina.
So, what about those mortgage payments? Said Sabrina, "I sleep like a baby at night."
The women of Malaysia are said to be some of the most beautiful in the world. "And it has some of the most handsome men," chimed in Chin.
The food, according to many reviews, is also excellent. But this story isn’t about the fare. It’s about Sabrina and Chin. It’s about a chance meeting on 42nd Street. And this corner is giving them five stars.