Sebastian Subakti changed the Tex-Mex game in Jakarta when Taco Local opened in South Jakarta. Then he took his delicious skills to Bali and opened up an outlet there (you have to try the fish tacos!) and the Asian-inspired eatery Jicama. We are heartbroken that Jicama will close its doors at the end of the month, but Bali’s loss is Jakarta’s gain. Sebastian is preparing to introduce Jakarta to Bao Ji, which will serve up the slider-like baos. As they enter this little transition, we sat down with Sebastian to talk about his journey with cooking and about his newest culinary venture.
What inspired you to start cooking?
I practically spent my whole childhood in the kitchen watching my mom cook and bake. She had a home-based bakeshop and took (and still does) serious pride in her cooking. I was her taster; before she finished a dish she would grab a small spoon for me and would ask me if there was anything missing from the dish. Of course this was just her way of teaching me how her dishes and recipes should taste like because they was always spot on. I never had to ask her to add any seasonings whatsoever. She could sense that interest in me when it came to cooking, so I guess she was trying to mould me and have fun with me right from the start.
When I finally graduated high school my mom pushed me to pursue my cooking career, but being a rebel at that stage, I did not want to do what my parents want me to do. So I enrolled in a broadcasting technology course in college in Houston, Texas. When I finally finished my study I went back to Jakarta and realized that television was not for me, so I ended up doing nothing for almost a year. During that hibernation period, I read lots and lots of books. One of the books was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This was back in year 2000 and Bourdain was not the great TV personality that he is now. He was just a chef, who managed to escape from the kitchen to write books and have TV show called A Cook’s Tour on the Travel Channel. That book completely changed my life. It managed to convince me that kitchen work is indeed what I always wanted to do, and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Bourdain portrayed the rock ’n’ roll side of the kitchen brigade that I have never heard about. Back then, I was all about the rock ’n’ roll side of things, so I enrolled in a cooking school.
What is your background in cooking?
I went to a cooking school in Melbourne, called William Angliss. It was a hands-on apprenticeship program which was really, really effective. The school compelled us to complete a huge amount of hours at a real job in a real restaurant each semester on top of the regular classes that we had to attend.
It was the worst period in my life. I have never been pushed further than that. My daily routine consisted of waking up at 6 in the morning, catching the train to class, staying in class until 2:30 pm, then I would start at my job at 3 pm until closing time, which usually happen around midnight. I would usually be home by 1 in the morning, cook myself a nice, late dinner, do assignments for the next day’s classes, and if I was lucky enough, I would be able to go to sleep at around 3 am. So yeah, on average, I slept for about three hours a day, six days a week.
Why did you come back to Indonesia?
Just after finishing my studies in Melbourne, I had to go back to Jakarta to be with my late father who was really sick at the time. It was a really tough decision to make. I knew if I went back to Jakarta, I would never make it back to Melbourne, which until this very day, I still love very deeply. But I also felt that it would probably be the only time I had left with my dad. I had been living away from my family for so long, so I really wanted to have this last chance just to hang out with him, as adults, on daily basis. I was lucky to get two full years with my dad before he passed away. Those were precious moments, and it was a decision that I will never regret.
How did the idea for Taco Local come about? Why Mexican food?
I have two partners in this business that we’re running now. They’re Heru and Dito Kartowisastro, two brothers that I hung out with way before we finally decided to start doing business together. Dito owns a bicycle shop in Panglima Polim that occupied two shop units. One day, he came to me and just out out of nowhere had a crazy idea of taking over half of the bike shop and opening up a taquería (taco shop). It did not take long to convince me, I actually said yes two second after he told me his idea. So we got together with Heru and started Losida, the parent company that is sheltering the Taco Local, Jicama, and soon the Bao Ji brands.
Why Mexican food? I don’t really know why. It just felt right at that time. We didn’t really have a casual Mexican restaurant in Jakarta at that time, so we wanted to replicate that taquería feeling in Jakarta.
What exactly is a bao?
Bao is basically a steamed white bun that is common throughout Asian countries, but baos are presented are variously different in each culture. We have an Indonesian version called bakpao, which is slightly larger than those small steamed buns that you usually get in a dim-sum basket. Both versions have sweet or fillings.
And then there’s the bao sandwich, which is what we’re trying to replicate. Traditionally baos from Taiwan are shaped almost like a half circle or a folded taco, but during our dish-building process we realize that it would be more balanced when it comes to meat to buns ratio if we do the buns like a burger slider instead of following the traditional Taiwanese bao shape.
Why do you think baos will be a hit in Jakarta?
I’m not really sure if the baos will be a hit in Jakarta, but last month we kind of tested the market and join Brightspot. The response was crazy, most of us did not sleep for four days straight just to prep more and more baos during that weekend. On the last day of the event we managed to sell 200 baoseven before the clock struck 5 pm!