The man who created his fantasy island in Langkawi

Alex Mark and his wife Kookie. Their almost two-decade relationship has grown to include not only two daughters but also their businesses. She takes care of the finances while he comes up with the ideas.
PHOTO: The Star/ Asia News Network

The first time I met Alex Mark, he had just arrived in Kuala Lumpur, to spend a stop-gap year before heading to Singapore.

He was a friend's neighbour and she had insisted that I meet this amazing chef who was creating the most delectable antipasti at Flamenco restaurant. This was long before most Malaysians even knew how to order tapas.

When I asked him then what he ate after a long day in the kitchen, he had laughed before revealing his penchant for instant noodles.

"I still eat crap," chuckled Mark, 47, at this interview 22 years later.

A cook's tour

With a partner in 1995, Mark set up Moussandra, first located next to Betelnut in Jalan Pinang.

The restaurant, with its rustic Mediterranean decor and charming chef/owner had a very successful run for almost seven years. He cheerfully presided over his domain, entertaining his many regular customers and cooking, often sharing bottles of wine with his favourite customers.

It was inevitable that the Austrian followed his family's tradition. As young as five, he was already frying French fries in his family's coffee houses. As a teenager, he also helped manage the 2,000 daily lunch covers at their large 400-seater restaurant in a convention centre.

When Mark turned 19, he moved to Canada to work as an apprentice chef in a hotel, followed by stints in Germany and Bermuda. He returned to Vienna to study hotel management before moving to work in St. Lucia, an Eastern Caribbean Island.

These days, however, it's his younger daughter Liz, 10, who likes experimenting in the kitchen. He thinks she's the next chef in the family as she enjoys cooking, spending her school holidays in his Tapaz restaurant kitchen.

Mark recalls his chicken liver pate - a Moussandra must-have - as his best-ever dish.

"It was the most profitable, too. That got me through a few recessions."

Settling down

This time when we met in May, he revealed another interesting nugget.

It was at an event - "Male Celebrity Auction For Charity" - that I hosted as Marie Claire editor that he met the woman who would introduce him to his now 46-year-old Thai wife, Kullanun.

After meeting her, and after relocating his restaurant twice, Mark had spent 10 years in KL. He was ready to move on.

He spent two years travelling with Kookie (Kullanun's nickname) while manning a small business selling chocolate pralines. While Bangkok, Koh Lanta and Koh Samui were all on their list of places to settle down, they decided on Langkawi.

They were married and Kookie was pregnant with their eldest daughter, Lynn. "I did not want to raise children in the city," Mark was certain. That was 13 years ago.

Now they not only enjoy a quieter pace of life on the island, but run three businesses together.

Mark's passion for cooking is satisfied by Tapaz, currently under renovation in Telaga Harbour. It's a modern waterfront restaurant serving Mediterranean-style food that he opened in 2004.

In 2012, he set up Tubotel, a high-end version of a backpacker hostel but offering great beds, sheets and breakfasts. The rooms are in concrete culverts, while dormitories and bathrooms occupy industrial containers.

He wanted to create accommodation without building to comply with his landlord's restrictions, "kind of a twist in the landscaping". The sunset view out to sea while chilling on the large wooden deck is one of the island's best.

Tubotel is a high-end version of a backpacker hostel. Rooms are in concrete culverts, while dormitories and bathrooms occupy industrial containers. 

His latest playground is Upsidow (pronounced "oops-ee-doe"), an upside-down house located in an old abandoned quarry off the main road in Pemandangan Indah (Lookout Point).

Inspired by an upside-down house in his Austrian hometown, Mark decided to build one in Langkawi.

Championing sustainable upcycling, this house - Langkawi's latest attraction - is custom-built in 11 recycled containers. All the furnishings and household items are sourced from either used or discarded material. An organic farm on-site adds fresh ingredients to the food court.

When Upsidow was launched in mid-May, Mark's staff manned three of the food stalls, serving delicious burgers, tasty tacos and specialty pastas and pizzas. At the creative eating area, striking lighting and oil drum seats add to the charm of the sustainable endeavour.

As well as clearing out his attic for recycled items, Mark scoured scrapyards with a friend from Sungai Petani to Alor Setar, sourcing for structurally sound oil drums. "This project is an upcycled art installation," declared Mark, always driven to create new solutions.

The reading room of Upsidow, an upside-down house located in an old abandoned quarry.

What's next?

Kookie chipped in, "This morning after his shower he clasps his hands and announces: 'Upsidow is finished! What's next?'" She had to retort, she said, rather tartly, "It's not fully opened yet and you ask what's next?"

Their almost two-decade relationship, she related, has grown to include not only two daughters but also a family of local staff, volunteers from around the world and their businesses. She takes care of the finances while he comes up with the ideas.

"When we have fights, it's because of work. Because he thinks a little differently and is stubborn," she said, conceding, "He is a good man. Although it's tiring, he keeps working."

Mark's elderly parents visit them once a year. They themselves do try to get off the island every couple of months for a short break. They go back to Europe annually for a month.

Last year, they spent two weeks travelling with a single piece of hand luggage each on Eurorail tickets, traversing Innsbruck, Milan, Malta, Sicily, Rome, Naples and Florence.

But Langkawi is home for now. "It's still very safe for children and, if you like the sea like me, there are plenty of activities outdoors."

He owns a small boat and whenever possible heads out to sea, weaving in and out of waterways that lead to secluded beaches and islands.

For him, the most challenging aspect of island life is the slow pace of bureaucracy. But he has seen the community grow. "Many locals are moving back, older people are coming back to retire and the expatriate community is growing … all are looking for a slower pace of life."

He especially enjoys the small-town village life in his shorts and T-shirt. "I don't need to dress up. If I'm seen in long trousers, people ask if I'm going to a wedding."

After more than a decade, he is well known on the island, and well regarded.