Chef Wan: Why Malaysian Food Will Always Be Number 1
September 14, 2018 | BY Tien Chew
The charismatic celebrity chef talks to us about our nation's rich food culture in the spirit of Malaysia Day for our next Ask A Chef instalment over dim sum at his favourite Chinese restaurant. Who better to weigh in on how far our dining scene and palate has evolved than Malaysia's culinary ambassador to the world?
A man with many feathers on his cap, Datuk Dr Redzuan Ismail, or more affectionately known as Chef Wan by millions, is a Malaysian food icon. So much so, that we awarded him as our first ever "Local Champion" at our first T.Dining Awards.
Responsible for growing the Malaysian public's appreciation for food on television starting 27 years ago, and preaching the virtues of Malaysian cuisine on the global stage, the friendly and enterprising cook is currently in the midst of establishing two major projects.
The first is an ambitious South East Asian focused cooking school in Langkawi and the second is a new restaurant in the heart of Kuala Lumpur called D'Wan that will focus on highlighting foods around the region.
A regular at Lai Po Heen, Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur, Chef Wan takes the Tatler team to his favourite dim sum spot to talk food. Malaysian food to be exact.
How Has The Malaysian Palate Evolved?
"The young generation of Malaysians that have studied abroad and returned brought back with them a new love for foods that they've grown to love. We also have more expats in the country than before, resulting in a greater demand for new types of foods," explains Chef Wan. "We also see a lot of competition over the years that forced chefs to be the best that they can be in order to stay relevant," he adds.
Another reason why our palate has become even more colourful, according to Chef Wan, is the fact that Malaysians are much more travelled than in the past. He attributes this to the increasing affordability of airline prices that enables us to go on adventures more often.
This Malaysia Day, What Will You Eat To Celebrate Our Rich Culinary Culture?
"For Malaysia Day, for everyone, of course it has to be nasi lemak for breakfast! It's either nasi lemak or roti canai, it's always these two," says Chef Wan with a chuckle.
"For lunch, it depends on you, but for me I will have my dim sum. In a day, I just don't stick to one cuisine because a part of me is a part of Asia. Come dinner time, it has to be street food".
What's So Special About Malaysian Food To You?
"We are so blessed in this world to have a wonderful mixture of cultures. Malaysia is truly asia and we basically represent that part of the world. I love our food because of its diversity and how unique it is as compared to other cuisines. There's nothing like it," says Chef Wan.
What Do You Cook To Showcase Our Cuisine To The World?
"Since I first came into television I've been doing a lot of work abroad. To me, not many people are aware of the Malaysian cuisine's diversity and we need to tell the world," says Chef Wan.
"When I get invited to cook overseas or do a pop-up restaurant, whether it's in Norway or Paris, I notice that people love our food. When I cook, I like to show a lot of variety, from our Penang street food to Nyonya cuisine and even all the way up to the foods cooked in the palace," he adds.
What Do You Do If You're Homesick For Malaysian Flavours When Abroad?
"Sometimes I film for many weeks overseas and when that happens I sometimes miss my favourite Malaysian foods. Being a chef, that's not really a problem for me. When I travel, I bring asam pedas paste, sambal, etc., that's made fresh from the house and sealed in containers so that I can have the flavours I miss whenever I want," reveals the charismatic chef.
What Do You Think The Modern Malaysian Chef Should Have?
"I'm a very traditional person. On one hand, I like to see our cuisine evolve, but I do want to see our young new chefs take pride in preserving our heritage foods," reveals Chef Wan. "Just take a look at our peranakan nyonya food, it's slowly dying because the younger generation aren't taking enough pride in their own food culture. If nothing is done in 20 to 30 years it might disappear," he adds.
Why Do You Like Coming To Lai Po Heen?
"What I like about this restaurant is that when you come in you can see this open kitchen and watch all the chefs at work," says Chef Wan. "They (the restaurant) really take pride in everything they do, whether it's their dim sum or their dishes, and that's why I'm always inspired by their chefs and how they work whenever I come back," he adds.
High praise from such an acclaimed chef and fittingly so, Lai Po Heen won the "Best Hotel Restaurant" category for our first T.Dining awards for their consistent pursuit of delivering high marks when it comes to food, drinks and service.
What Is Your Favourite Kuih?
"I love making ondeh-ondeh, a perfect curry puff, as well as the Malay kuih seri muka and the Nyonya kuih lapis," says an excited Chef Wan. "When I was young my mother sold kuih around the neighbourhood to make extra money. I used to help her and I remember carrying hundreds of kuih back and forth after school; I even had a song!".
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