Sunday August 22, 2010
Chef Wan does his best
By CHERYL POO
Malaysia’s leading celebrity chef talks about his latest show, the anticipation of his first grandchild, and his upcoming plans.
HELLO, I’m gorgeous and ready to be interviewed!” an energetic voice pipes from upstairs. I look up to catch sight of the sprightly host swiftly descending into the living in the two-storey penthouse apartment in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. This is Datuk Chef Wan’s city home when he’s not spending time in his primary residence with his parents in Raub, Pahang.
In an off-white linen shirt and khakis, the culinary master looks relaxed and refreshed despite fasting all day. “I’ve prepared us a meal for buka puasa later, but let’s chat in the meantime,” he says, taking a seat on the couch.
Here I am, finally, at the luxury pad of one of Malaysia’s best-known – and most flamboyant – personalities on a recent Friday evening, in my first ever meeting with the man popularly known as Chef Wan (real name Redzuawan Ismail), to talk about his latest show Best Wan. Earlier attempts to interview the busy man for a story before the show’s premiere were unsuccessful due to his recent work trips to Spain and Australia.
The 10-part weekly programme debuted on AFC (Astro Channel 703) on Tuesday. Additionally, there are three festive specials under the Best Wan series this year: CNY (aired on Feb 14) as well as the upcoming Raya segment (Sept 7 and Sept 10) and Christmas (Dec 25).
In the lengthy conversation that follows, it’s interesting for me to experience the quickness and nimbleness of his mind. He darts from one topic to another in single breaths, laughs heartily and, like a true veteran, displays little need for the prompting of questions to keep the conversation alive.
Like now, for instance, a mere “how was your day?” is all the cue he needs before launching into a long-winded account of his gruelling schedule and grooming regimen of the day. Self-possessed, confident and animated, the 53-year-old father of two – chef-restaurateur Mohd Nadzri, 28, and actress Serina, 26 – is always ahead, always the livewire of the party.
Settling down for a cosy chat, the man who rose from humble beginnings in the small town of Raub to be the internationally known figure that he is, is matter-of-fact about his past and the values he learned.
Having built his career from the ground up with sheer ambition and hard work, the former accountant continues to maintain a sunny personality and a giving nature.
“I’ve always been very generous since I was a boy. When I was little, my aunt used to give me pocket money to spend. Now, when I visit my nephews and nieces, I’m happy to return the blessing,” he says candidly and rapidly.
“I’ve built my life by going out there being confident, loving myself and taking care of my body, because that’s the least I can do. I need strong principles like these to keep going,” he says, adding that he’s always addressing little children, encouraging them to make something of themselves with their talents.
Chef Wan is his own taskmaster, and pushes himself to slog even on days that are long and rough. His day, I soon learn, begins at 4.30am with prayer and a quick meal – after that, it’s work and errands all the way until night, and occasionally, midnight.
But how does he keep up the energy? I wonder aloud.
That, he says, is the most common question he’s asked. “I just talk non-stop. You’ve got to be a businessman,” he offers. He talks about staying motivated to be ahead of the game. The word perseverance crops up several times.
This season, Chef Wan collaborates with AFC for his delectable new cooking programme, Best Wan. The series was notably filmed in High Definition at the Asian Food Sky Kitchen in Singapore where the culinary maestro demonstrates his favourite Malaysian classics with a modern twist.
Lovers of the Malay and Peranakan cuisines will do well to follow the programme as it zeroes in on the fundamentals of preparation.
“It’s lots of fun because there’s so much variety in our national food, although you’ll be watching a more subdued me,” Chef Wan says with a laugh.
Subdued? Chef Wan? Not a chance, we heard you say.
“I had to tone down since this programme caters to an international audience,” he explains.
Don’t believe him? Then tune in to the show to find out and learn to cook legendary favourites such as the popular chilli crab and nyonya green beef stew.
Best Wan is the latest entry to the array of cook shows on Chef Wan’s portfolio, which includes Kuali Cook Show, Chef Wan, Citarasa Sedunia Gas Petronas and Glorious European Food.
He cheerfully talks about Best Wan and the good sales of his cookbooks in the region: A recent international event saw close to 7,000 copies sold in just two days. His culinary expertise is enjoyed even in the Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong.
Among his best-selling cookbooks are Simply Sedap! Chef Wan’s Favourite Recipes, Simply Sedap 2: Chef Wan Shares More Favourite Asian Recipes and Chef Wan Around The World.
“In Malaysia, we have such fantastic things because we’re truly Asia,” he says, citing the Tourism Malaysia slogan. As the words tumble from his lips, he tenses up and a sudden hardness comes over his face. An old frustration seems to come alive as he expresses annoyance at how Malaysian celebrity chefs like him are restricted from going international when the opportunity arises.
“Promoting us will surely lead more foreigners to our country because we are known for our great food! I wish more recognition and support could have been shown to us,” he pluckily asserts, noting that the Best Wan project is run without funding and sponsorship.
He lightens up when we talk about his victory as the Best Celebrity Television Chef of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards last year.
“It means a lot to me. But when I was in Paris with 250 celebrity chefs from around the world, holding the award, I was happy to confess that I was no better than any of them. How do you quantify the best in the world?” he asks.
Food and family
At this point of our chat, Chef Wan gets up, motioning for me to follow him to the kitchen to prepare dinner for our party of five. “Mee rebus for tonight. It’s a simple and inexpensive meal, but I love it,” he tells me as he putters around.
So you prefer traditional fare to avant-garde cuisine then? I venture.
“Yes, anytime! Do you know, I had an ill-tasting kari laksa when I was in Australia, for 40 dollars!” the chef says crossly, gesturing wildly.
He insists that nothing beats the food that we find in local stalls and hawker spots. “Tauke, 60 sen more lala please!” Chef Wan jests, mimicking the local chap’s bargain, which has us hooting with laughter.
For the record, his favourite cuisines, apart from Malaysian delights, are Japanese, Thai and Italian – in that order.
Although he appreciates the work of some of the foreign chefs, he is coy about his favourite. He, however, names British celebrity chef Claudia Lawrence as his favourite food author.
“Her manuscripts include wholesome excerpts of her personal journey, everyday life and even country history, which heightens the reader’s appreciation of the cuisines she writes about,” he explains.
This year marks two significant events in Chef Wan’s life.
In January, his daughter Serina tied the knot with Irishman Gavin Edward O’Luanaigh (Salahuddin Ghaffar), 33.
Soon after Raya next month, Chef Wan will join the ranks of grandfather when Serina gives birth to her firstborn, a boy.
At the mention of her pregnancy, Chef Wan scurries to a nearby room and emerges with two large cases of goodies.
His recent work trip to Spain found him on a shopping spree for baby apparel and toys – 27 stuffed animals and over 20 pairs of shoes. Watching the grown man fawning over the parcels like a child is most warming a sight. Talking nineteen to the dozen of the great deals he purchased, he is obviously raring to be the Tok Wan everyone’s talking about.
As we tuck into the yummy noodle, I sound my curiosity as to why he hasn’t a restaurant. “Too much trouble,” he says with a dismissive wave of the hand, adding, “If you want to eat my food, get my cookbook and follow the recipes precisely. You can’t go wrong!”
When I inquire about his leisure activities, he shoves a book on gardening into my hands, which he authored some years back.
Good grief, I find myself thinking, is there anything this guy doesn’t do?
Chef Wan picked up gardening when he was a boy by tending to his own little vege patch and its produce would be shared among family and relatives.
Clearly, he’s more than a chef; he’s a believer of entrepreneurship. At the moment, he’s thrilled about the many exciting projects that are hot on his plate.
His desire to reach out to Malaysian women and help them be more enterprising will be realised through his subsidiary company, Chef Wan’s Lifestye. It’s a network marketing company selling kitchenware.
Apart from that, he’ll be chairing the upcoming Malaysian Asean Food Heritage Trail, which is the brainchild of the man himself, co-organised by Tourism Malaysia.
The month-long event in November will provide the public an opportunity to enjoy regional flavours, witness cooking demonstrations by notable chefs from the region, and participate in cooking competitions for a new concept of traditional favourites such as laksa and rendang.
“The whole idea is for everyone to get connected with each other. It’s going to be great,” says an enthusiastic Chef Wan.
It’s hard to shush him, and even harder to slow him down.
‘Best Wan’ airs on AFC (Astro Channel 703) on Tuesdays at 9pm. Encores are on Wednesdays, 1am and 11am; Fridays, 8.30pm; Saturdays, 4.30am, 8.30am, noon and 4.30pm; Sundays, 1am and 7pm; and Mondays, 1.30pm.