Today’s Chef in the Spotlight is no stranger amongst the gourmands in Kuala Lumpur. She has really taken the local dining scene by storm. Petite and demure, she is famous for being the chef with the “larger than life” personality (and voice), and the force behind that French bistro in Petaling Jaya, known simply as Bistro a Table. She is Chef Isadora Chai, and this is our interview with her..
1.What were your favorite foods growing up?
Stodgy British comfort food – Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermidor and smoked oysters!
2.When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
When I was on holiday in Italy and assimilated with the locals, I was influenced by their joie de vivre when it came to working for what they were passionate about. I realized that when things weren’t meant to be, you really feel like you are fighting an uphill battle when it came to work. So I promptly gave up my business suits and walked straight into the commercial kitchen when I returned to Sydney.
3.Where and when did your career in food begin?
I have always been catering for more than 10 years in the private kitchens of some very well-heeled clients in Sydney.
4.If you didn’t become a chef, what would you be?
I would be a litigator sending out legal love letters to EVERYONE.
5.Who/ what has shaped your cooking the most over the years?
I don’t know… most of my food now is self-taught or self-discovered. I came from a scientific background so I am constantly experimenting in the kitchen to come up with the wackiest creations.
6.Please tell us a little bit more, about this scientific background you just mentioned..
Double degree triple majors in Biotechnology, biochemistry and marketing. I have an honors thesis in stem cell research and was a three time college/ university scholar if you need proof that i have a semblance of grey matter. :p
7.What are your favorite culinary weapons in the kitchen?
My Swiss Pacojet – which churns ice cream in 10 minutes and my Japanese knives.
8.What influences your cooking style and particularly your menu?
My style is highly experimental and best described as polarizing – you either love it or hate it. I get terribly bored of my own menu, which is why I tend to change it gradually every day. It is a reflection of what I prefer to eat. I aim to be daring which is probably not very business-oriented. For example, I hardly every serve chicken unless I am in the mood of eating chicken.
However, I am most influenced by what I can get my hands on in the market which dictates what is served on that day. I tend to start getting excited about a particular ingredient and build the dish from there. Sometimes, it happens during the dinner service itself – imagine a mini Iron Chef episode at Bistro a Table which pretty much happens on a daily basis.
9.What is your favorite secret ingredient and why?
There are three elements commonly found in the BAT kitchen – butter, cream and ego. Ask any French chef and they too will agree.
10.What is the one rule or value you try to instil in all of your staff?
Discipline. I was trained the old fashioned way in small restaurants where you pretty much make everything on the plate – from the stocks, cakes and even the little silly garnishes. So even on a quiet night, there is always something to do in the restaurant. And in this line of work, if you party hard, you bloody well have to still function the next day for work, there are no excuses.
11.If I’m trying to watch my weight and I’m eating at your restaurant, what am I ordering to eat?
Either go for the Fassone sirloin from Piedmont, which is virtually fat-free but oh so tender and flavorful or the fish – we only serve limited amounts of fresh fish. Nothing comes into the kitchen frozen.
12.If its my birthday and i am being super-indulgent and the sky’s the limit, what am I ordering to eat from your restaurant?
You should attend one of BAT’s infamous themed degustation dinners. In March, we are doing Alice in Wonderland where elements of Lewis Carroll’s novel will be served on that night. Every month has a different theme, so call in to check.
13.What was the most challenging meal you had to make? Why?
I once had to cook a 5 course meal from an office kitchenette. It went well but never again.
14.What was your worst restaurant disaster?
When the oven did not work and I had to superheat a covered wok to use it as a makeshift oven.
15.What is your least favorite food?
Chicken – to me, the most boring meat in the world.
16.Tell us something funny about yourself.
I really don’t give a rat’s arse about the way I conduct myself in my own restaurant, to the extent where sometimes I scare customers (but I think my staff forewarn them anyway).
17.What are some recent dining and culinary trends you have been observing?
International restaurants are scaling back the tinsel and are getting more casual, serving old school comfort food.
18.When you are not eating at your own restaurant…you are eating at?
You can probably see me along with the rest of the other head chefs stuffing our faces at Jalan Alor, which is the only decent place serving cooked food at two in the morning.
19.Tell us something about yourself or a skill you possess that nobody knows;)
I can sleep on any surface, anywhere and anytime on call. This superhuman power is very useful on long-haul flights.
20.What was the most spectacular meal you have ever had?
Simple white bean stew and seared buffalo kidneys in Piedmont. It was simple, fresh and so flavourful. It must be the water in that region.
21.What is your best cooking tip for a home enthusiast?
You do not need to follow recipes to a T. Improvising is fun.
22.What do you eat when you are home?
23.What’s a basic cooking technique that you couldn’t possibly live without?
Steaming -the simplest and most efficient way of cooking something flavourful.
24.You obviously rely a lot on your sense of smell. Why do you think that an educated sense of smell is important to developing a good dish?
Actually, I rely on my sense on taste and feel. You must really understand individual ingredients when you are combining them and how they react with one another. Then the second factor is texture and the way it plays in your mouth. When you satisfy both factors, you achieve a wonderful gastronomic experience within yourself.
25.Finally, what is your advice for all those new, up and coming Chefs out there?
Just because you came from cooking school, does not make you a qualified chef. Experience counts for 98% of your worth. Start humble and work your way to the top, the old fashioned way!
*All photos courtesy of bistro a table