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Malaysian Celebrity Chef, Chef Wan's TalkAsia Interview Transcript

Airdate: August 21st, 2004.

LH: Lorraine Hahn
CW: Chef Wan


LH: This week on TalkAsia: One of Asia's most celebrated Chefs. A Malaysian whose gregarious nature and immaculate culinary skills have won over connoisseurs and fans across the world. This, is TalkAsia.

LH: Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week, I bring you the one and only Chef Wan. His real name is actually Redzuawan Ismail. But everyone affectionately calls him Chef Wan. For over a decade, he's been a constant on television in Malaysia and around the region. From a variety of locations, Chef Wan delights in sharing his culinary passion and technique, while throwing in a history lesson from time to time. Chef Wan honed his cooking skills at the prestigious California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in the eighties. He also studied in France. He's received numerous awards over the years, for his craft, and his cook books. Most recently he received the distinguished La Mah-zeal Pree honorary award for his dedication towards promoting Asian cuisine to the rest of the world.

I visited Chef Wan at his cozy home in Kuala Lumpur recently. Just before sitting down for a chat, he prepared for me a delicious local salad, based on his grandmother's recipe. I could barely wait for more... but first, the interview. I asked him why did he decide to become a cook?

CW: I guess when I was young I've always enjoyed food. We come from a very big family, there are seven of us, I am the eldest son in the family and of course you know, everyone of us are close to each other in years. For example I was 12 my other brothers would be 11, 10 and 9 like a football team. (He laughs) And naturally coming from a big family like that, we are always surrounded with food. Breakfast and dinner and all, and being the eldest I'm supposed to try and help mum prepare breakfast for my younger brothers and all. And naturally I try to be a bit more creative; a bit more fun. And in later years I started gardening because I love gardening and was surrounded by vegetables and all that and all that and I say ah what I do with all this stuff in my garden? Cooking!

LH: And no major accidents at the age of seven?

CW: No I wouldn't say no major accidents, things happen, you know for example I remember there were times when I actually had to steal things from my mother's kitchen and try to play what we call the masa masala we learn cooking, my brothers and sisters and neighbours and all that, and cooking from a can of sardines, trying to cook a can of sardines, trying to cook rice and all that. And one time we almost burnt my dad's canvass cam, you know those military cam that we put behind the house and we play around and it almost got burnt.

LH: I'm surprised they didn't ban you from the kitchen from then! It is unusual though isn't it for a chap to take up cooking. And somebody who I presume is brought up in a fairly traditional household?

CW: Yeah in those day I still remember, even when I stayed in the kitchen, my father was in the airforce when I grew up and it was tough because my dad didn't believe that as a son that I should be brought up in the kitchen.

LH: Isn't it interesting that most of the world's top chefs are men?

CW: Tell me please, please tell the people they better get up and wake up. Look at me for example, I followed my dream, my passion Although I came from a different background before, I was an accountant but then my passion was cooking so then I said no, no at one point in time I had to change my career and do something that I love and that is going to food.

LH: You know there are so many chefs out there, what made people sit up, do you think and watch you and listen to you and follow you? What was it? (He laughs)

CW: Well lets put it this way, I know there are many celebrity chefs out there and I think you know to be a good celebrity chef, you have to be entertaining, that's very important. Cause not everybody that watches cooking programs loves to cook (LH: that is true). Not many people, but a lot of people love to eat anyway, so they love to see how things are being made and put together and certainly to see. For example I have kids that come back to me and say 'oh uncle Wan, I just saw your program, you know I have to tell my mother she must make that apple muffin, that looks so good, and you said that its so healthy and all that.' And coming from a six/seven year old kid, I can't help but feeling good about it. And so I always say, to be a celebrity chef is not just having the creativity, the talent, the smile, the personality and all that, it's the whole entire package that makes people want to watch you.

LH: Your TV shows are noted for their entertainment value as well as obviously the cooking value (Chef Wan: absolutely crazy -- they both laugh) Now do they really taste good, I dunno (laugh). How do you do it? Where do you get the energy from?

CW: I think I'm very hyperactive, at one point at time I can be thinking and doing so many things. I strive, as I say, I try to be different in ideas, which simply means I just have to work harder, for example, in many of my food shows I read a lot. There were times when I was doing a series qualities of Asia in Turkey, I made sure they I studied a bit history. The origin of food in turkey from Byzantine Empire to the Roman Empire up to the Ottoman Empire the glory of the Ottoman. (LH: You studied history?) Yes I studied history so that I could go on television and stand in front of the Topkapi Palace in the kitchen and talk about the cooking. And this is something I say that I am different. I think as a celebrity chef it is important for you to address the proper way of cooking or the fundamental skill or the culinary art that needs to be addressed. You need to be funny, as I say funny, entertaining, make people laugh. But you must have substance That's why I say if you want to go up, and be good in life, and be famous you have to work hard and nobody is going to stop you. The sky is the limit. That is why I say that reading is so important to the children knowledge is power when you have the knowledge and you apply the knowledge, you become even more powerful. But if you keep the knowledge to yourself it does nothing. And I share my knowledge with the people on television.

LH: In the form of food

CW: In the form of food, laughter, and it makes me happy, and look at me. You know people say Chef Wan, I don't know if you are ever sad, you are always smiling, and happy and all that. It takes little for me to be happy because I am a happy person. Because I always believe in life that we have to do good things ourselves and to our body - to people, to humankind and be nice to people and kind. You know if you don't like to talk, others to talk about you, then don't talk bad about others but do good things in life. But one thing, very important, a philosophy in my life, to be very giving, a giving person, and I would share what I have with just about anybody, yeah...

LH: Up next on TalkAsia - Chef Wan's first profession, before becoming a celebrity cook.


LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia and our conversation with Chef Wan. Believe it or not, he first donned a business suit before switching to a Chef's hat. That was because he spent his early professional career as an accountant. Luckily for us, his true passion soon took over. In the second part of our interview, we talked more about his accounting days, as well as his keen interest in promoting Asean cuisine.

CW: I noticed these days that Asian food has become very popular, for example Thai, just about every corner in a city like Paris or London or New York everywhere -- Thai food. Not only Thai food but also Thai people. You know people like to go to Thailand and become very successful so I realized if Thai can be a perfect example to become so popular and all that why can't other Asean countries? And so I feel that the knowledge that I have in me, not just doing Malaysian food but a little bit of Indonesian and a little bit of Thai, Vietnamese because I learn, I go to all different cooking schools, why can't I be the spokesman of Asean? And show to the world that Asean people are beautiful, not just being Malaysian but Asean as a whole because we are truly Asia as you can see. Although we lie so close to each other but we have so many different types of food and culture and festival and we are so so interesting

LH: True, very true. I like to go back and talk a bit more about your family. You as a child, your upbringing, you told me you used to help your mum sell "guay", cakes. Did that help you in a sense learn the value of money?

CW: Oh yes because you know... I remember the first time when I carried my first basket of cakes to the military camp because I was selling to the soldiers you know in the barracks and all that, and I didn't have a lot of money at that time because you know there were seven of us in my family. My father was only a corporal he was barely only making less than 250 ringgits a month to feed seven of us. It was hard. And my mother being an noyna, a Chinese nonya, she says she loves baking so she said she was going to make these cakes and will you help to sell them. And I said yeah Ma, because I love my mother till today you know? Cause I can't see my mother sad. And of course the value of money is always there in me. And you know when I go out there and sell the cakes and in return my mother would give me, in those days, I remember 15 cents and 10 cents and I can afford to go out and buy food, pencil and eraser and I would get them, not just for myself but also to give them to all my younger siblings. You wouldn't believe one time we had one pencil, I didn't have time, we didn't have a lot, and even that one pencil we had to cut into three to share with my siblings, honestly.

LH: So there was no sibling rivalry you were all very close

CW: Oh no, I was always the "abang" - always the older brother looking after the younger ones from day one as I remember. But I guess I think it's my heart, you know there are other kids who prefer to go out to play football in the field amongst their friends and all that I've always working very hard. And after going out and selling cakes at that military camp, you know when I was nine, ten, eleven and twelve years old. I would come back and go in and ask my mother if there was any job more to do, and my mother would say yeah, tonight we have to make the Samal for the Nasi Lemak and we have to grind the chilies cause in those days we didn't have a blender. And we have the batu gilling like that and boy can you imagine a nine/ten year old kid, I was just so small at the time, I was just holding the batu gilling and just grinding tons of chilli (LH: for hours right?) yeah for hours. I was sweating and my hands would be burning like that. And I used to sleep, honestly, I would sleep when sometimes my hands would be burning from grinding the chilli and I would put coconut and everything and wrap in a plastic bag and put rubber band and sleep like that. So you know it doesn't burn me anymore. And that's me at that time.

LH: Who is a better cook?

CW: Oh I would always say my mum is a better cook and my mum would always say Chef Wan is not Chef one, ma say Chef Wan is Chef two.

LH: Now aside from the cooking, before you even got it discovered this passion, you did pay your dues, you did go to school, you did go into something rather conservative, that is working in a merchant bank. (CW: exactly) Seven years. Was that tough for you?

CW: It wasn't tough because like I said you were coming with all the background, like I said I was selling cakes and all that, I'm always counting money (LH: somebody else's money this time...) Yes so my mother says now it is time for you to go into the business school and study to be an accountant. This is exactly what I did, so I when I graduated and finished and studied and of course I finished in college and I came back and later I worked for a few years and later I went to Australia to finish my degree. So when I came back again I started working in a merchant bank and I've enjoyed it. Cause you know even at times it was just like in between my working as a banker I was also part times doing all sorts of catering, I was also teaching sometimes a few ladies to come and how to bake a cake and sometimes I would do wedding food and all that. So I did have my fair share of time to spend that hobby, because that never really left me. But then over the years as I grew, I realized that I wasn't moving very much because I had a passion and it gets bigger and bigger the passion for food and then I said, this is the time to leave the business world.

LH: That must have been quite a decision to make

CW: Yeah it was quite a decision because that was also the same time that I had to divorce my wife. We were only married for three years, it was an arranged marriage and nothing was really going very well and I realized in life that one must not be very unhappy; one must always remain made to be happy under whatever circumstances. You owe that happiness only to yourself, and I said if I am not happy then I should leave my marriage and that is exactly what I did. So we left after I had my two kids. And I promised my ex-wife that, hey I will still look after you, she has never worked in her life and I said I will look after you as long, and I am still looking after her today. And I said, you know, we will raise the kids well just like any other single parents but I have to pursue my dream and that is to be a chef. And that is exactly what I did so I quit, a week and a half after I divorce her, and I handed in my resignation and I quit the bank.

LH: What was your family's reaction? Your mum, your dad, your grandmother?

CW: Oh god, I have to be honest with you, I lied to them in the very beginning. Look at everyone looking at me, I know I lied to them because I told them I was going to business school because I dare not tell them that I actually wanted to go into Chef school. But then after my first year, I finally broke the news, and oh my, dad was pissed off, he was pissed off. My mum being my mum she fully understood and she said hey there's always been Chef Wan and he wants to be a chef so. So finally my father begin to accept but today, my dad is very proud of me...very proud of me

LH: Stick around we have more Chef Wan secrets, just ahead.


LH: Welcome back to our conversation with Malaysian celebrity, Chef Wan. He's traveled all over the world including Mauritius, Turkey and Sri Lanka - exploring different foods and culture. His TV shows combine charm, wit, and flawless technique. I asked Chef Wan how he remained calm for his first ever TV show, more than 12 years ago.

CW: I had to drink 12 glasses of water, I swear to you. I just came back from America and at that time I was film on television to talk about my life in San Francisco and living in, what do you call that, in Hawaii and having to cook for some celebrity in Hawaii who had to come to stay in the gentry because I was a private chef. And so after I came off from television they said oh Chef Wan you were just perfect out there sharing your stories and your passion of food, would you like to do television. And I said TV? I said no, I said I've never done television work and they said you should try once. Then finally I accepted. And suddenly everyone loved it they said where did this chef come from he's so chatty, but they forget that I have drink 12 glasses of water because I was so nervous but yet I was still chatty and today I am even worse.

LH: Now you did cook-books, travel, you do exhibitions, you also act not on stage as well but also in the movies, what .. Where do you find the time and where does all this come from?

CW: I know, I know the first movie I remembered I was offered to do is called 'read and dumb' and that was interesting because it was a supporting role. It is not difficult because you know I say to myself, even when I am on camera for example, I am acting. There are times when I am in the studio and I am not in a good mood, you know, I am tired, but it is all part of acting. If you are a professional enough, its just like that Lorraine, that it's (LH - it doesn't matter whatever happens) that's it, it doesn't matter, that is what we call professionalism. And of course over the years although I did not win any awards, but I did get good reviews and rave reviews for all my acting and all that. But I've played different roles as well in different movies and I've enjoyed myself (LH: the Oscars are coming your way?) The Academy Award goes to Chef Wan (They both laugh) Oh I thank my mother for the... I'm going to thank my father. (bursts out laughing)

LH: What would be the perfect day for you.

CW: The perfect day for me would just be lying out, to get some sun, sitting up in Provence if I get the chance under a massive field of lavender... Under a nice olive tree with some great cheese and bread which I can never forget, all those special moments. And a good book, cause I do carrying around a good cook book to read because that is a special time quality time for me where I can relax and do nothing but enjoy the beauty of nature.

LH: Because you are so busy, I mean sometimes, forgive me for saying, but it must be lonely?

CW: Oh yes, I do feel that. But then sometimes there were times when I felt being alone, sitting down, I get a bit depressed like anybody You know I get sick sometimes and I sit on the staircase in the house in the middle of the night and suddenly I feel that sense of loneliness. Then you see me sitting there and my tears start rolling and I say you know, my god sometimes life can be so cruel because on one end god gives you this talent to make people happy, to make people laugh, but little do people know that sometimes that you are like a bird in the cage. Making people happy but sometimes you have your sad moments. (LH: Well you are human too...) Yeah I am human too, but then that is why I realize and then I say snap out of it. What are you doing about it? You can either go out and find a partner or anything or you can be surrounded by beautiful friends. And today I am surrounded by millions of friends. I go out and have parties with friends and have a good time and have a picnic. And sometimes go out and do charity work with children and surrounded by kids and that makes me a very happy person.

LH: You must think that you are pretty blessed? You are pretty lucky?

CW: Yes, yes because I also believe in life that we can't have everything in life. That we have to take life with a little bit pinch of salt. And if it gets too serious in life and always wanting to be the best and wanting to achieve that's not good as well. Life is about balancing, a bit of play, a bit work, a bit of laughter a bit of fun.

LH: But the man we see on television, is that really you?

CW: Yeah, that's really me. Because you know why I've seen some celebrity chefs and some are a bit of a hypocrite... can be like an actor they go in and they smile and then suddenly when they're out of television, they become so serious and they're like leave me alone. For me, most the time when people see me they are like oh Chef Wan you are so much fun, you're so funny you're so dizzy. I say this is me, what you see is what you get, I'm the real stuff darling (both laugh).

LH: What is important to you know Chef Wan, in your life?

CW: I think what is most important now for me is to try and help bring up Malaysia out there... Malaysian food. As food ambassador of this country, you know I play a very important role with all the experience that I had, I can work in any television. Many of my friends celebrity chefs open their doors and say Chef Wan please come to Athens, Chef Wan please come to Norway, Chef Wan please come to Australia we would love to have you as a guest chef to work as many programmes as you want. Because people out there would love to learn about Asian food or Malaysian food. So I think, if anything that would make me happy over the next few years would be to try and promote more of Malaysian cuisine around the world, because not many people know about our food. So that is my idea to go out there and sell Malaysia.

LH: Malaysia's food ambassador and loveable celebrity. The one and only, Chef Wan. Now remember that salad I mentioned at the beginning of the program? Here's a glimpse of how it all came together. The "Nyonya Kerabu Meehon" or rice noodle salad is a traditional Malaysian specialty -featuring the freshest ingredients. This particular recipe has been in Chef Wan's family for generations. For details on that recipe and much more, go to website Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.


200gms meehoon boiled in boiling salted water for 5minutes and drain well

4 tomato wedges
1/2 cup dried soaked shrimp
2Tsp toasted shrimp paste
2 pcs lime leaves
4 pcs chili paddy
6 pcs large red chili
2 pcs garlic

*Pounded into a paste or puree them in the blender

4 to 5 tablespoon of fish sauce.
100gms of plam grated finely.
a large bunch of fresh mint chopped
10 pcs of garlic chive(kuchai) sliced thinly
2 pcs of tofu fried and cut intolittle cubes
1/2 cup of fried shallots
20 pcs of fried prawn cooked and shelled
juice from 6 kalamansi

to garnish:chopped coriander,3 hard boil eggs and fried shrimp.

Method: In a large bowl combine the paste, fish sauce,brown suger and kalamansi juice mixed well before tossing in the rest of ingrediants garnished on top with boil eggs wedges and fried pounded dried shrimp and chop criander leaves.

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