|Only Wan: The country's most illustrious chef is an ambassador for Malaysian cuisine.
by Louisa Lim
Try as they may, Malaysians can't seem to get enough of Chef Wan. Whether it's his ever-changing hairstyle, his frothy on-screen persona, his talent or his knack for courting controversy, Malaysia's most illustrious chef has long held his countrymen-regardless of age or colour-transfixed.
The 56-year-old, however, is doing more than just lighting up television screens across the country. As culinary ambassador for Tourism Malaysia since 2010, he has traipsed the globe to promote Malaysian cuisine. Appearing in international gourmet events and expos while racking up various accolades -including 'Best Celebrity TV Chef' in 2011's Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris-this wise-cracking, award-winning chef is a force to be reckoned with.
Before there was Chef Wan the food and TV personality however, there was Redzuawan Ismail, the precocious boy who would earn extra cash selling baskets of homemade cakes at the military camp he was living in. It was a tough life; his father-a corporal with the Malaysian air force- wasn't making enough money to support seven children. Worse still was the fact that the man was a traditionalist who believed that the kitchen was no place for boys.
Wanting to please his father-who is of Javanese descent, and his mother of Peranakan and Japanese lineage-Redzuawan took up a degree in accounting. But his career as a banker did not last; he eventually returned to his true calling, by honing his craft at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in the 1980s.
Fast forward several decades, and he is only known as Chef Wan-the "chef" prefix a permanent-even though somewhere under the chef's hat he has a datukship title. That is perhaps the best measure of the people's fondness for him-a sense of familiarity among friends that allows one to dispense with titles.
Chef Wan has written several thousand recipes in some 15 cookbooks in Malay and English and put behind him scores of TV cook shows, including a recent 13-episode one filmed in the United Kingdom with Fox TV, East Bites West. The ever-busy, globe-trotting chef is in the midst of filming the third season of his travel-cum-food series, Kembara Sedunia Bersama Chef Wan (Around the World with Chef Wan).
What else haven't Chef Wan done? Open a restaurant? His second food hall in Cyberjaya – the first is located in Singapore – is on the way. Called 1Market, it will offer the best of Asean street food under one roof.
But like most great chefs, Chef Wan is also demanding and a perfectionist, expecting no less from his peers in the food industry. Last year, he slammed a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur after finding their nyonya laksa (curry noodles) unsatisfactory. His comment-that the group of chefs responsible for the dish should be "shot to death" for tarnishing the country's heritage -has drawn flak from longtime critics.
But this is Chef Wan-he is who he is, no apologies about it. His famous last words: "I am what I am; what you see is what you get."
For his legions of fans in Malaysia, any wayward outburst is quickly forgiven and forgotten just as his next show starts on the flatscreen and that charming, megawatt smile comes and light up their lives.— Star (Malaysia)