Chef Yenni Law has fire in her eyes as she expertly flambés a medium-rare tenderloin, casually feeding the flames by tossing a dash of aromatic cognac into the pan. This is her restaurant Meatology's signature dish, Steak On Fire, and it has earned her a devoted following among Kuala Lumpur's carnivores.
As the flames diminish, Law confesses that meat is her favourite thing to cook. It was the subject of her first cookbook, also called Meatology, which she penned three years ago. Its success led her to embark on another collection of recipes last year, Her World Cookbook: The Rice Pot, which recently earned her a coveted Gourmand Award, also known as the Oscars of culinary publishing.
“It was completely unexpected,” she insists, “but a huge honour to have such a simple book recognised among the best in the world. All the recipes are rice-based and many were inspired by my Mom's home cooking, so it means a lot.”
Despite her humble demeanour, Law has achieved more in her 20-year career than most chefs do in a lifetime. At 43, she owns her own restaurant, boasts an enviable reputation among critics and foodies, and has not one but two books under her belt. But her route to the top has been anything but conventional.
After graduating from Taylor's College in the nineties, Law found herself young, free and hungry for experience, and so she headed to the U.K. where she spent two years living and working in London. “I didn't have a work visa,” she admits, “so getting paid a decent wage was difficult, and living in London is expensive, but I made it work.”
To 'make it work' Law juggled four jobs and worked round the clock to keep a roof over her head and broaden her culinary horizons. “I started my first job of the day at 5.30 a.m. and finished my last shift at around 2 a.m. the following morning,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief at the recollection. “I worked in a newsagent sorting stacks of newspapers every morning, I did split shifts in an Irish pub cooking traditional British roast dinners, and between shifts I worked for a nearby newsstand. Then at night I worked in a Chinese takeaway until 2 a.m. in return for learning how to cook Chinese food.”
Eventually, exhausted and unable to secure a work visa in the U.K., Law headed to Spain on the promise of both a visa and a position working in a restaurant. “I answered an advert in a newspaper, which was risky,” admits Law, “but I've never been afraid to take risks, and when I was offered the job I went for it.”
A year later, Law still had no visa and her Spanish employer refused to return her passport or pay her the agreed salary. “In the end, I called the authorities and had him arrested,” she recalls. “It didn't work out the way I planned but I don't regret it because I learned a lot about trusting my instincts and it's what made me realise that I wanted my own business. I didn't want to work for anyone again.”
Back in Kuala Lumpur, Law made her dream of going solo a reality by securing a business partnership that allowed her to take over a venue in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, an affluent neighbourhood in the Malaysian capital, which she reopened as The Boathouse restaurant.
“The initial business partnership did not work out, and in the end, I was left with a lot of debt to clear. The electricity was cut off and we owed a lot of money to suppliers because our finances weren't well managed,” she admits, frankly. “I was faced with a choice – I could give up the business or I could try to get it back on track on my own.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, Law took a chance on saving the business she'd worked so hard for by paying off the restaurant's debts, finding new investors and, eventually, rebranding it as Meatology in honour of her first book.
Now, her challenges finally behind her, Law says she's enjoying her newfound fame as an author and is already planning her next book – a tribute to her mother's cooking, but with a modern spin. “For me, writing is a way to leave a legacy. It's a way of saying 'I was here' and that is important to me,” she says, the fire still burning in her eyes.
Asked if her risk-taking days were behind her, she remains coy. “When I was young I took risks; now I'm older I take educated risks,” she says with a laugh. “I'm still the same person, just wiser, more experienced and thankful I'm not working four jobs anymore.”