Stacked above the shelves of Thomas Keller cookbooks are toy robots and boxes of cheap bubblegum. On the wall across her old family photos hangs a giant poster of The Police’s Synchronicity II. Piled on the table that divides the living room and dining space are a few dozen cranberry tins and a big huggable-sized jar of potato chips.
The things that fill the Malaysian chef’s house add up to more than just a wackadoo design aesthetic. They reflect who she is: unapologetically fun, creative, and accessible. They are the inspirations that the 29-year-old chooses to surround herself with as she wakes up, cooks, and entertains people through her pop-up dining and catering service Root Cellar.
“I get inspiration from so many things: travel, listening to music, art, reading – I would listen to an album and I would try to put what I feel on the plate; or how Van Gogh’s Starry Night would lead me thinking up a themed meal, like what did he like to eat? What does this painting emote in me that I can make into a dish? Don’t make me sound like a ponce, but it does happen. It’s weird. But it happens.”
Her approach may be unconventional and twee, but she has no delusions over the amount of hard graft needed to succeed. At 9 years old, when Jamie Oliver was just a lisping English bloke who could throw together a decent baked fish, she knew she wanted to be in the kitchen professionally. It was an ambition affirmed at 17 when she worked in a tapas bar owned by an aunt’s friend.
“The turning point came soon after the first week, when I’d come back with my fingers blistered, my back bent over for six hours doing prep work. ‘Ma! I just peeled 12 kilos of prawns,’ and I said it with this big smile on my face. That was when my mom went – okay, this girl is for real. Let’s send you to culinary school.”
What followed next was a whirlwind of opportunities given, taken, and dropped: she went to college and received her diploma, travelled to Germany for a six-month internship with two-star Michelin restaurant Die Quadriga, spent three years being a saucier in Singapore at Novus restaurant, went to Switzerland to complete her degree, and became a head chef at a gastropub in Changkat Bukit Bintang.
But it was her home-baking venture, Yay! Cake, and her subsequent underground sandwich club Yay! Sammich that developed her reputation in Kuala Lumpur. She was even given the chance to open a gourmet sandwich bar, Crumbs, in the trendy neighbourhood of Bangsar. It closed down in a year.
Unfazed, she carried on with Yay! Sammich and Yay! Cake, and spent a year becoming the head cook for the bespoke breakfast catering service, the Fancy Breakfast Club. In 2015, she resumed control of her culinary journey by forming Root Cellar. Though the company mainly does catering and supplies to cafés, Root Cellar is known for its pop-ups where Basira prepares dishes that reflect her playful personality: Pom Chicken and Dinosaur Egg (pomegranate molasses grilled chicken legs atop a bed of buttered rice pilaf, served with half a 'dinosaur egg’ – essentially a hard-boiled, coffee-infused egg – a dollop of yogurt and “a bunch of tasty things”); foot-long Sambal Tempeh sandwiches; and Tender Me Brisket, a sandwich stuffed with six-hour braised beef brisket.
“With Root Cellar, I wanted to bring the food you find in fine-dining restaurants to everyday folk. I come from a family that doesn’t do fine-dining, so this is my way of letting them know what I’ve learned and what I can do,” she said.
“I pride on using proper old-school Escoffier-like techniques; I can whip up a crème brulee with my eyes closed, but I’ll do it with a twist. So for instance, I’ll do a cheese tart with a pulut hitam filling, or a German bundt cake that’s moist for weeks and use limau nipis.”
Despite having certain crowd favourites, Basira prides herself on not having a fixed menu – an unpredictable approach that has its pros and cons. On the one hand, she’s never bored as she would be in a restaurant, churning out the same dishes everyday. On the other, it’s always a challenge to devise a daily menu based on the morning’s pickings.
Not that she would have liked it any other way. “I’m very organic in the way I work. People ask me if there’s an end game, and I can honestly say that no, I don’t have one. I don’t want to open a retail space; I did that once, and one of the things I’m super thankful for now is that I haven’t woken up thinking, ‘Damn, I have to go to work today.’”
For now, she might not know where her journey will lead her to, but when she looks as happy now as she did when she was 17, cooking what she loves, and delighting people, you can’t help but feel that this girl will do just fine.
For the recipe of Basira's O'Tannenbaum cake, flip to Going Places December 2015 Chef's Cut section.