So much has been said about how Isadora Chai discovered her passion for cooking. At four, Chai was already helping out in the kitchen, and by the time she turned six, she was allowed to switch on the fire by herself. At 10, Chai sold cakes to the mothers at her school, and as a teenager, cooked for friends who came over for proper sit-down dinners.
Things took an opposite turn at 19; Chai went to Australia to study Biochemistry and Biotechnology (her Honours thesis was on stem cell research) but she remained passionate about cooking. When she started working in sales and marketing for a pharmaceutical company in Sydney, she also worked weekends in a restaurant. “It was so much fun that I wanted to do it full-time,” says Chai.
It took what Chai calls near-death experiences to make her realise she should be pursuing her dreams. “I almost died, three times! Once at Bondi Beach where I was dragged in by the undercurrent. Then, I was attacked by a German Shepherd – half my face and my arm were ripped off. After recuperating from that attack in Malaysia and on my flight home to Australia, I got pulmonary embolism; can you believe it!” says Chai.
These experiences made Chai evaluate what she treasured in life and how she wants to be remembered. “It was like the higher powers of the universe trying to tell me something. When you are young, the world is your oyster. But at the end what remains is the legacy you’ve created. When all these happened, I started thinking of what I’ve done with my life – and I haven’t done much! That’s when I realised that life is about having skill sets, identifying it, honing it and improving it so that you can contribute to something.”
There was no turning back for Chai. Her culinary journey began with her offering her services as a “chef for hire” (clients would book her to whip up a feast in their home to entertain guests) and food stylist. Then, at 32, she opened her own restaurant Bistro à Table, which pays homage to modern French comfort food while adopting local elements. On the restaurant’s degustation nights, Chai gets even more experimental with her craft. “I did a Manga degustation night where I even came up with my own mini comic book. Each chapter coincided with the menu. It was such an involved process but so much fun,” says Chai. For a taste of what her degustation nights are like, check out Bistro à Table’s YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/BistroATableMalaysia). Also, mark your calendar: In January 2017, Chai will be doing a Kitchen Jam session in her restaurant with Chef Gaggan Anand, owner of the Bangkok-based Gaggan, which has topped the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for two consecutive years.
As if running one restaurant isn’t hard enough, Chai opened her latest, Antara Restaurant, in Kuala Lumpur in June. “Antara is my interpretation of Malaysian cuisine. The menu – which is MSG-free and made using only real ingredients – is similar to things I would cook at home when I am entertaining my friends. When I think of Malaysian food, I think of home,” says Chai. Already popular at Antara is the Marron lobster Sarawak laksa and the dried scallop popiah that you roll at your own table.
The restaurant, which took Chai three years to realise, is her homage to Malaysian cuisine. “Malaysian food is so interesting and complex, we should be concentrating on it. This is after all our home turf. You get fancy Malaysian restaurants in London and New York, and they pull it off so well. We don’t have that here and we should!” says Chai. “Antara is not for everyone – it is for people who know what they want in their food and will pay for it. It is for those who want quality and freshness. Take our Sarawak laksa for example. We boil 40kg of chicken carcass just to get 20 to 25 bowls. It takes the whole day! So if you want to spoil and reward yourself with food, then Antara is the place for you.”
There’s more on Chai’s plate: She is currently working on an international book contract showcasing Bistro à Table’s degustation dishes to be published July next year. “The book will first roll out overseas. It is like an almanac of my degustation nights – part coffee table book and cookbook,” says Chai.
Remember that legacy Chai wanted? Seems like she’s doing all right in that department.