When Johnny Fua reflects on life’s twists and turns that led him to become a notable chef, his memory pivots to a conversation with his father. More than two decades ago, Johnny was at a crossroads: Would he complete his studies in architecture and accept a safe, stable career in a corporate office, or would he take a risk and forge a hugely different path in the heat and clamour of a restaurant kitchen?
“What made me decide to follow my heart was when my dad told me: ‘Whatever you do, you have to do it right. I believe you can do it.’ That gave me the encouragement to do what I love, to not think about money and security,” Johnny explains. “I’m thankful to my father, because now I honestly love what I do – even to this day, I still love it.”
Johnny’s many fans would be happy to thank Dad too. In 2015, Johnny and his fellow Malaysian chef Sherson Lian co-founded Hello by Kitchen Mafia, a casual suburban restaurant tucked amid a calm enclave of decades-old apartments, a half-hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. It became an instant smash, with a menu of comfort food that took cues from both East and West, hopscotching from herbal duck noodles to tortillas topped with house-cured salmon and pesto sauce.
This year marks another milestone for Johnny. He and Sherson recently launched their second restaurant, Makhan by Kitchen Mafia, which playfully couples classic British fare (fish and chips with mushy peas, bangers and mash, steak pies) with Indian favourites (fish tikka, beef vindaloo, pulao rice). “We both love Indian food. We wanted to challenge ourselves, to prove that two ethnic Chinese men could prepare the real Indian curries,” Johnny says.
That drive for authentic cooking was partly inspired by Johnny’s grandmother, whom he enjoyed following to the market when he was growing up in the southern state of Malacca. “She would handpick vegetables and other produce. I’d watch her doing her stuff. Every day she cooked for the family, and she did it so well and whole-heartedly. There were no formal recipes or procedures, no blenders or machines, but everything came out perfect. That’s what I took from her. If you want to cook, you have to cook from the heart,” Johnny insists.
Still, Johnny never imagined he’d be a chef until much later, when he came to Kuala Lumpur to pursue architectural courses. After class, he’d work part-time as a food runner at a restaurant, where he became enraptured with the mechanics of a kitchen. “What caught me was the vibe, the movement – when everyone works, they’re so focused,” Johnny enthuses. “I like teamwork and togetherness. You create dishes together, you sweat together.”
Johnny was hooked. He abandoned architecture and hunted for jobs at restaurants, especially Italian ones with an established reputation, working his way up from menial tasks like cleaning and slicing food.
By 2010, after years of honing his culinary skills across Kuala Lumpur and the northern island of Penang, Johnny had become a full-fledged professional who seized the attention of KL’s GTower Hotel, which hired him as its executive chef.
Life moved at an increasingly brisk pace: Johnny and Sherson were then selected through their industry connections to star in Asian Food Channel productions like Great Dinners Of The World and Reality Bites, which turned both men into prominent local restaurant personalities.
“Our opportunities increased with those shows,” Johnny acknowledges. Both he and Sherson shared stellar chemistry, which spurred them to jointly form the platform of Kitchen Mafia (a moniker that matches the cutting-edge style of the two tattooed chefs).
“Kitchen Mafia is meant to be a reliable brand – we won’t just open restaurants but we can work on everything: Management, food trucks, catering, lifestyle activities, even fun stuff like a YouTube channel for possible future projects,” Johnny says.
At both Hello and Makhan, Johnny and Sherson emphasise a collaborative spirit, with crew members combining their talents to construct and flawlessly execute recipes. “Everything has to be spot-on and close to perfect,” Johnny insists. “I don’t want customers to say there are hits and misses. There should be only hits.”
Turning 45 this year, Johnny turns contemplative when he talks about what lies ahead. “I recently told Sherson that maybe in five years, I might want to retire from restaurants. Maybe I’ll run a four-room boutique hotel where I’ll cook for fun. But then we went back to our restaurant, and I realised I still can’t stop what I’m doing. I love hanging out with my team. They need me, but I need them too.”