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Like his mentor Yotam Ottolenghi, Ang is on a mission to prove that healthy food can be exciting and delicious.

Photography SooPhye

A lifetime of unforgettable memories has made Ang Ling Chee the chef he is today.

Of these, one stands out: Seeking his fortune in London during the mid-2000s, Ling answered an advertisement for a midnight baker. The job’s graveyard hours suited his purpose as he was taking English classes in the morning. His nerves deserted him, however, when he showed up at the advertiser’s premises in Notting Hill; the beautiful restaurant seemed completely out of his league. Before he could turn and flee, a tall man stepped out with a cup of coffee – meant for Ling. It was the restaurant’s owner, Yotam Ottolenghi.

Ling flunked the interview big time, unsurprisingly, he says. “They asked me to put on an apron and tested me out in the kitchen,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what a muffin was then.” Nevertheless, the owner’s hospitality left such a deep impression that he called back three days later to ask for a second chance.

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Ling went on to become a core member of Ottolenghi’s team and helped him expand his restaurant chain across London. “Years after my interview, I asked Yotam what he saw in me. He said I demonstrated persistence, the hunger to learn and the willingness to work hard.”


HUMBLE BEGINNINGS 

Life could have turned out very differently for Ling, who grew up in a small Malaysian village in Bukit Mertajam town in Penang state. At the age of 10, he worked at a noodle stall after school to earn pocket money. The early exposure sparked his interest in the food business, but when Ling broached his desire to join a cooking school after completing secondary education, “you should have heard the silence at the family dinner table,” he describes ruefully. “Cooking was not seen as a proper job for a man.”

The dutiful Asian son enrolled in an engineering course and worked as a technical engineer for a computer subcontractor. But after three years, the 25-year-old longed for more. He sold off his possessions and left for the United Kingdom, where he cleaned fryers and grills at McDonald’s by night to pay for rent and school fees.

“It was not easy, but I loved it. At school, I had friends from Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, and many other countries. Having lived in a small village all my life, London seemed so vibrant and multicultural.”

EXCITING NEW START

Months later, meeting Ottolenghi opened the door to another exciting world. “From making pastries and cakes – we did a lot of macaroons – to working in the hot kitchen, it was a great place to train as a chef and future restaurant owner,” he recalls. Here, he also developed a passion for the vegetable-focused cooking that his sifu is famous for. “Yotam always emphasised that cooking begins with studying and understanding an ingredient’s behaviour. You have to respect the ingredients.”

Though Ling frequently credits Ottolenghi for being a generous teacher, there is no denying the Malaysian’s obvious talent. Ottolenghi frequently picked his brain to devise new recipes for his restaurant. “Yotam liked to refresh his menu to keep things exciting,” he says. Ling did so well that his employer sponsored his enrolment into a culinary arts programme at Hammersmith & West London College so that he could join the team as a permanent staff (a formal certificate is a prerequisite to obtaining a working visa).

After spending nearly 10 years in the United Kingdom, Ling was ready for a change. Not speaking a word of Russian, he accepted an offer to consult for Correas, one of Russia’s biggest Western fine-dining restaurant chains. A two-week stint stretched to two years, during which he trained Correas’ huge stable of chefs from more than 40 outlets.

With his pedigree, Ling could have gone anywhere, but for his next move, he chose to join his wife – an English-language teacher he met in London – in Japan. After a two-year break to look after their newborn twins, he ran a popular Western healthy-eating concept restaurant in Osaka.

FULL CIRCLE

Then in 2018, the dice of fate rolled again. His cousin, Ewen Lim, a successful entrepreneur and health enthusiast, had a vision for popularising healthy eating in Malaysia and needed a creative partner. Who else would fit the bill?

In retrospect, Ling’s return to Malaysia has a lot to do with timing. “This may come as a surprise to fans, but back in the day, it was an uphill struggle for Ottolenghi to popularise his vegetable-heavy, small-plates dining concept in London. Many nights when we faced an empty restaurant at dinner time, I would ask him worriedly, ‘What are we going to do?’ Yotam advised me to be patient and give our customers time to accept our food.”

And by 2018, the world had changed. Healthy eating was coming into the mainstream, and more importantly, chefs were seen as arbiters of change.

Parklife’s menu is mostly plant-based but the restaurant has well-executed meat dishes too

PROUDLY PLANT-BASED

There’s no restaurant quite like Parklife in Kuala Lumpur. Vegetables are front and centre: platters of colourful salads displayed along the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows catch your eye even before you walk into the bright, buzzy space that recalls the relaxed vibe of London Hyde Park. Eighty percent of its menu is plant-based, though there are well-executed meat-based dishes (try the lamb kofta with tzatziki sauce and grilled scallops with parsley oil) and decadent desserts (including vegan and gluten-free options) to tempt you. “We want to cater to all Malaysians,” says Ling. 

A convergence of Ling’s Mediteranean, Middle Eastern and European influences, the menu emphasises his imaginative use of spices and optimal cooking methods to bring out the underrated pleasures of fresh produce. Think roasted brinjals with Italian herbs and tahini sauce; shiitake and oyster mushrooms with barley and parmesan; butternut squash with pomegranate molasses and nuts.

These bold, unexpected pairings produce complex, full-bodied flavours that have led to great acclaim, numerous offers to open other branches, and walk-ins from personalities Ling never dreamed of meeting in person. “I had to pinch myself when Marina Mahathir and Jimmy Choo came in,” he says.

However, glowing reviews and celebrity fans are not how Ling measures his success. Going beyond restaurant walls, Parklife has sought out like-minded partners to collaborate on workshops and programmes to inspire healthy lifestyles, with more to come, and the restaurant sources nearly 80% of its ingredients locally. These practices go back to the chef-owner’s personal philosophy as a chef: Ling feels a deep responsibility to educate the public as well as to feed them well. And the simplest way to do it? “By proving healthy food doesn’t have to be dull.”

Sounds like Ling intends to start a quiet revolution, just as his mentor did years ago.

Cook Like A Chef

Chef Ling shares his recipe for Roasted Eggplant with Tahini, Garden Medley Cherry Tomatoes, Sumac and Herbs

Ingredients:

To roast eggplant

  • 2kg eggplant
  • 50g olive oil
  • 2g salt
  • 2g coarse ground black pepper

To roast Garden Medley cherry tomatoes

  • 700g Garden Medley cherry tomatoes
  • 2g dried oregano
  • 14g olive oil
  • 5g salt
  • 2g coarse ground black pepper

To make tahini sauce

  • 80g tahini paste (Jordanian or any brand is fine)
  • 25g fresh lemon juice
  • 80ml lukewarm water
  • 2g garlic (minced)
  • 2g salt
  • 1g coarse ground pepper

Mixed herbs

  • 7g basil leaves
  • 7g English parsley leaves
  • 7g dill leaves

Other ingredients

  • 10g pistachios
  • 5g sumac
  • 10g olive oil for finishing garnish

Method:

Roasted Eggplant
1. Preheat oven to 230°C.
2. Peel the eggplant in alternating strips and cut into 1cm thickness.
3. Line baking tray with baking paper and brush with olive oil. Place sliced eggplant on the baking sheet, brush more olive oil on the top side of the eggplant and season with salt and pepper.
4. Roast eggplant in oven for 15 minutes (or longer, if required) until golden brown.

Tahini Sauce
1. Assemble all ingredients in a food processor or blender until sauce is creamy and ivory-coloured. Scrape the sides of the processor periodically during processing. If using a blender, you may need to use a long-handled spoon to break up the thick part of the sauce once every 30 seconds to keep it from clogging your blender blades.
2. After a few minutes of blending, sauce will turn into a rich, smooth paste. If mixture is too thick, slowly add more water until it reaches its consistency. You may need quite a bit of water depending on the thickness of your tahini paste.

Roasted Garden Medley Cherry Tomatoes
1. Preheat oven to 170°C.

Toss cherry tomatoes with thyme and olive oil on a baking sheet; season with salt and pepper.
3. Roast for 10 minutes, tossing once, until tomatoes are blistered and beginning to burst.

Toasted Pistachios
1. Preheat oven to 175°C.
2. Spread the pistachios evenly on a rimmed cookie sheet.
3. Place in the oven for about 6-8 minutes. They will become very fragrant when they are done.

Plating:
1. Arrange roasted eggplants on the serving platter.
2. Drizzle tahini sauce over eggplant.
3. Arrange roasted cherry tomatoes on eggplant.
4. Add mixed herbs, chopped pistachios and sumac. Drizzle with olive oil before serving.