Two celebrity chefs disprove the theory that too many cooks spoil the broth.
I WATCH cooking shows with an obsession bordering on religious fervour. I know the cast and characters, the usual suspects and the cameo players so well, they may as well be imprinted in my brain.
From digesting such a large collection of these shows, I also know that celebrity chefs like to take credit for their work. The word “I” gets lobbed around like a never- ending pingpong match on these shows.
“I made this” or “I came up with that” are all fairly common utterances and, to be honest, you sort of expect these chefs to be that self- important. It’s hard to divest a celebrity chef from what he or she has accomplished and they don’t seem to want to let you forget it either.
Which is why it’s both surprising and refreshing to meet Sherson Lian and Johnny Fua. The hipster chic, heavily- tattooed duo are as far removed from common perceptions of celebrity chefs as the North Pole is from the South Pole.
“I think it’s a rare thing when two chefs are able to give up their sense of ownership to their creation and say ‘ This is ours’. As a chef or someone who creates stuff, I think a lot of times people do it for the sake of that recognition that ‘ I’ created it. But somehow, I guess, with us, we are able to say that we did this,” says Lian about the relationship between him and his comrade- in- arms, Fua.
Lian and Fua are celebrity chefs ( although they loathe the term) who first rose to prominence as the stars of the Asian Food Channel’s ( AFC) Great Dinners Of The World. Now, they both own Hello! by Kitchen Mafia, a four- month- old eatery in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Before that, they helmed Elegantology, a boutique- cum- restaurant in Publika, Kuala Lumpur.
But to really understand how their relationship developed, you have to rewind all the way back to the beginning.
The year was 2003 or 2004 ( neither Lian nor Fua can quite remember) and a 17- or 18- year- old Lian desperately wanted a motorbike. He saw an ad on Motor Trader for a bike that was reasonably priced and called the owner.
“The guy who showed up was cool as hell, with tattoos and this big bike making a whole lot of noise. I was young and naïve, about 17 or 18, and he was such a cool guy, so I bought the bike lah!” Lian reminisces.
The guy turned out to be Fua. Although Fua’s rock star vibe had obviously left an impression on Lian, they didn’t keep in touch or even become friends. Instead, each of them continued along the path they had chosen.
Lian had been involved in his mother’s café business since he was a kid, helping to do prep work like peeling onions and garlic. “As a kid, I hated it lah, same as my other siblings who had to do it as well,” recalls Lian. But he enjoyed meeting and talking to customers and eventually realised the F& B industry was his calling.
Fua, meanwhile, had gone about things in a roundabout fashion. He started out studying architecture, but took on a part- time job as a runner in a restaurant in KL, where he was at the bottom of the totem pole, washing pots and pans and cleaning the kitchen.
“I liked that energy and the teamwork they had in the restauant. Even though they were very busy, they were very happy,” he says.
When the time came for him to further his studies in Perth, he knew he had a big decision to make. He went on to do a number of culinary arts courses and eventually worked his way up to executive chef at the swanky Tanzini restaurant at the GTower Hotel, KL.
Then fate intervened in 2011 when Lian and Fua were reunited. Both had been cast in AFC’s Great Dinners Of The World with fellow chefs Malcolm Goh and Sho Naganuma. Lian recalls meeting Fua again and thinking he looked very familiar. They soon established how they knew each other, and from those tenuous beginnings, a deep friendship emerged.
“We had so much fun together. People thought we knew each other from before, but it was not the case. During that time, we had each other as friends and that was something very, very cool to have that we still have to this day,” says Fua, looking appreciatively at Lian, who flashes him a brilliant smile.
After the AFC show, Lian had a couple of gigs lined up, one of which included pioneering Elegantology. He and Fua were involved in it kneedeep, but once their contract was over, they realised they had done as much as they could.
In fact, Lian says upon reflection, that maybe it wasn’t something he was supposed to do.
After leaving Elegantology, the two took some time out. “When we came out and took a break, I had a lot of time to reflect and think ‘ OK, let me go back to where I came from and let’s see where that goes,’” he says.
And that’s how Hello! came to be. The place has been packed since it opened and Lian and Fua say there is nothing they enjoy more than seeing satisfied customers.
“They ( customers) compliment the place not because it’s Sherson Lian or Johnny Fua’s place, they compli-
ment it because they love the food, the service, the environment, the way the restaurant looks, they just love that. And that makes me feel good,” says Fua.
It’s clear the two want to distance themselves from the “celebrity chef ” sobriquet.
“I don’t like the tag celebrity chef because it’s overrated and it’s just being thrown around. You can ask Johnny, I always call myself a cook,” says Lian.
Lian, though, still has far- reaching celebrity appeal through his many cooking shows. He just finished filming season 16 of 5 Rencah 5 Rasa ( there is already talk of a 17th season!) and will soon begin filming the second season of Family Kitchen, the show that he helms with his mum. Even though his schedule is crazy packed, he says the rest of his spare time is spent in the restaurant.
“Whenever I’m not filming and the place is not closed, we see each other’s face lah,” he says, laughing.
The bond between Lian and Fua is so tight that when asked if they ever get sick of seeing each other all the time, Fua actually looks forlorn – like, properly forlorn. “Actually, we miss each other more,” he says, a genuine hangdog expression in his eyes. When I threaten to burst out laughing, he quickly jumps in and says, “I’m not joking!”
Their closeness and the bond they share have allowed Lian and Fua to veer into potentially inflammatory territory: criticism. The two are upfront about each other’s cooking, often being critical if the other’s dish isn’t quite right.
“It’s in a good way, because we understand this: any dish created by us, would be the best. So I don’t bother what Sherson says about my dish because I know his intention is to bring this dish to another level,” reveals Fua.
The two are now hard at work on their next venture, a high- end supper club to be housed one floor above Hello! and expected to come into fruition in June or July this year.
“The food concept will reflect where Johnny comes from, a more refined take on food that will be sort of his playground,” says Lian, who is about to say more when Fua interrupts and says, “I think I have to correct that.”
At first, it seems as though there has been a miscommunication of some sort and an argument might be brewing, especially as Lian had earlier mentioned that Fua sometimes gets “Hainanese wind” ( impatient or crazy).
But then Fua clears his throat and says, “I think Sherson plays a big part as well. I mean, we have been working together for the past few years and Sherson has grown. He always says he does street food, but I think he is no longer in that category. He travels a lot and that has made him grow a lot.” Fua says all this while looking fondly at Lian, who seems humbled by his response and tries to make light of it by saying, “No lah!”
At the end of the day, you can’t help but get the feeling that these are two people whose relationship has gone from co- stars to friends to business partners to best friends in an almost seamless motion. In life as in work, their philosophy seems to be “We’re stronger together”. As Fua himself says, “I think two chefs work better than one.”
Photo: RAYMOND OOI/ The Star
Fua ( left) and Lian work so well together that they can even criticise each other’s dishes! — Photos: rAyMOnd OOI/ The Star
hello! by Kitchen Mafia is the chefs’ unpretentious neighbourhood restaurant that has been a hit since it opened four months ago.
unlike some celebrity chefs, these lads are still very hands- on in the kitchen.