De­li­cious duet

Two celebrity chefs dis­prove the the­ory that too many cooks spoil the broth.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By ABI­RAMI DU­RAI star2@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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