Inspired to cook

YOU might have seen her digging into crab curry in one of the recent AFC Channel’s snippets, or as a judge with very strong opinions on Food Wars Asia.

Once you get to know her better, ­you realise that Isadora Chai is a woman passionate about her work and willing to go the distance to excel in it.

The 38–year–old is not only a ­talented chef and ­restauranter, but also a ­private chef and ­restaurant consultant.

Ironically, no one would have ever imagined Chai, the daughter of prominent lawyers, choosing a career in the culinary industry.

“I have been cooking since I was four years old,” said Chai. “Funnily enough, at home, I was cooking mainly English–style food.

“My parents lived in the UK for a long time before they returned to ­Malaysia to be with their parents. I grew up in a weird ­household where I was fed lobster Thermidor, beef Wellington, and spaghetti bolognaise.

“My dad cooked some Chinese dishes, but it was always western food at home.”

Chai would soon get a chance to try out her cooking skills in a new environment.

“I left home for studies when I was 14. I was an Asean scholar, and I did my O–levels and A–levels in Singapore.”

Chai eventually went to university in Sydney, Australia, working in restaurant kitchens in between her studies, including at L’Etoile Restaurant, which was opened by My Kitchen Rules judge Manu Feildel.

“I started off as a dishwasher at age 19, and slowly climbed the ladder to become breakfast chef, line cook, pastry chef, and then sous chef,” Chai recalled.

She eventually graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biotechnology and ­biochemistry, and a bachelor of commerce degree in marketing at the ­University of New South Wales.

“When I... entered the ­corporate world, I still enjoyed cooking, and so I worked in ­restaurants on the weekends, which were my days off. That was really fun.”

She said she was lucky to have worked with nurturing chefs who were willing to show her the ropes.

“Even when I was exhausted, I was energised when the weekend came,” said Chai.

However, she soon realised that she was not cut out for the corporate world. The then-24-year-old decided that being a chef was what she really wanted to do.

During her time in Sydney, she had learned classic French cooking, and decided to head to Brittany in France to perfect her skills.

There, she worked at many ­restaurants, including the two-Michelin-star restaurant La Fontaine aux Perles in Rennes.

In 2010, Chai returned to Kuala Lumpur.

“My dad had passed away by then, and I decided to spend some time with mum,” she said.

Chai was a restaurant and kitchen consultant before ­opening her own restaurant, Bistro a ­Table, in Petaling Jaya, in 2011.

“I broke all the rules by opening the first French restaurant in the suburbia,” she said.

Despite being a French chef, Chai said: “If I was cooking at home, I would cook Malaysian dishes. A lot of my customers who became my friends would come to my home, and eat my Malaysian cooking and they loved it.

“It came to a point that they said this was ‘quite sedap’, and asked if I could cater.”

At that time, Chai did not want to risk having her French cuisine–trained staff at Bistro a Table ­suddenly switch to preparing Asian–style dishes. She decided to do the catering herself, which became a burden.

She said: “[For] ­selfish reasons, I decided to open a new restaurant, and train a new team. If I needed catering for Asian food, I would just go to the second restaurant.”

Her second restaurant, Antara, opened in Lorong Raja Chulan in Kuala Lumpur last year, serving up modern Malaysian cuisine.

Chai uses ­expensive ­ingredients such as Maine lobster and foie gras in her Asian dishes, to make it stand out from the rest.

At Antara, we were able to sample her pie tee, which has eel and foie gras. We found it rich, creamy and luxurious.

Despite all her achievements, Chai hates to be called a celebrity chef, and would prefer people talk about her food instead.

She will also be ­releasing a cookbook of her creations aimed at the ­international market in the near future.