INDEFATIGABLE. That best describes Chef Wan, or Datuk Redzuawan Ismail, the professional chef, television host, food critic, author, actor, entrepreneur, cultural ambassador, and motivational speaker.
Chef Wan is the Asian Food Channel (AFC)’s resident chef. At 52, he has hosted a string of international TV shows, and is still tirelessly putting Malaysian cuisine and the country in the international spotlight. In his new series Best Wan, which debuts on AFC in June 2010, Chef Wan travels around Malaysia sampling and cooking food from the different regions while delving into local history and culture. He’s very proud of the fact that the director of Best Wan also worked on Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef and Nigella Lawson’s cooking shows.
Chef Wan has won several awards for the gourmet food books he has written. In 2009, he received the Best TV Celebrity Chef award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in France.
Chef Wan cooking during the Eat! Vancouver event in 2006 (Pic by Roland Tanglao @ Flickr)
There was one time when Chef Wan eschewed food and fasted for peace in Malaysia. That was when racial tensions were stoked over a severed cow’s head and the proposed relocation of a Hindu temple to a predominantly Muslim area.
In an interview on 13 Jan 2010 at his home in Kuala Lumpur, the Singapore-born Chef Wan tells The Nut Graph about the beginnings of his creative and entrepreneurial streaks as the eldest of seven children.
TNG: Can you trace your ancestry?
My maternal grandmother was Peranakan from Singapore. My great-grandfather was Japanese. He came to Singapore during World War II.
My father’s side is Indonesian. My great-grandfather came from Pulau Bengkalis, and my great-grandmother is Javanese. My dad’s family settled in Malacca.
My parents married in 1957. My dad was working in the [British] Royal Air Force in Singapore, and my mother was also working there at the Naafi [Navy, Army and Air Force Institute], the shop at the air force base which sold all kinds of British goods.
I was three when we moved to Kuala Lumpur. My father joined the Royal Malaysian Air Force and we lived at the Sungai Besi base.
I’m blessed to have a family where one side has Chinese blood from Singapore. On holidays there as a child, I enjoyed the modernity of the city. On my father’s side in Malacca, I could enjoy the Malay kampung environment.
What is your favourite childhood memory?
Selling kuih on the air force base. My father was a lance corporal earning 160 ringgit a month with seven children to raise. To earn more money, my mother made nyonya kuih and I would help her sell it.
At age seven, I went all over the barracks selling kuih. And believe me, I can sell ice to Eskimos. I had many competitors, anak-anak askar lain yang jual kuih, but mine was the best and always sold quickly. Because I had good PR with everyone. I was almost like a butler to some of them. I also helped them to wash clothes, shine their shoes, or buy cigarettes for the abang-abang askar. They would give me five or 10 sen for running an errand.
Chef Wan with his parents Ismail Md Nor and Noraini Abdullah, both 77,
during a Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration (Pic courtesy of Chef Wan)
Growing up in military barracks, were you able to have friends of different races?
I had a lot of Chinese [Malaysian] friends at school. And I think because I have Chinese blood in me, I liked business, because I was selling kuih. I find that when you mix with different races, it challenges you to do better. When you hang out with the same type of people, you don’t learn as much.
I don’t like the idea of segregated schools — budak Cina pergi sekolah Cina, budak India pergi sekolah India. Why can’t we learn together? We can learn each other’s [mother tongue].
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with most as a Malaysian?
I struggle with trying to get my ideas across to the authorities when selling this country. I wish people would see that there are so many opportunities out there which we’re not using.
When they first saw my proposal for Best Wan, they were unsure if it would work. So I went ahead and made it with my own money. I haven’t got paid yet, it’s my sacrifice to my country. But I’m confident it will be a great series. [Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr] Ng Yen Yen said, “I can’t believe you have so many ideas.” The ministry is more receptive to new ideas now.
What is the most beautiful thing about Malaysia?
Our unique racial mix. We come from everywhere throughout the world. No country in the world has such a wide diversity of people living together. And it is expanding, like with my daughter’s marriage to an English [national]. We are constantly evolving. As a small country, we have so much to offer. Even within one ethnic group there is diversity. Think about our regional Malay food. The best Malaysian cuisine lies in the rumah makcik-makcik kampung. And it is different in every state.
As a cultural ambassador, how do you feel about the state of the country today?
The problems are caused by the way politics is handled, and does not reflect the people’s spirit. That’s why in the coming election, a lot of us have to think seriously about who we are and how to move forward. Our power is in our vote. Any country always has political instability, more in some countries, less in others. It’s also healthy to have an opposition, because [those in power] cannot rule the place just like that, can they? Somebody’s got to make noise.
But for me, this does not stop me from selling the country. That is my job.
With his children Serina and Mohd Nazri (Pic courtesy of Chef Wan)
What I’m more concerned about is the deterioration of people’s human character. Kes buang anak, kes anak pukul mak bapak. That is worse! When people have no heart, no love in them, and they do hideous things to their children, or pour acid on their families, commit murder — are they devils or what? This is dangerous. As for politicians, they can fight in Parliament and we have the power of the vote, but the deterioration of people’s nature — how do we handle that?
What kind of Malaysia would you want for yourself and future generations?
I like a society that is hardworking, full of talented people who challenge themselves. People who love the country and who want to create a more loving and caring society. If we lose our culture, we lose our bangsa and negara. When you lose your foundations, other powers will come in. That’s why the country cannot be a country where everybody only thinks for themselves. It has to be a country where everything is fair.
I want everybody to be the same because we call ourselves Malaysian. There is no such thing about a superpower race because we are one country. Akan datang, kalau prime minister Cina, Cinalah. Kalau India, Indialah. The public decides. For me it’s simple, the best [individual] wins. If you are lousy, we bring you down. If you are corrupted, we bring you down. Because we’re not stupid anymore.
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