‘I LIKE a good challenge. That’s how you improve. I don’t believe in staying in a comfort zone. To grow, I need to feel uncomfortable. Just think of the caterpillar… the discomfort it goes through before it becomes a butterfly!’
So begins Chef Yenni Law, passion lacing her voice, as I attempt to furtively stuff another delicious piece of her ‘sambal-ed’ cockles into my mouth as elegantly as I can muster.
Meanwhile, my other hand is clumsily trying to manouvre my pen as I jot down her pearls of wisdom.
The chef, restaurateur and author is on a roll. And all because I happened to ask her which three famous people she would invite if she were hosting a dinner party.
Eyes dancing, the F&B veteran of more than 20 years, which also includes stints in England and Spain, cites the late “Pope of French cooking”, Chef Paul Bocuse, and another Gallic culinary maestro, Chef Daniel Boulud, as her guests of choice. The third guest is... the Queen of England!
“You want to cook for those illustrious chefs? A chef cooking for chefs? That’s tough!” I exclaim in response to her list. Forget that there’s also British royalty there, I am more intrigued by the idea of what a chef can possibly serve the ultimate royalty of the culinary kingdom. And that’s how it all started. But that’s Yenni for you. Always up for a challenge.
Despite her slight physique (she’s fondly known as the skinny chef), there’s nothing timid about this self-confessed introvert. After all, if she were a shrinking violet, she’d never have agreed to undertake a book project that required her to put everything together in the craziest of time period. And had she not gone headlong into the challenge like a bull, she would have missed out on the opportunity to head to the “Oscars” of the cookbook world, the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2018, in Yantai, China this May.
All the hard work — from conceptualisation to realisation — has been been duly rewarded as Yenni has been nominated to represent Malaysia under the Woman Chef category for her book, Her World Cookbook 2017 The Rice Pot, which contains over 40 rice recipes that uses rice at the core of every creation.
This book is Yenni’s second outing as an author; her first book, Meatology, was published slightly over two years ago as part of the MPH Masterclass series of cookbooks.
Road to the ‘Oscars’
The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau, honours the best food and wine books, printed or digital, in addition to food television. Books from more than 205 countries participate in these prestigious awards, the only international competition of the sector. It’s free and open to all languages.
“Her World approached me to write this book at the end of January last year when I was judging product brands with them,” recalls Yenni, the chef and owner of Meatology Restaurant and Bar located along the famed night spot strip of Lorong Rahim Kajai 14 in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL.
“They told me that they were coming out with their annual cookbook for 2017 and asked whether I’d be interested to come onboard. I was informed that it would involve creating 50 recipes from rice.”
She agreed, excited at the prospect of a new challenge. “At first it didn’t quite hit me that this would be a huge project. To do any rice dish is simple but to think of which angle to tackle from so that it’s interesting for the reader was the challenging bit.”
After signing on the dotted line, it was time to start work. But Yenni recalls: “I wasn’t able to start on time. It was the Chinese New Year period and just after the new year, my grandmother passed away. I had to return to my hometown in Taiping to pay my respects.”
She took a week off, which ate into her schedule. The team was due to start shooting on March 10.
“I did some calculations. I had 50 recipes. I counted backwards as to how I was going to schedule everything. The timeline was definitely narrow for me,” recalls Yenni.
Despite her apprehensions, there was no way she was going to bail. “I was excited about this book. It has always been my lifelong dream to do a book. And this would be my second. I felt really blessed to be given the opoortunity,” says the Taiping-born chef who left tranquil Taiping for the heady bustle of Kuala Lumpur in 1996 — where she has remained.
Counting backwards, Yenni surmised that she’d have to do at least seven to 10 recipes a day. That would be her guideline. “Then I came out with the outline. I had to decide what dishes I wanted to do. Then I broke it all down. I needed to figure out the ingredients and write them all out. The methods would follow later. Everything was done within a week and then it was onto the photo shoot.”
The shoot was carried out over a period of 10 days. And in between shoots, Yenni would write up the recipes and think about what to prepare for the following day’s shoot. And so it went on every day.
Having grown up in a home where rice numbered among the staples, Yenni was on familiar ground.
“And then all these years of being a chef, I’ve come across many types of rice — red rice, forbiddden rice (black glutinous rice often used to make bubur pulut) Thai fragrant rice, brown rice, Basmathi rice (the short grain, medium grain and long grain), and the most recent one, the fortified rice. For the book, I had to creatively incorporate rice, from starters to appetisers; from main course right to dessert.”
Excitedly, Yenni, whose background lies in western cooking, reaches for a copy of the book in front of me. It’s the piece de resistance among the slew of dishes that she has kindly prepared for my photographer and I to tuck into, which also includes her fabulous yee sang creation.
Her eyes dancing, she leafs through the pages and points out different recipe creations, from basic rice crepes to shrimp fritters with red rice, to a mouthwatering avocado, chocolate and red rice drink.
Shares Yenni: “I tried to tweak things and be creative. Of course there were days when I drew a blank. But I didn’t panic. I just have a ‘few sticks’ (of cigarettes) and some coffee... you can’t force ideas. The ideas normally came when I was either cooking in the kitchen or serving customers. This was how I compiled everything in those seven days.”
As to her favourite dish in the book? “The rice crepe popiah!” Yenni blurts out, grinning widely. “The dish is actually my mum’s recipe. I remember when she used to make it for us, I’d be jumping with joy. But the way she made it was very elaborate — separating the ingredients and then putting them together etc. Basically the recipe for the fillings is mum’s; the crepe’s is mine.”
Love in a pot
Despite having been in the industry for so long, beginning in the humblest of kitchens, pursuing her craft beyond our waters (“I needed to go overseas if I wanted to be different and do things differently.”), before finally being able to be her own boss today, Yenni continues to find joy in what she does.
“Because there’s passion. And when you have the passion, there’s always joy in what you do. You don’t just fall out of love with your passion overnight.”
The culinary landscape has certainly changed from those days when she first stepped foot into the industry and as Yenni concedes, it’s very competitive now.
To keep on top, she scours various mediums, including social media, subscribing to many “closed” groups whose community comprise people passionate about food. Just like her. “They share recipes, I share recipes. I see what’s trending and that’s how I get ideas too. Then I take it to my kitchen,” says Yenni.
On the topic of kitchen, I couldn’t resist asking her if she’s anything like that ‘shouty’ Brit chef, Gordon Ramsay and whether her kitchen is as hellish as his. She chuckles before answering mischievously: “I used to be like Ramsay! In fact, I was already ‘Ramsay’ before that show even came out! Oh yeah, I used to shout, throw pans... yups, I scared my chefs!”
Continuing, Yenni admits to having been “kinda wild” during her 20s but has since mellowed considerably.
“These days I like to motivate my chefs, not scare them,” confides Yenni, adding: “And how you mould people isn’t by telling them what YOU want. You mould by asking what THEY want. What they see themselves as. What is it that I can give them in return for what they give me.”
Her expression earnest, she continues: “And eventually you’ll realise that most times, it’s not about money. It’s about achievements. A lot of times, people ultimately just want to be happy with their jobs. They want companionship. That’s how I approach my kitchen.”
You mean you don’t get angry anymore? Again that hearty chuckle. “Well, if I have to repeat myself more than three times and things are still not done correctly, then I’ll get angry!” replies the youthful-looking 43-year-old.
“In the kitchen every second is deadline. Because customers are waiting. I have one chef, a graduate, and another two kitchen hands. When it’s really busy, it’s very stressful in the kitchen. I try to keep my temper down these days. There’s no point in shouting at anyone because they don’t actually hear you by that point!”
A path carved
As we happily tuck into her delectable offerings, Yenni regales us with stories of her early years. It seems that when she was young, she knew that she loved cooking, but hadn’t forseen that it would end up being her career path.
Smiling, she recalls: “When I was younger, mum would always chase me out of the kitchen when it came to the cooking. But when it came to preparations, I was always needed. I had to do all the peeling, cutting, shelling. I hated all that!”
Grinning broadly, she continues: “One of the things I hated was peeling prawns. I remember mum used to bring prawns back from the market every Saturday. She’d dump half a kilogramme of prawns on me to peel. I hated getting poked and couldn’t stand the sliminess and smell, which I couldn’t seem to wash off easily. So what I often did was I’d peel about half or three quarters and then the balance I’d wrap together with the shells and throw them away. One time my mum found out and she caned me!”
Yenni credits her mother, a primary-school teacher, for triggering her love for the kitchen.
“My mum loved cooking. She used to buy lots of recipe books and learnt from these books. Then she’d try the recipes out on the family. Her children — my two brothers and I — were big eaters. We ate a lot because all of us were active in sports. I did karate, while one brother was a swimmer, and the other, a tennis player. Makan time was always a joyous affair.”
Yenni’s favourite food by her mother was a dish with French beans and cured radish. Smiling, she recalls: “Mum would sautee them with garlic and baby shrimps. And there’ll be a bit of gravy. It was simple and nice and I’d have it with rice. We’d eat sparingly because food wasn’t abundant for us. From small, we learnt to share and portion out properly.”
A pause ensues as Yenni revels in her recollection and prompts us to “finish up the food”! Casting my eyes outside, I see the darkening canvas, reminding me that several hours have passed since we stepped foot into Meatology restaurant.
So what next, I ask, signalling the conclusion to what has been an inspiring evening.
That smile again and Yenni replies: “There’s so much more to explore. When I started on this journey, my parents were horrified. They lamented why I couldn’t just get a decent job like a secretary or teacher! I remember I said ‘no’, I love being in the kitchen. The kitchen was like my sanctuary because to be honest, I didn’t really like meeting people back then. It’s still not my favourite part of the job now... but I’m getting there!”
Well, I’m guessing Yenni needs to “get there” quick because she might just need to do some mega miggling when she sashays up the podium in Yantai to collect her award for her labour of love. All the best, chef!