Sometimes all you need to boost your career, is someone to inspire you. Marie Claire worked with four industry experts – a celebrity chef, a fashion designer, a fitness Youtuber, and a marketing director – and paired them up with four of our readers who aspire to gain an insight into their world. After a week of the mentorship programme, we sat down for a chat with Isadora Chai and Safiyyah Khairul about their experience and achievements.
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Isadora Chai, Celebrity Chef and owner of Antara Restaurant and Bistro à Table
You graduated in Biochemistry, Biotechnology and Marketing with an honours thesis in stem cell research. How did this journey into culinary arts come about?
I’ve been cooking since I was four. I’ve been selling cakes to my classmates’ parents since I was eight. My dad is a criminal lawyer. For our father-daughter bonding time, it would be either (a) be in the kitchen or (b) be in the hardware store. And I did both. During university instead of working as a checkout chick, I would work in restaurants. I started out as a dishwasher when I was 19, slowly progressed to breakfast chef – that was the worst job – and then junior chef. When I graduated from university I was working in pharmaceuticals, research, and marketing. During that time I was working as a chef on the weekends – it was my form of escapism, working in a kitchen because I was so happy doing it. I hated working my corporate job, so I decided to quit. Once my head chef knew that I could show a lot more commitment I got promoted very fast. I wasn’t rude to my colleagues, I didn’t have an attitude problem, so I had a good rapport with my colleagues back then. It was very fast up the ladder after that.
Having said that, do you think an education in culinary arts is necessary?
No, I think it’s a waste of time and money, especially in Malaysia. Private colleges are targeting middle income and upper-middle income families that can afford, say, RM36,000 a year on school fees. To make parents feel justified spending so much money, they promise something stupid, like job guarantee, or once you graduate you become a sous chef straight away. And that’s bullshit, because you always have to start from the bottom. I would have to say the public culinary schools here are better.
Tell us about the difference in concept between Bistro à Table and Antara Restaurant.
Bistro à Table is 80 percent French, 20 percent Malaysian influenced. Our service at Bistro is a lot more casual, I don’t like it to be too overbearing. What you’re really paying for here is food, not anything else. Instead of calling it fine dining, I’m calling it good dining, because really you’re here to eat. Now. Antara is almost a reverse of the 80-20 rule. It’s identifiably Malaysian, but my modernised take on Anatara’s food includes some things that I will adopt from my French training, like salt-baked fish. Traditionally anything salt-baked in Asia is usually rock salt, flour, water – but I do a French-Italian version. I’ve tweaked a lot of the techniques that I would have originally used in French for Malaysian food. The service is attentive from afar – not aloof, but it’s still tip top.
Is this your first time taking on a mentee?
No, of course not. Culinary chefs from France are sent over here from culinary universities. They do ‘stage’. My stagiaires would be with me for about six months.
Did you used to have a mentor?
Not someone that kicked my ass as a chef, but as an apprentice with a lot of other chefs. Nothing like a godfather or a godmother that looks over me through the whole time, but when I was younger I chose certain senior chefs I wanted to work with. I would ‘stage’ with a lot of people. During your apprenticeship you meet apprentices – people who started at my age, and we’ve all gone up the ranks together, eventually going our separate ways. Now they’re Michelin restaurant chefs all over the world in New York, Singapore, and Bangkok. We’re kind of each other’s support system.