Hardly do you find a chef who shares equal love and skill for both European and Asian cuisine, much less one who would start two separate restaurants to distinguish both her capabilities.
Then again Chef Isadora Chai isn’t just any chef. Carving her name in French cuisine with Bistro à Table and diversifying her repertoire with modern Malaysian restaurant Antara is, if anything, almost expected of her given her rebellious streak
“Bistro à Table is 80% French, 20% Malaysian and other stuff; Antara is the flip of that. Why I wanted to do Antara is because I sometimes create very radical things that I could never park in Bistro,” she tells matter-of-factly. “So I decided to just open up another restaurant for all my other cooking experiments that aren’t French.”
It is the same ‘just do it’ attitude that saw the pint-sized firecracker of a chef climb the kitchen ranks so steadfastly. Breaking moulds her entire career, she refused to be typecasted into the air-conditioned and slow-paced pastry kitchen where most women chefs end up. When she finally got her wish of being placed in the hot kitchen, she pushed, shoved, and clawed her way through patronising male colleagues and even a few bouts of sexual harassment.
But all that only ignited a bigger flame in her passion for food. We get to know this whisky-drinking, jewellery and clothes-designing, bungee-jumping and immense animal-lover of a truly unconventional chef a little better.
When did your love for food start?
My dad started me cooking when I was 4. He’s a criminal lawyer in Teluk Intan but he would come down to KL on the weekends to see us. Our bonding session was always over food. It brought us together around the table but the kitchen is where I get to truly bond with him.
When did your career in the culinary arts start?
I’ve been in the industry since I was 19. In university, I chose to work in F&B, starting off as a dishwasher. And I always chose restaurants headed by French chefs, that's where I picked up French cooking. Malaysian food comes from my family. My family is full of cooks. We make our own curry powder and acar. I had the best of worlds.
What did your journey entail?
When I first started, they kept trying to put me in the pastry section. You have to be a little tougher in order to get into the big boys’ section so I learnt to push back. I also accept it that as a woman, I’ll have to work much harder than the men to be noticed but if that’s what it takes, I’m willing to do it.
What has it taught you?
I can take care of myself. I like that feeling knowing that I can fend for myself. I call it enhanced survival skills. You get tougher then people take you more seriously, and it gets easier to climb the ranks. I clawed my way into the hot section. I am addicted to the adrenaline.
What’s a day in your life like?
In the morning, I do my own marketing. A lot of my ingredients need to be personally sourced as a lot of my menu supports cottage industries. I choose to do so because then I can control what goes in, but the downside is that they don’t deliver so you have to go collect. Then it’s a nice breakfast. By lunchtime I am here at Antara to make the bases and sauces. I am back in Bistro by 4-ish.
Where do you get inspiration for the innovative dishes at both Bistro and Antara?
I eat out a lot, I travel a lot, I have a lot of friends who are chefs so inpirations are always abound. I won't say I created everything as there are a lot of things inspired by others. It’s a bit of creating and being inspired to innovate someone else’s idea.
What are some sacrifices you've had to make in the course of your career?
Work-life balance is rubbish. There is a lot of sacrifice and I accept it. I’m not married, I have no children. It is a choice – my choice – and I’m happy with it. Being off-kilter and accepting the fact that you’ll always be off-kilter is fine. Nobody has the perfect life. Women also put too much pressure on other women. I enjoy the rush, the ups and downs of this whole process. As long as you accept it, you’ll be in a lot more zen position.
What is your favourite part about being a chef?
What I like about chefs is that they are very direct. They’re also very giving, generous people. We aim to please. When I was in the corporate world, it felt very fake. When you’re not selling something, you’re selling yourself. It's so refreshing when I got into cooking. I can curse at my boss during service but after that, we’re fine. You get to get it off your chest so you don’t harbour any ill feelings after that. Because of that, I became a lot more forthright and transparent about my feelings.
What can't you live without?
My 5 rottweilers! They’re my babies. Two are staying with my mum but at any one time I have 3 roaming the house and I am fostering a cat as well. I also have a turtle. It’s a zoo at home but that’s my constant. I come home and hug them and they absorb my stress and anxiety.
What do you do when you’re not cooking?
I walk my dogs. I spend too much time with my dogs. I design clothes and jewellery. I’m very selfish – I design them for myself so no one else will wear the same thing as me. I write my own manga comic book. One of it I turned into a degustation menu. I’ve also done bungee-jumping, canyon-swinging and this thing called the Mafia Chair where they tie you to a chair and teeter you off the edge of a cliff.
What is your favourite thing about food?
Food is so dynamic and when I talk about creativity, it’s not just about presenting something on a plate and eating it. It’s something that can tell a story. You can have edible fashion, link it to comic books, movies. It’s so dynamic, you can do so much with it. It is literally art that you can eat.
Another woman charting waves in the F&B scene: Nadia Nasimuddin of Lifestyl Projects.