In most households, food fuels the festive season. It follows, then, that to get to the heart of Christmas celebrations, you have to speak to the chefs—and taste their seasonal creations. We spoke to five expatriate cooks about Christmas at home and in Ma
Adapted from Christmas with the chefs by Ian Johnston and Anis Taufik, Expatriate Lifestyle December 2013
In most households, food fuels the festive season. It follows, then, that to get to the heart of Christmas celebrations, you have to speak to the chefs—and taste their seasonal creations. We spoke to five expatriate chefs about Christmas at home and in Malaysia and what they would cook to represent their national traditions.
If Miguel Hokama were a cuisine, there’s no doubt he’d be fusion. Born in Peru to a Japanese father and a Peruvian mother, he has lived in Argentina and Japan and now finds himself comfortably in Malaysia. ‘Home’ for Miguel is not a straightforward concept; in fact, ‘home’ now “is where I feel welcome,” he says. “It’s where I can be with friends.” Indeed home now is Malaysia, where Miguel has been for four years, working first at hip café The Bee and now at Spanish-owned Pisco Bar on KL’s Jalan Mesui.
“In Peru, we celebrate with family and friends at home,” the long-time cook explains. “As Christians there is a part of religion to our celebrations but for us it is more about family, about welcoming everyone.” Miguel exudes that welcoming spirit, and he’s not fazed by having to recreate a Peruvian Christmas more than 19,000 kilometres from his family back in South America.
Belgian Evert Onderbeke is the quiet, reserved cook behind Petaling Jaya European restaurant Soleil. It’s a long way from Ghent in Flanders, but that seems to suit the man who made his culinary name in Malaysia at the former High Tide in central Kuala Lumpur.
For a chef, big celebrations are no time to party. “I don’t really celebrate Christmas in Malaysia,” Evert says plainly, highlighting a lack of family on this side of the world. “And then I’m usually working as well,” he says, resigned now to service in the kitchen while diners enjoy themselves in the restaurant. But Evert is matter of fact about the seemingly sad life of a cook at Christmas. “That’s our life, I’m used to it. That’s our line; when people celebrate, we are serving them. I’m okay with it. That’s what we do. We celebrate when we have time.”
Kelly Delaney is not the typical expatriate in Malaysia. Having grown up here in the eighties, the chef behind Bangsar restaurant Madisons is a graduate of ISKL. But that doesn’t stop Kelly describing herself as a “true Aussie”, and indeed the mother of five-year-old Madison after whom the restaurant is named has spent time honing her trade across Australia.
“This year we close the restaurant for two days over Christmas, so it’s just family time. It’ll be nice and relaxed and we'll have the family round.” And though there may be no Aussie beach this year, there will be presents for the kids, and plenty of food for the adults.
Jean-Philippe Guiard’s eyes light up. “Oysters!” he says. “Everyone has oysters—and scallops, and many other things.” Remembering Christmas traditions in his hometown of Cognac, southwestern France has brought back the child in the chef de cuisine of Lafite at Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur. “We are close to the Atlantic,” he explains, “so we have so much seafood; Christmas is the time for seafood.” It’s a far cry from overdone turkey, roast potatoes and gravy—and Jean-Philippe’s traditional Christmas lunch menu available at Lafite shows considerable French finesse.
Chef Paolo Pala’s passion for cooking radiates off him as he talks about the love of his life. A native of Sardinia, Italy, Paolo explains that cooking comes to him effortlessly—like walking or breathing—and has always been instinctive. “In my region, we helped each other cook. Even if you’re a little baby, as long as you can reach the table and make some filling for ravioli, that’s okay. They never told you, but we watched—that’s how we learned. No one told me how to cook.”
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