Options: Congratulations on Beta KL being the only new restaurant in Malaysia to be awarded a Michelin star. How does it feel to join the exalted league of chefs and establishments?
Raymond Tham: I am super excited and happy. I was just asking myself this morning when I woke up if it was all a dream.
Were you expecting to be awarded a star at all, though?
No, no. I did not expect it at all, to be honest. This is mainly because I have told — and keep telling — my team that we must just cook with love and passion. We, as chefs, should not be doing it for accolades.
Did you always love cooking and food?
Yes, ever since I was very young. I must have been about six or seven years old. I remember exploring my grandma’s backyard garden and my memories of growing up always include spending time with my grandma and mum in the kitchen. I used to also love watching television cooking shows like Yan Can Cook with Martin Yan or Wok With Yan by Stephen Yan back then. I would be experimenting in the kitchen immediately after. In fact, I nearly burned down our house once, as I had decided to try steaming a dish when I was eight. I prepared the meal and forgot about it, leaving it on the hob and happily going off to bathe. Luckily, a catastrophe didn’t happen!
What was your favourite meal or thing to eat while growing up?
My favourite meals always featured my grandma’s cooking while growing up in Port Dickson. Grandma was Cantonese but lived among a predominantly Hakka community. One simple dish of hers, which I remember with much fondness, is a peanut and lotus root soup slowly boiled over a charcoal fire. There was also her kau yoke, or steamed pork with taro.
What was your original childhood ambition?
I have always wanted to be a cook … to feed people. This has never changed.
Celebrity chefs have made the industry appear super glamorous yet everyone who has even dabbled in it knows it’s hard graft. What advice would you give to younger people who dream of achieving success in the F&B industry?
Be persistent, work hard, stay grounded and remain humble. I always try to see how my team and I can improve in all aspects.
What are you reading right now?
A publication by one of my idols. It is The Aesthetics of Work, [Taiwanese chef] André Chiang’s new book. It was my recent birthday present from business partners who visited [his restaurant] RAW in Taipei recently.
What are you listening to right now?
Music by Mayday, a Taiwanese group that is sometimes referred to as The Beatles of the Chinese-speaking world.
You’ve been to some extraordinary destinations of late, including going on safari to the Masai Mara. What’s your 2024 travel list looking like?
Hopefully to Central America. I have been to Peru, Argentina and Chile before and it was eye-opening for me as I discovered so many new ingredients that I had never seen before while exploring their marketplaces. Ones was huacatay, a type of black mint with a distinctive flavour. I have never come across huacatay in Malaysia although my friends say you can now find them in Dubai, in the many Peruvian restaurants there. I mustn’t forget all those wonderful Andean potatoes either and, of course, choclo or corn in all colours and textures and served in a mind-boggling array of cooking styles, including one that was crispy, almost like roasted peanuts. I’d read that there are about 55 different varieties of corn in Peru!
Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
It would be one where there is nothing on the agenda, no meetings and where I am free to just do whatever I feel like on that day, preferably eating good street food or whatever it is that I’m craving. My favourite hawker dishes are kai see hor fun — I would always go to the famous Guang Ji Ho Fun in Jalan San Peng; the night-time wantan mee at Pudu Market; and any of the banana leaf places in Bangsar. Not the well-known names in Telawi, mind you, but the smaller, lesser-known joints behind Jalan Maarof … only because I used to live in that area and it feels friendly and familiar to me.
This article first appeared on Nov 27, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.