Options: The Kita Food Festival 2022 is wrapping up shortly. How do you think it contributed to the food industry?
Leisa Tyler: We started 2022 dubious about being able to look farther afield than Singapore, owing to Covid-19 and travel restrictions, but we lucked out and were able to add a few regional chefs. I hope the contributions are all positive. This year, we started Horizons and Conversations & Ideas. Horizons is the programme where we take a bunch of dedicated young chefs and put them through a series of experiences they wouldn’t otherwise get access to — meeting farmers and porcelain producers, trying new foods and learning from experts. Conversations & Ideas is our full day of talks and panel discussions by regional leaders in the industry. These are the two events that chef Darren Teoh and my Kita partner set out to do when we first established the festival. We are very proud and humbled to bring them to fruition and hope they will help make positive changes.
For Conversations & Ideas, what are some of the topics that will be laid bare?
There will be personal stories about building businesses and brands, as well as the failures and successes along the way. We will talk about trends and how they translate in Southeast Asia, and organise panel discussions asking some tough but pertinent questions the industry is facing such as: How do we diplomatically and financially manage no-shows, especially for casual restaurants? How do we challenge — and change — the perception that luxury foods must be imported? Food security and what does it mean to support local farmers and producers, and what in turn does that do for local economies and sustainability? What role does the media play in building a restaurant’s reputation? Is hosting media a fair practice? We don’t have all or necessarily any of the answers but we hope that by providing a platform for dialogue, we can explore issues as a community and find solutions.
How did your own interest in food begin?
I was a freelance reporter living in Bangkok in the early Noughties and spent a lot of time travelling in China and India. Being immersed in three extraordinary food countries, each very diverse, helped develop my palate. I was then asked to start writing about food and began hanging out with chefs and people who knew a thing or two about the subject. I was invited to join the board of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2005. This exposed me to a whole new world of restaurants and fine dining. I was with them in various capacities for 10 years and was treated to some extraordinary restaurant and food experiences, like the time the late Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse cooked a four-hands dinner for about 20 of us at the latter’s restaurant at The Dorchester in London.
What do you think will be the major F&B trends to look out for?
Casual, affordable dining, definitely … but that is also a casualty of the war and mounting inflation. In places like Singapore, I see issues like food security at the forefront of government policies, post-pandemic. I think a lot of countries were caught with their pants down, being over-reliant on food imports when Covid-19 hit. Supporting local farmers and local producers benefits everyone and everything except airlines and shipping companies. It’s difficult to know whether we will return to fleeting trips around the world just to eat — I highly suspect not. Maybe that indicates a shift towards slower, more meaningful travel.
Your personal list of restaurant recommendations must be awe-inspiring. Regionally, where would you send people?
Kikunoi in Kyoto; Bukhara in Delhi; Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap — all amazing, once-in-a- lifetime destination restaurants in the region. I really love RyuGin in Hong Kong and Singapore’s Waku Ghin and Odette, but you need very deep pockets. Marguerite in Singapore also really impressed me with their very thoughtful and perfectly executed meal that was delicious and surprising. Its chef bagged a star within a year of opening — totally deserving and indicative of how remarkable it is. I’d also send people to Soi Polo Fried Chicken in Bangkok, Tek Sen in Penang, and Putra Minang in Singapore … all cheap, cheerful and very good food. I ate at Pica in Bali a few weeks ago, where Cristian Encina totally nailed every dish — and it’s easy on the wallet. If you want to try it, Encina will cook at the Else Hotel’s Raw Kitchen Hall in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 27.
What’s on your 2023 Eat List?
I’m heading home to Tasmania for Christmas and summer — so, cold oysters with lemon, pepper and a glass of bubbly, please. I am dying to try Masaaki’s Sushi in the Huon Valley. In spring next year, it will be Italy. I prefer exploring family trattorias and village markets
And who are you putting your money on for Malaysia’s Michelin Star revelation?
I’m pretty certain Dewakan will bag a star or two. I think Michelin is going to have their hands full trying to pinpoint the best local eateries and street food stalls in Malaysia … Oh, I mean, Penang? The controversy!
What are you reading right now?
I finished reading Love and Death in Bali by early German writer and traveller Vicki Baum last night. It is a lovely illustration of village life, mysticism and the vastly different belief systems between the Balinese and the Dutch colonial rulers. I just picked up The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, which is about the tribulations of the East India Company during the British Raj. I have been reading The Trial, a series of short stories by Franz Kafka, on and off for a while. Kafka can be hard going when world politics are in turmoil — life mimics fiction.
What are you listening to right now?
Paulo Conte and Adriano Celentano because I am dreaming of Italy.
What’s your own neighbourhood’s food scene like?
I live in George Town, so the world is my oyster. Next door is The Thai Shop, which does superb Sai Ua and Isaan sausages; a few doors away is Laksalicious, which serves various styles of laksa in all their deliciousness; in the opposite direction is a nasi padang café at the corner of the International Hotel. It’s not super authentic but it is ridiculously good — and ridiculously busy. I also love Saigon House, run by a Vietnamese lady, on Jalan Sri Bahari. My latest greatest find is Bottega on Muntri Street; its gnocchi is perfectly fluffy and the piadizza makes the perfect lunch sandwich.
Lastly, what’s your idea of a perfect weekend?
Gardening, a walk in the forest or on the beach, a good book and great food paired with conversation and a nice bottle of wine.
This article first appeared on Nov 14, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.