Eat & Cook, a fine-dining restaurant based in Bukit Jalil, serves fresh local food in omakase style
LOCAL restaurant Eat and Cook in Kuala Lumpur recently won the prestigious American Express One to Watch Award for 2022. The restaurant was chosen by the organizers of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in partnership with its regional experts, as part of an award that aims to celebrate gastronomic excellence , innovation and potential. theSun spoke to Lee Zhe Xi, one half of the team behind the restaurant, about his journey in Eat and Cook, and how its quick expansion has seen it named the continent’s most promising restaurant.
Lee shared that he had always wanted to be a chef since he was 10 years old. He would help his grandmother in the kitchen prepping and cooking together. His grandmother and his parents, taught him to value food as more than something that fills the stomach, but as a gesture of love. After graduating from Berjaya University as a certified and professional chef, he seized the opportunity to work with masters of the fine dining scene, and I’ve been cooking ever since.
When asked when and how did the idea of Eat and Cook first came about, Lee had a lot to say.
“Every chef has the dream to open a restaurant and the same goes for me. I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant that represent my roots as a Malaysian.
“My partner Soh Yong Zhi and I lost our jobs at the beginning of the pandemic. We did not want to wait around so we decided that we would open a restaurant together as quickly as possible.
“The name of our restaurant sums up what we’re about. When you want to EAT, then we are here to COOK for you. So, we are Eat and Cook. We want our guests to leave their expectations at the door and let themselves be surprised.
“We believe food presents us with a special opportunity to bond, interact and create memories in a significant way. We want to take you on a deliciously enjoyable journey to places you haven’t been, creating a shared experience with loved ones.
“We use our best local produce to create our foods and present our guests with a menu consisting of our Malaysian cultures, flavors and memories. This is why we called ourselves an omakase for the local tongue.”
Lee’s biggest inspiration to open Eat and Cook came from the uniqueness of Malaysian culture and ingredients. He wanted to elevate the Malaysian dining scene and bring Malaysian flavors and dishes to the next level.
He and his partner were also inspired by Japanese and Taiwanese culture. He mentioned that he loved the way chefs cook in front of guests so they get the chance to see how dishes are prepared in the kitchen. That is also the main reason why they chose an omakase concept, allowing guests the chance to see how dishes are prepared in the kitchen.
Lee explained further explained some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome at the beginning of their journey.
“Sourcing the ingredients was the most challenging aspect. We work so hard to get the ingredients from all around Malaysia so we can turn a spotlight on fresh seasonal ingredients.
“We developed relationships with market traders and fishermen so that we could be sure we were getting the best-available Malaysian produce. Now I go to the market every night after service so I know I can buy the best products for the restaurant.
“We also had limited funds, so we had to be creative in finding a venue. Our first site was outside the city in a mall, where there were no other restaurants. The space was just 300 square feet. As the rent was not very much – just RM450 per week – we were able to test our ideas to see if they would work.”
When asked what he thought wa the greatest misconception about Malaysian cuisine, Lee responded: “Malaysian cuisine is not only about curries and spices. Malaysian cuisine reflects Malaysia’s multiculturalism. It is a cuisine for Malaysians and is built upon the flavors we grew up with.
“For me, Malaysian cuisine shows the diverse nature of the country and the many races who identify as Malaysian. We also have access to some of the best produce in the world – the slipper lobsters from Sabah are absolutely delicious.”
Success didn’t come easy. Lee shared that their first site was in a mall outside the city, where there were no other restaurants. People said they were crazy for trying to build a restaurant in an area which has no history of restaurants, but they were confident that they could make it work. “We only had room for six seats after all. Fortunately, we became popular very quickly. We were able to move to a permanent, bigger, more central site in 2021 where we can now host 30 guests.”
Acknowledging the award, Lee said: “I was stunned when I was told that we are the 2022 recipient. It brought me to reflect on all the hard work we’ve put into the restaurant this past year. I was just surprised and overjoyed to hear the news. I actually missed the email from 50 Best over the Lunar New Year period; I was just glad I was not too late by the time I responded.”
Chef Lee explains his future plan to elevate the dining experience in Malaysia and bring Malaysian flavors and dishes to the next level and to inspire the next generation of young passionate chefs with their own crazy ideas and help to create more crazy restaurants like Eat and Cook.
When asked what is his advice to anyone considering to open a restaurant, he said, “be ready to make sacrifices, work hard and enjoy the journey.”
He also mentioned that the biggest key to success is to be brave enough to take on new challenges.