Interview: Chef Toraik 'T.C.' Chua

November 26, 2017

Slightly over five years ago, Toraik 'T.C.' Chua was pursuing a law degree in Penang; today, he's one of KL's most promising young culinary talents, working as the head chef at Medan Damansara's Stoked after 14 months of sharpening his skills at Copenhagen's Noma.

T.C. is the only Malaysian who's ever been employed for an extended period by Noma, which was ranked Best Restaurant in the World in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 by Restaurant magazine (other Malaysian chefs have completed brief unpaid internships - they're known as stagiaires - at Noma).

Surprisingly, the Kedah-born T.C. confesses he was never interested in cooking until his early twenties; he only enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school's campus in Malaysia because he realised that law was not his calling and he wanted to earn a reliable income.

How did your path lead you from Le Cordon Bleu to Noma?

I was chosen by Le Cordon Bleu to represent them for a Malaysian national chefs team, to represent Malaysia for culinary competitions. Our first competition was in Singapore, where we won silver and bronze medals. That was the first turning point of my life, where I met a few international chefs, including two who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants.

My main goal was to take Malaysia to higher ground. I tried to find out what was the best restaurant in the world at the time. Turns out, it was Noma. I emailed them and received a reply three months later. They said, drop by Copenhagen. Stage with us for 3 months. That was in 2014. By March 2015, I packed my luggage and left for Denmark.

What were your first weeks like at Noma?

It was springtime. I remember my first day; I was very nervous. We were a 17-person batch of interns of 17 nationalities, assisting a team of 25 permanent chefs from all over the world. It was a scary moment for me. I looked at the other interns and had no idea who they were, but from the way they spoke, they were professionally trained. They had worked at three-starred restaurants. One of them was a head chef, and she was opening her own restaurant in Lyon, France. She was there to obtain some inspiration. Another chef was from New York City's Eleven Madison Park. Another chef used to work at elBulli in Spain.

I was intimidated. Did I fit in? I didn't have as much experience.

What do you think led Noma to accept you as an interns?

I had read a lot about stagiaires elsewhere. One of them, from India, was chosen to start at elBulli, and that was a turning point in his career. He dropped an email to Ferran Adria from elBulli, and elBulli replied, "Sure, you can learn from us and start with us, provided you bring us some spices from India."

So I guess some restaurants accept interns from around the world so the restaurants can learn while they teach. With elBulli, they got to play around with Indian spices. I had it in my mind, "OK, maybe Noma wants to learn about Malaysia, Southeast Asia." I still think Southeast Asia has tastier food compared to European countries, thanks to our spices.

Talk us through your internship.

They separated us interns into different sections. Noma was divided into five sections at the time: Cold, Hot, Snacks, Pastry and Production sections. They picked the best among us, one each to join the four main sections. The rest of us stayed at Production, picking herbs. For me, it was quality control. Like, if the herb's bad, you don't take it at all. It's a way to train ourselves.

In my fifth week, I joined the Cold section. We had a 16-course menu for Noma at the time, and each section was in charge of four dishes. I believe I performed well, because usually when you join a section, you only get two to three weeks at that section, then you're back in Production, foraging for different sections, but I stayed on the Cold section until the end of my stagiaire.

I love the Cold Section, because you get to work with fresh seafood. We open the scallops one minute before the guests eat it. Let's say they're having the first course right now, that's the time we open the scallops. Then that's it, we serve it to the guests. You get to play around with fresh ingredients. We had sea urchin coming in every day.

All this seafood, we serve them raw or cook for 10 seconds, that's it. They're freshest at the moment.

On the last day of my stagiaire, I was approached by the head chef, who asked me what my plan was after Noma. I said I would love to work there. I was then verbally employed.

I came back to Malaysia to process my documents, to get a working visa. The visa went through in January 2016, but at that time, Noma was in Sydney for a pop-up, and my visa was only for Denmark, so I joined them after they returned to Copenhagen.

I was ready. They put me in different sections. I was in the Snacks section for my first three months. At that point, they had a few more sections going up. We had the Test Kitchen, Fermentation, Barbecue, Sections One, Two, Three, and Pastry. We also had the Foraging Team and Production, rather a big group.

How different was it, being a full-time employee versus being an intern?

It's a lot different. Out of the 16 items on the menu, you're in charge of one item. The guests are getting a dish directly from you. You have to make sure that the stuff that goes out is perfect. Lunch and dinner, 45 pax. About 90 pax per day, so your item has to be perfect 90 times, every day.

I spent time in the Barbecue Section, Production Section, and then the Juice Section, King Crab Section. Everyone rotates. Every three months they'll have a big shuffle. 

Working at these high-paced restaurants, you work from seven in the morning till midnight. We don't get enough sleep, and people fall sick easily, especially during winter. We get these viruses going around, and not everyone ends up working every day. They foresee that might happen, so they make sure that everyone knows each section well.

What's the most challenging aspect of Noma? What pushed you the hardest?

I would say the unforeseen circumstances. At some point, something goes bad. Let's say the whole batch of oysters dies, and you're having lunch service in an hour. You have one hour to come up with another dish for 45 guests.

It's happened a few times. The duck wasn't good enough, so René (Redzepi, Noma's co-owner) said, we're not gonna put it on the menu. The whole team - not just the Cold section, the whole team - was running around, because we had to create a new dish for the guests in an hour. And our food is very technical. There'll be at least three or four elements on each dish, and out of those elements, each of those easily take another five items to put together. Fermentation, drying, powder, oil.

That's the time that you get pushed as a chef. You come up with something, suggest something. Work fast, work in an organised way. We changed one dish, but that one dish affects the whole team. We might get delayed if the dish isn't complete; it's a domino effect.

At those times, you can see the teamwork.  Everyone does their work, so that the service still runs smoothly. 

Is there anything that would surprise customers about the kitchen at Noma?

Some guests would think that Noma is a very technical kitchen, that we're very disciplined, like a military kitchen. But after they visit the kitchen, we change their minds completely. The kitchen is usually very relaxed. All the chefs are so skilled. 

One time, during winter, we only had 10 stagiaires, and a few decided to quit because winter in Denmark is crazy cold. Some were sick. At one point, we had two stagiaires and 15 chefs for the restaurant, and we still managed to run the restaurant without issues.

We play music, we play Metallica, we pick our own songs and put it on the playlist queue. We chat, we make jokes. We may be quite serious during service, but after service, we're all friends.

Still, when Noma closed this year to relocate with a new concept, I figured that was the time for me to go, since they weren't sure when they were reopening. (Noma is expected to be back in early 2018)

So you spent 14 months altogether in Noma, comprising three months as a stagiaire and 11 months of employment. How did that change you as a chef?

The restaurant changed me through its philosophy. The way they treat their ingredients, the way they plan their menu, the way they create their dishes. There's a purpose to everything on the plate. It's not simply for the sake of being pretty. It affects  the flavours and tells a story. Why are these ingredients together?

Right now, my philosophy is similar to the philosophy in Noma: how to be sustainable, how to support local farmers, to make Malaysia a better place in terms of ingredients and chefs. How do I teach the chefs in my restaurant to create dishes, to work with me?

What challenges have you faced in trying to translate those philosophies in KL?

The only trouble I would say is for people to accept the philosophy. For example, at Noma, they forage for their own herbs, they use local produce, they support their own farmers. The milk they're using is from their own country.

Back to Malaysia, we have our own herbs as well. We have our own cattle, our own milk. But the local perception of local produce can be negative. Some Malaysian customers tend to think, "Where are my truffles, where's my foie gras, where's my salmon?" instead of accepting that the chef tries to support local farmers instead. Try our fresh squid from Malaysia instead.

A lot of work has been done to create a salad of local ulam. We contact local farmers and certain Orang Asli groups for the produce. Each leaf and herb is cooked or prepared differently.

We make our own miso, our own fish sauce, which will be on the menu sooner or later. Turmeric leaves are also underrated; we make turmeric oil that has an explosion of flavours.

We've fermented our own tapai and had it on the menu as a special for dessert - tapai puree with milk ice cream and rose oil. It's so Malaysian. It's rice, it's fermented, and it takes skill to ferment. It has to be at the right temperature, and it'll have all the flavours you need.

We need more restaurants doing this, so that guests will be more open to it. Good food doesn't have to be caviar. Support local ingredients.

Which farms do you enjoy working with in Malaysia?

There's an organic farm in Cameron Highlands called Hatiku Agrikultur. They're so passionate. Mr. Fung (Chee Siang), the farmer, he can tell you anything about herbs. He has all the knowledge, how to grow them, how to take care of them. He's got no problems growing something for us as well. I can give him a seed, ask him to grow it, and he'll say, no problem. Because he wants to try the herb as well. So when he gets a bunch of herbs, he'll start supplying to me.

This is way beyond making money. A farmer who cares about making money probably won't entertain me or any small restaurants. He'll grow romaine lettuce or something that's mainstream, that will sell to the big crowds. But Mr. Fung is so passionate about different herbs and plants.

I've also been using fresh duck from Semenyih; the quality is quite nice. For fish, I get it from a supplier who sources for me from Selayang market, whatever's freshest for the day. They know what they're doing and I trust them.

You're now the head chef at Stoked. But what's next for you?

In February, I'm moving to Stockholm to work at another restaurant, Frantzen, for two months. Along the way, I'll probably drop by Copenhagen and work in Noma for awhile - not formally employed, just to hang out with my friends. By June, I should be back in Malaysia and will stay with Stoked for a couple of months before we start a new project (under the Vintry Group).

How do you define yourself as a chef at this point?

French-trained, Nordic-inspired, but working with Malaysian flavours. My goal is to bring Malaysia up, to let people recognise our country in terms of our ingredients, our food, our culture, everything.