KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 — Fresh prawns from Sabah, beautiful specimens. Cooked medium, never well done. The heads of the crustaceans slowly cooked to release their precious oils full of umami. The shells sautéed with chillies for a sambal base, before whipping in the aromatic oil after the fashion of a classic Béarnaise sauce — but so much better.
What you have here is the basic sambal prawn elevated to the realms of fine dining.
This is one of the many creations coming out of the busy but efficiently run kitchen at Eat and Cook, an omakase style restaurant focusing on Malaysian flavours. Founded by Lee Zhe Xi and Soh Yong Zhi, Eat and Cook is a passion project for the duo.
Lee, 24, had always wanted to work as a chef; from a part time stint at a noodle stall in his kampung to graduating from Berjaya University College as a certified and professional chef many years later. Soh, also 24, shares the same alma mater; he specialises in Japanese cuisine, having previously worked with a Japanese chef.
The talented pair care strongly about sharing good food and food experiences with others. Lee explains, “The name of our restaurant sums up what we’re about. You enter with an appetite to eat and our chefs will decide what to cook for you — right in front of you. We believe food presents us with a special opportunity to bond, interact and create memories in a significant way.”
Given the upcoming Malaysia Day, it’s worth noting that the Eat and Cook approach to adapting omakase cuisine with local ingredients and flavours is one born out of love and pride for the country, as Lee shares:
“With the spotlight on fresh seasonal ingredients from the heart of our homeland, we make magic out of inventive flavours. We bring Malaysian cuisine to the table, crafted with high standards for a sensational culinary journey that goes beyond just food. It is an emotional experience, one that also offers a glimpse into our heritage.”
Take their budu grilled fish, for instance. Featuring fresh local bream wrapped with kombu and grilled on Taiping charcoal, the fish is served with a pungent and savoury cream made from budu, the fermented anchovy sauce popular in the East Coast.
A couple more delicate elements — liquid nitrogen pickled onions and sago pearls cooked in fish bone broth — and you have a dish that’s exemplary of molecular gastronomy yet full of distinctively recognisable Malaysian flavours.
While the menu seems to proclaim haute cuisine, the restaurant had a more humble beginning. When Eat and Cook first started, operations were basic, with only six seats per dinner session.
Lee recalls, “The entire restaurant was not more than 100 square feet. We started with just the two of us. We’d buy the ingredients early in the morning or at midnight after closing, then only do we decide what to cook for the next day.”
The food that Lee and Soh make leans heavily to their own roots. Be it the desired flavour profile or their inherent personalities, every dish can be counted to highlight the elements that the duo observe in their daily lives.
That came naturally, growing the menu organically and figuring out on a day by day basis — again the very essence of omakase — what to cook. Running the business was a different matter altogether.
“To be honest, both of us started with a minimal knowledge about market research as well as business planning,” Lee admits. “We just want to keep cooking and keep our passion burning during the pandemic, to cook something that we love to serve our customers.”
A protracted period of "no dine-in allowed" would prove a tough challenge for any restaurant; for one that revolves around omakase — where the chef’s creativity is celebrated and the intimacy of the seating arrangement in a class of its own — this could easily be insurmountable.
Here’s where the aforementioned chef’s creativity comes in again, albeit redirected to suit the demands at hand.
Lee says, “We tried many menus during this lockdown, from comfort food inspired by local flavours to a mystery box menu. Now we have a home series menu so you can cook the meal at home with the recipe and ingredients that we have prepared. It’s simple with easy cooking steps.”
Imagine recreating Teochew steamed scallops, one of Chef Lee’s signature omakase creations, in your own kitchen. Or his deconstructed asam laksa... without the noodles! Perhaps finish your decadent meal with grilled pineapple with chilli soy sauce, coconut ice cream and salted duck egg crumble?
Perhaps the ambience at home isn’t quite the same as the restaurant’s. Perhaps your plating isn’t quite as refined. Given the circumstances, you’d congratulate yourself just for the attempt alone... and the reward of a luxurious meal after all that cooking!
Moving forward, Lee doesn’t plan to shake things up too much. Instead of drastic pivots and knee-jerk reactions, he believes in strengthening the restaurant’s fundamentals: “We will stick with our concept and identity, and create more dining experiences for our diners. Do the best at what we are good at. Tell the world who we are.”
In a world where some restaurants “show” with their social media friendly creations while others “tell” with aggressive promotions or strong word of mouth, Eat and Cook is that rare entity that manages both.
Lee sums it up perfectly: “We just want to tell our customers our story through the food that we serve. It’s just the story of the food and the chef.”
Of course, with an F&B Show and Tell, the diners must first show up, experience the food and then tell others about it. As dining restrictions ease, the future looks promising for Eat and Cook.
Eat and Cook
H-6-1, Pusat Perdagangan Bandar, Jalan Persiaran Jalil 1, Bukit Jalil, KL
Open daily (except Mon closed) 11am-7pm
Tel: 03-9765 6898
* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.