KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 5 — In 2002, Mohammad Izauni left his hometown of Kedah at age 16.
He only had RM130 in his pocket, and a desire to find a new life in Kuala Lumpur.
He began life in the city with no family, no friends, and no job.
Today, Mohammad, or ‘Chef John’, serves as a head chef in eat X cafe in Sentul, leading a team of young trainees in the Dignity Children Foundation programme.
Specialising in traditional Malay dishes like nasi kerabu and nasi dagang, Mohammad has put his personal touch to the cafe’s menu.
Mohammad told Malay Mail that his values were what kept him sane during his early life.
“I learned that to be successful in anything you have to work hard, don’t give up and never be afraid to ask.” the chef said.
Life in KL, wanting to be a soldier before becoming a chef
Mohammad spent the first six months of Kuala Lumpur homeless, hopping from one odd job to another.
It was the chase for a job that drove Mohammad forward, nothing else mattered.
“Back then as long as I had a job, I would be fine sleeping on the streets,” he said.
“But it was really tough, sometimes you’d wake up and find your money robbed and your belongings stolen.” After spending a year working as a gas station attendant and working at a market, Izauni was able to afford himself a rented room.
With more savings in his pocket, Mohammad began to think about a job that would bring him something more than money, fulfilment.
Initially, Mohammad was ready to join the armed forces as a soldier, seeking a life of adventure.
However, after talking to some of his friends and mentors he was quickly discouraged from joining the service.
Mohammad remembered his enjoyment of cooking for his family and friends back in Kedah at age 12, thus he started working in the food and beverage industry.
From washing the dishes to eventually getting behind the stove, Mohammad acquired many skills and traditional recipes from fellow chefs.
Mohammad began work in the F&B in 2007, slowly working his way around kitchens in many restaurants in the city.
Among the cooking styles he learned were western, French, Italian, Japanese, and fast food.
It was through sharing recipes with his fellow Kelantanese colleagues that Mohammad learned how to make nasi kerabu and nasi dagang.
Upon joining the Chef’s Association of Malaysia, he worked in high-class five-star Malay restaurants semi-professionally.
He was also able to participate in Masterchef and live cooking shows on TV3.
Mohammad had come a long way from being a homeless job hopper, achieving skills and working in places he’d never imagined.
But he still wasn’t content.
“Perhaps I was different from other chefs, but I felt uneasy climbing up the culinary ladder,” he explained.
“I wanted to cook to give people joy, not to earn awards or titles.” The chef wanted to share the knowledge he had gained.
Teaching the next generations of chefs
Mohammad first heard of eat X cafe (previously known as Project B) through the recommendation of an association friend.
His friend praised the uniqueness of the food served and Mohammad was curious.
Eventually, he joined eat X cafe in 2016 and continues to work as a head chef.
Eat X Cafe serves as one of the enterprises of the Dignity for Children Foundation, an NGO providing education and opportunities to urban poor children in KL.
The cafe’s signature dishes have been the nasi kerabu and nasi dagang, both recipes created by Dignity CEO, Petrina Shee and the team.
Other highlights of the menu include the chicken chop and pasta varieties.
Mohammad prefers the learning environment compared to the competitive heat of a five-star kitchen.
Through working with underprivileged young adults in the kitchen, Mohammad has found his true calling.
“I have found that sharing my knowledge and experiences is what truly makes me satisfied with my work.” the chef said.
“Being humble in your work will teach you a lot, I want to make sure the younger chefs know more than I did when I started out.”