Heritage Meets Innovation: Chef Lee Zhe Xi's Spin on Chinese New Year Menu
Following UNRESERVED’s inspiring conversations with some of Malaysia’s most original and disruptive talents, meet The Original Chef, Lee Zhe Xi of Eat and Cook. Like the rest of The Originals––Tintoy Chuo, Nadira Ilana, Dr Rajiv Bhanot and Penny Ng––Lee is constantly innovating his craft.
Being a chef is not just a career for him, but it’s a type of lifestyle. In this conversation, he talks about his passion for cooking, the importance of local ingredients, and how Chinese New Year is more than just a celebration to him. We also threw him a challenge of designing a unique CNY dinner for fellow Originals Nadira Ilana and Dr Rajiv Bhanot.
When Chef Lee grew up, his grandmother was an important figure in his life. Besides being fed by her almost every day, three times a day, he fondly remembers helping her in the kitchen in the back of the house. It’s how he discovered his passion for cooking, and he knew that after his SPMs he wanted to study something culinary.
Having graduated from Berjaya University as a certified and professional chef, Chef Lee joined a hotel, like so many other graduates, and became a griller in the Prime restaurant at Le Meridien hotel. After that experience he ventured on this own. And with a strong vision on local ingredients and heritage. He teamed up with Chef Yong Zhi and started Eat and Cook.
Eat and Cook is all about the ingredients. Before curating a menu, he would start with sourcing local and the fresh ingredients around Malaysia. His dishes are inspired by the stories, and availability, of local ingredients.
“I visited Pantai Remis to get some fresh river prawn. We visited Kuantan too to see how they catch squids. Through this process, we can get to know where the ingredient came from and study the ingredients.” He continued about the freshness of ikan tongkol (mackerel tuna) in Malaysia. “Just like a species of tuna that has always been done fried and raised with curry, but here, we smoke it up and we eat it semi-raw. Similar to Tuna Tataki.”
Chinese New Year
For Chef Lee, Chinese New Year is all about food and family. “No one can get me during Chinese New Year other than my family. I don’t really like going out with friends to hang out or go drinking outside. I would just spend my time with my family during Chinese New Year because it’s very important for me.”
Every year, he would team up with his aunt––another chef in the family––to discuss and plan the reunion menu. “I come from a Hakka family on my father’s side, so it’s super traditional. My grandfather would always want steamed fish, prawn, and some duck dishes to be served. And my aunt would try to apply some traditional method of cooking from what my grandmother taught her.” According to him, the meaning of fish refers to a Chinese word, Nian Nian You Yu, which means you will always have extra money or a lot of balance in your bank account. While the word Haa (ha ha siew) in Cantonese means you will be laughing throughout the whole year.
While on his mother’s side, the menu centres around modernity. “My grandparents are more open minded. We don’t only do Chinese New Year food, sometimes we grill and barbecue.” Adding on to his family’s open menu, other options include smoked fish, tapas style, grilled corn, and guacamole. Due to their Baba Nyonya’s heritage, they would produce their own Nian Gao––his favourite––by frying or battering it. Sometimes, they even steamed it with coconut. The texture and flavourful taste make him really enjoy the dessert. Yee Sang is a favourite too. “When we do the Lou Sang, like tossing up the salad, everyone will give their best wishes to each other.”
The CNY Reunion Dinner Challenge
With that, UNRESERVED threw him a challenge of preparing five Chinese New Year dishes, but with his own personal twist. And either cook or pair some of the dishes with one of The Glenlivet whiskies. As an additional pressure we invited The Original Filmmaker Nadira Ilana and The Original Innovator Dr. Rajiv Bhanot, to put the gastronomic experience to the test.
Watch the video here to see how Chef Lee seamlessly fuses his heritage with his own vision to create some culinary magic.
Lee Zhe Xi is an original chef and one of UNRESERVED’s The Originals.
This series is brought to you by The Glenlivet