Chef Dato Ismail Ahmad (more popularly known as Chef Ismail) is a very sociable and passionate man who believes in old fashion traditional values, and whose first love is traditional Malaysian food. As one of Malaysia’s top chefs he travels a lot as ambassador of Malaysian food and hosts several popular cooking shows over the years. Recently, Top 10 of Malaysia catches up with the affable and easy-going renowned chef at Restoran Rebung, his latest restaurant in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
Chef Ismail’s love for flavor first budded when he was a kid at Kampung Chengkau Ulu, Negeri Sembilan. “My grandparents, my sister and I lived together in Negeri Sembilan while my parents worked in Singapore. I was brought up well by my strict but loving grandmother. She was the one who instilled discipline and hygiene in us and always told us to appreciate food. She was a strong example of good family and community values,” Chef Ismail reminisces jovially. “We ate 4 meals a day together at fixed times and I never missed a single meal. I learned about spices, herbs and fresh produce and developed a passion for cooking from my grandmother and my surroundings which had lots of farms, vegetation and orchards nearby.”
As Chef Ismail continues speaking, it became clear that almost every single person in his family taught him in one way or rather about food or the finer side of life.
“People like my grand uncle, Tun Haji Abduk Malek, who was the Governor of Malacca then, and my uncle, Datuk Ahmad Jabil, who was previously the Director of Forestry Department, Malaysia were my greatest influencers during my boyhood. They exposed me to the affluent side of life during the post-colonial era. I had a taste of luxurious cars, motorcades, fine dining, fine textiles, silverware, chinaware as well as fine furniture and carpets,” reveals Chef Ismail.
“My mother always had a different menu to bring back from Singapore. She introduced me to (then) unfamiliar treats like nasi briyani, nasi minyak, kurma (cashew curry), fruit cakes and more. My uncle Datuk Ahmad Jabil, who is also a great cook, introduced me to Chinese dining and street foods. His late wife, Datin Maimun on the other hand introduced ingredients and foreign flavors and such as the Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket chicken pies and ice creams. Both my aunt and uncle showed me the flavors of life. Datin Maluna, wife of Datuk Dr. P.S. Nathan and mother of my good friend, Malini, exposed me to Indian cuisine with her many great dishes and I also learnt much about Indian food and its many ingredients. One such dish is her ‘Pepper fish curry’, her specialty.”
Chef Ismail underwent formal training in culinary arts in ITM (now UITM), after which he worked with several hotels such as Hilton and Cititel, as well in KFC’s industrial kitchen. His television breakthrough came after working as an Executive Chef at Restaurant Yasmin. He started getting offers, one after the other to host cooking shows on television. From then onwards there was no looking back as he was soon invited to accompany delegations to promote Malaysian food overseas in the 1980s until today. Chef Ismail has cooperated with MATRADE, MIDA, the Malaysian Tourism Department and its agencies and Malaysian Embassies to introduce Malaysian food at international events abroad through the years. He has visited United States, Japan, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa and is known as ‘Malaysian Gastronomy Advisor’.
Such a rich tapestry of gastronomy exposure had influenced Chef Ismail’s inspirations and his philosophies. “I observe lifestyles, cultures, religion, and human behavior as all these are connected to my food creation. Food plays a very important role in any religious or cultural happenings. Not to mention, different cultures have different types of food to serve and they also have different ways to portion and serve them. These observations were very obvious during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Heritage foods are soul foods, with feelings.”
Chef Ismail enthuses that traditional food such as beef rendang, char kuey teow, roti canai, nasi lemak are healthy food when prepared according to their original principles. “Traditional food stresses on freshness, natural pureness, quality without coloring and additives, which are certainly healthier,” he says.
Maintaining ‘standards’ – a word which Chef Ismail keeps using – is important in his kitchen. “I experienced many memorable moments throughout my career, but nothing is as satisfying as seeing my customers’ looks of enjoyment when they take a bite of my food or just having fun socializing. But more importantly is the constant aim for flawlessness with high standards,” he says.
“My tagline is, ‘Time is Human Strength’. We shouldn’t be wasting the 24-hour ‘asset’ that is given to us. One of my greatest achievements is being able to manage time, taste and costing, as they are essential in building a successful food business,” says Chef Ismail with a twinkle in his eye.