There comes a point in most of our lives where we wonder if the road we’re on is the only road we’re ever going to take. For some of us, we’re given a chance to travel down a different path altogether. Not everyone takes it but when the opportunity presented itself to Liang, it began his journey down a road not so frequently travelled. He rocketed to fame in his twenties as a singer in the Malaysian music scene. Fifteen years later, he’s heading the kitchen in his very own restaurant serving a colourful fusion of French and Asian cuisine.
His resume is impressive and his personality is catching, but what we love about Liang is his story. His yes-man attitude and the ability to keep pushing for what he believes is simply inspiring. It didn’t matter if he came from a less privileged background, that just fuelled his persistency even more. This isn’t another rags to riches story; this is one man’s testimonial that if you believe you can, you will achieve what you set out to do.
Before you pursued cooking, you were a singer, emcee and radio DJ; what made you take that leap from entertainment over to the F & B industry?
You’ve heard of the phrase ‘a jack of all trades is a master of none’. I do not subscribe to that because I wanted to try different things. I did not leave the music industry because I didn’t like it, it was the case of adding feathers to my hat. Every single thing that I set out to do, I want to do it to the best of my ability. It was being able to do all that I have done and more. That’s what life is really all about. Talk about being a sponge and absorbing all kinds of things but its hard to absorb when you’re so focused on being a master of one thing. That is my philosophy in life; to go out and try as many things as you can with no regrets.
Let’s go back in time a little - was your involvement with food something that you picked up as a child?
I grew up a street kid where we had to sell muffins at the pasar malam. I had to learn the different processes that went into food production, the stresses that go along with it and ensuring that it was something that could sustain us for the years to come. I have 9 siblings and we would take shifts round the clock. I woke up at 4am every morning and my sister would have just finished her shift. There would be this intense smell of flour, orange rind, sambal and gula melaka being stewed in syrup. We sold in the morning markets first and many people would come to buy from us. I had no idea how to speak Hokkien but I had to learn how to communicate with our customers.
Muffins weren’t something that people would usually buy in the morning markets so we had to try to think of ways to invite them in. What I hated the most was when it rained and you’re drenched and your food is soaked. I had spent all morning whisking flour and putting ingredients together so it was very frustrating. There were times where we had disagreements with the next stall because they would try and take our spot at the market. I learned fairly quickly that if you don’t stand for what you believe in, you are never going to be able to survive and you’ll never be able to sell your goods. It was hard work but at the same time, it was those memories that drove me forward. I wanted to recreate those aromas but also knowing that I don’t ever want to be in that position again.
So you had some experience in food preparation, but it’s completely different to professional cooking. How did Le Cordon Bleu come into the picture?
I wanted something that would prepare me for a restaurant so I was set on learning something proper and as comprehensive as it could get. I was scouting around for courses when a friend of mine brought up Le Cordon Bleu. I had thought it would be this part time course where grannies could learn how to bake madeleines and tarts. But it was culinary bootcamp! I was the oldest guy in my class and it wasn’t easy watching these 17 and 18 year olds scurry around you with so much energy, and here I am struggling to bend down to take something from the chiller. I ached all over - my back, knees and ankles - and I had to deal with sharp tools. I’m financially stable, my peers are married with kids but here I am peeling potatoes with teenagers.
It’s in those moments of questioning and wondering that you find where you really stand and what you really want. The very fact you’re questioning yourself in the first place obviously means that something isn’t sitting right with you. You can either bear it or you can decide to do something about it. I took action.
It must’ve have been tough, but knowing how you grew from that episode is really encouraging.
That was a defining moment in my life.
You earned a comfortable living as an entertainer and it came naturally to you, but now you've joined a completely different industry. Do you ever have moments where you question if this is all worth it?
There were many times that I’ve asked myself that question but what you see right here has always been a dream. If you’ve invested so much time, effort and money its only fair to say that you really believe in your dream. There is a distinction between a dream and a passing fancy. If you find yourself dreading to get out of bed to go to work then you should ask yourself if this is something that you really want to do. Everything that we do fuels this dream of ours; whether its taking the initiative to change the menu or finding ways to improve the food we put out. I have no regrets. I love where I am right now.
What about cooking that’s so rewarding to you?
Cooking matters to everyone who eats. Everyone has got a certain level of appreciation. I love cooking because of the satisfaction I get - despite the long hours - creating something out of raw ingredients and then seeing the smiles on people’s faces. It’s almost like an artist taking a blank canvas, drawing his masterpiece, hanging it up at an exhibition and then watching people go by smiling, reacting and pondering. It’s the same when I see my customers enjoying themselves with the food and drinks that we’ve prepared - it’s as fulfilling as it could possibly get.
It was a real privilege to sit down with Liang and listen to him reflect on his humble beginnings and the journey that led him to where he is today. He speaks with such a vigorous passion for cooking that it’s hard not to catch that energy. If there’s anything I’ve learned from Liang’s story is that we have the freedom to choose the feathers we add to our hat. We are not limited to knowledge and skills, and like Liang who was a musician turned chef and now runs his own restaurant, we should’t be afraid of venturing into unfamiliar territories. Instead, let’s look at it as an opportunity to learn something new, break barriers and achieve new heights.