Oftentimes when an entrepreneur’s start-up goes bust, they’d either go back to working for someone or go into a completely new line of business. Chin Pei Ling, a self-taught chef, pursued her dream of opening her own restaurant only to see it fold one-and-a-half years later.
Initially depressed about the closure of her restaurant, she returned to the workforce and got a job in marketing. But her love for food and the lure of being her own boss had her going back into the food industry albeit not in a restaurant setting.
She reinvented herself as a culinary consultant, leveraging on her experiences in running a restaurant, being a chef and her broad and deep understanding of food. Pei Ling talks to Savvy about her love for food, what she does as a business consultant and her philosophy for cooking.
You’re a self-taught chef. How did that happen?
I’ve always loved food and as a teen I was fascinated by cookbooks but I really didn’t get much of a chance to cook until I went to Australia for university. Turns out, I was quite a natural. If I went to a restaurant and tasted something I liked, I’d just need to experiment a bit before being able to replicate the dish.
I remember once, in Melbourne, we went to a Chinese restaurant that served something called Eight Treasure Duck, which was their signature dish. It was awesome but there was no recipe online for it. So, I thought about the taste and tried to figure out what ingredients would go into it. With a little trial and error I managed to cook something that was about 80 per cent there.
Can anyone teach themselves to be a good cook?
Not everyone would have a natural sense for cooking but these days there are plenty of recipes and cooking videos that you can find online, quite often for free. So, if someone wants to learn, there’s plenty of resources to tap into — certainly more so than in my time. A lot of it comes from interest. If a person is really passionate about cooking, they’ll find a way to do it well.
Did you buy a lot of cookbooks back then?
Yes I did. And I’d always look through them for ideas and guidance. I also bought cooking magazines and watched cooking shows on TV. Those things helped but there’s nothing like trial and error. If you want to learn how to cook well, you’ve got to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
After your restaurant closed down, how did you evolve into a culinary consultant?
I’d put a lot of effort into the restaurant business and it was a big blow to me when it had to close down. I went back to work in marketing for a year and a half. During that time, a friend named Edyth wanted to start a cooking school and we brainstormed a bit on the idea.
We agreed that I’d be a consultant rather than a partner — she had the capital to start it herself and besides, I didn’t want to be tied down. I preferred to be a free agent. That gave me the freedom to work with her but to also do my own things if I wanted to.
What exactly do you do as a culinary consultant?
My role encompasses cooking demonstrations for various working partners of the cooking school, menu development for clients and facilitating corporate team building events that involved food and cooking.
How would you compare the life of a restaurateur with that of a culinary consultant?
It’s very different. As a restaurant owner, my plate was filled to the brim with good experiences but I was also covered by a blanket of worrisome responsibilities such as meeting daily targets, managing staff issues, taking stock of inventory, and even cleaning the floor! I knew running a restaurant would be challenging but I didn’t know it’d be that hard. New issues kept cropping up.
Now as a culinary consultant, the immediate path is a lot clearer in terms of what I need to do and achieve in order to be successful.
You’ve also done some TV work. Did you enjoy it?
I’ve hosted a children’s cooking programme on Astro Ria, did a morning show for TV3 and a series on healthy cooking for 8TV Express. Yes, I liked doing that. I like anything related to food!
What do you love most about food?
I love figuring out how to cook something new. That to me is the fun part — not so much the eating but the making. I’d rather see people eat than have the meal myself.
What’s your general philosophy for cooking?
I think one should cook according to one’s feelings and mood. Following my heart when I’m cooking has always resulted in the creation of extraordinary dishes.
What style of cooking do you like best?
You might be surprised but Malaysian cooking is my all-time favourite! I’ve been around the world and have tasted all kinds of dishes but I’m still mesmerised by Malaysian cooking. Perhaps it’s because there are so many influences involved — Malay, Indian, and Chinese. Malaysian food is very diverse and never boring.
Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver?
Jamie Oliver because I love his idea of eating healthily, and getting the freshest ingredients straight from the garden or the farm.
Do you watch a lot of online cooking videos?
I actually don’t watch many cooking shows these days as time is a factor. But I do make a point to read up on ingredients and produce. Healthy cooking and healthy eating are important to me and getting the best ingredients is a big part of that.
Would you ever consider opening another restaurant?
Never say never, but I’d say not at the moment. Right now my kids are my top priority and they’re still young, so being a culinary consultant gives me the flexibility to take care of them and have a career in food at the same time. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I were tied down to a restaurant.
What’s your long-term ambition vis a vis food?
I want to find ways to keep our local, traditional food alive. Whether it’s by publishing books or doing cooking shows or doing something online — I think it’s important to ensure that our traditional dishes are not forgotten.
If you weren’t involved in cooking, what else would you be doing?
I love animals so I’d be even more involved in animal welfare and rescue than I am now. Currently I’m rescuing stray cats and dogs in my personal capacity, which is all I can do right now. But if I had more time and a team to work with, I’d like to do animal rescue on a much larger scale, help to rehabilitate them and find them some loving homes.