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Who would have thought that ‘rice’ would turn out to be the secret ingredient for Chef Yenni Law’s success at the ‘Oscars’ of the cookbook world

“I’M so grateful and I thank God for this success. Because without His blessings, no matter how much you do, you still won’t reach it. Secondly, I’d like to thank my parents who taught me the importance of never giving up and always doing your best. They instilled in me the importance of always doing things with integrity and sincerity — both in business and in life.

I want to thank all those people who have given me the opportunity to be on this journey, and those who have supported me in so many ways — my friends, my relatives. I also want to thank my partner, Hoo Sze Ling whom, ever since I’ve known her, has always pushed me to excel and strive to be a better person. I’m truly blessed to have met her. Thank you also to Trudy Ho, my ex lecturer and dear friend who helped me land my first job after college and other teachers and lecturers who have played their part too. And last but definitely not least, my team at Meatology. Everyone here not only put in the hard work; they put in a lot of heart too. For that, I’m truly grateful...”

The claps reverberating around the grand ballroom following Chef Yenni Law’s award acceptance speech continue to thunder as the diminutive Malaysian chef beams her grateful acknowledgement from where she stands on the stage surrounded by fellow finalists at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards ceremony.

Chef Yenni Law credits her parents for her drive and resilience.

Somewhere in Taiping, Perak, tears of joy are being shed by Law’s proud parents as they receive news of their daughter’s success in Yantai, China where the big Gala Night is being held. Who would have guessed that Law, restaurateur and author, could pull off such a coup and bring home the coveted title of Best Cookbook under the Woman Chef category for her latest cookbook, Her World 2017: The Rice Pot which contains over 40 rice recipes that uses rice at the core of every creation. This book is Law’s second outing as an author; her first, Meatology was published just over two years ago as part of the MPH Masterclass series of cookbooks.

Looking joyously sheepish, Law, already a winner in the style stakes in her Neyo-inspired dark blue three-piece suit over a white shirt complete with stylish Mandarin collar, is the sole Asian finalist among 10 others from around the world contending for this ultimate recognition. From more than 300 entries, the numbers had been whittled to 11.

The Gourmand World Cookbook is akin to the ‘Oscars’ of the cookbook world. Founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau, it honours the best food and wine books, printed or digital, in addition to food television.

And what an achievement it is for this unassuming chef and self-confessed introvert who barely months ago made waves on social media for her cheeky retort on the crispy chicken rendang brouhaha (MasterChef UK, judge Greg Wallace and ‘Rendang-gate’ anyone?). Law went viral when she poked fun at Wallace and created her own crispy chicken rendang recipe, proving that Malaysia Boleh!

Well deserved recognition for the hardworking chef.

Reality bites

“Sorry kak, sorry lambat. Jam tadi! (Sorry sis, sorry for being late. Bad traffic!)” And just like that, the images of a glitzy ‘Oscar night’ in Yantai are replaced by that of the anxious face of my photographer who proceeds to breathlessly ask what pictures he needs to take. Seated opposite me, not a three-piece suit in sight, is the award-winning chef, in turn asking me whether she ought to don her chef’s jacket for the shoot.

Gala Night never happened — at least not for Law. And she never did get to make that tear-jerking acceptance speech (if she had, it would have been exactly like that though!). But win the award she did, muscling her way in among other culinary heavyweights. Meanwhile, news of her win came to her via Whatsapp.

“I couldn’t afford to go lor,” begins Law, when I rib her for not making the big night. “Cannot afford in terms of time, and also funds. Finalists had to be in Yantai for a week leading up to Gala Night and I couldn’t afford to lose this one week away from my business. It’s quite a tidy sum to have to fork out to make it there for that duration. And when you don’t have any funding or support, it can be quite challenging.”

Knowing that she was among the nominees and not being able to go was tough for Law. Her voice low, she confides: “A part of me felt a deep sense of regret but once I made up my mind that it made more sense (financially) to stay put here, I was okay. The money that I’d have had to shell out just to be a part of the programme could be put to better use for other things that I needed to take care of, like supplies, wages etc. All I could do was just hope for a win.”

Chef Yenni Law is incredibly grateful for the conviction and support of her team and her partner, Hoo Sze Ling (front row, far right).

When news of her victory came in, Law was literally the last one to know. She recalls that it was just like any ordinary day and she was busy in the kitchen preparing dishes for her evening diners. “I was in the kitchen for more than two hours. I hadn’t checked my phone or emails all day. By the time I switched on my phone, I was baffled to see just how active one of the chat groups had been all day. More than 98 messages had been exchanged.”

It seems that Law’s partner, Hoo Sze Ling had received an email from the organisers of Gourmand to inform her of the former’s victory. The latter had screen captured the email and shared it in the chat group. And that’s when all the congratulatory messages started pouring in.

Modestly, Law confides that she hadn’t expected to win the competition. “I mean, look at the rest of the books being competed. Furthermore, the judging process was very stringent. They had a team of people who were tasked with checking whether the recipes contained within our books were legit or doable. When you write a cook book, you’re sharing your recipes with people so they (the recipes) must actually be doable. The other factor taken into consideration was the quality of the writing.”

While Law’s submission centred on the versatility of rice, she recalls a submission from a Canadian participant titled From Farm to Chef. “I thought it sounded like an intriguing premise,” says Law, adding: “Another one which caught my attention was from Germany — about modern plating. The book cover was very pretty. With such amazing company, I honestly would have been grateful just to get a placing; a runner up at the most. I mean, it’s my first time entering. The end result was truly a blessing from above.”

There were plenty of challenges during the shooting for the book.

A sweet victory

Asked what factors might have given her book the edge, Law believes it’s the uniqueness of her content. “I had more than 40-plus recipes in this cookbook, all with rice at the core. But I didn’t just put rice and then create dishes to complement it. I used different types of rice and developed rice creations for starters, main course, desserts and drinks. I believe the elements of uniqueness and creativity won the day. I mean, if you look at the book, you’ll see that it’s just a simple book, with a ‘no fuss’ cover. But I have to say that the pictures inside were beautifully taken.”

What makes this victory particularly sweet for Law is the fact that it’s the culmination of a long journey for this hardworking chef. “This is my lifelong dream — writing recipe books. Apart from owning a restaurant. Her World approached me to write this book at the end of January last year when I was judging product brands with them. They told me that they were coming out with their annual cookbook for 2017 and asked whether I’d be interested to come onboard. I was told that I had to create 50 recipes from rice. Of course, I jumped at the chance! Suffice to say, there were plenty of challenges.”

But challenges appear to be the backdrop to Law’s life story. The Taiping-born chef spent time abroad — in Spain and the UK — to hone her craft when she was in her 20s, believing that crossing the oceans and being thrust into the school of hard knocks would be a better way to grow in her profession — and passion.

A faraway look in her eyes, the F&B veteran of more than 20 years recalls: “I said to myself if I want to do this seriously, I needed to get overseas exposure. So I saved up money until I had enough, then I left the country. When you’re abroad, you get to experience another culture and people, and you end up learning about the influences behind the food that you cook.”

Law was away for three years. “I worked in an English restaurant under an Irish chef and learnt a lot. At midnight I worked in a Chinese take-away run by a chap from Hong Kong — which I didn’t get paid for. I had requested to be there so I could learn. In essence, I was giving away free labour in return for knowledge,” shares Law before adding that she just wanted to learn how Hong Kong people cooked.

Time was always of the essence.

“The Hong Kong owner taught me a lot, including how to handle a wok. That’s not easy. At the end of the day, I guess I just love a good challenge. It makes me feel accomplished,” says Law. But three winters on and she realised that the loneliness of being in a foreign country was starting to gnaw at her very being, especially when the days turned dark earlier and the chilling winter winds bit. So she made the decision to return home.

Meatology Restaurant and Bar located along the famed night spot strip of Lorong Rahim Kajai 14 in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL is Law’s baby of 15 years. “Coming back and starting this restaurant... it was quite something too,” confides Law. “I mean, I had no money. I don’t come from a rich family. But I managed to get this restaurant after successfully paying back all the creditors and kept it sustainable — 15 years on. Having a restaurant had always been my second dream; the first is to write cookbooks. I’ve managed to do both.”

With two cookbooks under her slender belt, is she inspired to do a third? Law’s eyes light up and she replies excitedly: “I’d love to do something with my heritage. Something that’s Malaysian but with a twist. I’m Hakka and we have a wonderful repertoire of dishes. In fact, my mum is a great cook. I’d love to work with her in my next book.”

Is that her ultimate dream then? A long drag of her cigarette and Law eventually replies: “Well, it’s always nice to have more. The world is big and you wouldn’t know what opportunities are out there for you. I guess I’m just always hungry!”

Well, that sounds about right. A hungry chef will always end up cooking up a storm — and it will be all in a day’s ‘wok’!

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