FOOD occupies a special place in Ili Sulaiman’s heart, having been drawn to all things culinary from a young age.
Her mother used to cook lunch and pack it in a tiffin carrier for her to bring to school. She recalls other children laughing at her for carrying an old-school lunch box but as soon as she opened the box, everyone wanted to be her friend, with hopes to sample some of the delicious home-cooked food.
“Soon after, I noticed my schoolmates started bringing their own lunch boxes and we’d all sit and eat together. The minute there was food on the table, everyone gathered around; I grew to like the concept of sharing food,” says the home cook and TV host.
Wanting to inspire people to preserve the tradition of eating together, Ili, who completed her studies in the UK, returned home to start a food delivery business called Dish By Ili which offered home-cooked food in tiffin boxes.
“I wanted people to buy and share the food. That was how Dish By Ili started,” she explains.
Then Ili spread her wings and ventured into hosting cookery shows. She won last year’s Food Hero, a talent search for the best home cook and host across Asia, organised by Asian Food Channel (AFC) and Food Network. She and Hong Kong’s Debbie Wong were winners of Food Hero 2015.
She says hosting is another platform for her to share her knowledge on food and to teach viewers to cook simple, delicious meals. After hosting a show on AFC, titled Family Feast With Ili, and a web series, Home Cooked Malaysia, Ili has landed another series called By The Sea With Ili, which premieres today on AFC (Astro Channel 703) at 10pm.
Viewers will get to follow her on a journey to three countries in Asia: Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. In Vietnam, she heads for Da Ang, and Hoi An and the Cham Islands while in Thailand, she explores Phuket. Back in Malaysia, Ili takes viewers to Penarik Village community in Terengganu before sailing off to the Perhentian Islands.
In the six episodes, she would learn each destination’s unique cooking methods and recreate them with a fresh perspective amid stunning beach locations. She will also interview the locals who are ever willing to share their life stories.
“Not only do I get the chance to unearth stories behind all the flavoursome dishes from every location but I also get to sample them! The most rewarding part of this series would be experiencing the warmth and sincerity extended by people, from the local fishermen and street vendors to chefs I meet. I also met some sea gypsies in Phuket, which was really amazing,” she says.
“In some circumstances I am put in a situation where I have to go diving for sea urchin, hunting for octopus and go deep sea fishing with the locals. I learnt how people lived by the ocean and ate what was available to them in their backyard. Meeting all these amazing characters and hearing their stories was really interesting.
“You get a sense of how fortunate we are to be living in Asia, where we get an abundance of seafood from the crystal blue ocean. It’s just perfect!”
Ili, 31, shares some of her gastronomic discoveries. “Nobody would actually think that people in Vietnam use a lot of chilli in their food. The dishes I ate were so hot! And there’s more to Vietnamese food than pho (noodle soup),” says Ili whose formal training in cooking came from helping her grandmother in the kitchen.
Using the power of food to give marginalised youth the chance of a better future, Ili has opened up a restaurant-cum-social enterprise called Agak Agak with her partner and chef Basira Yeuseff.
They open this with an intention to give back to the society.
Agak Agak, located at Art Printing Works in Jalan Riong, recruits youth to attain a holistic, practical apprenticeship in the world of food and beverage so that they can change their life trajectory and uplift the skill set that is needed in the industry.
“We want to change the perception that this profession is not something to be proud of. People should be proud of what they do, regardless of whether they are service staff, chef or kitchen helper,” she says.
“The students we recruit will be trained through four stages. They start with some training on the operational side, where they are taught on health and food safety. Then, we will train them to develop menus and how to service the customers.
“After that they will go into leadership training. This is where we find their key strengths and guide them further. At the same time, we teach them about marketing and how to communicate effectively.
“Once they’ve built the skills, we will send them out for internships with other eateries, whom we have partnered with for this initiative.”
Ili says that the inspiration behind Agak Agak is drawn from chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant called Fifteen, which shares the same concept. “But while he funnels his students back into his business, we want to send our students back into the community, hence the partnership with other eateries.”
The menu at Agak Agak itself is an interesting selection of modern local dishes like limau nipis bun cake and pulut hitam cheese tart, says Ili.
“We teach students the different techniques in cooking. The whole menu is built with an educational purpose,” says Ili.
The application for the recruitment is open to the public with terms and conditions. Details at agakagakinitiative.com.
• Catch the premiere of By The Sea With Ili on AFC (Astro channel 703) at 10pm today.