Datuk Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, opened his restaurant, De.Wan 1958 by Chef Wan, after two years of planning. PIC BY AZIAH AZMEE

KUALA LUMPUR: NEVER one to mince his words, celebrity chef Datuk Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, is no stranger to controversy.

Chef Wan, 61, is well loved and inspires many, transcending culture and race. After all, Malaysian food is the glue that brings people together.

But recently, Chef Wan found himself in hot water for what he wrote on Instagram.

This was related to him receiving the Ikon Anak Felda award, which was presented by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed at a Felda Settlers Day event in Rompin, Pahang.

MISCONSTRUED INTENT

“Since when is telling the truth wrong?” he said when met at his restaurant, De.Wan 1958 by Chef Wan, at The Linc KL in Jalan Tun Razak here.

Dressed in a batik print shirt, he said he meant well when he posted his views after receiving the award.

Clearly, some of his statements, including one admonishing Felda settlers for being “lazy”, did not go down well with certain quarters.

“People need to read the sentences properly.

“I did not say ‘all’ Felda settlers are lazy. I said ‘segelintir’, which means ‘some’.”

He added that some had more than one wife and many children, but they were irresponsible and did not take care of their children.

“There are youngsters who are jobless loafers and drug addicts with no education.

“All of this causes social problems.

“Don’t twist and turn things just to get votes and political mileage.”

He said working with government ministries and bodies over the years had opened his eyes to the people’s problems.

“I was taken to Felda settlements in Pahang and Johor.

“The mak ciks there complained to me about the situation and social problems in their community. Even the ustaz, headman and Felda officers have highlighted these issues.

“So my conscience is clear. I tell it as it is. But when I say certain things, certain people call me arrogant, a show-off, rude and insulting.”

GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY

Whatever the case, Chef Wan said, he would do his best to help Felda and give back to the community.

“I want to gather Felda success stories, those who have made it big, and get them to sit down together.”

This, he said, was to find ways to help the third- and fourth-generation settlers.

“The youth are the future after all.”

He said they would pool their talents and resources to provide assistance, advice and guidance to deserving young talent.

“It won’t be about giving someone RM500,000 just like that.

“For example, if a person has an idea to open a restaurant and wants advice on how to go about the business, we will use the money to form a consortium of specialists in the food and beverage industry.

“These will be highly experienced individuals at the top of their game, who can provide guidance and training.

“Then the performance of the new business will be monitored to make sure that they’ll be doing what they’re meant to be doing to be successful.”

Chef Wan said there were lots of young people who were passionate about what they wanted to do.

“It’s all about having the right mentality. We have to do it the right way, too. Not just give the money directly and hope for the best.”

He said youths with potential were like diamonds in the rough.

“To shine bright and gain clarity, they have to be polished.”

A COLOURFUL LIFE

Having led a colourful life full of ups and downs, Chef Wan said he was writing an autobiography.

The silver-haired chef added that it would contain the “A to Z” of his life.

“From the challenges I went through in television and doing business to marriage and parenting.

“I’ll share stories about my siblings, my mother and father, and on how society looks at me and judges me as well.

“I’ll talk about self-confidence, of being driven and how I feel about life.”

He added that the book would contain segments on the spirit of giving and friendship.

“I speak very openly and honestly in every chapter because life is beautiful and I’m beautiful, too.”

STARTING FROM THE BOTTOM

The chef didn’t start off on a cushy bed of roses.

Born and raised in a poor family, he is part of the second-generation Felda settlers in Sungai Koyan, Pahang, and he lived a tough life.

It was reported that he would help his mother, Noraini Abdullah, in the kitchen as a young boy to prepare 400 packets of nasi lemak every day for sale.

The eldest of seven siblings, Chef Wan persevered and first found gainful employment as
an accountant.

But he decided to follow his passion and changed his profession to that which has made him a household sensation for the past 28 years.

A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in the United States, Chef Wan has garnered many awards and accolades.

His influence extends globally through his role as Malaysia’s food ambassador, where he counts international celebrity chefs, like David Rocco and Martin Yan, as his friends.

He recounted an interview in 2012 with BBC host Mishal Husain in London, where he was asked how he dealt with haters and brickbats.

“To cut a long story short, everyone has his own opinion and you can’t please everybody. So I will just carry on.

“At the end of the day, I forgive them. There’s no point in being vindictive.”

CULINARY LEGACY

Speaking about his current “baby”, De.Wan 1958 by Chef Wan, which took two years of planning before it opened its doors in April, Chef Wan said the business was a long-term endeavour.

“I did it for the youngsters,” he said, adding that he was planning to open more branches.

“So in five to 10 years, hopefully, these young people I have with me can go on to head these branch kitchens and have high positions, lots of pay and, most importantly, experience.”

For his 13,000-sq ft restaurant and event space in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, which serves modern Malay fare, Chef Wan practised exacting quality control measures on the staff.

“In the past 56 days, I’ve fired six chefs. I now have 22 young chefs, aged between 22 and 26.

“Although not all of them have much experience, I trained them for four months, so now they have changed their mindset and are consistent in their work.”

And business is good at the cosy establishment.

“We have had 86 days of work at full-house capacity. Can you imagine our restaurant had a gross income of close to RM4 million within that time?

“We worked really hard and I had to iron out all the problems.”

He added that he had plans to establish a charitable foundation once the restaurant became a major success.

“It’s to help youngsters, that’s for the best. So when I’m gone I can leave this behind.”

Chef Wan is also working towards the creation of an Asian culinary school in Langkawi.

“Our country needs a proper school to elevate the status of Malaysian food, as well as other fare from the region.

“I’m planning to set it up in two to three years’ time. It’s an ongoing process.”

SERVING IN HIS OWN WAY

On whether he would consider jumping into politics, Chef Wan quickly replied in the negative.

“It’s a dangerous game. It’s not for me.

“I can serve my country within my own means and field of expertise,” said Chef Wan, who was appointed adjunct professor of Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Tourism Management, Hospitality and Environmental School back in 2017 for a two-year tenure.

InsyaAllah, I can educate, inspire and motivate young people in other ways.”