Esquire Malaysia + Esquire Singapore, April 2014
Ready, Steady, Cook
How The Boy Who Ate the World became a reality TV star.
By Sophia Goh
The journey of one boy from his childhood home in Kuala Lumpur to the overwhelming circus of UK reality TV was an unlikely – but not impossible – one. After all, 28-year-old Chua Guan Leong, now based in London, had grown up with authentic Penang Nyonya cooking. Of course, he came to love food. “The whole food thing was innate from a very young age,” he tells us. “I’ve watched my godmother and mum cook for many years now, and I aspire to be as good as them.”
But Chua was more than just your typical foodie. He had the one ingredient that would set him apart from the others: the guts to leave a high-flying job at the investment bank Goldman Sachs for a Le Cordon Bleu course and to muster the courage to break the news to his “tiger mother” (his words, not ours).
Then there’s his blog theboywhoatetheworld.com. Originally intended as a distraction from work and a platform to express his love of food, it became his golden ticket when Chua was invited to audition for the UK version of The Taste [pictured], a programme best described as The Voice of cookery competition shows. Successfully navigating his way through the early rounds, he found himself competing for a spot with one of the celebrity judges/mentors – Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Ludo Lefebvre – in a “blind” tasting.
He stuck with a familiar favourite: his godmother’s sambal udang with nasi lemak (TV translation: Malaysian chilli prawn, coconut rice, crispy shallots & kaffir lime leaves). Lefebvre was impressed enough to say yes, but, “I’ll be honest with you: I went on the show essentially to work with Anthony Bourdain,” Chua confesses. “From a food blogger/writer perspective, no one has influenced me more.” The response he received from Bourdain are words that he’ll remember forever: “I love the country, I love the food; it’s a strong, strong yes. We were born to work together. I implore you, come with me.” Chua did*.
So what does his mum think of his cooking career now? “She was supportive eventually, but The Taste really showed her where food can go,” Chua says. “In Southeast Asia, a career in food still isn’t something most parents would endorse. Seeing my mum, godmother and sisters all excited, I think it shows that if you work hard enough and if things pan out, there’s quite an exciting career in food. They’re probably quite proud.”
Looking back, Chua describes his TV stint as “a very exciting experience, though I wouldn’t recommend cooking with lights, a sound mic and a camera in your face, with a director asking you questions, while you’re cooking against the clock in high-pressure situations.” He hopes to put Nyonya food on the map, starting with the supper club that he runs out of his flat. Beyond that, who knows? “Eighteen months ago, I was sitting at a desk looking at multiple screens,” he laughs. “It’s just nice to step out and do what I love for a while.”
* Because the show was ongoing at the time of this interview, he couldn’t reveal more. Chua was eventually eliminated. You’ll have to watch to find out when, and why.