Small-town lad Philip Leong is about to find himself rocketed to the city’s top chefs league as head of KL’s first celebrity chef restaurant. Can he take the heat?

Opening day is looming large and the atmosphere at Nobu Kuala Lumpur is tense. The staff are halfway through their rigorous six-week training course and today’s programme – a cross between a pep rally and a pop quiz – has stirred up some last-minute
anxiety.

Seemingly oblivious to the hubbub around him is Philip Leong, head chef and guiding force behind the restaurant. Belying his serene countenance, however, is a man fraught with nerves, not just because he’s responsible for upholding the cult of Nobu, but also because he’s Malaysian.

“It’s very stressful,” admits the 40-year-old. “I can’t help but feel that Malaysians do expect more from me because I too am Malaysian. I don’t want to let them down.”

Designed by Studio PCH, Nobu Kuala Lumpur is a dialled-down version of its overseas counterparts and features an open kitchen, two lounges and wraparound views, with glimpses of the Petronas Twin Towers from the main bar. Teak wood contributes to the general warmth of the space, which can comfortably accommodate up to 200 guests.

Best recognised for his haircut (shaved head in front, long dreadlocks at the back) as well as tattoos of meat cleaver-wielding chefs on both arms, Leong doesn’t look like any employee founder Nobu Matsuhisa, or Nobu-san – a well-known traditionalist – would approve of.

Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.

“Of course he complains about my hair,” says Leong. “He says I should cut it but I told him it’s my lucky charm. He’s used to it now.”

As recalcitrant as he may look, Leong is a stickler for convention, prizing foresight and order on the job above anything else.

“It’s more than just cooking,” he says. “You need to be organised and know which ingredient goes in first and which goes in last. Then you need to think about plating. That’s how you take it to the next level.”

To his dismay, he found such qualities lacking in Malaysian kitchens. “There’s no system in place to even ensure that chefs and kitchen staff adhere to food safety and hygiene standards. Every day, I have to remind them to do something as basic as washing their hands. Otherwise, they tend to forget,” he says of his 21-man kitchen team composed of Malaysians and, to a lesser extent, Filipinos.

Despite these obstacles, it’s been a sweet homecoming for Leong, who has spent the past nine years at Nobu Berkeley in London. A true Ipoh lad whose all-time favourite food is Hainanese chicken rice, Leong grew up not knowing much about food. “I can’t even cook rice!” he announces.

Once old enough, he enrolled in the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology to study architecture. It wasn’t until he started work in an architect firm that he realised it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. He kept thinking back to the days when he spent his gap year in New York, doubling up as a sushi helper in a Japanese restaurant.

He moved to Europe to pursue his dream because “unlike Malaysia, chefs were held in high regard.” There, he found work in another Japanese eatery, but left because he was making sushi out of a machine and “there was no passion involved.” He returned to Malaysia again, starting an experimental café called Space Spirit Studio in KL with a friend.

It was an interesting enough concept – the place marries Leong’s twin interests, architecture and food – but it flopped. So he packed his bags and headed to London, where he resigned himself to a soulless stint at Yo! Sushi.

The turning point in his career happened in 2005, when he spotted an ad while walking around Mayfair on his day off. Nobu, then already widely known around the world for its Peruvian-influenced Japanese cuisine as well as its illustrious owners, including actor Robert DeNiro and Hollywood film producer Meir Teper, was hiring.

Leong submitted his resume, and Mark Edwards – Nobu’s executive chef and Leong’s soon-to-be mentor – called him. “I told him I wanted to do sushi, but he said the positions were all filled up,” says Leong.

Edwards managed to convince him to work in the kitchen instead and soon Leong found himself back at square one, polishing plates at the age of 31.

Through a combination of determination and steely resolve however, he quickly rose among the ranks. Then, one day, he met Nobu-san, who was on a routine visit to the restaurant.

“He’s very friendly, and always has a smile on his face. He’s also constantly developing new dishes, and would never fail to share his knowledge with us. He believes that cooks cook for money but real chefs cook for passion,” says Leong.

Tiradito Peruvian-style sashimi, garnished with Rocoto.

Under the tutelage of Nobu and Edwards, Leong learned how to make – and perfect – the restaurant’s idiosyncratic dishes, including tuna and king crab tacos as well as Tiradito Peruvian-style sashimi that’s garnished with Rocoto, a chilli paste made from South American pepper.

“I like how Nobu’s food is simple and no-nonsense, with a focus on flavours and texture,” he says. “Nobu-san may be a traditional man but his food is modern.”

And while a good amount of Nobu’s ingredients are imported – the fish from Japan, the spices and quinoa from Peru – its founder still believes in sourcing for local ingredients, and exhorts his chefs to do the same.

Now at the top of his game in Kuala Lumpur, Leong’s creations are a unique synthesis of lessons gleaned from the past as well as the present.

“In architecture, you start with the foundation, adding layer upon layer, before you can build a roof. It’s the same with food,” reveals Leong.

Nobu also encourages its chefs to experiment and come up with their own dishes, and Leong is intent on wowing the crowds with inventive new riffs on familiar Malaysian ingredients. As such, one of the first few things he did upon coming home was to visit the local farms to see what was available.

“I’m trying to incorporate more local spices into the dishes,” says Leong. “I like petai. I recently tried making a dish out of it but I don’t think Nobu-san will like it!”

Nobu’s version of ice kacang, a concoction of shaved Calpico ice, with caramelised yuzu lemon, cincau, azuki beans and green tea mochi.

What could potentially work, however, was his “ice kacang”, a lovely concoction of shaved Calpico ice (a non-carbonated soft drink from Japan made from lactic acid and non-fat dry milk) topped with caramelised yuzu lemon, cincau, azuki beans and house-made green tea mochi that garnered rave reviews from both staff and management.

“I’m still learning every day,” is all this chef can say.

Taking perfectionism to heart, Leong practises the Japanese philosophies of continuous improvement and self-reflection. To the legions of Nobu fans in KL jonesing for a taste of LA cool, this man would be their guide, ushering them into a new era of A-list dining and culinary innovation. There were also those who did not know who or what Nobu was, and Leong has taken it upon himself to play ambassador.

Yes, the heat is on for this iron-willed chef.

If his track record has proven anything, it’s that everything will pan out. Now, if only they would hurry up and open.

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