As part of the pre-announced awards in the build up to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, which takes place on 29th March, Eat and Cook in Kuala Lumpur has been named the American Express One To Watch. 50 Best speaks to Lee Zhe Xi, one half of the team behind the restaurant, to explore how its rapid evolution has seen it named the most promising restaurant on the continent
Cooking is all about being first in line for the best ingredients, according to chef Lee Zhe Xi, chef-owner of Eat and Cook, the Malaysian restaurant that has just been named American Express One To Watch as part of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
In Kuala Lumpur – a city of nearly 8m people, making it one of the most densely populated in the world – apartments with kitchen space are a luxury. To sate the demand for eating out of home, the city numbers almost 50,000 restaurants, varying from grab-and-go street food vendors to some of the continent’s best fine diners. With such a voracious appetite to feed, it’s a landgrab for who gets the pick of the produce first.
Chef Lee is committed to sourcing the very best. Once he has finished service each night, he makes two trips: the first, at midnight, is to Kuala Lumpur’s bustling wet market, where the vendors reserve him the best produce; the second, in the small hours, is to a highway layby on the outskirts of town. “Getting to the market first is the only way we can guarantee to get the best,” he says. “This is the relatively easy part, as the traders know that I am coming and the relationships I have mean that they will keep me the best stuff.
Chef Lee Zhe Xi is committed to sourcing top-quality produce from all corners of Malaysia
“Although for the more unusual seafood, such as our unique slipper lobsters from Sabah [on the northerly tip of the Malaysian archipelago], it’s a tricky process. A lot of them are exported to Hong Kong as the fishermen get a better price, but I make sure that the fishermen call me every time they return with the lobster catch. I will buy what I can, then the fishermen put them on a plane to Subang Airport [Kuala Lumpur]. A middle man collects them from the plane and then I go to meet him at a petrol station just outside of town.”
By the time that Lee has completed his haul, duffle bag tightly packed with iced lobster, the sun is coming up and it’s almost time for him to prepare for service. It’s this commitment to quality that sets Eat and Cook apart.
As was the case for many cooks across the globe, the pandemic led to temporary unemployment for Chef Lee and his partner at the stove, Soh Yong Zhi. With restaurants and hotels shuttering, they both they both lost their jobs working in kitchens as soon as the first lockdown in Malaysia was announced in March 2020.
“We knew we did not want to sit still for long,” says Lee. “Soh and I were discussing that we wanted to get back to work as soon as possible but we had very limited money. We started looking all over for locations and we found somewhere in a mall outside of town that was 300 square feet for 450 ringgit [$80] a week. People said we were crazy for trying to build a restaurant in an area which has no history of restaurants, but we were confident that we could make it work – we only had room for six seats after all.”
This first incarnation of Eat and Cook was a testing ground for Lee and Soh’s Malaysian omakase concept. They would both attend the market in the morning and decide what they would cook for that day. The dishes themselves were inspired by traditional family recipes, given a hyper-modern edge with the chefs’ contemporary training, which leans on the French and Italian style. The restaurant’s signature Ipoh mountain duck – served with burnt-ham choy, herb-braised duck leg, with duck liver chocolate – was coined here and it remains on the menu today. Other dishes see traditional Malay ikan soup given a twist with truffle aioli, while Assam prawns are served with fried garlic, prawn shell oil and burnt corn.
One of Eat and Cook's signature dishes: seven-day-aged mountain duck from Kuala Kangsar, a town to the north of the capital
“We got very popular very quickly,” says Lee. “Within a few weeks the piece of paper we were using as a reservations diary was full for the next three months. It gave us the confidence that what we were doing was right and our audience was growing as the reputation spread. As we only needed to fill six seats per sitting, it was ok for us.
“Quickly we started to think we needed to find somewhere else. There were lots of things that did not suit our fine dining style. For example, to use the bathroom, people would need to walk for five minutes to the bottom of the mall to find it. It wasn’t good enough, so we started looking for a new restaurant straight away.”
Eat and Cook relocated to a larger space in the central Bukit Jalil City in March 2021 and now has space for up to 30 guests. While still small compared to most restaurants in the city, the counter seating speaks more to the Japanese omakase tradition, and gives the chefs the opportunity to express their creativity, based on what they’ve sourced that day.
The current iteration of Eat and Cook's interior, based in Kuala Lumpur
“We are currently in Chapter Three of our menu development,” explains Lee. “I think of our menu evolution like a book, but each chapter does not necessarily lead to the next. Each version is based on the ingredients in that particular season and we will try to keep it the same for three or four months, as long as the produce we want to cook is good enough. We don’t have traditional seasons like autumn and winter in Malaysia, but there are times when one ingredient is at its best and that’s when we want to use it.”
As chefs Lee and Sho prepare to collect the American Express One To Watch Award at a live event for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 in Bangkok, they will join a stellar line-up of recent One To Watch award winners including Florilège in Tokyo (2016), TocToc in Seoul (2017), Toyo Eatery in Manila (2018), JL Studio in Taichung (2019), Masque in Mumbai (2020) and Meta in Singapore (2021). The pair are looking forward to the recognition that this award will bring: “My biggest hobby is eating,” says Lee. “I am in love with the colours, flavours and spices of Malaysia – our cuisine is just trying to capture the personality of our country and tell its story.”
Are you looking forward to the announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna? Browse the website and join the community on Instagram, follow us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay up to date with the latest news and announcements.