Sam Butler talked to Malaysia’s culinary ambassador Datuck Chef Wan during his recent visit to Northern Ireland hosted by NI Connections.

Top Asian chef has recipe for food growth Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, spent three hours with Krazibaker Mark Douglas in Dromore, Co Down learning how to make local favourites soda bread and potato farls. “Chef Wan found making bread with potatoes in particular quite an experience. It’s not something they do in Malaysia or other parts of Asia,“ says Mark, who also runs Northern Ireland’s only bakery school. “He was fascinated by the whole process and really seemed to enjoy the taste of the warm griddle breads he baked with lashings of our own Abernethy Butter.

Chef Wan
Chef Wan

“Chef Wan had tried the breads at breakfast in the local hotels he was staying and was keen to see how they are made and baked. I hope he will continue making the breads back home in Malaysia. I’d certainly be happy to fly out to Malaysia to give him a hand!” he adds. The affable Chef Wan was here as a guest of NI Connections, a not for profit organisation that’s backed by Invest NI and local business to build business and other links with people worldwide with an affinity to Northern Ireland. Andrew Cowan of NI Connections met the celebrity chef, who hosts a hugely popular television food show, at a food event in Frankfurt and seized the opportunity to invite the influential chef to visit Northern Ireland as the organisation’s guest.

He enlisted Food NI to pull together a programme of visits to artisan food processors and leading chefs. “I was delighted to accept when NI Connections invited me to Northern Ireland especially at this time when you are celebrating food and drink. I’d never been to Northern Ireland before and really knew little about your food. Of course, I’d heard about Guinness and Irish Stew particularly at St Patrick’s Day in Kuala Lumpur but not much about what is currently being produced here,” Chef Wan told me during the interview. “

I now know that Northern Ireland produces some wonderfully tasty food and drink. The landscape here is superb, the soil very fertile and the people extremely welcoming. I’ve met a host of conscientious producers and many wonderfully talented chefs who provided a series of outstanding dishes. I was taken with what companies like Mash Direct are doing with vegetables and potatoes. “I’ve enjoyed superb beef, fish, seafood and vegetables that deserve much wider recognition, and I will be featuring many of these in my forthcoming television programmes in Asia. I believe there are opportunities for these products in global markets including Asia,” he adds.

Born in Singapore, he was impressed by the initiative of leading local chef Michael Deane to showcase Northern Ireland food during a week-long and hugely successful stint at the St Regis Hotel in Bangkok. “He told me how much he had enjoyed cooking in Bangkok and the very positive response the dishes had received from diners including leading Asian bankers and food writers. I’d certainly encourage others to follow this example and take their original dishes using local food and drink to a wider international market,” he continues.

“I’ve organised Malaysian Kitchens in many parts of the world to promote Asian cuisine and I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a great many more Northern Ireland food culinary events worldwide. Northern Ireland has particularly strong links with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. You should be exploiting these links through your food and drink. “Cuisine evenings there would be a great way to promote Northern Ireland’s culinary skills as well as its food and drink. It would encourage both tourism and exports. It seems to me that NI Connections is doing an impressive job in building links worldwide to the benefit Northern Ireland.” The 58 year old was speaking from experience.

He turned to promoting Asian food worldwide from an early career as an accountant and was subsequently recruited by the government in Kuala Lumpur to promote Malaysian and other South Asian East food in global markets. As well as promoting food from the region Chef Wan features a wide range of cuisine and culinary skills in his television programmes. He’s now a household name in Asia with more than 20 years of experience in the industry and is known for his flamboyant sense of style. His skills range from chef, author and actor to TV host and publisher.

He was also the first celebrity to be bestowed the title of 'Datuk' by Malaysia’s head of state in February 2010. This was followed by his appointment as 'Culinary Ambassador' by Tourism Malaysia. “Northern Ireland has so much to offer. The food is incredible, the land rich and the people are very warm and friendly. You have talented chefs producing great dishes. You need to show the world just how outstandingly tasty your food and drink really is,” he adds