IN his home in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, chef Chai Chun Boon is watching his mischievous four-year-old daughter Aisya Elise Chai with amusement.
Elise’s tiny little hands are wrapped firmly around a little container of ikura (fish roe), the glistening orange orbs matching the cheeky glint in her eyes.
“Look, it’s fish Oreo!” she says excitedly.
“It’s not called fish Oreo lah, it’s fish roe!” says Chai, a smile playing on his lips. “Can you put some on your pasta?” he asks her, pointing to a plate piled high with spaghetti.
“Okay, ” she says and promptly plops a heaping teaspoonful into her mouth.
In many ways, Elise’s fascination and familiarity with ingredients like ikura is the result of careful culinary breeding, cultivated from her birth. After all, her father helms celebrated modern European restaurant Copper in Kuala Lumpur and has trained in luminous kitchens in the ilk of the three Michelin-starred AbaC in Barcelona, Spain.
Additionally, Elise has spent nearly all her waking moments in her parents’ restaurant. In fact, she is such a regular feature in the eatery that she has developed a close bond with many of Chai’s staff, who collectively adore her.
“When she was a baby, we started sending her to a playhouse just one floor below the restaurant. We would pick her up around 5pm, then she would stay with me in the restaurant until about 10pm.
“So the restaurant is like where she’s been growing up – in fact, her first experience with meat was wagyu – I was cutting it for a tasting and she was like, ‘I want that’!” says Chai, a glimmer of pride in his eyes.
Like most chefs, the affable Chai works long hours but he still makes it a point to go the extra mile in terms of ensuring that Elise eats well, especially as she is a bit of a fussy eater.
“She has been very picky since she was young so we had to test and make lots of errors before we knew what she wanted to eat. We added in stuff, took out stuff and in the end, we just let her choose what she wants to eat and she always goes back to rice, pasta, carrots, corn and fish roe, ” says Chai.
For his daughter’s daily meals, Chai typically has some pasta and porridge on hand and also makes sure he asks her what she wants to eat – although he confesses that can sometimes backfire on him.
“She changes her mood often, so we just work with that. She told me yesterday that she wants pasta and she told me about an hour ago when I came back that she wants pasta.
“And then 30 minutes into preparing it for her, she said, ‘I want soup’, ” he says, laughing.
Unsurprisingly, given the amount of time she has spent in the restaurant, some of the meals on Copper’s menu are Elise’s firm favourites.
“In the restaurant, we fry our own potato chips that we pair with sandwiches, but she likes eating them on their own when she’s in the restaurant, ” says Chai.
A meal that has become firmly embedded in the little four-year-old’s ‘best of the best’ annals is Chai’s spaghetti with butter, leeks and ikura.
“Leek fondue is something we make a lot in the restaurant too so that’s what she’s grown up eating – it’s cooked with butter, corn and pasta and generally that’s her main go-to in our restaurant. I wouldn’t say it’s refined food, but it seems to be what she wants to eat, ” he says.
Moving forward, Chai says he is looking forward to teaching Elise and his newborn daughter Sofiya how to master basic cooking skills, as he thinks these are skills his daughters will appreciate when they are older.
“I do teach her from time to time. I taught her how to cook noodles about a month ago – she sat on a stool and watched me.
“I’ve also taught her all the things she needs to be careful about – like the pot is hot and the fire is hot, but if you don’t have heat, you cannot cook.
“So I don’t let her touch knives yet but I want her to understand the theory of fire and how to use it to her advantage.
“I will always teach her whatever I know about cooking because it is a life skill and it’s one thing that goes with you wherever you go, ” he concludes simply.
SPAGHETTI WITH BUTTER, LEEKS AND IKURA
10ml olive oil
20g thinly sliced leeks, white part
80ml unsalted vegetable stock or water
30g sweet corn kernels
Boil a pot of water and add the pasta, cook till soft. Strain and set aside with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent from sticking.
As the water is boiling for pasta, start sweating leeks with butter till translucent in a very small pot, add 50ml of stock, barely cover and braise the leeks on low heat till soft and water has mostly evaporated but still moist.
Add corn, followed by pasta, adjust with stock/water and butter to get the consistency and flavour right.
Plate the pasta and top with ikura.
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