Meeting Chef Sherson Lian for the first time, one would be forgiven to think he just strolled off a set filming an Alternative Rock music video instead of a cooking show. While Sherson has been known to rock out a few times, this self-professed ‘inauthentic’ Chef Sherson mostly spends his time these days married to his job, learning new things about the food and beverage service industry, and running the popular Hello and Makhan by Kitchen Mafia – a big success considering his first ever food business experience.
“When I was 13 me and a friend participated in my school’s Hari Kantin. At that time coney dog was a huge hit, it was the in thing, so we made our own coney dogs and burgers. It was our first time actually selling it and having a taste of what doing business was like. It failed miserably because we didn’t know the mechanics of cost versus sale. We were young kids, we just wanted to have fun, but people loved what we did.”
Growing up in a family-run restaurant environment, Sherson Lian’s exposure to the food industry began at a very young age, serving customers and clearing tables. But it was only in his mid-teens that he developed an interest in cooking, learning the basics from the chefs at the restaurant whenever it wasn’t too busy. It was then that he thought, “Eh, you know, this is quite nice… I could do this for a living.”
Sherson Lian’s wok ignition
“Actually the thing that suddenly sparked my interest in cooking was the wok, I thought it was so cool. And then I started learning and practicing. I started practicing with just rice – tossing rice, learning how to control the flame, the technique of tossing and this and that, and slowly it moved on to actual cooking.”
Sherson Lian was fascinated by the wok and how important it was to get the technique of fire and timing just right. “How big the fire is is one thing, but it’s also about timing, being able to get the wok hot enough. And that’s where the tossing comes in, so that you don’t burn the food but at the same time transmit that intense heat into the food that causes that ‘wok hei’.”
There’s a little bit of ‘wok hei’ in the food at Hello, which was opened to cater to the everyday food needs of Malaysians. “The everyday food need for a common Malaysian is variety. I don’t think any one Malaysian is just stuck on one particular cuisine or type of food.”
The everyday food need for a common Malaysian is variety. I don’t think any one Malaysian is just stuck on one particular cuisine or type of food.
From Hello to Makhan
“For my second restaurant Makhan, the direction is totally different. It’s a gastro bar, where food and booze are the focus. We wanted to stand out in terms of creating something that’s a bit more interesting, something that’s a bit different from what other people are doing outside. So that’s why it’s an Indian-English cuisine gastro bar.”
“We have mutton curry, chicken tikka masala, butter chicken. At the same time we’ve got fish and chips, bangers and mash, and we’ve got a really good steak pie.” Makhan has even garnered a bit of a religious following for some of their dishes. “Our mutton curry is pretty mean. We call it a mutton toss pulao because I don’t know how to make a good briyani, but I take the mutton curry and mix it together with pulao rice and toss it over a flame. It’s almost like a fried rice, and people love it. They find it very interesting and tell us, ‘Your Indian food is not bad ah, but you have no Indian chef’.”
It was a new learning curve for Sherson Lian, who admits that learning Indian cuisine in a short span of time was pretty challenging, but he’s happy with the results and the response it’s been getting.
Be it cooking Indian food, a fine steak or a classic sweet and sour fish, the only ‘category’ of cook Sherson would admit to being is one who likes mixing his cuisines. “People always ask me, what’s your favourite cuisine? But look at me, I’m not an authentic person by nature. That would tell you how I was brought up – not typically Chinese, not typically Mat Salleh.
People always ask me, what’s your favourite cuisine? But look at me, I’m not an authentic person by nature.
“A lot of people seem to think that I do a lot of Nyonya, because my mum grew up in Malacca, but she’s not Nyonya. But just being there, she was exposed to all these food, which her mum would cook. Her mum’s not Nyonya either. And because I like what my mum used to cook, I learned it as well. Is it authentic Nyonya food? I don’t think it’s authentic, but it’s what I know.
“I always question what’s authentic, and I’ve come to a conclusion that if you come from a pure Nyonya family or a pure Malay family, then I think that sort of validates certain authenticity. But the thing about food is it varies.” Sherson Lian gives us an example of how even Nyonya food in Malacca differs from Nyonya food in Penang, but he believes that they are authentic as they are regardless.
“Is my cooking authentic? No. It’s just what I know combined with what I have tasted from here and from there. It’s my interpretation of it. That’s my style of cooking. Even when we do catering that’s a bit more refined, there’s still always that mix of a Western technique but Asian flavours, or the other way around with Asian techniques and Western flavours.”
Clash, combine, experiment
So what drives Sherson Lian to experiment with different techniques and flavours? “What excites me is that you never know until you try it. It could work, or it could be a disaster. And then it’s that process of trying to refine it, to make it like what it was in your head. Then when you get it you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s good!’. That’s one way I can say I came up with it.
What excites me is that you never know until you try it. It could work, or it could be a disaster.
“With food nowadays, it’s so hard to say you came up with something new, because food has been there forever. Even when I say that I came up with this, sometimes I think, no lah, maybe someone else has thought about it first.
Sherson’s proudest successful experiment is his smoked chicken rendang. He had to come up with a rendang dish and was trying to figure out how he how could inject a bit of freshness into a classic Malaysian dish that has been around for the longest time.
“It was very interesting because rendang is already very rich and intense. When I smoked the meat first, it added an earthy, smoky flavour that blended really well. When you eat rendang it’s usually around Hari Raya and you eat it with lemang, right? So you’re already tasting those two elements combined in your mouth. But it’s not every day you get lemang mah. And to expect people to make lemang on their own may be a bit far-fetched. So, by smoking the meat – which is a lot easier than making lemang – and then using it to make your rendang, you still get that flavour combination in your mouth, but with normal rice.”
Develop that instinct
Besides daring to experiment, Sherson Lian believes good cooking is also about instinct. He doesn’t typically document his dishes as that’s how his mother trained him, but learning how to develop that instinct isn’t a direct process either. “It’s in the tastelah. When you taste something you’ll ask yourself, why is this flavour not enough? Why does it taste like this? It’s because, you didn’t do this. It’s because you didn’t fry this long enough.
“I think my mom makes one of the best sambals. She takes the time to fry the garlic and onions to a point that they’re so caramelized. We all love the flavour of fried onion and fried garlic, right? So when you cook a sambal, you’re developing that flavour and transmitting it into your sambal. But before it caramelizes, she adds the chili. But is there a recipe for that? You can’t say cook for exactly 45 minutes, because the fire pressure different, the heat different, the temperature different. It’s by looking, tasting, feeling. It’s why I don’t have hereditary recipes, because my mom also doesn’t. She cooked based on her instinct, and that’s how I learned.
You can’t say cook for exactly 45 minutes, because the fire pressure different, the heat different, the temperature different. It’s by looking, tasting, feeling.
“When someone learns through instinct, their confidence level in the kitchen is very high. This is because what they need is within them, compared to someone who just develops and keeps practicing a lot of recipes. That’s not instinct, that’s just habit. When you take their recipes away, they’re lost, they can’t function. They don’t understand the ‘why’s’, they just know ‘this’ is supposed to go with ‘this’.”
But habit can turn into instincts, Sherson says, if you’re curious enough and ask enough questions.
Because practice really does make perfect
Even during his TV shows, Sherson Lian doesn’t give out recipes. “It’s not because I kedekut, it’s because I don’t have them. What I’m trying to encourage is giving people ideas, that this can go with that, or when you mix these two, you can make this.
“When you give someone an idea, then there is room for their own creativity. But when you give someone a fixed recipe, then you don’t give them any room, unless they themselves are curious enough to add stuff. That’s where practice makes perfect comes into play.
When you give someone an idea, then there is room for their own creativity.
“Through instinct, you not just learn the dish, but you know how to fix it when it goes wrong. It also makes cooking a little bit more fun. A lot of people are intimidated by cooking because, aiyo, they’re scared – scared fail, scared burn, scared this, scared that. But if I’m able to encourage someone to develop their instinct through the shows I’ve been doing, then they won’t be afraid. I always tell people, ‘just go in there and cook something, whatever’. If it fails, it fails lah, if it doesn’t, good. If it fails then you’ll understand why.”
Despite his experience, even Sherson Lian continues to develop his instinct for flavours, especially when he goes out and eats. “I’m a very visual person. I need to taste it and see it, then I can process it. Because foodkan, it’s like the sea, it’s impossible for one to know everything. And because it’s so vast, how do you recall and put bookmarks on everything you had?” When Sherson finds a flavour he thinks could work, he notes it for reference.
Because foodkan, it’s like the sea, it’s impossible for one to know everything.
Cooking with family
Despite his busy hours, Sherson also believes in the importance of cooking with your family. “The interesting thing about Family Kitchen is to show you how food can bring families together, using food as a glue. That’s why we have a quote on the show, ‘A family who eats together, stays together’.
“If you come from a family who practices having meals together and not individually, you can see the difference in their relationships with each other. And that’s what we show on Family Kitchen. It’s to encourage people to spend more time in the kitchen, be it mucking around or eating or cooking or just being in that environment, then sitting together at the dining table and eating together.
“In Malaysia, the very same thing that is so good, is also the same culprit that wrecks our food culture, like how accessible food is 24/7, how cheap it is, how good it is and the variety available. Of course when you compare going out to eat and spending ten ringgit versus cooking at home where you have to buy your own ingredients and clean the mess you make…”
In Malaysia, the very same thing that is so good, is also the same culprit that wrecks our food culture…
Having spent some time in New Zealand where eating out was a luxury, Sherson Lian realized that people tended to cook at home a lot more, a habit that is then transferred to their kids. Back in Malaysia, on the other hand, maid-less households where both parents work often rely on takeaways for meals. “So when is the kid is exposed to how food comes around? My take is, if you want to go back and start cooking with your mothers and all that, fantastic! It’s brilliant.”
Learning outside the family kitchen
While Chef Sherson Lian himself never got to go to culinary school, he does recommend it to those who are interested to enroll. “Though I’ve not been to culinary school, I’d never discredit it. It’s part of learning – you learn the right way of doing things, the proper way and the right techniques. You learn the right terminologies, and you learn about authenticity in terms of food, because it also includes a bit about food history and where things come from.
“Of course, I’m here to prove that it’s not the only thing that will determine your success. At the end of the day it’s a lot of self-discipline and self-drive that one needs to have to be a successful chef.”
Sherson was recently offered a chance to undergo a Master Chef certification course at Berjaya College University, which required either a degree or eight years’ experience in the industry. “I just finished, because, like I said, you can never stop learning about food.”
…you can never stop learning about food.
That food trucking trend
Talking about Sherson Lian’s favourite trends, food trucks come to the forefront of his mind. That said, it’s not so much for the food but for the opportunity it provides new food entrepreneurs. “Setting up a brick and mortar today is very expensive, so a food truck is actually a very good avenue and platform requiring a fraction of the cost.” Its ability to cater to different crowds due to its mobility also creates anticipation. “When you’re not there every day, you give people an extra reason to have your food.
Setting up a brick and mortar today is very expensive, so a food truck is actually a very good avenue and platform requiring a fraction of the cost.
“The whole business concept, the business module, is fantastic. However, I find that it didn’t flourish as how it did overseas. For me I think the reason is the lack of originality in these food trucks. There are a few that are good out there, but there are lots more that are doing the same thing. So don’t just go into it because you think you can make a couple of bucks. Go into it because you really have something to offer.”
One of Sherson’s favourites food trucks is Curbside Cantina. “When you eat their food you know they have put in thought, they have put in effort. You know they bothered to source for their ingredients.”
That said, the food truck isn’t exactly new to the Malaysian food scene. “It’s been here for a while – Ramly Burger, that’s a food truck. Lok lok, that’s a food truck. They just don’t look as fancy as those in the U.S., but they’ve been around. The same goes for rojak and cendol.”
Tips for future foodpreneurs
Sherson Lian’s most important advice for those who are interested in joining the food industry isn’t about learning how to cook. “I think the most realistic tip would be to weigh between how much you enjoy your life versus how much you would enjoy the food business. And in order to get to that, you should work first.” Sherson encourages trying out the food industry before even thinking about investing your or your family’s hard-earned money on setting up your food business. “Work in an establishment, experience it first, because the job requirement for the F&B industry is very different from what you might be used to.
“The idea is always nice, but knowing how to cook is one thing, and knowing how to run a business is another thing. And in both, you would be married to your work.
The idea is always nice, but knowing how to cook is one thing, and knowing how to run a business is another thing.
“If one is willing to do that, then by all means. It’s a job that provides great satisfaction. It’s a very fulfilling and exciting business, but it also takes a toll on the physique. Though I’m not in the kitchen as often anymore, I still spend 70% to 80% of my day standing up. It’s physically demanding work.” A successful food business it not just about food, it’s also about managing people in one of the most labour-intensive jobs.
Expanding the empire
Sherson may be entirely booked up with Hello and Makhan and filming his food shows, but he still has plans for more. “Next, I want to look into opening up more branches for Makhan. It’s a concept that works. Of course, it’s still a bit early to say, but so far everything points to a good direction. We just need to tie up the loose ends of the blueprint, and then we can then expand from there.”
So before Sherson Lian becomes a restaurant mogul, try to catch him at one of his restaurants. He even has recommendations and what you should try. “Here, at Hello, always look out for the specials. We come up with different things depending on what we find in the market, so always look out for the specials here. But if we don’t have any specials on those days, the duck noodle and the beef noodle is great.
“In Makhan, If you’re a fan of mutton then you must come. We make a mutton curry, mutton toss pulao. We also make a mutton pizza, which is made from scratch, so you should come and give it a shot.”
Despite his lack of recipes, we got Sherson Lian to share a couple from the few he actually has. We’re pretty sure he’ll be more than happy if you used them to develop your own cooking instinct.