Time-Out Sydney branded her the high priestess of Malaysian cuisine. Her stalls are landmarks at food markets and festivals. And she has just enough room under her belt to fit a TV show and a digital magazine. Jackie M has certainly come a long way from her days of IT consultancy.
The platinum-haired celebrity chef unhappily traded Seremban for Sydney as a teenager and kept a fierce hold on her Malaysian heritage. After a brief stint as an IT consultant she turned her back on convention to walk the same culinary path as her parents and promptly shot to fame for her mastery over Malaysian flavours and traditional cooking techniques.
Despite having indulged in her passion for the past 15 years, Jackie, 47, is nowhere close to hanging up the wok. Not when she’s still brimming with ideas and not when her Australian and Malaysian fans are still hungry for more.
Here she speaks to JOM about her vision for Malaysian food in Australia, her journey and the road ahead.
What have you been up to lately?
Oh my goodness, what haven’t I been up to? I just got back from shooting a pilot for a new television show in Malaysia. It’s a travel, food and mystery show. Strange mix, but I think it could work!
I continue to run my Malaysian food stall at various markets and events in Sydney, and I produce a range of frozen prepared meals and pastes that people can buy from my stall or online.
There’s the publishing aspect of my business as well. My Truly Malaysian digital magazine launched late last year and we’re about to get into full swing with the August issue.
I still do the occasional cooking class, catering event and pop-up restaurants, although they’re admittedly a little tricky to fit into my schedule.
In between all this I’m constantly in talks with various collaborators on other projects. I’m very passionate about Malaysia and I love food and travel, so anything that combines these elements will invariably interest me.
How did you turn yourself into a celebrity chef?
I don’t consider myself a celebrity chef! It’s been an incredible journey to get to this point and I love that I’m finally in a position where I get to pick what I want to do, but it’s taken a long while to get here.
What’s your migration story?
I left Malaysia with my parents and younger sister on a family reunion visa when I was 17, and because of my age I was automatically included in my parents’ application. I’m probably the minority who really didn’t want to leave, and I swore I would go back when I was old enough.
I’m grateful for the opportunities Australia has afforded me but like my dad who viewed his ancestors’ Chinese homeland through rose-tinted glasses, I do the same with Malaysia.
Like your stereotypical Asian kid, I ticked all the right boxes where education and work choices were concerned. I graduated from Sydney University and had a good career as an IT consultant, working both in Sydney and London. I came back from the UK in 2001, decided it was now or never, and took the plunge to go into Malaysian food full time.
Some of my family members were dismayed, although not my dad who was a former street food vendor. He was very supportive.
I didn’t spend one cent on advertisements or publicity and I ran everything on a shoestring budget. The first time I realised people were starting to take notice of my food was during my second year of participation in the Hyde Park Night Noodle Market.
Someone on an online forum had asked whether there were any ice-cream stalls at the event, and another person replied that the only ice-cream stall was next to the “stall with the longest line”. That was my stall. Social media and word-of-mouth had generated a line of people willing to wait 45-minutes for my food. I like that there was no direct reference to Malaysian food or to Jackie M in the exchange.
Thanks to my IT background I’m a little more comfortable with technology than the average restaurateur so I had a website, an online store, and a social and digital media presence pretty early on. That helped me build a global audience especially on Google+ where mine is currently the account with the most followers in Australia.
You have a son with special needs. Tell us about him and what he has taught you.
Noah was born with Down Syndrome and other life-threatening illnesses. Only some were pre-diagnosed while he was in the womb. He had AVSD (atrioventricular septal defect) and duodenal atresia, both of which needed life-saving surgeries. But what came closest to killing him was a rare condition called hydrops fetalis.
I was told hydrops fetalis had a 90% mortality rate among “normal” babies and 100% mortality among those with Down Syndrome. Also if the baby didn’t overcome it within the first month, there was zero chance of survival. Noah survived both.
He spent the first seven months of his life in hospital. The daily commute and the hours spent by his cot was what ultimately set the wheels in motion for me to give up my restaurant.
Having Noah has completely redefined my work and vision. First of all, his disability has given me greater incentive to build a strong legacy for him. I want him to be able to stand proud one day for what his mom has achieved. I want him to be envied, not pitied or looked down on.
Second, having experienced firsthand what it’s like raising a disabled child alone has opened my eyes to society. I want to use my platform to help raise awareness about issues pertaining to disability and single-parenthood in Australia and overseas.
Third, I hope to show others, especially women, that your life doesn’t stop because of your circumstances. I bring Noah to work and to meetings even if involves the boards of directors. Clearly that’s not always practical in every situation but the lesson I hope to impart is that if you’re good at what you do, the world will accommodate you.
Noah has taught me to laugh. He is truly a bundle of unbridled joy. When he was first discharged from hospital I would look at him and laugh. It sounds crazy now but it was almost as if to say, “We won. You smarty pants doctors were wrong!” Now we just laugh because we find each other so funny.
Noah has also taught me acceptance. I was a bit of a closet snob academically, and my first daughter was the top student going into Sydney University’s Molecular Biology and Genetics course. Before they diagnosed Noah as potentially having Down Syndrome, I had fully expected to raise another virtual genius. I’ve learned to not only accept his condition but am now a fierce advocate for those who society subtly try to cull because of their perceived lack of usefulness to the world.
What is your vision for Malaysian cuisine in Australia and how are you working towards fulfilling this vision?
One of the things I miss most about Malaysia is the pasar malam. It would be fantastic if it could be recreated in Australia in all its simple, unfettered and affordable glory. It think it would be fantastic if we could go out late at night all year round and grab a bite outdoors, drinking teh tarik and chomping on satay and ketupat and sup kambing and pisang goreng.
I can’t speak for other parts of Australia but Malaysian food in Sydney is in pretty good shape considering not all ingredients are readily available here. I’d love to see it go from strength to strength so that we’re no longer seen as an alternative for when one wants a break from Thai food or sushi but rather as the preferred choice when dining out.
I’ve done cooking demonstrations and pop-up restaurants at various events including Malaysia Fest, The Good Food & Wine Show, Taste of Sydney and I’ve been on a number of TV shows over the years, either in collaboration with the Malaysia Kitchen Campaign or Tourism Malaysia or on my own.
What’s your favourite Malaysian dish?
This is a tough one but I’ll say Curry Laksa.
What’s your earliest memory of Malaysian food?
I remember my parents regularly getting supper from this “tok-tok mee” guy (called as much because he used a wooden clapper to tout for business) after working at my dad’s canteen at Odeon cinema. I loved his dry-style noodles with various types of fish balls in soup, one of which was called char yen. It was like a soft, pseudo-doughy shrivelled, tubular fried dumpling. To this day I haven’t been able to find this char yen. Nor have I learned to make it or found out what it’s actually called. So if anyone can help, I’ll be forever indebted!
Who is your inspiration?
The street food vendors in Malaysia, and I count my parents among them. My parents started out early in life selling rojak, sotong kangkung and sotong bakar/giling. Mom passed away when I was six, but dad was a kick-ass cook even after he moved on to other businesses.
These people inspire me because the concept of a celebrity chef is lost on them. They put in the long hours each day and get very little recognition for their skill and dedication. Their motivation is to put food on the table and to hopefully save up enough so their own kids would have a better future. That in a nutshell, was my parents’ story. I’ve always had a rebellious streak in me, which might explain why I gave up my career to take up their mantle.
What made you so passionate about Malaysian food?
It was self-interest. When I first arrived in Australia, there were very few options where good Malaysian eateries were concerned. I also quickly discovered to my dismay that despite my stepmom being an incredible cook, she, like most Malaysians, never learned how to make the street food for which our country is famous.
We were and still are spoilt where Malaysian street food is concerned. It’s so cheap and so readily available we don’t think to learn how to make our own roti canai or char kway teow or laksa. Then we go overseas and start pining for home. Back then I made it my mission to learn how to make all the dishes from my childhood.
What is a must-have in your kitchen?
Garlic. It makes everything taste better!
What makes for a great chef or a fantastic home cook?
Someone who is prepared to cook by instinct and improvise using whatever ingredients they have on hand. I try to get my students to adopt the agak-agak method of following recipes. It takes practice and experience to dispense with measuring utensils but Malaysian cooking is really meant to be more of an artistic rather than scientific exercise, in my opinion.
What are your plans in the next five to ten years?
I have a number of TV and publishing-related projects I’m working on, and that’s the direction in which I’m headed. I’m looking to spend more time travelling and promoting Malaysian food and culture as much as possible. I’d love to eventually quit doing the kind of back-breaking mass-scale cooking that I do at the moment so if there are any Malaysians out there looking to take over a long-established Malaysian food business, call me!
What do you do that still makes you a Malaysian?
My food preferences and my disappointment at the half-baked efforts at celebrating festivals like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali outside of Malaysia.