Meet Malaysia's own Jamie Oliver

Food Hero 2015 winner Ili Sulaiman dreams of being her country's Jamie Oliver.

Oliver launched Fifteen, a restaurant and charity apprenticeship programme for disadvantaged young people, in 2002.

Likewise, Ili has started Malaysian restaurant Agak Agak in Kuala Lumpur, a social enterprise which will train people from underprivileged backgrounds.

Agak Agak, officially launched on Nov 1, will take in its first three apprentices in January. Applicants are between 18 and 30 years old, and include school dropouts, the unemployed and people with learning disabilities.

"I idolise Jamie Oliver and felt inspired by him to start Agak Agak," Ili, 31, told The New Paper over the phone last Friday.

"I think he is a great ambassador for change and I love his whole farm-to-table ethos of cooking."

Ili said she has been inspired by Oliver since her student days in the UK, when she studied business administration and management at Queen Mary University of London. She would watch the celebrity chef's TV shows and buy his cookbooks.

"The difference between Fifteen and Agak Agak is that we are more about home-cooked, old-school Malaysian recipes with a modern twist," she said.


A foodie who at the age of seven learnt to cook from her grandmother, Ili founded wholesome tingkat food delivery service Dish By Ili in 2014, which she operated out of her own home in Bangsar.

"Dish By Ili was doing well and business definitely picked up after I won (reality food competition) Food Hero last year. Preparation spilled over from my kitchen into my living room and dining room," she said with a laugh.

Dish By Ili now operates out of a rented central kitchen.

As part of her expansion plans, Ili decided to open Agak Agak with partner Basira Yeusuff of pop-up kitchen Root Cellar KL.

"Since I was struggling to employ skilled, passionate people, my idea was to open an eatery to train young people in the food and beverage industry, and give back to the community at the same time," said Ili.

She is hosting her first food programme, By The Sea With Ili, in which she cooks local seafood dishes in six coastal Asian cities. The series premieres on Thursday at 10pm on Asian Food Channel (Starhub Ch 435).

She said: "It was an amazing experience to do a food show that also has a travel and lifestyle element, as previously I was shooting only short videos for the channel in the studio.

"It took me out of my comfort zone, as I was out on the beach, in the sun and even in the rain."

Ili rolled up her sleeves to catch her own fresh seafood on the show, and prepared scrumptious meals like pineapple and prawn Peranakan curry and spicy clams in a hotpot.

"I was eating seafood for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I never got sick of it because I love seafood," she said.

While Ili enjoyed her culinary adventure, she also has fond memories of the people she met and cooked with.

"I learnt to cook by talking to locals, from sea gypsies to fishermen to aunties who have been cooking for their families for years."

Ili hopes to follow in Oliver's footsteps with more TV shows and perhaps cookbooks to follow.

"I'm nervous about peoples' reactions to By The Sea With Ili because it's the first time I'm showcasing more of my personality on TV as I cook and interact with people.

"I've been really lucky with my career as it has grown, so hopefully the show will kick off more opportunities for me."

This article was first published on Nov 08, 2016.
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