Sometimes you only need to look at a person to guess what they do for a living. And at first glance, 25-year-old Loh Yi Jun looks every inch the chemical engineer he studied to become.
But then, in his sprawling family kitchen, Loh cuts through a galette he has made, and you’ll find your opinion shifting. Because Loh slices through that crusty dough with skill, precision and total ease – like a man who has found his true calling in life.
In many ways, Loh’s divergence into the world of culinary arts is completely out of character. Growing up, he was always into maths and science. When he got into the prestigious Cambridge University to study chemical engineering, his future seemed certain. There were no blurred lines, no floundering or wavering. That is, until he discovered the joy of cooking.
“When I went to uni, it was always with the mindset that I was going to be an engineer or go into consulting or whatnot. But it was in uni that I learnt to cook, because the roommate that I had was really, really into cooking as well. After learning to cook, I thought, ‘This is really, really fun and something worthwhile to do as a life pursuit’ so I thought, why not take a leap and go into this industry?” he says.
So Loh did a 360° turnabout and went and did a diploma in culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu, spending six months in London and three months in Paris. Once he had completed the course, he signed up for an internship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a revolutionary farm-to-table eatery that doesn’t have a fixed menu and also happens to be one of the world’s 50 best restaurants. The experience proved both eye-opening as well as exhausting.
“It was super exhausting and a very different environment. It was a very different crop of people than the people I interacted with at Cambridge and it was quite refreshing. But at the same time, because you’re working so hard, and you see all these people working really, really hard beside you as well, that just pushes you to do better and work harder. I wouldn’t say I would do it long term, but for the six months I was there, it was a really good experience,” he says.
When Loh returned to Malaysia last year, he reached out to various food sites with ideas for food stories and soon found himself churning out pieces for US-based food media behemoths like Food52 and Taste. On the side, he began documenting his recipes and food experiments on his blog Jun & Tonic (www.junandtonic.com).
“The blog started off in uni – it was called Toffee & Tea before, which was a bad name. And it was basically me randomly rambling about stuff I cooked in uni with my roommate and then slowly from there, it kind of morphed into a more serious pursuit. So I found that this is kind of a good way to log what I cook and all the weird experiments that I try,” he says.
The blog is a hilarious, witty and highly interesting account of his adventures in the kitchen. Loh is a captivating writer, ably enchanting readers with his engrossing tales of culinary discoveries and interesting inventions. On his blog, you’ll uncover recipes for things you never thought would see the light of day: black garlic chocolate chip cookies, matcha, red bean and pomelo pavlova, Ribena kombucha and Milo Nutella!
“I think at the start, when I started the blog, it didn’t really have a clear direction, it was just about writing whatever I did in the kitchen, so some of the older recipes are really traditional kuih or roast pork belly. But slowly I found that some of my recipes were geared towards mixing different cultures and different ingredients and making new dishes out of them. And those recipes are the ones I have the most fun with, so I thought maybe this is the direction I should head towards. So it’s only in the past few months that I’ve found this clearer direction,” he says.
Loh says it takes him some time to come up with new recipes as many of the concoctions on his blog wade deep into unchartered waters, so there are no guides for him to look up or recipes to follow. Instead, he has to construct his own.
“The idea hits me when I’m watching food videos or reading food articles online, and I will slowly mull it over several weeks but not really do anything. And then I will give it two or three tries of iterating the recipes. Because there are no set recipes that you can find for most of the things I do – I just have to do a lot of trial and error. It takes me to up to three attempts to perfect the recipes, and maybe one day to write it up,” he says.
Given his ingenuity and innovative spirit, it’s little wonder that it hasn’t taken long for Loh to be recognised. What is more unexpected is that the recognition has taken an international form, as Loh was recently nominated as a finalist in the Best New Voice Category of gourmet American magazine Saveur’s 2018 blog awards.
The Saveur Blog Awards was introduced in 2010 to celebrate and herald food bloggers, food photographers and food videographers all over the world and is industry recognition that is worth its weight in gold.
“It was really surprising that I actually got in. I’m not sure how Saveur picks their finalists – they say it’s based on the number of nominations but also who the nominations are by, so it could be by their editors or past winners or past finalists,” he says.
Although Loh has no clue how he got nominated or even who nominated him, there is plenty of reason to celebrate. While other Malaysians have been nominated before – videographer Andrew Gooi, blogger Christine Leong (of Vermilion Roots) – they have mostly been based overseas, while Loh cooks, styles and photographs his concoctions from his lovely home in Shah Alam, which lends a more home-hewn feel to his output.
“I think it’s an ongoing process of learning. Since I came back, I’ve started experimenting with photographing and styling meals on my white kitchen table. I didn’t take any courses, so I’m not sure if what I’m doing is right but I find that if you keep everything white and simple, it’s a lot easier to shift things around and make it look nice,” he says.
The winners of the Saveur Blog Awards will be announced next month in Memphis, Tennessee, and Loh will be in attendance to see if he wins. But win or lose, Loh says his ultimate aim is to make his mark on the Malaysian F&B scene.
“When I first came back, I was always thinking of going somewhere else and settling, like maybe Australia because the food scene there is really good or the US where I could maybe work with Food52. But ever since the (general) elections, I feel like there is hope and a future in Malaysia. So in the next few years, I’m trying to see how I can contribute in the Malaysian food industry and improve our conversations around food,” he says.
PINEAPPLE & SANTAN GALETTE
Makes 1 galette
For the shortcrust pastry
150g all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
100g butter, cut into small cubes
1½ tbsp (25ml) cold water
For the santan frangipane
40g soft butter, at room temperature
90g almond flour
30g all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
For adding to the pastry
½ a fresh pineapple, cut into thin slices
eggwash, made with 1 egg and 1 tbsp water whisked together
1 tbsp sugar
For the garnish
zest of ½ a lime
ice cream, optional
To make the shortcrust pastry
Make sure all your ingredients are really cold before you start. Mix the flour, sugar, salt, and cubes of cold butter in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment (or in a food processor) for 30 to 60 seconds until no large lumps of butter remain. When the flour and butter turns sandy, add the water and mix briefly until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
To make the santan frangipane
In a mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Then add the egg and santan and mix for 30 seconds or so, until it turns into a smooth batter. Finally, add the almond flour, all-purpose flour, and salt, and mix until it forms a semi-smooth paste.
To roll out the pastry
On a well-floured surface, roll out the shortcrust pastry dough using a rolling pin until it is at least 30cm across and 2mm-4mm thick. Rotate pastry after every few rolls to make it circular. Transfer dough onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.
Pour the santan frangipane onto the centre of the pastry. Using a spoon or spatula, spread and even out the frangipane paste, leaving at least a 5cm gap all around the sides. Arrange the slices of pineapple on top of the frangipane, and fold up the edges of the galette onto itself. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes.
Pre-heat oven to 210°C. Before baking, brush a thin layer of egg wash onto the pastry, and sprinkle sugar over the whole galette. Bake the galette for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180°C and continue baking for a further 15-20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove the galette from the oven and let it cool for 5-10 minutes.
Cut the galette into several slices (like a pizza) and grate some lime zest onto each slice.