Welcome to Episode 15!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 15 is Yi Jun Loh
Yi Jun Loh is many things. A Malaysian food blogger at Jun & Tonic (nominated for the Saveur Blog Awards 2018), a food writer for the likes of TASTE, Saveur & Food52 and podcaster for Malaysian’s national radio channel BFM (Baking Bread) & his own podcast, Take a Bao.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can break into the Malaysian food industry, then this is the podcast episode for you!
Who is Yi Jun Loh?
Now you would’ve expected for one in the creative industry, that Yi Jun always had a deep love of food & pushing the boundaries of what he can do.
But that was not the case.
While completing his engineering degree at Cambridge University, he ended up rooming with a friend, Andrew, who brought him into the world of food. Cooking elaborate dishes in their shared kitchen awakened the chef in him. An awakening that led him to consider breaking the convention upon graduation.
Rather than taking on an engineering or consulting job, why not give Le Cordon Bleu a go?
Le Cordon Bleu (Paris) & Blue Hill at Stone Barns (New York)
In this STIMY episode, Yi Jun shares his experiences:
- Studying at Le Cordon Bleu & whether he thinks every food aspirant should attend the school;
- Why he chose to starge at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant at New York; and
- What he learned from working in a professional kitchen & alongside farmers growing unique strains of crops.
Returning to Malaysia
After his working stint in the US, Yi Jun returned to Malaysia and worked to establish himself in the Malaysian food scene.
- How he first started writing for Food52 & Saveur and the process of pitching to such publications;
- How he ended up hosting BFM’s food channel, Breaking Bread;
- His favorite podcast episodes & why that stood out for him;
- How he comes up with the many quirky recipes found on his blog, Jun and Tonic; and
- How he eventually started his own podcast, Take a Bao, and the challenges behind producing investigative food episodes.
While Yi Jun might argue that he is no creative culinary expert, I would beg to differ. Just check out the food work that he has done!
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories on STIMY, check out:
- Austen Allred: Co-Founder & CEO of Lambda School – a coding school that lets you attend for FREE using the Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) scheme, where you have to pay back only after earning above $50k/year. Graduates of this Y Combinator backed startup have gone on to work in Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Google & IBM
- Kendrick Nguyen: Co-Founder of Republic – one of the top 3 equity crowdfunding platforms in the US
- Renyi Chin: Co-Founder of MyBurgerLab & MyPizzaLab – one of the most innovative burger & pizza restaurant chains in Malaysia
- Darren Teoh: Owner & Head Chef of Dewakan, which was the first Malaysia restaurant to rank in the Asia Top 50 Best Restaurant
- Maurizio Leo: Engineer, blogger & founder of The Perfect Loaf – one of the top sourdough blogs in the world
- Guy Kawasaki: Chief Evangelist of Canva & Apple
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I’d love to include more listener comments & thoughts into future STIMY episodes! If you have any thoughts to share, a person you’d like me to invite, or a question you’d like answered, send an audio file / voice note to [email protected]
Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- Yi Jun: Jun & Tonic blog, Instagram, Facebook, Take a Bao podcast
- Breaking Bread podcast (BFM 89.9)
- The Third Plate by Dan Barber
- Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
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Ep 15: Yi Jun Loh - Malaysian Food Blogger, Writer & Podcaster
Ling Yah: Hey, everyone welcome to episode 15 of the So This Is My Why podcast.
I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah and today's guest is Yi Jun. A Cambridge-educated engineer turned food blogger, writer and podcaster.
You know, I first heard of Yi Jun through a mutual friend's instastory. She happened to be in his house and they were baking up a storm when I heard her go, Yi Jun, is this good enough for your blog?
And the word blog immediately snagged my attention. I thought, Oh my goodness, have I just found the Malaysian blogger?
I'm not ashamed to say I immediately stalked his profile, found out that we have plenty of mutual friends and sent a cold DM asking if he'd like to meet, just because, well, I wanted more friends in the creative blogging field.
Thankfully, Yi Jun didn't think I was some crazy nutter and was kind enough to meet and I got to learn so much about his backstory and the realities of being a blogger and podcaster in Malaysia.
In this episode, we talked a lot about how he first entered the industry, his experiences at Le Cordon Bleu, what he learned from working with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York - the two Michelin starred restaurant that was a pioneer of the farm to table movement in the States and how he began to establish himself in the Malaysian food scene upon his return.
If you've ever wanted to know how to break into the food industry or how to think about quirky ways to reinvent traditional recipes, then this is the episode for you.
So are you ready?
So you have had a really interesting career for someone with an engineering background. You have your own blog called Jun and Tonic. You have a BFM podcast called breaking bread. You also have your own podcast called Take a Bao. And I've noticed a trend, which is that there are a lot of puns. So I'm just wondering, do you like puns? Like how do you come up with these names?
Yi Jun: That's a great place to begin. I feel like I have a love, hate relationship with puns. So I remember like when I was in uni, I had this friend who was really, really into puns , and he would just really annoy me and everyone around him with his puns.
He was just really snappy with them and he would come up with them on the fly, but speaking to him. I didn't really like puns, but after that, starting a blog and thinking of a name for it and starting the podcast and the radio show as well, I was like, huh, actually puns make for quite catchy names.
So then for those podcasts and my blog, I was say, oh, puns are quite quirky, quite smart. So then I kind of used puns for that, but on a daily basis, I feel like I'm not really that much of a punny person. And sometimes when I hear puns, I can get quite cringy sometimes as well.
Ling Yah: But I mean like puns need a certain level of creativity.
So the fact that you even came up with it and it was related to food and is funny as well is just brilliant. So is creativity something that you've always had in your life since you were a child?
Yi Jun: I wouldn't say so.
So when I was a kid, growing up in a typical Malaysian Chinese household, there are certain expectations for you and what constitutes a good career, a good degree. And a lot of those are not creative roles.
This sounds like a stereotype, but it is very true for a lot of Asian families, right?
Like expectations to be like doctors, lawyers, engineers, or these careers are considered like good jobs, successful jobs. And like ideal jobs for Asian kids. You wouldn't describe them as a creative career.
And so when I was young, I went along this very sciencey path really into chemistry, physics.
In uni, I studied chemical engineering. So all along until university, I've been just chugging along and not really tapping into my creative side until after university. And that was when I went to this whole crazy cooking and food writing career, ending up where I'm at right now doing this podcast and starting a food blog.
So it's an ongoing journey, but I really didn't think I was creative as a kid.
And even now sometimes I feel creative, but they are far more creative people out there than I am.
Ling Yah: So can you tell us a little bit about that moment of epiphany that completely changed you from consulting and engineering to this, I wouldn't even say that people really know where this career is going.
Yi Jun: I asked myself that question every week, but it's an ongoing journey. Right. And I think when I was in university studying chemical engineering, and I actually really liked the course . I went into Cambridge being really into physics and chemistry and maths, and I really liked the sciences and I was really good at it as well, or I thought I was, until I met all these like crazy good people.
Cambridge is a breeding ground for great ideas and great intellectual debate. And I got a lot of that there and it kinda spurred me on to be the best version of myself there in Cambridge. And yes, it comes with a lot of expectations, right?
Like being at Cambridge, people expect you to go into all these careers that sort of earn the big bucks or like careers that are earth shaking and will influence society in big ways. Or people go into politics or do some PhD to do with some groundbreaking science and there are so many of our peers that are doing that.
I feel like just being around these people just kind of like spurred you on to kind of find your path right. And like besides all these people that are in jobs or career paths that are seen by society is typically successful. There are also like a bunch of people that are just carving their own journey, that are straying away from the typical Cambridge career path. Right. And I guess I'm one of them.
And there are people out there that are like going to build their own startups. And I have a friend that is a, that started like a video game company and he's really into games.
He started coding for a game called Rhythm Doctor, by Hafiz, and he's one of my classmates and basically he started it in Cambridge, in his second or third year. And then after he graduated, he just took it on as a career. So now he has a whole gaming company, and that's like an example that isn't really a typical Cambridge success story, right.
Ling Yah: So tell us your story. What happened
Yi Jun: to you?
Yeah, for me, just a few months before graduating, right before exam term, that was when people were applying for jobs and thinking about their futures and what sort of careers that they were going into.
And for me, I think I already know what I was going to do . And the typical career paths that chemical engineers go into, there were two kinds of big ones. You either go into the chemical engineering related careers, like, oil and gas or pharmaceuticals and big conglomerates.
Or there are a bunch of people that are also going into consulting or investment banking. So. The first one I was immediately kind of turned off by that, just from listening to people's career parts and listening to some of my seniors and where they went after the graduated.
One day that they brought in some people from, I think it was like Exxon , to speak about what working at. Exxon was like, and how they have your whole career planned out for you. And they said something along the lines of, and I'm paraphrasing here: oh, if you come work for us, we have your next 50 years planned out for you and you don't have to worry about job security. You don't have to worry about financials. We have it all aligned and out for you.
And while it will be kind of like a very lucrative career and a very attractive offer right, going into all sorts of jobs and careers. But for me, that kind of scared me and turned me away. It's like, once I'm in this, I'm kind of locked in for the next 50 years.
And it was just really scary for me.
Ling Yah: Was it the first time you were encountering this kind of question and realizing that, gosh, you know, I could actually enter this really prestigious place and spend the rest of my life there.
Yi Jun: Yeah. I think that was one of the few big moments that I remember feeling that specific way. Feeling scared of just locking yourself into this one career path, for God knows how many years.
So for me, the first option was kind of like a no-no. So then I attended to the second option and that was kind of like what I was getting towards.
I was applying for consulting jobs and going to all these fairs and events and kind of networking with people as dirty as a word that is. Doing that as well for like, three four or five months, like doing a bit of case studies and preparing for case study interviews with consulting firms that sort of made me realize that while I'm really interested in like the content and the way they think about things.
I still feel like it's not really me or it's not really what I want to do for the foreseeable future. And so at that point, I was really scared, right? Because these two parts are the typical engineering or chemical engineering paths that people go into. And for me, I didn't see myself in either of them.
So it was kind of, it was quite scary actually for like a good six months. I was just really confused and sort of afraid of what my future would look like. If I couldn't see myself in either of these career paths. Like where do I then go? And so that was the question that I was grappling with for a good six months.
Ling Yah: And this was in your fourth
Yi Jun: year?
Yeah, my last year, and exams were coming, right. So then I was like, Hmm, I don't see myself in either of these paths. So I think the next best thing that I could do is kind of like defer a step into adulthood by doing something fun for like half a year, after graduation .
So that's when I was like, Oh, I've been like cooking a bit during uni and I quite like food and cooking so why not sign up for culinary school. I guess I was sort of like justifying it to myself as all like, huh. Cooking is a great life skill to have. So if I dislike going to culinary school for like six, nine months, it won't be a waste of time.
I'll have gained a skill set that is useful in whatever . So I just saw that as sure. It's like a useful thing to do, and it's a fun thing to do. So I just went ahead with it.
In the back of my head, I'm like, yeah, I was going to have to decide on what I was going to do right after that.
Ling Yah: I want to pick up on something that you just said, you said that, Oh, it's a life skill and I'm just going to go and spend the next nine months.
I would think that cooking is a great life skill, but I won't want to spend nine months just doing cooking. Surely you must have been doing something more than just tossing a couple of ingredients into a pot.
What were you doing at university that gave you the idea that I didn't want to stop proper work yet, let me try something else. And cooking is a viable option, as opposed to maybe traveling around the world for nine months.
Yi Jun: Yeah. That is very true. So during uni, that was kind of when I picked up cooking and that was when I had this really great roommate, Andrew, and he was really into cooking.
We will cook really elaborate stuff like, I don't know, we were cooking like duck breast with plum sauce. It sounds really pretentious, but we would cook that for our friends and my friends over and just like to have a meal.
And sometimes it's just us two over the weekend and we just spend a whole afternoon cooking up something. And so I guess that was when this interest in cooking really appeared.
So I roomed with Andrew for two years and my second and third year, and just being in that sort of a fun cooking shared kitchen environment was kind of like what made me enjoy the process of cooking something good and care about taste and flavor.
And so I thought like, Oh, there's actually something I really enjoy. So then after that, on top of seeing it as a useful life skill, I always thought like this is a process that I will definitely enjoy. So I just went for it. And I also have to say, it's like really thanks to my parents as well right?
Because for me to be able to make that choice and go to culinary school is something that not every parent would be okay with. And definitely not like Asian parents. So I'm really, really grateful for my parents for allowing me to do that and to find my own path.
Ling Yah: That was the next question I had in mind. Like, what were your parents' reactions when you said I don't want to get a job here. I want to go to culinary school.
Yi Jun: Yeah, I guess it's natural for them to worry, right? And they were worried for a period of time.
In my last year, my fourth year, they were, oh, what are you gonna do?
And so I was just like telling them my thought process throughout that whole time period, I was still a bit confused and a bit lost as to what I was going to do, but they saw that I did like learning about food and learning about cooking.
And so they just said , sure, you can go ahead and do this for the next six months, nine months. But I think everyone sort of knows that, Oh, going into the F & B food and beverage industry, isn't really seen as like a sustainable career choice. And it's very hard to find success in that industry .
And so naturally they were really worried for me. but they allowed me to do that and they were like, okay, you can change your interests and we'll give you like a year, a year and a half to sort of just explore. but after that you just take a step back and see where your career is headed.
And so they were very frank with me about that as well, which I really, really appreciated. But ultimately they still backed me to explore that culinary career.
Ling Yah: So you got a diploma in culinary arts from the Le Cordon Bleu. Can you give us an idea of what it was like studying there?
Yi Jun: Oh yeah, for sure.
I think when people say, yeah, it's a culinary school, right. But it's really just a lot of fun. And this is sort of like practical advice for people who are looking into going into the food industry or like cooking. Like places like Le Cordon Bleu, they are a for profit business, right?
So really people go there to get this fancy diploma that says that oh you can cook. And that has some sort of like standing in the world of cooking, but it's really true. What a lot of people say that, yeah, nothing beats working in a real kitchen. It's so, so different.
Being in the school environment, in a culinary school, most things are prepped for you. You have your ingredients out for every lesson and all your ingredients are really nice. They get the best ingredients for you because you are paying a certain amount of money so that's the expectation.
And the teachers are really patient with you.
Well, most of them are, but they really just want you to just learn and enjoy cooking and just have fun. There is a bit of pressure here and there when it comes to exams or practicals, when you have to cook a certain dish within two hours, you have to cook a really elaborate stew and plate it up really nicely and turns of potatoes, which, until today I still can't really do nicely.
So basically you learn all these skills and a lot of them are like traditional French techniques. Ultimately, it's very, very different from working in a kitchen, where the stakes are so much higher and there's so much more uncertainty and it's sort of like going from school to adulthood, it's the same as going from culinary school to work in a kitchen
Ling Yah: Retrospectively, would you say that it was a good move for you to go to the Le Cordon Bleu or what you have rather that you went straight into some kind of work environment and would you recommend it to other people looking to consider food as a future career?
Yi Jun: Oh, I think it was a good decision though, because for me, I really didn't have much cooking experience. It was only those two, three years in university. Most of them were quick meals on the weekdays, when you're rushing for exams or studying and on the weekends, sometimes we'd we'd out something more elaborate, but it was only those two, three years. So my, I don't really have much cooking experience and I don't know what the proper technique for stuff was. So I think learning in a culinary school was really useful for that.
But really it's not for everyone because just to be transparent, like I had financial backing from my parents, right. So that was kind of like a privilege that I am really, really aware that I have and not everyone has that.
So for someone who doesn't have the financials to go to a culinary school, going to work in a kitchen is a great, great alternative. And you will learn so much more.
Ling Yah: So after school, you actually did go to work in the kitchen, but it was across the pond in New York city. So can you tell us how you ended up at Blue Hill?
Yi Jun: Hmm.
Yeah. So after culinary school, I went to Blue Hill at stone barns. And the first time I heard about that place was from reading Chef Dan's book. So Dan Barbara is the chef owner of B ue Hill Stone Barnsl and Blue Hill in New York. And he is kind of often referred to as the man who kickstarted this whole farm to table movement in the US, along with Alice Waters from San Francisco. Essentially, I read his book, The Third Plate, and that kind of really drew me into his philosophy and to his idea of where food is headed for the future.
And basically in this book, he was describing how the food landscape has shifted and will continue to shift in the future. And then after that, his Netflix documentary came u on the first season of chef's stable, which made huge waves and so yeah, the resources really helped me to be interested in his restaurant.
And so I just send them an email saying , Oh, can I just come in and learn and work for three to six months? And I heard back and we just had a short interview through Skype. Just talk to chef Adam, one of the sous chefs there, and basically yeah, sure. Come over for six months. And that was that.
Ling Yah: And to be clear, you went on an unpaid internship knowing that starging, and they basically let you have free food and accommodation, but you were working really long hours just like them.
Yi Jun: Yeah. So basically in the food industry, in the fine dining industry especially, staging is a big thing, and a lot of people see it as a problem because they would just go to all these restaurants and work for free and all these fine dining establishments will kind of use that.
And some places like 30% of their staff would be stages and basically it's free labor, right? And in some cases you just have to find your own accommodation. You just have to find your own way to the place and what they are giving you is an experience to work in the kitchen next to some superstar, big name chef.
And so a lot of people go around the world, starting at different places and racking up all these credentials and saying like, Oh, I've worked with X, Y, and Z famous chef. And for me, Blue Hill was kind enough to sponsor half of myvisa.
And, they provided me with accommodation and that was really nice of them. Like they didn't have to do that. And I went over there basically for six months and learned a lot of skills and techniques and just a totally different way of thinking about food and cooking there.
And that was really, really useful.
Ling Yah: And Blue Hill is not like any other farm to table kind of restaurant. It's actually a Michelin star restaurant that is actually 45 minutes out of New York city. So you have to purposely drive there just for it, but it's also really, really popular. And I was just wondering like what do you end up doing?
Because they were planting their own vegetables. I think over 500 fruits and vegetables, they also had their own bees. So were you working with the farmers while also working in the restaurant, also serving food to people, just getting the whole experience?
Yi Jun: Yes. So I went there, and I was basically working as one of their line cooks and so they have two.
There's one in New York city, which is like a really, really small restaurant where the one in Stone Barns is the one connected to quite a few farms around it. And essentially the kitchen works really closely with the farmers and every week some of the farmers will come in and this is organized by chef Dan. They'll just come in and just lay out these produces.
And we just go through them, Chef Dan will be like, Oh, what kind of dish are we going to make out of it today? Yeah, like sort of, it was a really holistic education, not just about food, but about farming as well.
And we could see first hand, what the thought process was like, what chef Dan and some of his sous chefs, what did they consider, how the dishes come about, how they went about creating dishes in speaking with farmers and just work with it, be closely with the farms and with the environment around them to create all these spectacular dishes.
So I got a chance to sort of experience that . And every week we had to do farm chores, it was like one or two hours of farm tours. We have to wake up slightly earlier, one or two days a week and just go to the farm and help out the farmers, whether it's harvesting some pumpkin and squash or just like trimming the fields, plowing some land or feeding the pigs. So it's all these different tasks spread out throughout the different seasons. And that was really, really cool to have done
Ling Yah: So you spend many hours doing hard labor. Did you ever wonder why you were there and whether you were on the right path?
Yi Jun: Actually, it was really, really hard work. It was really hard work, but I think overall looking back, it was such a great experience. And working there showed me a side of the food world that I would never have seen otherwise. And just going there and working with all these people and working really closely with chefs and farmers really taught me a lot.
And it was really, really intense work. Don't get, don't get us wrong. It's back breaking work. And I had many, many nights where I came back and in the first month, your legs hurt like hell. I'm just like, my legs have never hurt so hard in my life because you are forced to stand for 14 and 15 hours every day.
The only break, the only rest you have is kind of like an half an hour slot at five, where everyone comes together to eat a family meal. And even then, some people would just rush and gulp down their food because they had so much other prep work to do.
It went on for like five days a week for like six months for me, right? So it was really, really hard work and it was really physically straining. But at the end of it, I felt that I really learned a lot and I took a lot from the place.
Ling Yah: And what kind of lessons do you take away from this place?
Yi Jun: I have to say though, that I went into the restaurant industry to blue Hill, knowing that I probably wasn't going to be a chef in the future , that was not what I planned to do.
Ling Yah: How do you know that?
Yi Jun: That's a good question. I don't know. It was just something that I just felt that, you know, I don't want to be a chef and open a restaurant, like that wasn't the path that I saw myself going into.
I was really, really into food and slowly over the years, I have developed this interest and curiosity for asian food culture.
Now I'm doing more things to do like telling food stories and writing about food and developing recipes and so opening a restaurant and serving a crowd wasn't really something that I thought I'd be doing.
And so going to Blue Hill, that was one of the biggest takeaways was this how a restaurant works and how fine dining places work . Like a lot of people go find a new sandwich to eat. And that is a totally different experience from being in the kitchen.
And working closely with all these great chefs. And just understanding the way they think and how dishes come together and how things from the farm end up on your plate. That was just valuable.
Ling Yah: And Dan Barber is known for being really innovative.
He's working with farmers to create his own wheat strains and his own foie gras as well. So that you get to see any of the more innovative parts of the kind of work he was doing. And what was it like?
Yi Jun: Yeah, for sure.
One of the things that I really remember was this squash that he worked with some researchers at Cornell with to create.
So what he did was he took a butternut squash. He worked with all these researches and said , how can we create a squash that tastes better and sweeter and just more squash ?
So just through. Months and years of research and breeding and selecting all the different seeds.
He ended up with this hybrid sort of squash they called a honey nut squash. So basically this squash is a third of the size of a typical butternut squash, but it's three times as concentrated in terms of the level of sweeteners and the sugars.
And you can immediately taste it just by pureeing this squash down and just tasting it without adding any like sugar to it. Like it tastes super sweet. It's crazy.
And at some point I was tasked with roasting all these squashes and pureeing it down, every day for a good two months.
And literally that's all I did for two hours, three hours a day, just roasting these squashes and like digging them out of their shell
I had like a close relationship with this question, but basically this Honeynet question is. Available, I think probably throughout the U S now. And it's something that you can find in farmer's markets and he has managed to push this squash out beyond just a research lab setting or some artisanal farm setting.
Even today, this squash is constantly being improved upon, and he and his friends at Cornell are just trying to constantly improve on this squash and introducing more strains and better, disease resistant or yield and doing all these through very natural means of just selectively breeding and selectively feed, choosing the best seeds.
It's not like genetically modified or anything, but you are picking the best traits from a certain plant or a certain fruit and just breeding them for the next generation. And so when I was there, I had a chance at tasting some of these more experimental varieties as well.
I mean, he has so many other crazy experiments going on, but there was this one example of it.
Ling Yah: Yeah. I mean, Dunbar us is an absolute, incredible person. Were you never tempted to stay on because straight off the bat, you came back to Malaysia. So I'm just wondering what kind of thought process you were going through at that point in time?
Yi Jun: I think at that point, because I went there knowing that. I probably won't be a chef or open my own restaurant. Going into Blue Hill I just knew that, Oh, I just want to learn as much as I could. And absorb as much as I can for six months.
And after that my plan was to actually go into food writing and like work at food 52 for a bit. just help them out like intern there for a bit. And that was a plan to do six months at Blue Hill and six months at Food52. And Fo d52 is like a food media company, they basically have recipes and articles and write ups about food.
And so I wanted to work for them for like six months after Blue Hill, and I feel like this is totally my fault for not planning properly, but I couldn't get a visa. I couldn't extend my visa for an extra six months because I missed a deadline.
And I tried seeing what I can do to stay on for some more time. But in the end it just didn't work out. And that was that.
Ling Yah: So it's 2017. You come back to Malaysia, where did this interest in writing come about?
How do you even begin to find your footing and create a career for yourself?
Yi Jun: Yeah, I should probably say that since university . I had this food blog thing that I ran on the side that it was just basically me writing about random dishes. I cooked over the weekends with Andrew and just writing it on the blog and posting the recipe up.
It was just for fun, really. No one was reading it. It was more for my own entertainment. And for me to look back at, in the future and be like, Oh yeah, I made this. And I took photos of it and it looks really nice. And maybe I can recreate it again someday. But I was doing that in uni and culinary school as well.
And Blue Hill was too crazy busy to keep up with that blog. So during that six months, the blow is dead. But after I came back to Malaysia, I kind of revived that blog again, and started writing, I started posting, once every week or once every two weeks and just posting up for fun.
And because when I was in New York, I did end up going to Food52's office for a day, just to see how they work and chat with them and follow them around, and learn about the company and the whole process.
And so I had this connection with them. And so when I came back to Malaysia, I emailed them and asked like, Oh, can I just be an external contributor and write recipes for you guys and more like Asian recipes, because that's the flavors that I'm more familiar with. And at the time they didn't really have a lot of Asian recipes or Asian dishes that they cooked.
And they were just like, yeah, sure. And so that's how the whole food writing thing began.
Ling Yah: How were you sustaining yourself? Because I imagine that the blog wasn't actually generating any income. So can you give us an idea of how you even find the income to support yourself?
Yi Jun: Oh, the blog still isn't making money now. I mean, it was never my intention to make money from it anyway, and I'm really adamant on not putting ads on it because I think that just detracts from the whole enjoyment of reading a blog.
So when I came back to Malaysia, I was working in a restaurant, Table and Apron, helping up more on the business side of things for a year.
And so I had some income from that. And at some point , I slowly cut down my hours and work three, four days a week for them. And the rest of the time I was writing for food52, and then later on for Taste and for Saveur as well. So. I got some income from these articles that I wrote.
Ling Yah: Can you give us an idea of what it's like to be a freelance writer? Because I imagine it's not just submitting and they would just accept that article.
Yi Jun: Basically there's a pitching stage.
So you email these editors at the magazines and food media sites, and you come up to them with an idea or two, or maybe sometimes even more, for a recipe that you want to develop or an article that you want to write about some certain aspect of food culture or food trend.
And so you come to them with these ideas and they will either be like, Oh, that sounds like a great idea. Go ahead with it. They might make some small tweaks, like maybe you have to refine your ankle a bit more. Find a slightly different story, but overall it sounds like we're going to yeah. So go ahead.
Or they will be like, no, that doesn't sound like something we are interested in, or it doesn't sound like something that they usually publish, so they would just reject it lah. So it can go either way, but there's a pitch, so you send them ideas and then once it's accepted, then you go ahead and write your article and submit it to them.
And you will work usually quite closely with an editor and they'll come back to you. You send your first draft over and it will come back to you with edits, maybe change something. Some things to do with tone, or then the angle a bit for different publications, they will have typically different rounds of edits.
Some publications will only have one or two rounds. So I've gone up to five steaks with one of the pieces I wrote, which made me feel really bad. I was like, I'm a bad writer, but no, it's not. It's more like, they just want the article to sound as best as it can be, right.
and do the topic. Justice is all. So, once it's gone through the whole process, then it will just be published. And you'll see it up on the site and you'll feel a small sense of achievement.
Ling Yah: And what I've really loved is that all of your articles are so different and that you have written everything from Milo dinosaur to the history of kopi tiams in Malaysia. How do you come up with those ideas in the first place?
Yi Jun: Uhm, in terms of ideas, and this goes for writing ideas or recipe ideas to cook at home or ideas for the podcast that I'm doing as well. It all goes into this Trello board that I have. Anytime I'm struck with an idea, I just put it down into this board. And once I'm in the stage where I feel like, Oh, I have to start pitching articles again to websites, and I'll just look through this sport and be like, Oh yeah, I thought of this idea for the past.
I have a few good ideas in there that I want to pitch to magazines or publications then I'll look through the board, pick them out and hash them out in more detail and send it over.
Ling Yah: And on your blog, you come up with your own very quirky kind of mix that you call them kooky recipes. And I would love to kind of delve into that and just explore how you come up with these ideas in the first place.
Yi Jun: There's no process, really? I mean, there is, but sometimes random ideas just hit me through like reading articles or going out to eat or just like my mum saying some random thing. Or my friends will say like, Oh, actually this goes really well with this other thing. And I would just be like, Oh, maybe that could be a recipe.
Okay. Let me give you a few examples. Let me just open my Trello board here. I've never really shown anyone this Trello board, but let's see. Okay. So there's so many things. Okay. Just looking at, so I have this tab called recipe ideas, so all these are just things that I think of on the fly, whether it's like reading an article or conversations with friends and I just type it out.
So some of them might not really even make sense, but let's say for example, there is Cincalok fried chicken. I think I had this Choucha food store in KL, and basically it's like a fermented shrimp and they coat the fried chicken with this before deep frying it.
And so it had this really funky exterior and it's like a fried chicken, but with a lot more funk and umami to it. So I thought that was like a really cool idea. So I just jotted that down. I haven't made any cincalok fried chicken yet, but it's there.
Another example is like, let's see. There are so many here that I'm like, Oh, these ideas are just ridiculous.
I have a clay pot, clay pot, something. That's what I wrote, clay pot something, because my mom bought a clay pot, then this like, Oh, I want to cook something in a clay pot size, clay pot, something.
And then there's more common stuff like Yuzu sorbet. Thai omelette. Yeah. So there's this famous Thai crab omelet by Jai Fai and it's this Michelin star place in Bangkok.
And there's like this auntie that makes it, and you have to queue for hours. And I was just like, Ooh, maybe I should try making that. So I don't have to queue when I go to Bangkok. And then there's stuff like lychee water reduced to a caramel, I forgot where I got that idea from, but it was just, yeah.
So you see, it's just like the notes that I write down.
And the more common things people have asked me to make the ramdon from the parasite movie. So I just jotted them down, but I haven't made it. Or like strawberry sambal. Oh, that's an interesting one. Forgot about that. Yeah. So it's just filled with all these weird ideas that I have, and I just jot them down on this board and when I'm in need of inspiration.
I just look through my recipe list and just pick something out from it.
Ling Yah: So you looked through the list, you pick something out and then you try. And I imagine you wouldn't succeed the first time. So do you try and try again? Do you ever give up and think, Oh, this is never going to work and I move on to the next one.
Yi Jun: Yes, but that hasn't happened very often. And I don't really remember the last time has happened because usually I guess culinary school and working at blue Hill really helped me in knowing the basics of cooking. And so when I have a certain idea, I'm usually able to get it to work at least 70, 80% of where I want to be a way it could be.
And so it just takes two or three extra tries to get it to like 90% or even more to a hundred percent to where I'm satisfied with it. So some recipes do take a few tries, but usually even on the first try, I know that, Oh, this is working pretty well already.
Ling Yah: So you mentioned the basics of cooking. For those who haven't had the joy of going to culinary school.
Could you share what those basics are that they could apply to their own kitchen?
Yi Jun: So a lot of the recipes that I do are kind of like creative or playful tweaks on existing dishes or existing food items and so forth. A lot of the base recipes, they already exist out there. Let's say a few months ago. I made a kimchi carbonara.
Ling Yah: I did that in my college and everyone thought it was weird, but it's great.
Yi Jun: Oh, it's so good. It's so, so good. Yeah, but a carbonara recipe, that's tons out there. So if you just follow those recipes, you can come up with a regular good carbonara. But if you want to implement a twist to it. I was just like, Oh, how can I add kimchi into this, right?
So I know that kimchi and bacon sort of works well together and cheese as well. Cause there are a lot of Korean dishes where there's a kimchi stew that has cheese in it with some pork as well. You know those flavors will work, so I just had to put the kimchi in there.
So the process that I went through my head was like, Oh yeah, I'll just saute or fry up the kimchi together with some bacon? I mean, typically carbonara people use like guanciale, but it's really hard to find it in Malaysia. So I use bacon, just fry them up. And then I just made a regular carbonara, but I added some kimchi juice to that as well.
And I reduced it down a bit and then just tossed everything together. So when it comes to making all these recipes, it's just taking something out there that already exists, that someone probably already does really well. And you can just follow the recipe pretty much to the T and you end up with a good thing and it's just adding something extra to it.
And that extra thing, it's something that probably takes more experience and takes several tries to know like what sort of works and what doesn't. And so it's very hard to, I guess, put down in words how that process comes about, because it's different for different dishes, right.
Depending on what you're making, the process is really different but I guess when you ask yeah, What is the basic of cooking? You can really just follow whatever recipe already exists out there and just add your own spin to it.
Ling Yah: And I'm wondering as you're cooking, because engineers tend to be very precise, but then you have also mentioned that you really liked people like Mandy Lee from Lady and Pups.
And she's very much that I don't follow the recipe either. I just go with my guts. So what kind of cook are you?
Yi Jun: I think I'm on the latter, to be honest. And you know how a lot of people say like, when you cook, you can kind of just play around. But when you're baking, you have to be really precise.
But for me, when I bake, I'm just not precise at all. I'm just like, oh, let's try it. I'll just add this other thing and because I do tend to add random ingredients into my baking anyway. There is no existing recipe out there that I can be precise with.
And so I'm just going with my gut a lot of the time.
Ling Yah: What's your favorite dish so far on your blog?
Yi Jun: I guess the kimchi carbonara really is one of my go tos. So I rarely make dishes twice or even three times. If I make a dish, even if it's like a regular weeknight meal for my family or whatnot, there's a part of me that always wants to do something different to it.
I just have this inherent desire to go off script. Maybe I'm just bad at following instructions, right? So I rarely ever make something twice or three times, but the kimchi carbonara is something that I've made a couple of times, and it's just like really, really good flavors that come together pretty easily.
But beyond that, this was a year ago I think. I've only made it one time but I really loved it. It's just a bit laborious to make, but it's a Lotus paste and salted egg donut. So it's kind of a mooncake, like when you get a mooncake it's usually lots of space and salted inside.
I was like, Hm, I really like mooncake flavors, but it's usually always very dry or very heavy . And I just thought of making it into a custard, like filling. So I thinned down the Lotus paste and made the salted butter into sauce and just piped them all into these really fluffy doughnuts.
And yeah, I would say those two are probably my two favorite things that I've made.
Ling Yah: And is your family normally your guinea pigs for all these experiments then.
Yi Jun: Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, they are.
Ling Yah: What is it like to work as you do? Because you don't get to go to an office where you have colleagues you're working by yourself, so you need some kind of community.
So, what is it like?
Yi Jun: Yeah, that is a constant struggle. I would say, working on my own and as a freelancer as well, but I think having that community is really important.
And before this whole pandemic, I used to go out to cafes and work with a few friends who were also freelancers or working, out of office a few days a week.
Their jobs have nothing to do with food or writing. but we just hang out and that kind of helps you stay sane, and at the same time on social media as well, they are a few food writers, food bloggers that I have communicated with, and we talk every now and then, over Instagram or just message each other, whether it's helping each other out with resources or knowing where to pitch your story to, or just finding out more about the food culture, just encouraging each other really.
And there are a few food bloggers and writers out there that are really, really helpful, and it's a constantly growing circle.
Ling Yah: What is the scene like in Malaysia in particular though? Are there a lot of food bloggers like yourself?
Yi Jun: I don't think so. Or maybe I'm just a recluse when it comes to the food blogger scene within Malaysia, but I don't know.
There are a few that I've met before, but I wouldn't say particularly close to them. I like to know of them. They are the people Ili Sulaiman, she has a massive following and she's very into home cooked meals. And she started a few initiatives as well. And so she's quite a prominent figure and there are a few out there, especially TV chefs, TV, personalities, that I know of, but I feel like I am not at the level at all. and it's so quite a different sort of career I feel.
So yeah, I just haven't really interacted with them that much, but outside of Malaysia, I do know like a few food blogger writers, some from the U S as well, because, from the magazines that I write for, and just getting to know all these people.
Ling Yah: And do you feel like the Asian food scene would change and more people would get involved in this.
Yi Jun: Yeah, I think so. I think right now, there is a lot of attention being put on Asia, right?
I mean, this goes beyond food that's right. Like in the movie scene, like Parasite winning everything, Asian American actors being more prominently featured in the U S and a lot of Western media and China becoming a bigger thing as well.
So I think Asian food will naturally grow with that. And whether it's more writers, more people looking at food culture in Asia or Asian restaurants coming up and kind of breaking into the food scene in the U S and in Europe. And in fact, in the US a lot of Korean restaurants and Chinese restaurants are doing really, really well.
And I mean, Japanese restaurants have its own kind of popularity and its own appeal. And this has been going on for the few decades already.
Ling Yah: And Asian food is very much something that features in everything you do, including the podcast that you are currently doing. And I would love for you to share how you end up doing the BFM podcast before launching your own recently.
Yi Jun: So BFM is a radio station in Malaysia, and I run Breaking Bread, which is the food show and essentially how the idea came about was, they had a food show maybe four or five years ago, and which ran for many years prior.
So the host of that show was Fay Khoo. And she was a really great food writer, Malaysian food writer and food personality. And she was running that show and just inviting guests in every week to talk about Malaysian food, but she passed away. I think it's been like four years now.
And when she passed BFM stopped doing that show. And I didn't know Faye personally, but I've listened to her shows before and she's so, so great with interviewing guests and she's just such a natural interviewer. It's unbelievable. Like the way she chats and the way that she can like to bring out these random facts and random bits of cooking. I'm nowhere near that level.
But that was just like the benchmark there. When I started food writing, I was like, okay, what's the next step in my career?
I really like listening to podcasts. And since I was in the UK and in the U S I've been listening to podcasts for ages now, and there are a few food podcasts out there, like gastropod or the Spock and I just really enjoy listening to people talking and waxing lyrical about food.
And so I just thought, huh, someone should do something like that for Asia. and when I came back to Malaysia, I was thinking that for like a year and then after a year I was like, why can't I be that someone?
And so I randomly put together an episode, like just recorded on my own with a really shitty mic. Pretty shitty editing skills, just cobbled together an episode about chocolate, and sent it to BFM and just said, Hey, I know you guys, haven't been doing a food show for the past two, three years now, since Fay passed away .
I'm interested in doing one, if you guys are up for it. And this is the kind of show that I would like to do, and then just send them like a demo episode, essentially.
And they had a listen and I guess they liked what they hear and they're just like, yeah, just come in. And we just had a chat and we just agreed to start this show.
Ling Yah: Wow. And you've since then 66 episodes with them. So who has been your most fascinating interviewee so far?
Yi Jun: Oh, it's been 66 episodes. That's really long.
So I would say one of my favorite episodes that I've done was one about it's telur caviar.
So like Sean and AJ from T'Lur Caviar, which is this Malaysian caviar company, they have a caviar farm in Malaysia, in Perak. And when I heard about them, this is like a year ago. I think I was like freaking mind blown. I was like, what? There are people farming caviar in Malaysia. I have to have these guys in.
So I brought them in and there were just really, really jovial and interesting. And they just kind of blew my mind about the whole caviar farming process. And that was a really enjoyable episode. And also because I got to taste like, okay, really fresh caveat. It was probably like the first time in my life tasting it. And I was just like, Oh.
And some more this is like, it's coming from a Malaysiam farm. So it made it extra special. but I would say that that was one of my favorite episodes.
Ling Yah: And what are your biggest lessons for yourself having done so many episodes?
I think for the BFM show, it was always like a stepping stone to launching a show on my own, like learning how to edit audio, learning how to interview people. And I think I've grown quite a bit in terms of how I interview people.
If you listen to the first few episodes compared to say the more recent ones. You can hear that the style is quite different. In the beginning, I guess there were a lot more edits where I had to edit myself out because I just said a lot of things that would sound weird on the final audio.
There were so many ums and ahhs and I had to consciously cut those out of my vocabulary, but then halfway through, I realized that I added a different filler word in, and I started saying like a lot, so probably on this episode, I have said it quite a few times, unknowingly, so it's just like - oh see, I just did it again - it's just a constant evolution, right? It's a constant learning process. So I learned.
And that was a really important lesson for me. One of the trickier things to do that I haven't learned how to do it, but I think you are very good at, is to stay silent while the guest is speaking.
That is a constant struggle for me. When I listen to someone talk, I want to say, Oh yes, yes. I agree. I just want to nod my head and say something too, but when it comes to the radio station like BFM. It's a thing that they do that when the guest is speaking, you just stay silent. And that's something I'm still struggling with, but hopefully getting better, but, yeah, just keep learning.
Yi Jun: And I'm still learning new things with every episode.
Ling Yah: So we've moved on to the part I really wanted to get to because I just love Take a Bao and what you have done so far. And I've noticed that it sounds very much like Gimlet media and Alex Bloomberg does. So I'm wondering what kind of influences went into the whole curating and the approach that you had to as your own podcast.
Yi Jun: I love Gimlet media. I love all that stuff.
I think startup was the one that really made me realize the power of audio, the power of podcast, and just listening to the way Alex and his team, how they tell stories, just really drew me into the format and that style of narrative storytelling podcasts with a bit of journalism thrown in as well.
Ling Yah: In your most recent one episode five, you actually said it ended up in a way I didn't expect. So you actually had to pivot from the kind of script you had in mind. Was that difficult to pivot?
Yi Jun: It was, it was, Oh, that was like the trickiest episode to edit by far.
So the story itself was about the Chetty community in Malacca, and basically they are a marginalized community that not many Malaysians know about. So I went and visited their village, back at the end of last year. and I went together with an anthropologist that I knew of Dr. Eric Palmetto.
And basically he brought me there and he introduced me to the community. And, I went there with my mic and interviewed all these voices . And I was like, Oh, this is such an interesting community. To be able to talk about like how these people came about, like how their lives were.
But a month ago I listened back to the audio and I recorded so much audio for that one. I went with a tour around the whole village and recorded like one hour's audio of it, and interviewed the woman representative of the village, Manila.
And basically I have all these different conversations. And I was like, actually, I don't know if I can do justice to their community, by telling a story of how they live and how they are and who these people are. So, although initially, that was the story that I had in mind ,when I listened back to my audio and I tried piecing together everything, it just didn't really work in the way that I expected it to be.
So I had to step back and tell it from the perspective of me learning about the food and the community.
Rather than just diving straight into their community and going through all these details about C hetty tradition and Chetty people that not many people will know of and yeah, I hope the episode turned out okay. It was like the trickiest one.
But the payoff, when I listen to it at the end, it's just like, oh, I hope people like this. And it's a nice feeling when you hear people feeling engaged from listening to it.
Ling Yah: And I'm wondering, COVID-19 how has impacted you and how do you see the future of your field evolving?
Yi Jun: It has really affected the food and dining industry for sure.
But I think moving on, what's really important is just coming together and doing things that will sort of shine a light on some of the plights that people are going through. And there are some initiatives out there that are really doing great jobs at bettering some of the restaurants that will be struggling out there.
And I know in Malaysia, hawker food is one that is really heavily impacted because it's really hard for them to jump on all these food delivery apps, and the number of people who are going to their places to do takeaways have definitely drastically reduced.
So I think in the next few months it will be important to help them out and help people who are really struggling the most. And for me, although I'm not like a restaurant, what I can do is really more doing my bit of journalism and shine more attention and raising awareness on all these different people that are struggling or were hit by the pandemic, right?
Ling Yah: Well, thank you so much, Jun.
So I always close with three questions. Firstly, have you found your why?
Yi Jun: I don't think so. Cause I feel like it's a constant process. And although right now I feel that I have found a certain motivation towards a goal, like running this podcast, Take a Bao.
I feel like the why and the drive can and will continue to shift for everyone throughout our whole lives, really. So I think, although right now I can say that. Yeah. I might have found some reasons to do certain things, it's a constant process.
Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy would you want to leave behind?
Yi Jun: I don't know. I guess leaving a legacy. Isn't so much a thing that I have put a lot of thought into it, especially because I still consider myself to be quite new in my career.
But I guess if I look back at my life or if someone else looked back at my life, I just want to be known as someone who didn't regret any of the decisions that I made
Ling Yah: And finally, what are the important qualities that you think people should possess to succeed in your field?
Yi Jun: Perseverance, and, grit, I would say, which is, I guess it's really influenced by a book I read.
Grit by Angela Duckworth.
It just really showed me how important being gritty and being consistent and, persevering through hardships and challenges, how that is really important quality for success.
And also in the food industry, I would say it's really important to have genuine interest in food.
I feel like the word passion is overused and not everyone will feel passionate about something that they're doing, or like the field that they're in. But as long as you have a sense of interest in what you're doing, you can then build on that and perhaps turn it into a passion further down the road.
Ling Yah: And how can people follow you and connect with you?
Yi Jun: You can find me on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Jun and tonic. J U N A N D T O N I C H.
My food blog is Junandtonic.com. Or if you want to listen to the podcast, take a bow. That's B A O for the Chinese bow, the Chinese dumpling. That's on all of the podcast channels out there.
Ling Yah: Yeah. Have to remember, you always use puns.
Thank you so much, Jun, for your time. It's been great talking to you.
Yi Jun: Thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure and I hope I said things that are useful for your listeners and they can feel inspired from our conversation today.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 15. The show notes can be found at sothisismywhy.com/15
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We talked about the early days of how he got into the food industry, what it was like to be trending on social media and how they've coped with a COVID-19 situation by putting kindness and community at the heart of everything that they do.
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