Lady Gaga: Julie Lin Pairs Food with Fame
Where did your love of cooking begin?
Quite simply, eating. I feel like whenever you love to eat, you get an interest for the food. I think there's quite a lot connected to who you are as a person and what you eat to make you happy. To nourish yourself is to look after yourself.
It also came from my mum's background in Malaysia. Food is the centrepiece of culture in Malaysia and it's a bit of a melting pot for food. You get so many different types of food - you get Indian-Malay food, Portuguese-Malay, Chinese-Malay - it's just amazing. [I was] completely spoiled in that way. If I bumped into you and we were in a Malaysian street, I wouldn't say "Hey, how's it going?", I'd say "Hey, have you eaten yet?" Food's a bit of a conversation starter. The culture there is passed down to me through my mum and I want to continue her journey with it. The way I got into cooking was through her.
What are your first memories of food growing up?
I've always loved salty foods. From an early age, I used to eat quite a lot of my mum's food which was an amalgamation of ingredients that she could get here and her cooking from Malaysia. She would do these amazing fried veg dishes or wok-fried dishes with fish sauce. My first memories of food are all savoury.
That's interesting what you say about your mum using an amalgamation of ingredients to create her dishes because that's very similar to what you do now. You use locally sourced Scottish ingredients to create amazing Malaysian cuisine. Could you tell our readers more about that?
We hunt for authenticity in food and quite often we think of that as being synonymous with good food. I've witnessed access to ingredients become a bit more difficult and expensive. It's good to challenge yourself as a cook and think I don't have access to this ingredient because it's a million miles away. Where can I make changes? Can I use Scottish greens in a wok fry? Yes, I can. Actually, that works really well.
I think we're coming out of looking for authentic foods when they're not necessarily easy to access here. I think the conversation is growing bigger, especially with the fact that we are becoming more aware of our carbon footprint. That's accelerating that conversation.
Growing up, my mum would always use samphire through her wok fries because it was local and it turns out that it's one of the most glorious things you can put in a wok fry because it's salty, it gives such a punch, and it has good texture, too. There are a lot of different ingredient swaps that can be found. I've tried to continue that within the cooking I do now at the restaurant.
I want to make people proud of their cross-cultural cuisine. I think that's a really nice way of putting it. It means that you can celebrate your own culture whilst using what you have around you.
When did you realise that cooking was the career that you wanted to pursue?
I had a very confused journey. I left school and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. It wasn't until I started cooking for friends that something clicked. I used to find so much joy in inviting friends round and cooking for them and expressing love in that way.
A friend actually entered me onto Masterchef. I used to watch that programme endlessly and then ended up getting the call where I was asked to go onto it, and I had an absolute blast. I absolutely loved it. If I look back on it, that was the turning point for me.
To be honest, I never left my job thinking I'm going to open a restaurant. It was more like Okay, actually, this is going really well and you're enjoying this - keep on going. Sometimes having no plan is quite a good plan. My rule for this career is to keep on doing it as long as it gives me satisfaction.
After your experience on Masterchef, what was your journey into the industry like?
It was really interesting. I just wanted to find a mentor. Kitchens are quite hard places to work, and I wasn't daft to that. I thought this could be a hard thing but as long as I find someone that I want to work with, I think that this could be good.
I met someone called Laurie, and she owns Cafe Strange Brew in Glasgow - she's become quite a success story as well. She was running a kitchen called The Scullery at the time. I met her and said, "Listen, cards on the table - you can probably find someone with more experience than me, but I promise to give it my all. If my all is not enough, you can tell me and that point, and I'll let myself out."
What was your first gig like?
My first ever kitchen job was working alongside Laurie. There were lots of bumps along the road which I think there should be - if you don't make mistakes, you don't learn from them! It was long hours and hard work, but I was really willing to do it. I learned loads and stayed there for a while.
I left to go and work at a street kitchen called Babu which was great. It was a bit more along the lines of the style of cuisine that I wanted to cook eventually. By this point, I was starting to get the idea that I wanted to do something on my own.
After Babu, I had my own little stall down a lane in Glasgow. That worked really well, and it was busy all of the time. That was my first proper go at doing it on my own. I scraped together any money I could to pull it off and it worked. I had a friend who stayed in my house and would help me prep all the stuff to bring to the stall the next day. I've had so much support from friends over the years that's made it so much easier. I was very fortunate and still am to this day with all the people around me.
You opened your first restaurant in 2017. What's changed in the past six years since opening Julie's Kopitiam?
I think many things have changed.
Number one is myself, actually. I started the Kopitiam having just turned twenty-six. I don't think I actually realised how young I was at the time. Being twenty-six and starting a business means that you make so many mistakes. You need to learn to be your own accountant, your own marketing person, to be a good manager, as well as cook the food. It's a big, big task. I was so young, and I loved it and I was so ready for that challenge. I think over the years, I've matured and I'm sure I'll change in the next six years as well.
Number two: the area that I opened [the Kopitiam] in has changed. That's not a bad thing - it's become more diverse and we're seeing a good number of small businesses opening up from young entrepreneurs. Seeing how they're doing is really interesting.
The pandemic is another thing that changed us all. I think we've all come out of that with a bit of heaviness but also a bit of awareness of each other. Customers have become easier to talk to and kinder with their words. I think it's a nicer climate than it was six years ago.
We've been shooting today in your restaurant, Gaga. What was the original premise around opening Gaga?
I've got a couple of business partners there and one of them I've known for years. His name is Marc Ferrier and he's just wonderful. He owns The Thornwood as well.
In 2016, I was doing a street food stall when Sister Sledge was playing at the Bandstand. I remember it being one of the greatest days of my life because Sister Sledge came up and ate my food and then tweeted me. That same day Marc came up to me and introduced himself.
We kept in touch. I'd known him for years and then he called me during lockdown. He said, "Listen, I want to open a restaurant with you." And I was like, "Oh, okay. That's scary because we're in a pandemic!" I was a bit reluctantt at the beginning, but he talked me into it.
So, we got to work! We've done it alongside Fraser Hamilton. Fraser had just come back from Miami having done the best cocktails (he uses quite a lot of whisky in his!) and was huge in the mixology world in America. Gaga for me is really all about collaboration. That's such a strong thing in business. If you get collaboration right, you can go on for miles. You've got somebody to lean on and somebody that you trust right by your side. It all really started through Marc, and he doesn't get enough credit.
What inspires you when you're cooking?
Quite a lot of things! Mostly other people. I think learning from other people constantly is the best way to go which is why I love to travel so much. I tend to travel just to watch people's food and be completely engrossed in their culture. A trip will change my cooking style.
The sense of food and nourishment is also really inspiring to me. For example, if I'm feeling a bit fluey one week, in Gaga you might find wonton mee (a big brothy style soup with wontons in it) on the specials list because it makes me feel amazing. I always think there must be other people out there who also have the cold and would want to eat that, too. Or in summer, I might put on a chilled sesame noodle salad. I tend to put things on the menu that I love eating because hopefully, other people will love it, too. If you believe in the dish you're doing, it makes it so much easier for people to understand.
Who inspires you in your day-to-day life?
I'm going to go for the classic answer, but it's true. It's my mum. I see quite a lot of bravery in her move to Scotland. She moved over here when she was eighteen, she didn't know the language, and she had no support network here. She came from Malaysia where she had thirteen brothers and sisters. My mum used food as a means to connect to who she was. That's often part of it for me, as well. It's a very expressive thing. My mum is definitely my inspiration. She is absolutely amazing.
What have been your favourite memories as a chef?
Oh, there are so many! I remember getting our first review from Joanna Blythman. She's a big food reviewer in Scotland and she gave us a really nice review. Moments like that are like building blocks which is amazing.
Cooking for Malaysians in Glasgow has also been a really big part of it. Having people coming up to you and saying "I've not been able to try this food since I was in Malaysia." The notion that you can make somebody feel less homesick is one of the nicest feelings in the world.
It's been great meeting some heroes and having them be as amazing as I thought they were. We got nominated for some awards at The Golden Chopsticks Awards and we ended up meeting Ken Hom. It was crazy that a small place in Shawlands had led us to this point.
What is your favourite food and drink combination?
There's this drink in Malaysia called hot limau. You get it at street food stalls and it's so great. It's just hot water with brown sugar, calamansi limes, and ice. It's the simplest thing. There's something so nice about it just being a couple of ingredients because it goes with most things that I'd eat. I feel like you could add whisky to that, and it would be delicious.
My favourite dish to go with that would be nasi lemak. It's a very colourful dish - you get your coconut rice in the middle, then you get red sambal on the side, a boiled egg, sometimes a bit of fried chicken or curry, a pickle on the side, and some peanuts. It's the rice that is the most amazing thing - it's cooked in coconut milk, a bit of ginger, and pandan leaf which is super fragrant. You get all these really complex things around it, but the rice is the centrepiece. It's Malaysia's national dish. I'll have it every single day when I'm there. I really like these dishes where the simplest thing is the most amazing thing on the plate.
You've done some work with Benriach. Could you tell our readers a little bit about that?
I worked on their World of Flavour campaign. I think for a long time, we've been pairing whisky with Scottish food solely. The World of Flavour was all about opening up different cuisines and pairing them with whisky. I think whisky is absolutely amazing with Southeast Asian food. There are so many punchy flavours there and they kind of work symbiotically. It tends to work perfectly.
For Benriach, I created a dish that was to go with their new sixteen-year-old malt. The whisky was full of dried apricot flavours as well as being quite smoky, oaky, and nutty. It was really fun to match up these flavours. I paired it up with a punchy Szechuan aubergine dish. It was a match made in heaven. It's nice to see that distilleries are delving a bit more into different cuisines to pair up with whiskies.
Is this kind of cross-cultural eating and drinking something you'd like to see more of - Scotch whisky paired with different cuisines?
For sure. Maybe younger generations aren't drinking as much whisky but it's such a good drink. Sometimes it takes the conversation of food to open up people's minds to alcohol. You see that quite a lot with wine. I think if we can get to that level of people understanding whisky and knowing dishes to pair with whisky, it opens up the conversation to understanding the flavours a lot more. That's how I learned more about whisky.
There's a dish called rou jia mo which is the Chinese answer to a hamburger - it's a flatbread with pork that has been seasoned really nicely with some five spice, soy sauce, and coriander. I think that'd be really lovely beside a dram. I think there's scope to play with things here. It doesn't always necessarily have to be fancy food. I think that's where we're not opening up our minds enough to pairing whisky.
What are your long-term goals?
I'd really like to get to a stage in my career where I start giving back. My mum came from that - she used to run cooking classes that were for single mothers in the East End of Glasgow when she came here. I'd quite like to follow in her footsteps and do a lot more in terms of community work. I absolutely love running restaurants but it's quite clear to me that there are a lot of people out there who need help. My goal is to do a bit more of that, as well as developing people into the next restaurant owners in Scotland.
What kind of things do you have coming up in 2023?
I've just closed the Kopitiam. It feels like the beginning of a new chapter. Now that I've got past six years of having that restaurant and having formulated my opinions a lot more, I'd like to start writing and hearing about people's stories a bit more.
I've started doing some presenting work because, on top of building my own food story, I'm really interested in everyone else's as well. I'll be on Food Fest on the BBC which is coming out this year. I'll be going around Scotland and interviewing people about their food stories.
I'm also working quite a lot more with kids and schools. I'm going to be helping kids get into the hospitality sector if they want to and I'll be going around schools in Glasgow and teaching them about Malaysian cuisine.
There are many things on the horizon. I think this year is a year of change. Quite a lot of it is a mystery to me which I'm so excited for!