You need to be able to quickly see what is working and what is not.
Malaysian Chef Azizskandar Awang embarked upon his career as a commis chef at the Renaissance Palm Garden Hotel a little over 20 years ago, and made his mark shortly afterwards as the Best Young Chef in Malaysia in the 2004-05 Young Chefs Challenge.
He went on to serve as Executive Chef for almost four years at Anantara Lawana Koh Samui Resort, managing a large team of 55 chefs, and adding to his list of awards as he was named Chef Hotelier of the Year at the Hotelier Awards Asia 2018, ahead of more than 300 talented rivals. Meanwhile, the resort’s Tree Tops restaurant was listed among Thailand’s top ten fine dining venues by Thailand Tatler under his expert guidance. Before taking up his current post at Meliá Koh Samui, Awang spent time honing his skills at various Anantara properties in the Maldives, and also in Portugal, where he took responsibility for the management of large teams of chefs.
How did you start your journey as a chef?
I once worked as a banquet waiter at the Marriott Kuala Lumpur and every time we hosted a dinner function, I would go into the banquet kitchen to collect the food to serve to the customers. And I was amazed every time I set foot in that kitchen. It had an incredible ambiance. The seamless collaboration between each section of the kitchen, the effort that went into each carefully plated dish, the commands of the head chef and the buzz of the kitchen … despite the heat, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
One day I went to see the Executive Chef and asked if he could give me a job in the kitchen. Instead of giving me a job, he advised me to go to culinary school to learn some basics first and I am glad I did. I went to culinary school for two years and completed my six-month apprentice training in fine dining, banquets, Japanese cuisine, and all-day dining in the kitchen at Renaissance Kuala Lumpur, one of the biggest hotels in the city, with 941 rooms, a 2000-guest grand ballroom and 15 meeting rooms.
To this day, I still love the buzz of the kitchen.
What makes your food unique?
Under my stewardship at The Breeza Beach Restaurant & Bar, we specialize in contemporary Thai cuisine as well as Western and Mediterranean fare. The contemporary take on our Thai cuisine as well as our Mediterranean influence, that pays tribute to Spain’s famed gastronomy, make our food unique. Our signature dishes include ‘Hokkaido scallop with chorizo, raisin salsa and ajo blanco’ and ‘Wagyu beef with black garlic, parsnip puree and port wine reduction’.
To explain in more depth, a lot of practice, long hours and passion are involved. There is so much that goes into making the food unique, and it’s not just about cooking and the presentation of food, as important as they are. It’s also about training and managing teams of people and bringing the best you can out of them, sourcing the best ingredients possible, taking care of budgets, continually developing menus to enhance the guest experience, and much more. The ability to improvise is also important. You need to be able to quickly see what is working and what is not. If you are creative about your solutions to address what does not work, you may surprise yourself and your team.
How do you keep guests dining in-house rather than dining outside the property?
We strive to offer something different that can’t be found anywhere else. I work closely with my team to position The Breeza Beach Restaurant & Bar as one of Koh Samui’s leading fine dining restaurants. We offer exciting menus that celebrate contemporary Thai, Western, and Mediterranean fare including degustation, vegan and vegetarian, afternoon tea, and Sunday brunch menus.
Our Sunday Brunch menu on the first Sunday of each month at Breeza and Yod Maprao is also very popular; it doesn’t just keep guests dining in-house but also attracts guests from across Samui island. It also boils down to the consistency of the food and the service. We pay attention to the details, we learn what our guests like, and we aim to always surprise them when they least expect it.
What is the biggest challenge running a kitchen during this time?
The biggest challenge is ultimately helping to contribute to the hotel’s profit and reduce losses. As executive chef, you need to monitor many variables including food and beverage costs, the engineering of menus, waste control, and upselling programs.
During these unprecedented times prompted by Covid-19, we also aim to give back to the community. We have, for example, prepared packages for local families in need that include items such as rice, noodles, cooking oil, milk, tinned food and much more that they can prepare in their homes.
It’s important to keep your team motivated and inspired. I aim to lead by example and develop each and every member of my team by recognizing and praising them for commendable work, as well as creating individual development plans for each member of the team and monitoring their progress. You also need to ensure you are really tuned into what each member of your team is doing and avoid repetition in delegating job assignments. This not only prevents the team from getting bored but also allows people to learn and do as much as possible. I also encourage our staff to draw inspiration from each other, as people have rich and varied backgrounds and tastes and can offer great insights and tips for the rest of the team. Give them opportunities to share their knowledge through cooking their favorite dishes for each other. Challenge them through, for example, activities to determine who cooks the best local dishes, who cooks the best Western dishes, and who cooks the best Mediterranean dishes. Give them opportunities where they can learn from each other and motivate each other.
What's your favorite food to cook and why?
A nice bowl of pasta paired with a nice drink, all enjoyed with a great companion. It’s the company that counts.