It is impossible to appreciate the food of Chef Peng S. Looi without knowing a little bit about Malaysia, the Southeast Asian nation that shares land and maritime borders with Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Malaysia has developed a sophisticated cuisine that incorporates components from all its neighbors with a native twist. This multi-cultural approach to cooking had a huge impact on Looi, who is part-owner and executive chef of two of Louisville’s premier restaurants — Asiatique Restaurant and August Moon Chinese Bistro.
Looi, 54, hails from Ipoh, Malaysia, one of the largest cities in the country and the capital of the Perak state. Ipoh is also well known for its food culture, which combines elements of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cuisine. This eclectic culinary background provided the foundation for the food diners find at his award-winning restaurants.
“I started cooking when I was very young, helping my mother, my sister, and a lady my parents hired to help around the house,” Looi remembers. “Slowly I started learning the techniques. In Asian-style cooking, as in most cooking, if you can cut you can cook. I was butchering fish, chicken, and all that good stuff at an early age. Malaysia is a big dining destination because most of us, growing up, are exposed to a lot of different cuisines.”
Looi left Ipoh at 17 to further his education in the West. His first stop was in Manchester, England, where he finished high school. In 1981, Looi moved to the United States to study at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering. When he was not in class the future chef worked as a server in local restaurants and cooked Malaysian food for his friends.
Looi was completing an internship at an engineering firm when he realized he enjoyed cooking more than engineering. In 1987, he and a partner, Mimi Ha-Dabbagh, opened August Moon Chinese Bistro on Lexington Road. August Moon offers Chinese cuisine with Southeast Asian influences. Diners can find interesting combinations like goat cheese and crabmeat won tons with Asian salsa, or roasted hoisin duck with pickled root vegetables and Grand Marnier sauce. It didn’t take long for August Moon to become a major player on the Louisville restaurant scene. Looi took August Moon’s popularity as a sign that he had made the right career choice, although he didn’t feel he needed much validation. He already knew he could cook.
“You look around you, a lot of people change careers all the time,” he says. “I’m no different. A lot of chefs I work with at different events, many of them have had different careers at one time. You have to follow your passion.”
In 1994, Looi partnered with Pabs Sembillo to open Asiatique, an upscale casual restaurant that specializes in Asian fusion. Over the years, both of Looi’s restaurants have garnered some impressive accolades, especially in the media. Louisville Magazine and the alternative weekly LEO have given multiple awards to each of them. Asiatique was named “Best Upscale Casual” by the now-defunct Prep Magazine. Both restaurants have also been mentioned in the American Automobile Tour Guide, Asian Restaurant News, Bon Appetit and Chef’s Magazine.
Looi even has the distinction of having his food featured on the very first cover of Food & Dining Magazine way back in spring 2003. He says it was humbling to be picked over some of his friends on the local restaurant scene. It is just one of the personal honors he’s received throughout his career. In March 2008, Looi was the first Asian chef to receive the nationally prestigious Jefferson Evans Award for “Chef of the Year.” He has been invited to be a guest chef at the prestigious James Beard House multiple times. Looi was a master chef at World Gourmet Summits in Las Vegas and Dubai, UAE. He also appeared at the Epcot Food + Wine Festival in Disney, Houston’s Grand Food and Wine Affair, the Charleston Food and Wine Festival, the Boca Bacchanal in Boca Raton, and the San Diego Food and Wine Affair.
Looi does not take his status in the culinary world for granted. He says it takes certain skills to climb to the top of the culinary world, but it takes a different set of talents to stay there for several decades. A restaurant owner has to be a businessman, a chef, and a public relations pitchman. Looi is able to meet the demands of a celebrity chef, and still cook regularly at both of his restaurants, because of the support of his staff. Sous chefs manage the day to day activity at August Moon and Asiatique, and most of the staff at each of his establishment is made up of longtime employees. Looi says the low employee turnover rate is one key to stability and long-term success in the restaurant business.
“I thank my staff for what the restaurants are today,” he confesses.
“They are a big part of my success. I run a tight crew. They are motivated and well trained. It is not easy to maintain a consistent high quality, but we just try our best. At the end of the day, if you know you tried your best, you can sleep well.”
Another key to success is evolution. Looi holds to the lessons he learned growing up in Malaysia, always leaving himself open to new culinary experiences. He feels there is always more for him to learn and experimentation keeps the customers coming back. “Being a chef, like anything else, if you stop learning you become stagnant,” he says.
“We have a different generation of diners now than when I first started. Because of traveling, people are exposed to more styles of food, cuisines, and flavors. They are willing to try new flavors. I always loved Brussel sprouts, but if I served them 15 years ago, no one would touch them. I remember one time I tried to do Foie Gras Fried Rice. It was the biggest flop. Now, it is something I would consider doing again.”
The latest sign of change in Looi’s restaurant world is the implementation of small plates menu at Asiatique. The chef refers to them as Asian tapas. The idea came to him after he realized how much diners enjoyed sampling each other’s food. Looi figured that people would love to be able to sample eight small dishes rather be limited to one big entrée. He made the change on the Fourth of July and has received a positive response for the community. Asiatique’s menu offers an extensive assortment of hot and chilled small plates. Highlights include chicken wing with lemongrass, ginger and gochujang aioli; ceviche with shrimp, scallop, citrus, ponzu oil and naan; and spring roll with crabmeat, goat cheese and spicy miso aioli. Prices range from $8 to $10 for each dish.
“The simple fact is that people want more flavors,” Looi says. “Small plates let them take a chance on a dish that they might not order as an entree. It offers a sense of discovery. Of course, customers can still get a large entrée if they want, but now our menu gives them more options.”
Looi returns to Malaysia regularly to judge Culinaire Malaysia, the largest culinary competition in the South East Asian region. The biannual contest is sponsored by the Chefs Association of Malaysia, Malaysian Hotel Association, and the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia. Categories include everything from Most Outstanding Bartender to the Red Majesty Chef’s Cup Challenge Trophy. Participating in the Culinaire Malaysia gives Looi a chance to get back to his cooking roots and also learn about the latest innovations in Asian cooking.
“Chefs from all over Europe and Asia come to compete,” he says. “So, I can see what they do and talk to other judges. Most of them are like me, chefs by training and profession. We exchange notes and it’s all good. I learn something new every time I visit.”
Looi travels throughout the world looking for new ideas and tastes to implement at August Moon or Asiatique, but he also looks for inspiration closer to home. Looi does not see himself in competition with other Louisville restaurant owners. Although they are trying to attract the same dollars, Looi says each local chef has their own skill set and they do well with what they do. He could come up with an idea for the same dish as Kathy Cary at Lilly’s or Dean Corbett at Corbett’s, but because they all have different influences that affect the food, the final dishes would be different.
“Most chefs in town are friends,” Looi says. “When I go to their restaurants it is because I appreciate what they do, not to check out the competition. Louisville is a city where people like to eat and drink for entertainment, so there are plenty of customers for everyone. The city is lucky to have such a diverse collection of talent.”
Looi’s love of Louisville extends beyond the culinary scene to the community as a whole. He is involved in many philanthropic activities. Looi is the coordinating chef for the Lunar Dinner fundraiser at the Crane House, an Asian cultural institute in Old Louisville. In the past, he has also taken part in events sponsored by Dare to Care, The Healing Place, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Kentucky Harvest and Home of the Innocents.
Despite the strong connection to Louisville, Looi says Malaysia is still home. He says Malaysians living overseas often talk about missing the 3 Fs – friends, family, and food. Although he cooks all day at work, Looi says that when he misses Ipoh, he goes home and makes a Malaysian dish for his wife, Ling Chiu, and their two children Jasmine, 9, and Adam, 7.
“I like to expose my family to Malaysian food, which is non-existent in this town,” he says. “I try to expose my children to a lot of cuisines, the way I was as a child. But when I cook Malaysia food it is sometimes because I’m homesick. Food is part of the culture and food can help the homesickness.”
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