Ricky Thein holds court at Tai Zi Heen with inventive Cantonese specialities that are fit for a prince.

It came as no surprise to anyone that, having spent much of his boyhood helping out at his family’s kopi tiam (coffee shop), Ricky Thein should, years later, find his true calling as a chef.

Born in Seremban and growing up in Malacca, Thein, 39, was washing tables, serving customers and making drinks by the time he was seven years old. In time, he developed such a strong affinity for the food business that he chose to work full-time in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant after Form Three.

He slowly worked his way up the ranks, and now, some 23 years later, Thein is the Chinese chef de cuisine at the Tai Zi Heen Restaurant, Prince Hotel and Residence Kuala Lumpur.

In the following interview, Thein shares the significant milestones in his career and some of his experiences over the years.

Q: When did you first become interested in food?

A: Food and drinks were such a big part of my life that I found myself being naturally drawn to the kitchen when I was in my teens. Starting out as a part-time kitchen helper, I not only learned how to cook but also how to handle essential kitchen work like cleaning up, cutting and preparing ingredients.

Where or how do you get fresh ideas and inspiration?

I’d say it takes a good amount of trial and error. After so many years, I have developed this habit of thinking about work constantly. Whether I’m out shopping, dining or travelling, I’d automatically wonder how to replicate a dish I have just sampled or how to create new dishes out of unfamiliar ingredients.

62761A77A47244CB822162C9056AE0A0Chef Ricky Thein of Tai Zi Heen, Prince Hotel & Residence, KL.

Do you have a mentor who has inspired you?

I look to my ex-colleague and fellow chef, Bong Jung Choi, as my mentor. He is a good friend; we’re brothers in arms. We’ve opened three hotels together, and today, I still go to him for advice and guidance.

What’s the greatest challenge in being a chef?

In Malaysia, it’s hard to find good quality ingredients as our best produce are exported overseas. Some customers also refuse to accept that local chefs are unable to procure certain rare ingredients or prepare select dishes that they have sampled overseas. So most of us rely on our ingenuity coupled with strong, flavourful sauces to win diners over.

What’s your favourite local dish?

19C5E3C596484960A93E1C8A58D13E52Tai Zi Heen’s Double Boiled Chinese Herbal Soup.

Just give me simple, no-frills fare like Teochew porridge with salted fish and steamed minced pork.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten?

I’ve sampled many types of exotic meat but I find them too gamey and tough for my liking. I remember eating a huge 2.8kg tin gai, a type of wild bullfrog known among the Chinese as “paddy chicken” which is memorable for its sweet, tender flesh unlike the farmed ones commonly found in the market.

What are some of your signature dishes?

When you dine at Tai Zi Heen, the must-have dishes are Double-boiled Chinese Herbal Soup; Yin Yang Prawns — Crispy Prawns Tossed with Asian Dressing and Garlic Pepper Sauce; Baked Black Cod Fillet with Butter and Parmesan Cheese Crust; Crispy Soft Shell Crabs with Buttered Oats, Garlic, Curry Leaves and Chillies, and Stir-fried Australian Asparagus in XO Sauce.

From now till Dec 31, 2011, Citibank card holders get to enjoy 25% off á la carte menus (food only). Offer is valid for dine-in only and is not applicable to group bookings, banquets, weddings, festive promotions, eve of and public holidays, in-room dining, tobacco and cigars and the Malaysian F1 period. Advance reservation is required.

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