Chef Jack Weldie is, first and foremost, a formidable chef. On first impression, he is a man of few words who lets his food speak for itself. When you engage him in conversation, though, he speaks his mind and pours his heart out about his lifelong pursuit for the love of food. Our conversation with Jack turned out to be our longest interview to date – an engaging 2.5 hours! He’s a self-taught East Malaysian chef who is well regarded for his acute ability to meld cuisines, cultures, and worldly influences in surprising and ingenious ways.
He talks to Set the Tables about the harsh beginnings of his culinary journey, transporting us back to his childhood in Sabah, and what his food represents at this season in his life. Amidst reminiscing about foraging the forest and paddy fields for wild ferns and vegetables with his grandmother, and detailing about how he rose up the ranks through sheer grit, perseverance, and an open mind, the majority of this interview deals with the way he progressively thinks about food and how this led to the birth of Chipta 11A.
Served Omakase-style, Chipta 11A is a curated dining experience that opened its doors in December 2019, just before the world came to a standstill three months later. Chipta originates from the Malay word “cipta” translated to mean “create”.
If you try to figure out the type of cuisine Chipta 11A serves along with any preconceived ideas of what you know about Omakase dining, discard those thoughts now. Chipta 11A is a singular culinary force on a mission to reinterpret food and the assumptions we commonly guided by. In the words of Jack,
“Keep an open mind at Chipta 11A, and, discover for yourself that ingredients can be consumed in other ways that you’ll never expect.”
The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
Humble beginnings and stumbling upon this industry accidentally
Jack was born to a big family of seven siblings. He’s from the Dusun tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia. He left high school mid-way with a one-way ticket to Kuala Lumpur and, he started working at the age of 17 in hotels and snooker centres. Jack’s first exposure to restaurant work was with a Chinese banquet catering company. “I will be standing on my feet for 16 hours or more, deboning 200 chickens, and peeling 60kgs of prawns everyday. I quit within a month.” Soon, a friend introduced him to work for a Japanese Izakaya restaurant as a front-of-house service staff. He found himself in the kitchen again soon enough slicing vegetables as there was a staff shortage. Not understanding a word of Japanese and struggling with English, he had to deal with his fair share of bullying from an unfriendly crew. This actually drove him to work doubly harder than the rest of them to prove himself.
“I would come in earlier and work longer hours than everyone else. In Japanese kitchens, the natural order of things would be the Japanese chefs will instruct us how to cook. No questions asked, we just follow and do things the traditional way. But I always questioned how the food texture or taste varies with every improvisation or use of different techniques. Once, I adjusted the cooking temperature for one of the dishes without telling my chefs, and it turned out to taste better. Slowly, I began to gain their trust after presenting food differently.”
In his mid-20s, the self-taught chef joined a Kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese meal) restaurant. Within three months, he was promoted to Chef de Partie, working alongside established sushi chefs who were trained in Japan. They told him he needed to train for another ten years to become a sushi chef himself without offering much guidance. However, working with Japanese chefs and gaining exposure to Japanese techniques and ingredients, Jack learnt how they meticulously care for the ingredients and maintain good relations with farmers and producers, how produce changes with every season and the attention to detail in bringing the best out of the ingredients.
In 2011, everything changed for Japanese cuisine. One of Asia’s worst tsunamis hit Japan and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was damaged. Diners were afraid to consume Japanese produce out of fear of nuclear contamination. Most of the Japanese chefs were laid off at the restaurant and just before the last Japanese chef left, he appointed Jack as the Head Chef. “With barely any knowledge of sushi making and without much guidance, I picked things up on my own.” With the help of his manager and friend-mentor, Suzuki-san, he helped and guided him on the art of Omakase, which differs from Kaiseki techniques. “We were serving Omakase to Japan Embassy’s high-ranking officials and Dr Mahathir himself six months later!”
A chef of his own league in the making
As customers were still hesitant to consume Japanese food, especially fish, Jack experimented with local fish and ingredients. He would pair local fish with other foods or treat it in new ways to meet Japanese sashimi standards. For example, he reduced the fishiness of ikan kembung by dry-ageing it. This would actually pave the way for Jack to progressively build his confidence and solidify his identity as a chef in launching Chipta 11A ten years later.
“Reflecting on my ten years working in someone else’s kitchen, I always wanted to create something that reflects my identity as a chef.” In 2013, he met Diane Ong, his now business partner and wife. Together with seven other investors, they opened up Awesome Canteen, a Western fusion cafe located at the heart of Taman Paramount. The menu there was mainly western brunch cuisine and he had to start from ground zero again, putting aside his ten years of Japanese training and learning the basics of Italian and American foods, even learning from scratch how to scramble eggs.
“It is in my nature to think about food all the time. How do we create food that goes beyond just simply consuming it? How do we evoke emotions with something unfamiliar yet, familiar in essence?
That is constantly on my mind.
Shortly after opening Awesome Canteen, he started to challenge the conventional way of presenting Western brunch food and wanted to introduce new tastes and flavours. It was so well received that they expanded to another outlet in George Town, Penang. During his time in Penang, he would go fishing at the Balik Pulau fishing village and do monthly Omakase pop-ups at Awesome Canteen, diving deeper into the philosophy of Japanese cooking using local ingredients.
Omakase, according to Chipta 11A
Ready to take on a new challenge and battling feelings of restlessness, Jack and Diane pulled together a lean investment and opened Chipta 11A in December 2019. Chipta 11A was founded on the desire for creativity. It became a platform for invention where Jack was given all of the freedoms to express himself, and this is where he found his identity.
At Chipta 11A, the interior space mirrors the dining experience in its minimalist-organic styling – where dishes are plated just as they are meant to be eaten, so too are the warm white walls and woven bamboo details simple and comforting. It is in this such simplicty that brilliance is allowed to shine. Jack wants diners to not be distracted by the fanciful, but to focus on what is being served. Just like his food, simplicity and clarity of form are privileged; superfluous details are eliminated.
As we know it, Omakase is a Japanese phrase that means, “I’ll leave it to the chef”, and is tied to the array of Japanese cuisine. At Chipta 11A, the concept of Omakase is the guiding principle, but the menu is an expression of food that reflects who Jack is: as someone with Japanese cookery in his artilery juxtaposed against his provincial love for local flavours and his East Malaysian heritage. Jack’s relentless pursuit of changing people’s perspective on the template categories of cuisine has certainly lended a hand in pushing the boundaries of our concept of dining and challenges us to redefine excellence in food.
Take, for example, Chipta 11A’s signature shari (sushi rice). “We tried serving traditional sushi rice, but something was not quite right. I wanted to cook something that makes sense to me, and the Assam Jawa rice was introduced. The rice does not appear in the conventional pearly white, but an earthy brown instead because we use Assam Jawa (tamarind) instead of vinegar.” The result is a complex medley of sweet, sour and unconventionally good; and this eliminates the need for the dipping soy sauce.
I want diners to keep an open mind when they walk into Chipta 11A. We can present sushi as it’s expected to be, but we don’t want to.
“It is more significant to showcase how indigenous and common ingredients can stand on par with premium ingredients such as fresh Hokkaido scallops and the humble sengkuang (turnip).”
When asked about Chipta’s signature dishes, Jack doesn’t want to reveal too much about it because his mind works in wonderful ways and the menu is constantly under construction.
“I used to work in my extended family’s paddy fields during my school break when I was around eight years old. At that time, I would follow my grandmother to the paddy fields. An arduous journey of 30 minutes on foot from home. My grandmother would forage the forest and paddy fields along the way, plucking seemingly random wild greens from the lush greenery. She would ask me to taste them. I never paid much attention to the whole process then, though I wished I did. At the end of the journey, she would set up a fire upon arriving combining the wild greens, belachan, mackerel, and local spices, cooking it the agak-agak (guestimation) way. Those were the fondest memories of food I ever had.”
To Jack, food isn’t just a meal in itself, it is his entire life’s journey – it is the memory of his grandmother, the rice he used to harvest from his family’s paddy fields, the exposure to Japanese cookery, the relationship of discovering new flavours, combinations, and textures.
When you eat something exceptional, your conversation is interrupted, and you’ll go, “What did I just taste?” You experience a brief ripple of excitement; you don’t just respond to the dish in front of you; you are almost always transported to another moment in your life. It’s like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic gets whisked back to his childhood.
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Because Jack’s dishes are unfamiliar and unsettling, they can trigger a memory or a response that leaves you wanting more. To Jack, it’s much more powerful to evoke those taste memories while cooking something that seems unfamiliar. That is what Jack and his team of chefs are driven to accomplish at Chipta 11A.
Image credit: Chipta 11A. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview and written by Theri B. Edited by Lim Aileen.