Chef Norman Musa is on a mission to make Malaysian food popular around the world
From moving abroad to study quantity surveying, to becoming co-owner and head chef of an award-winning restaurant, and even a stint as Caterham F1 Racing’s chef in 2010, despite having no formal education in cooking, London-based Malaysian chef Norman Musa has come a long way both geographically and career-wise.
Interestingly enough, when he first started cooking, he was “hopeless”, to quote the chef himself. But his late parents ran a canteen back in his hometown of Penang, Malaysia, and his mom was an excellent cook. As a student homesick for Malaysian food, Norman would constantly call her up on the phone to ask her how she made certain dishes.
Over time, Norman realised he was more into cooking than calculating building and engineering costs as a quantity surveyor, although he was already in a good, secure job in Manchester. His mother wasn’t too pleased about it, so he never told her about the restaurant he was setting up with his partner in the northern quarter of Manchester, called Ning, in 2006. She finally got the news a few weeks before it was due to open and Norman was flying her out to the UK for the launch. Sadly, Norman’s father passed away before the trip.
Nowadays, Ning earns rave reviews from critics, the media and diners alike. Among its accolades are wins as Best Malaysian Restaurant at the Asian Curry Awards in 2012 and 2015, with chef Norman bagging the Young Asian and Oriental Chef of the Year award in 2012. This earned him an induction into the UK Hospitality Guild’s Young Hall of Fame that same year.
So how did he go from being clueless to award-winning? Norman cites passion, practice and always perfecting his skills. The good thing about never having formal training is that he makes a convincing case to the cookery students whom he teaches at London’s Leiths School of Food and Wine in one-off courses. If he could master the art of Malaysian cooking from zero, so could they.
Recognised for his talent as a bona fide Malaysian cookery chef and probably as an empathetic cooking instructor, Norman was handpicked by Malaysian tourism authorities as an ambassador of Malaysian cooking. For the past five years, Norman has been a fixed attraction at Malaysia Night at Trafalgar Square, an annual event organised by the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE). He has worked extensively with the corporation to promote Malaysian food through their Malaysia Kitchen campaign.
His mission and passion have also seen him promoting Malaysia’s favourite delicacies such as char kuey teow, chicken curry and rendang to eager audiences at The Tong Tong Fair in the Hague, the Netherlands – an annual affair celebrating all things Southeast Asian since 1959; a Malaysia Cookery Challenge in Hamburg, Germany; the Science on a Plate event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival; and numerous food festivals in the United Kingdom.
Back home in Malaysia, where Norman is currently stationed for a few months, this energetic chef will soon open another restaurant in Bangi, in the southeast of the state of Selangor. Tentatively to be named Chengkih, the restaurant will feature authentic Malaysian food as well as fusion dishes in a fine-dining setting. Norman envisions the restaurant to have an international look and feel, and the concept to be a template for other restaurants he plans to open in other countries around the region.
Meanwhile, his restaurant in Banting, called Restoran Nasi Daging, which has been operating for about nine months and is run by his sister-in-law, will also be getting a revamp, with a special Ramadhan buffet for Hotel Pullman KLCC also in the works (hint: it will be interactive, he says).
At the same time, Norman is also promoting Malaysian food via his latest cookbook, the third he’s published, called Amazing Malaysian: Recipes For Vibrant Malaysian Home Cooking. The book has been a labour of love in which Norman shares his recipes for more than 100 delicacies, written in a way that makes it easy for both beginners and experts to prepare the dishes themselves. Norman wanted as many people as possible to enjoy Malaysian food and kept that in mind when authoring it.
If Norman doesn’t seem busy enough, he has also been shooting his television series, Chef Norman Exploring Malaysia: Herbs for TVi (Astro channel 108) featuring folks he calls “local food heroes”. Aired in March, the show sees Norman travelling around Malaysia visiting locals who share their knowledge of herbs and recipes.
From Penang to London and the rest of Europe, around the world for F1, back home to Malaysia and the villages around the nation, this chef is certainly going places!