Nik Michael Imran – from MasterChef finalist to celebrity chef
Malaysian food host and cafe owner Nik Michael Imran Nik Ezar made his first television appearance as a participant on the inaugural MasterChef in Malaysia in 2011. An audience favourite for his boyish charm and way with food, he was booted off in the final stages of the competition when he mistook a duku fruit for a langsat. But that wasn't the last the public would see of Nik Michael; it wasn't long before he was scooped up to co-host a cooking show on Astro called Hello Bro, Tolong Masak.
“I was afraid of failing as I had no experience, but sticking true to your food and cooking your best dishes always helps,” said the young chef. Turns out the bilingual Nik Michael has a knack for hosting: The programme was a sleeper hit and his career as a celebrity chef took off.
These days, you can view the 28-year-old chef, now an assured pro, on a variety of food shows. He's currently shooting Asian Food Channel's Cooking for Love, which he co-hosts with Sarah Benjamin. Each episode, they are pitted against each other to prepare meals for different occasions. The meals are not too elaborate, homey even, which is at the heart of Nik Michael's appeal as a celebrity chef.
“When it comes to cooking, I'm always telling people that it's easy to cook once you understand how, and that has been my style of presenting cooking shows,” he explained.
Following that he'll be on Salero Minang Nik Michael, where he will travel around the state of Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia and Padang in Indonesia to learn about traditional Minang cuisine. Nik Michael will also start shooting the second season of Lunch with the Niks to air on Malaysia's public broadcaster RTM. He teams up with his father, Dato' Nik Ezar, to cook their signature dishes for celebrity guests while engaging in friendly banter.
It is a winning father-and-son combination because of their close bond. Nik Ezar had raised Nik Michael as a single father after splitting up with his Australian mother and returning to Malaysia. Nik Michael frequently refers to his father as his hero; it's also thanks to him that he can cook. In Australia, the older Nik had earned his culinary chops by working his way up the kitchen ladder on weekends while completing his studies in finance. Even when he was a high-ranking banker, his love for food and entertaining did not wane. That enthusiasm and capacity for hard work rubbed off on Nik Michael, who started cooking when he was nine.
“My father taught me the fundamentals of cooking during my teenage years. He was pretty strict with me too, always teaching me good habits to maintain in the kitchen. For example, to always put things back in their place. Those instructions have carried over into my life. This has guided me to keep an organised life, in and out of the kitchen,” said Nik Michael.
He levelled up when he opened PickNik with his father, a cheerful cafe that served comfort food made with top-quality ingredients. And sea salt. Nik Michael loves his salt. “I'm a fan of salty flavours. Without it, flavours would be dull.”
The cafe was an eye-opening experience for Nik Michael, who had not worked in a commercial kitchen. “I was thrown into the deep end by my dad when we opened, and it was either sink or swim for me,” he recalled. He swam, and the cafe had a good run for three years. It closed early last year, leaving the catering arm still operational. However, it didn't take him long to get back into the swing of things; he now runs a cafe in the gorgeous co-working space Common Ground in Damansara Heights.
Suffice to say, it's been a whirlwind for Nik Michael since MasterChef, especially as he hadn't set out to be a chef, much less one with celebrity status. He'd taken a shot at MasterChef as a personal challenge while studying for a degree in finance, which he is still keen to finish. Right now, however, it is all about food. “My life revolves around food. I'm either eating it with friends and family or tinkering with it in the kitchen or planning on what to eat next.”
His first distinctive memory of how food can be revelatory was when his dad made chicken cacciatore – his version was spaghetti baked in tomato sauce, then topped with fried chicken and smothered with Parmesan cheese. “I was probably 12 or 13. It felt like that was one of the best things I've ever put into my mouth. Of course, there are other times when I find out about a new dish that blows my mind – and each and every one of them is a great memory – but nothing beats that first time.”
While he enjoys cooking Japanese and Italian, his favourite cuisine is Malaysian. He is on a quest to identify and define local food with his project Butterkicap, which he started with his fellow foodie friends. The online project (www.butterkicap.com) gives F&B trend updates and tips, shares guides to throwing parties and dinners, as well as runs kitchen lab sessions to research and identify classic Malaysian recipes.
With his busy schedule, it looks like it'll be awhile before Nik Michael can return to his finance books. “These are the things that I'm constantly engaged in and I'm working hard to grow all of them. So between them and spending time with my family, I don't have much time left over to work on anything else.” If this means providing us with good food while teaching us how to be better cooks, we are happy to accept his dedication.