The nomadic chef behind KL’s popular Pop Up Dining series embraces the challenge of cooking in new places
Chef Daniel Yap has cooked in some very unusual “kitchens”. Sometimes those “kitchens” don't even have cooking facilities, but that doesn't faze him. If there's one thing this ambitious 23-year-old loves, it's a challenge.
Yap is the talent behind Pop Up Dining KL, a monthly gastronomic experience in which Yap and his team serve a set menu in a new location for one evening only. Yap's menu usually has a sharing theme, and while produce is always local, flavours tend to be a fusion of Malaysian and Italian. It's a unique format that has proved a hit with foodies across Kuala Lumpur as well as in Penang and Borneo.
“Our first Pop Up Dining event was a dinner in a café in Bangsar for just eight people. That was two years ago. Since then we've run more than 30 events catering for up to 50 people,” says Yap, who admits that cooking in unusual locations can be tricky though it has made him a better chef.
“The facilities available really shape the menu,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to come up with dishes that require very little on-site cooking, which usually means a lot of prep work in advance. Regardless of where we're serving, everything still has to look and taste amazing. That's something I really enjoy figuring out.”
It's surprising to find that this wandering chef's culinary background is in fact very firmly rooted in the traditional cuisine of his ancestors.
“It was both of my grandmothers who first inspired my love of cooking,” he says. “My grandmother on my mum's side is Peranakan and she taught me Nyonya and Hokkien cooking. My grandmother on my dad's side was Hakka, and every Chinese New Year, I had to cook a big batch of braised pork belly with yams to distribute to our relatives and close friends while she sat by my side guiding me. She was the only one who knew the recipe and now I'm the only one who knows it. That feels very special.”
Studying Culinary Arts at KDU University College, Yap's horizons were first broadened by the college campus’ fine dining restaurant Dewakan, an acclaimed establishment pushing the boundaries of modern Malaysian and international cuisine.
Yap was inspired to spend six months studying at the Alma International School of Italian Cuisine, after which he interned at two-Michelin-starred Piccolo Lago in northwest Italy and later, after completing his studies at KDU, at one-Michelin-starred Studio in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It was in Europe that Yap encountered the trend for pop-up dining events and supper clubs, a concept he decided to bring home when he returned to Malaysia in 2015. He also brought a desire to blend Italian flavours with the traditional Chinese cuisine he had grown up cooking.
“Malaysians mostly think of Italian cuisine as pasta carbonara or pizza but there's a lot more to it than that and actually Italian cooking works really well with Malaysian produce and Chinese flavours.”
Yap's signature dish, which makes frequent appearances at his dining events, is bagna càuda, a traditional dish from Piedmont in Italy, to which he has added a uniquely Malaysian twist. “Instead of typical Italian vegetables, I use Chinese cabbage, angled beans, garlic scapes, kale from Cameron Highlands and qing long cai. I add banana to the traditional sauce from Piedmont, which is made with garlic, salted anchovies and olive oil, to give it a sweetness.”
Other fusion dishes that Yap has perfected include prawns tossed in Malaysian herbed Italian pesto with polenta chips and Italian bruschetta of confit local tomatoes, Malaysian sardines and Thai basil. “It can take a lot of trial and error to get the combination of flavours and ingredients to work but when you get it right, it makes the hard work worthwhile,” he says.
Yap hopes to open his own restaurant towards the end of 2018 and his unique fusion of Italian and Malaysian flavours will take centre stage with an ethos of small groups sharing interesting flavour combinations in a relaxed setting.
His plans mean he may have to scale back his pop-up dining events. When asked if he'll get bored cooking in the same place night after night, he replies cheerfully, “No, I don't think so. This feels like the right time to take this step and it will be nice to finally have a place to call home. And a fully equipped kitchen to cook in, of course.”