The food business is no longer the food business; it’s more like a people business now more than ever. People are hard to satisfy but in this business, it’s all about the experience and so you got to make it happen no matter how hard. Maybe culinary arts school should do some people courses and teach how to satisfy people more than the actual food. Haha
I had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Tai, Executive Chef at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Born in Malaysia and growing up in Kuala Lumpur, he has been cooking since he was 6 years old. His deep roots in the cuisine of South East Asia where culture and traditions elevate everything has given Chef Felix a very strong foundation in the kitchen. Chef Felix also has worked in many different kitchens from fine dining to food trucks.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?
For the sincere love of food, I have always love food since I was born, that love became so passionate that I wanted to be completely involved with food, which went from eating and evolving to creating to watching the joy of food bring to others. It all started from the sincere love of food and I won’t forget the pleasure and experience of joy from tasting good food when I was younger. Today in any capacity I have, I try my best to share this love I have for food, whether through my own cooking, or through my stories, I share it so that others can begin this journey and be inspired themselves because I have been blessed to be inspired by certain people in my life who not only have been a great examples but has supported me throughout my food journey and helped me realized that the world need more passionate people.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
My journey has been truly amazing and I am so ever grateful for my mother’s influence in my cooking. I have never seen anywhere a truer love like she has when she cooks, that foundation she gave me was so solid that I have this perception of love and language through food. My father was more than supportive of my dreams of becoming a chef since I was younger and was always encouraging me to experiment at home as he was my taste tester. This helped me to respect food and to see what heights my creativity can be taken on to the beautiful creation of food God gave us, however it wasn’t always easy, life isn’t always rainbows and sunshine, at times I was pushed to the point to question my dreams and goals but no matter how crazy the ride has been I will always carry that perception my parents had engraved in my soul. Today both my parents have passed on but I still have my wife and kids and brother and sister and others that continue to support my dreams. It is never easy for my wife, to be able to go on a ride that is full of risk driven by pure passion, in reality that is crazy but tell me who isn’t crazy in this world? So I would say my journey has been an excellent one because every curve I took I had my family supporting me and this helped me learn and desire to be better.
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
I love seafood, I mean I love all food, I have respect for mother nature and her beautiful bounties and this is of course to be treated with respect and care but more seafood now as I have lived in Hawaii for a while and I go diving and I see the beauty of the underwater world and this got me infatuated with fishes and a deeper respect for seafood and so I’ve been cooking for seafood than ever now.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
I think at one point in my career after cooking for high profile VIPs as a personal chef I had gone to work at a small Mexican restaurant which was great, I told them I would do anything from the bottom of the ladder up and I was the dishwasher there and during the interview was the funniest moment I had as a chef, the interviewer was so confused as to why I wanted to work there after looking at my resume. It was a humbling moment for me but the job I had reaffirmed my understanding and importance of a dishwasher but most importantly team work, every single staff in the crew was Mexican except me so that was funny too because they thought I was a Mexican when I first walked in. Here’s a memorable one, one time I was cooking on TV for a Food Network cooking competition and all of a sudden one of the equipment didn’t work and I had no idea what to do but the crew got it to work but for a few seconds I thought to myself I had to do what I would do in my own kitchen which is to improvise but the whole nation would see this and probably laugh at me if I did something funny out of it. Those 20 seconds in my life still gives me a chuckle when I think of it. Off all the things I remember from that was the 20 seconds of the equipment not working.
What is your definition of success?
I have been working since I was 12 years old but it wasn’t until I was 14 years old when I started working in the kitchen and restaurants and if there is one thing I have learned and came to appreciate the most in the kitchen is not the food or one person or a position but team work. A great team is the definition of success, this is hard to come by and when they do, rest assure everything is and will be successful.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
I have failed many times. Ego, pride, temper, temptations, excuses, all this can bring you down faster than how long it took you to get up there. Once I understood that if I don’t help myself, nobody is going to help me. I have to be my biggest supporter and when I have got to the deepest pit in my life, I told myself I had to fight out of it and fight hard enough to go far from it that it will never be a problem again in the future.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes, I am planning on starting my own restaurant and a cook book, I’ve always love a good story and I feel like if there is one way someone can feel and appreciate my passion, the food itself might be hard for some but through my words and recipes that they are able to make it and feel this love at home, and change the world one plate at a time.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
There is no other way around it than to work hard but sometimes you forget and slip, this is being complacent, so never be complacent. I strongly believe that if you are not complacent, you are working hard to wherever you are heading to! Believe in yourself and never ever break down no matter how hard, the only thing will help you keep going is if you are not complacent.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Comprehending the food and then conceptualizing the flavors and build it from there. It can be something so easy and simple but with the right flavors it can be the best dish in the world.
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
This means the world to me, the means I have in playing a part and a role to do something I can in my power and ability to make the world to be a better place, if not for myself but for the future generations to come and food plays an important role in that sense. Not only bringing people together but it is able to move people, food is love, food is power, food is culture, food is more than eating, food is Life! To know that I can help in my ability to help do something about it, whether to educate people or to help people understand food better or to cook better to help have a good experience makes me feel like I can’t stop no matter what.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 things huh:
- Being a chef is more than just cooking, fortunately for me I had the desire and passion to know that its more than just cooking, It is a lifestyle, it is management, it is math and physics , it is leadership, it is respect, it is about giving than receiving, it is about teaching and sharing and learning at the same time, it is about sacrificing, it is hard and not just being a fancy chef in a white coat cooking slowly like the world is behind you. When I first became a head chef years ago before where I am at now, I did it for the wrong reason, I only thought about the position and that was it, not the responsibilities that came with it and long story short I had to learn the hard way.
- The food business is no longer the food business; it’s more like a people business now more than ever. People are hard to satisfy but in this business, it’s all about the experience and so you got to make it happen no matter how hard, maybe culinary arts school could do some people studies and learn how to satisfy people more than the actual food. Haha
- Being flexible, one time I had an opportunity to meet some entrepreneurs and they inspire me and one of them told me to be flexible and that’s the one thing he learned as an entrepreneur that in order to be successful you need to be flexible and so being flexible is key as a chef, you got to think fast and quick and sometimes you got to do what you wouldn’t think you would do but you need to be flexible. Being flexible can save you, help you and teach you and open your eyes to different heights, the world is evolving and you need to evolve with it.
- Creating a culture for yourself and for your crew first and foremost before you market yourself to the public. You need to believe in your own product first, when that culture becomes so solid, people will come and buy your product because of that, the good experience and taste is just a bonus. People will believe in you when you believe in yourself, this will create a healthy, great and fun and in turn help make a difference between you and the other guys down the road.
- Very important to balance your life, this is extremely key, it is hard and almost impossible in some settings and situation as a chef but very key to not overdo and over burn yourself. Your physical health and emotional health is just as important as your job, your relationships and responsibilities rely on your well-being, and too many times this industry can get to the point of pushing someone to take their own life, the demands are real and it is just too much at times, you need to know what is too much for yourself before it is too late. One of the things you see in the airplane safety demonstration video is that you need to put on the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others, you only have split seconds before you lose it all.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Food is love, Food is culture, Food is tradition, I am an immigrant, and I made America my home so I can live the dream. There are so many dreamers out there, I support the DREAM act and its policies, I strongly believe that the development of the future of the world we live in is in the hands of the future generation and that if we do not believe in someone who has desires and dreams and goals that can only be relieved and developed in this country based on their immigration status then the future will never change. Food is always a story of immigration, culture, tradition, ancestors and the earth! Many immigrants are actually working in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant, making your meal special for you yet you had no idea who cooked it, so care a little and make a difference. Support your local immigrant advocacy, refugees, and centers for them, support them and their rights; help make the world a better place without the need to look at their religion, color, and background immigration status. We are all one.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
I would love to cook for Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Hey Dwayne if you are reading this, forget your sushi train, forget your cookie train, forget your pizza train, I will give you a train ride you will never forget! Haha.. okay here’s why I pick you Dwayne, you make millions of people happy worldwide but sometimes I’m not too sure if you really mean what you say over social media so I’d like to get to know you over your meal that I will be cooking, The truth is, you are helping the world to be in a better place, you have done many good and it will be a pleasure to get to know you over my food. I have been seeing you on TV since the first time until now and I think I will get a good kick out of it to see you enjoying my food.