The affable 53-year-old, who converted to Islam in 2013, recently opened his restaurant, C.A.T Wok (C.A.T stands for Chef Amann Teoh) in Bangi, Selangor, which offers authentic halal Chinese street food.
Akin to a dam that’s been dying to burst, his cheery waalaikumussalam in answer to my greeting at the entrance is immediately followed by an enthusiastic “tell-all” the moment we make ourselves comfortable around a table located at the back of the restaurant overlooking his open kitchen.
“Chef, let’s do this in order, ya?” I jest in my attempts to rein him in.
But I couldn’t help smiling at his openness. So used to meeting more reticent chefs during the course of my work, Chef Amann’s uninhibitedness is refreshing.
“Sorry, so many stories to tell! Where shall we start?” he asks, whilst gingerly taking off the black bandana-like headband from his head and folding it into a small triangle on the table.
“The restaurant, chef,” I mouth to him, ignoring the sudden growling emanating from my stomach.
He beams, bobbing his head in response. “Ah yes. We launched in early January this year and two days later, the MCO was announced. And since then, it’s been a case of starts and stops. Hopefully, we can have a good run from now on.”
Business, if pictures from his social media are anything to go by, appears to be brisk. The Bangi community seems to have embraced this new player in their landscape, enjoying its delectable offerings which range from the aforementioned Penang Char Kway Teow, Ginger Beef Kway Teow, Cantonese Yee Mee, Cantonese Yin Yong, Salted Fish Fried Rice and other delicious street favourites.
“Funny time to open though, chef,” I prod again. And again that knowing smile crosses his face.
Shrugging his shoulders, Chef Amann replies: “Well, we couldn’t have foreseen the turn of events. It’s unfortunate but the ‘show’ has to go on.”
REALISING A MISSION
He’d always wanted to do this, he confides, expression earnest.
“This” being to open a halal Chinese street food restaurant so that Muslims (as well as non-Muslims) could discover the delights of Chinese hawker fare.
“In addition, I wanted to show that it’s possible to get as close and as authentic to the real thing and stay halal at the same time,” adds Chef Amann, who was born into a Buddhist family before converting to Christianity in his late 20s.
He’d toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant of this nature for more than three years, admits the self-confessed perfectionist.
He shares that when he eventually converted to Islam more than seven years ago, it dawned on him that there were many (Chinese) converts like him who yearned to have the food of their culture but weren’t able to find the authentic, halal version.
As fate would have it, about three and a half years ago, the chef crossed paths with a couple of people who were enthusiastic about his mission.
“They came to my house, I cooked and we got to chatting. I discovered that these guys — now my partners — were looking to get into the F&B business,” adds the chef who currently resides in Bangi with his new Muslim family.
Looking thoughtful, Chef Amann confides that his vision for his business isn’t simply just to sell food.
“I don’t want for my restaurant to be labelled as yet another Chinese Muslim restaurant to open and then just end up closing once I’ve made my money,” he states vehemently.
Top of his agenda is to do charity and community service — in tandem with “selling food”.
Brows furrowing, he points out: “I hear a lot of people say that only once they’ve started making money in the business, then they’ll look into the charity side. I personally believe that as we do our business, we should also be doing charity. And that’s essentially the rationale driving my ‘dakwah through food’ campaign.”
The chef was able to kick-start this campaign when he was invited by the chairman of Surau Perdana in Selangor to share the story of his journey into Islam, along with other fellow converts, for an event held there.
“I asked the chairman to allow me to showcase my Char Kway Teow too,” he recalls, before adding: “Those who came got the chance to sample the food and get better acquainted with Chinese street food — the halal version, of course.”
C.A.T Wok, elaborates Chef Amann, who initially started with banquet dining, constitutes the second stage in their overall master plan.
The first was building a foundation — all the way in Seremban.
“It’s a production kitchen which I’d got built years ago,” shares the chef, adding that there’s also a see-through kitchen there as well as an air-conditioned section for special banquet dining.
In addition, he’d also been running a catering service on the side.
“That’s how we’ve been able to sustain for the last three years,” he confides, adding: “During the initial discussions with my partners, I told them not to expect income the moment we open this restaurant. They were okay with that and here we are!”
FROM BANQUET TO STREET FOOD
Asked to describe authentic Chinese food, Chef Amann, who cites his mother’s Mee Kicap as his favourite dish, is quick to reply that it’s essentially healthy food. Nothing is instant.
Chinese cooking, he adds, requires time and skills to control the heat in order to attract the wok hei (literally wok energy or breath of the wok), the elusive smoky flavour and aroma needed to enhance the flavour.
“People get excited when they see the flames soaring up. I say that’s black magic!” remarks the chef, wryly before adding: “Seriously, you need the heat to fry the meat until it’s tender and for the smell of the wok to be there. It mustn’t be hangus (burnt). Once you get the nice smell then only you mix the gravy.”
He’s determined to demonstrate the correct way of cooking Chinese street food.
Shares Chef Amann: “All my dishes are cooked in a wok. Since I opened, the most popular items have been my Penang Char Kway Teow and the Cantonese Kway Teow or Wat Tan Hor. With the latter, it’s all about how you fry the kway teow because of the presence of gravy in this dish.”
His Salted Fish Fried Rice, one of two fried rice dishes on the menu, has also been garnering good reviews.
“Do you know I prepare this dish the traditional way?” he asks, before elaborating that he uses ikan tenggiri (Spanish mackerel fish) to fry with his condiments as the base for his fried rice before adding finely sliced pieces of kurau (threadfin) meat. “So when you eat, you really get the taste of ikan masin.”
His gaze travels towards his open kitchen and I can see his eyes turning thoughtful as they rest on his skeletal crew busy prepping for the evening’s business.
Turning to me, Chef Amann says: “All this takes a lot of effort and time. And it’s not profitable for us. But we’re determined to keep the original taste.”
COLOURFUL EARLY YEARS
Sipping on C.A.T’s delicious iced coffee, I listen entranced as Chef Amann, who has a brother and two stepsisters, takes me back in time to his early years.
Unabashedly, he confides that he never even completed his Form 3 education. Born in Pulau Tikus, Penang, his parents divorced when he was only three.
“Home wasn’t a happy place when I was growing up,” says the chef softly, adding that he used to see his father hit his mum.
“One day, my aunt flew to Penang and came to our house for a day trip. I still remember that she wore a mini skirt and I was holding onto her skirt, begging to follow her back,” recalls Chef Amann.
Adding, he shares that on that day, coincidentally, there was one seat left on the flight.
“I was determined to follow my aunt back to Taman Sea, PJ. And I did, clad only in a small singlet and a pair of slippers.”
His parents’ divorce took some time to complete so when he turned five, Chef Amann was sent to stay with his grandparents in Seremban where he received his primary education. His aunt’s tailoring business had picked up and she wasn’t able to take care of the little boy.
By the time he reached Form 3 in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Taman Sea, he was no longer interested in studying.
“I just couldn’t focus anymore,” he declares matter-of-factly, adding by that time, the family had moved from Seremban to Petaling Jaya.
“I always played truant from school,” confides Chef Amann, adding that back then, all he wanted to do was work.
“I’d help my aunt in her tailoring shop picking buttons, sewing hems etc. I also remember helping out at the sundry shop after school when I was younger. And whenever they needed help at the family’s restaurant, I’d be there.”
At 17, he enrolled in a fashion design school to pursue a course in fashion designing. He was one of the youngest students. He graduated at 19 and became a qualified fashion designer and tailor, eventually landing a job in the fashion industry in Kuala Lumpur not long after.
His stint at his fashion designing job did not last long and the young Amann went on to work as a bartender and part-time musician.
He formed a band with his old friends and was signed to perform in some night clubs and discos.
Chuckling, the chef recalls: “My grandfather was against it. I remember he chased me out from the house when he found out. First thing he said was I’d become a drug addict! But I continued on for three to four years. I didn’t play any instruments but I could imitate voices — but not necessarily sing very well!”
A few years later, he was called to return to help out at his grandfather’s restaurant in Subang Jaya.
Recalls Chef Amann: “I helped in the kitchen and learnt the basics of restaurant operations — from cleaning the kitchen to food preparation. My interest in cooking grew from here. I then decided to quit my part-time job to become a full-time kitchen employee.”
After a few years of working in his grandfather’s restaurant, he grew restless.
Remembers Chef Amann: “I wanted to travel and I also didn’t want to just be a cook; I wanted to be a chef.”
So he packed his bags and thus began his journey around the world as he sought to follow his passion and hone his skills.
“I joined some cooks who were travelling overseas,” shares Chef Amann.
Their first stop was in a Hong Kong restaurant in London. “I was working as a dishwasher but one day, the cook fell sick and I had to replace him. From then on, I was promoted to become the restaurant’s third cook.”
He was working in London until the day he met a Scotsman and his Shanghainese wife. They took an instant liking to the young chef and offered him a job in Scotland.
“I stayed there for three years,” says Chef Amann, adding that it was one of the most memorable times in his life.
“They treated me really well and even linked me up with other Hong Kong restaurants in the UK and parts of Europe,” he shares, continuing: “I was able to gain greater knowledge as I got to meet some really good sifus (teachers).”
After a few years of working abroad, Chef Amann decided to return to Malaysia to help with his grandfather’s restaurant and those run by his friends.
“This was when I met my first food and beverage (F&B) management sifu, an Englishman,” he recalls.
His sifu taught him how to manage and set up restaurants, and even recruited him into his Singapore-based company. From then on, his journey as a chef began.
He started out as a “backdoor chef”, essentially a contract chef who walks in from the back door of a client’s restaurant to conduct a makeover of the restaurant — from restructuring, training and menu to revamping the restaurant.
This job took him to even more countries, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Australia, Amsterdam (and some parts of Europe), Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea. His last stop before returning home was Macau.
Voice low, Chef Amann says: “With these accumulated experiences in my journey as a chef, I’m grateful that I now possess the skill in the halalan toyyiban method of preparation — essentially a more holistic approach — which I can apply in my Chinese cooking while ensuring that at least 80 per cent of the original taste is maintained.”
FINDING THE LIGHT
As the minutes tick, I realise that it won’t be long before the good chef will have to return to the folds of his kitchen to start cooking for the evening crowd. I quickly steer our chat to the subject of his conversion.
His eyes light up when he shares his story.
“I first got to know about Islam when I was working in Australia. My neighbours were Lebanese Muslims. Although I’d had Muslim friends in Malaysia before, it was this Lebanese family who showed me the beauty of Islam.”
Enthusiastically, the father of two recalls: “I became good friends with the neighbour’s son, Khalid. I remember I was working at a nearby Chinese restaurant and used to have my work breaks around 2.30pm. Meanwhile, Khalid also had to take care of the shop he was working at between 3pm and 5pm.”
Khalid would be on standby and the young Amann would often use their couch to take his naps in between breaks.
“I’d sleep for two or three hours and I remember there’d be times during that spell when Khalid and his father would be doing their prayers. But they never disturbed me.
“Another thing I noticed about them was that they didn’t simply spend money. They were thrifty but every Friday they’d cook for people to eat. I was shocked because they were offering food to strangers.”
They always told him not to worry about anything, recalls Chef Amann. “Don’t worry, brother. Everything has been taken care of,” they’d say.
“I remember this sentence being uttered again when I enrolled myself in convert classes held at Al-Khaadem (an international Islamic NGO that works to disseminate Islam and champion the disadvantaged). The actual sentence is, ‘Don’t worry brother. Everything’s been taken care of by Allah SWT.’ But they never mentioned anything about Allah (SWT).”
By then, tough times had descended, casting a pall of gloom on his hitherto carefree existence. The money he’d worked so hard for and accumulated from his work was fast disappearing due to demands from family members.
Meanwhile, those whom he’d regarded as friends had started to abandon him.
Recalls the Penang-ite: “One day, I was reaching for the skies. And then? I lost everything. I had friends when I had money but when I was down? Not only did they look down on me, some even disappeared. But these are great lessons.”
The turning point came during a visit from Khalid and his family to Malaysia.
“I remember sending them to the airport and Khalid and his father said to me, ‘Brother, we’ll pray for you. Look into Islam and you’ll find a way.’ That was when I contemplated what they said and not long after decided to do some soul-searching.”
It was around this time too that he enrolled in convert classes and his understanding of the religion grew.
“I attended classes with new converts and started looking for Chinese Muslim restaurants to work in. After more than two months of classes, I was ready to convert.” He was 40-something.
His mother, says Chef Amann, remains deeply upset with his decision to this day.
“She accused me of betraying her,” he confides, before sharing that fortunately, his daughters from his first marriage, who are Christians, have today come around to their father’s decision and are happy to see the changes in him.
“I used to be a very rude and disrespectful person,” he admits, chuckling ruefully. “My daughters never used to feel comfortable whenever friends came over to the house and I was around. Even in the restaurant, if you were to walk in front, you’d hear me screaming at my crew!”
A subtle tap on his shoulder by a kitchen help reminds us both that the restaurant will soon see a bustle of customers coming through its doors.
“Any last words, chef?” I prompt, slowly clearing my things from the table.
A pause and Chef Amann, whose ultimate dream is to see a C.A.T Wok restaurant in every state in the country, replies: “For me, it’s not about how much you can get. It’s about how much you can share. The first half of my life has been pretty colourful. Did everything. Seen everything. I took a lot of things for granted.”
Concluding, he says: “The only thing left to do is to do good. The biggest miracle has been Islam coming into my life. The only thing I can do now is to raise the beauty of Islam through good akhlaq (practice of virtue, morality and manners) and to be a good ambassador for the religion — in whatever I do from now.”
C.A.T Wok Street Food
Where: D-7-G, Bangi Gateway, Seksyen 15, Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor.
Call: 013 496 8869 for enquiries or go to FB: WokStreetFood9 or IG: wok.streetfood.