“Cookie?” Ili Sulaiman graciously offers me a selection of delicious golden brown cookies with a delectable strawberry jam filling she had baked the night before. “It’s gluten-free,” she prompts me further as I find myself reaching for seconds.
The humble home-cook-turned-celebrity-chef shows up on Valentine’s Day to our cover shoot, radiating with positive energy that’s infectious and never without a smile on her face. As an ambassador for Asian Food Channel and Food Network, Ili has plenty to juggle on her plate. Between creating content, on-ground engagement with the public and attending food festivals, she’s well on the right path to reach her goal – placing Malaysian food on the map. Ili uses adjectives such as intense, passionate, fresh, learning, evolving and constant when it comes to describing her long- standing relationship with food. “My love for food is constant as long as I have that innate need to cook for myself or my family,” she says.
As a public figure, Ili has been forthcoming about her struggle with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). “I was recently diagnosed with PCOS so my theme this year is to empower women by leading honest conversations revolving around women’s health and issues that are taboo,” shares Ili who recently made the switch to gluten-free, pointing out that it is completely manageable if you look after your diet and wellbeing. In conjunction with International Women’s Day in March 2020, she collaborated with Kind Kones, an all- natural vegan ice cream brand to bring light to women’s health and issues.
I saw how the power of food can change people. It was initially difficult for everyone to be on the same page but around food, our barriers were lifted and we got to know everyone better.Ili Sulaiman
It’s been seven years since she made the leap into going professional in culinary. What started as a passion has grown into a full- fledged career for the business graduate who revelled in hosting dinner parties for friends in her small London flat when she was living abroad. “I was just talking about this with my manager and we were reflecting on how I started. I really have no idea how I got here. If you had told me that I would be on the cover of Prestige, signed on with Discovery Channel, get married, being this happy and content while having an amazing team I would have said ‘nah.’” Ili remarks candidly while recalling how a short stint for a non- profit organisation which brought her to travel around Malaysia affirmed her decision to venture into the culinary business.
“I was working with the ministry of education and the schools and that was when I was introduced to the different cuisines offered by the different states. I saw how the power of food can change people. It was initially difficult for everyone to be on the same page but around food, our barriers were lifted and we got to know everyone better,” she shares. “People think I’m just a chef but I feel I do a lot more. Food really does nourish the body, it changes people’s demeanour or even the way they feel. That’s when I realised I have to focus on my passion,” says Ili who kick-started her culinary career by launching Dish by Ili, a catering business that offered delicious home- cooked meals served in tiffin carriers. In 2015, she clinched the title of Food Asia Hero and went on to host numerous television shows with Asian Food Channel.
While it’s been a whirlwind journey filled with ups and downs, she says, “This process with food is never-ending. I’m constantly learning.” Whether it’s new tips and tricks, recipes, stories and legacies of people’s families and how they eat and consume food, Ili has come to accept that she will forever be a student to the culinary industry.
As a businesswoman, she has come to learn the hard way that partnerships are not meant for her. “I don’t think partnerships are for me and that’s just a preference. Because I’ve had failed partnerships in the past, I have to take ownership and lead my own projects. That does not necessarily go well hand-in-hand with a partnership. It was a hard and very expensive learning curve, but it’s a learning curve I truly appreciate now,” she opens up.
In 2016, Ili had teamed up with two partners Basira Yeusuff and Nizam Rosli to launch Agak Agak Initiative, a social-enterprise-driven restaurant that serves to empower underprivileged youth through talent development, training courses and job matching. “When a partnership is not strong enough, it does affect the way a business is successful or not,” Ili addresses the now defunct social enterprise. She notes how sometimes a business or opportunity is also short-lived because of luck. Agak Agak was given two years to kick off, but six months before their tenancy agreement expired, it all went downhill. They suddenly found themselves scrambling to make ends meet and tensions arose due to dwindling customers. “It was a stressful time for us,” she opens up about the turbulent times Agak Agak went through. “When we didn’t have the restaurant anymore, Basira’s role became redundant because she was head of operations. I was in charge of training then and I still had the apprentices but once they graduated, we did not have money to employ more apprentices. We then had to have an honest conversation between ourselves. We really did give it our all but we had to be realistic about our financial situation and question if our goals were still aligned. At that point, we realised we had to say goodbye to the initiative.”
On the personal front, Ili has also learned that balance is key. “In the beginning, I was very ambitious to do everything on my own. I’m a chef, I create recipes, I’m a television host and employer. Playing those roles took the best out of me and I stopped focusing on the things that make me happy like my family, friends and my health. I’ve learned to say no and be more selective on the kind of projects I do, really taking into consideration the longevity of the project. That’s the reason why I was able to get married last year. I realised I wasn’t investing in myself.”
As a young girl who grew up around food, Ili’s childhood memories often revolved around cooking in the kitchen with her grandmother who shared fascinating tales about the family’s history. “The process of making food is equally as important as the recipes as it is when the stories of our history come alive as well. I discovered how my grandfather was in the army and his father was in prison through my grandmother’s stories in the kitchen.” She also recalls how her youthful cheeky self often landed in trouble for stealing her neighbour’s long beans, mangos and rambutans while walking home from school. “My mum had to apologise,” she chuckles.
With no formal culinary training except for a stint at London’s revered Mosimann’s, Ili’s approach to cooking is very much informed by her diverse Malaysian heritage. Describing her approach as soul food, she says, “It’s very real and not pretentious. I’m not a trained chef so how I cook at home is very similar to how people cook at home.” While she acknowledges that she finds comfort in her followers especially the older generation who approach her in public upon recognising her face on television, the term celebrity chef is a title she has embraced and learned to take ownership of.
Chef is probably a word I’m not comfortable with as I would say I’m more of a cook. Anyone now can be famous and accessible because of social media.Ili Sulaiman
In a digital age where celebrities and public figures curate their content right down to their personal lives, Ili treads on the other side of the spectrum, refreshingly candid about what she shares with her followers. How much of it is authentic though? “I try not to fit into the mould but I have to be because of what the industry requires. However, I try to keep it real when I have control of the content; then I’m as real as I can be. A lot of people appreciate that and if people come up to me to say hi, I’ll say what’s up!”
She currently manages an all-female team who are equally as capable and qualified, harbouring dreams to be the biggest Malaysian export. At what capacity? “I don’t know yet but I think I’m on the right path. It takes multiple projects and partnerships for me to reach that goal. I want to play a small part in putting Malaysia on the map.”
This article first appeared on Prestige Malaysia March 2020 issue