The Ayala SquareMeal Best Female Chefs Series 2022: Julie Lin

Glasgow-born Julie on her journey from violin teacher to chef-patron of two restaurants and how she's created a culture of kindness in her kitchens

Updated on • Written By Rosie Conroy

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Half Malaysian, half Scottish, Julie Lin’s career spans a MasterChef place, two smash-hit restaurants, a TV career, and award-winning influencer status.

Like so many chefs, Julie’s love of cooking was first fostered at the feet of her 'ferociously critical' mother and grandmother. As a child she’d sit in the kitchen and watch them cook, learning about the art of agak-agak, a Malaysian practice that allows cooks to use their experience and understanding in the kitchen to estimate in a wonderfully unformulaic way. For her, food cravings manifested themselves not as the chips and chocolate of her contemporaries at school, but as things she enjoyed on hot, sunny holidays in her maternal homeland - buttery, flaky roti breads or plates of nasi lamek piled high with coconut rice, sambals, pickles, and ferments. After disregarding the direction many assumed she’d take of college or university, Julie’s path meandered through stints as a music teacher and retail assistant before she joined the dots of her passions to pursue her food journey.

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The result was a stint on MasterChef, an experience she says was a baptism of fire, or in her own words, 'crazy, emotional, exhilarating and intense all at once.'

Following her placing as a quarter-finalist she made her way back to Glasgow to work under the tutelage of Laurie McMillan at Café Strange Brew. 'I didn’t realise it at the time, but I landed on my feet. She is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met and makes it so much fun to learn,' explains Julie.

'When you think about your best meals, they're never at a Michelin place.'

Armed with Laurie’s training, Julie left to head up the kitchen at now-closed Babu Kitchen under another female mentor, Rachna Dheer. As the restaurant’s head chef, Julie looks back on the time as, 'a very quick journey from washing dishes to being head chef.'

'I then went on to have my first food stall, which was down a bin lane. I love, love remembering that fact: always remember where you come from,' she says, laughing. 'I had two weeks to set this thing up.' Under her homemade, paper sign she served corn fritters, peanut chicken, and vegetable curry. A simple menu, but a deliberate move.

'I always think, when you recall your best meals, they're never at a Michelin place. It’ll be like, "oh, I was in Naples, and I went to this tiny back street restaurant, and it was a plate of ragu". It’s always something simple.'

Photos: Richard Gaston

Now chef-patron of two of Glasgow’s best restaurants, Julie’s Kopitiam in the southside and Partick’s GaGa (pictured), Julie says that despite owning a duo of businesses she’s 'very careful about expansion' because of wanting to be able to oversee the culture in her kitchens.

'[I don’t want] the shouty atmosphere, or the drink and drug problems,' she explains. 'We keep a really close eye on that. Because it’s still real. Amid all the glamor of owning restaurants, there's a lot of stuff that you have to deal with and take really seriously to make sure that people are okay.

'For a lot of people in the industry some learned behaviours are too far-gone, but there’s a new wave of chefs coming in.' Paying homage to her own path, Julie’s passion for mentoring is evident in the way she talks about her team members – many of whom who have come to her without any formal qualifications but instead the kind of innate creativity that can’t be taught. The result is 'this lovely team of people who are just so happy and so nice and very hard working.'

Having walked a path that started with her mother and grandmother and then took her into the kitchens of two other powerful women, you might think Julie would be keen to be a catalyst for female empowerment in the industry. She admits that her team is predominantly female, but that she hasn’t got there by 'selecting CVs' based on that criterion, rather it’s just been about hiring the right people for the job. 'We actually have a lot of non-binary chefs. It's really, really nice that it's a space where everyone can be comfortable to be themselves. It's a safe place for people to just be at work, which is what it should be.'

Growing up making Malaysian food is one thing, but how do you teach it to a team who may be coming to the cuisine for the first time and don’t necessarily have any formal training? 'We do have a recipe guide,' Julie explains, 'but "a shuggle of that" seems to be my most prominent phrase in the kitchen.

'I can’t follow a recipe,' she freely admits. Once people have learned the basics, they quickly become intuitive.

'[Training] independent cooks with that agak-agak technique makes so much sense. People learn to taste as they go and adjust things on the basis of that particular dish. Two cans of coconut milk – for instance – can produce two entirely different curries, even if you’ve followed the exact recipe.'

'Being true to your culture’s cuisine versus sustainability is something we’re constantly going to have to work on.'

In a world where sustainability is seen as a hallmark of all that is honourable, a Malaysian restaurant flourishing somewhere like Glasgow might seem like an insurmountable challenge but true to form, Julie doesn't seem stifled but instead inspired. 

'I find this sustainability argument one of the most interesting things. It's something that I'm constantly learning about. For example, soy sauce is very symbolic of Asian cooking but mostly produced elsewhere. So, our airmiles are going to be high through using that. So then the question is how do you keep people's food authentic to their culture without causing the planet any damage?'

The answer is that the team looks to balance its books by sourcing fresh ingredients from Scotland rather than south-east Asia. Local greens are wok-fried instead of traditional produce like choi sum, and the two restaurants’ laksa broth is made with langoustine shells rather than king prawns. 'It’s about reducing our footprint where we can,' says Julie.

'Being true to your culture’s cuisine versus sustainability is something we’re constantly going to have to work on. It’s a fine balance to achieve, but as long as you’re open to learning, it’s something you can get through. Plus, substitutes aren’t such a bad thing. Should we really be searching for authenticity right now? It's why I never call our food authentic, because it’s not. It can’t be. We're not in Malaysia with the heat, with the specific types of garlic or ginger. But that’s the thing with cross culture cuisine, you can have the best of both worlds without it being regimented.'

Julie’s infectious, hospitable nature (there were multiple calls for 'please let me feed you' during our time) is reflected in her love of community. Rather than being inward on her own ventures and experiences all the time, there’s talk of her favourite Glasgow restaurants (Chinatown, Crabshakk, Lanzhou Noodles and Cottonrake Bakery, if you’re wondering) and constant referencing back to the woman who have helped or inspired her.

There’s The Female Chef book, a tome of talent that features 'back-to-back women I look up to every day', Julie says. She also says that meeting Angela Hartnett recently was 'incredible', describing the chef as 'amazingly professional and just so knowledgeable' and notes the impact Niki Nakayama has had on her stance on being a female in a male-dominated industry.

'Niki amplifies how to not just see our food as "cute" and I think that’s really important. We don’t want to be tokenised for the food we’ve cooked. It’s a profession for all of us.'

Julie's perfect match for Ayala's Le Blanc de Blancs 2015

The dish: Cold sesame wheat noodles

The Champagne: Ayala Le Blanc de Blanc 2015

Julie explains: Champagne is so often associated with luxury foods, like oysters, but I love pairing it with something simple to elevate the everyday. The sauce on these noodles is made with a combination of sesame paste, yellow bean paste, Sichuan chilli oil, Kewpie mayonnaise and soy sauce. While it's really straightforward to put together there are lots of funky fermented flavours plus sweet and salty notes going on and the Champagne helps to cut through the richness of that sesame paste, cleansing the palate after each bite. The spice is also tempered by the sweetness of the fruit for a really refreshing finish. 

Julie's quick bites

If you could give someone starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Believe in yourself and believe in your mistakes as well. Own them. The sooner you accept that you’re going to have to make mistakes the better. As long as you can learn from them and focus on the task in hand, to remember why you’re doing it, you'll be okay. Keep yourself inspired too. You can’t keep the boat afloat unless you’re also okay, so take time off to remember why you’re doing it.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?

Cultural food, definitely. I think it's wrong to say food brings people together, because that's too easy, but if it tells a story and opens up a conversation then that can only be a good thing. 

Favourite cooking gadget?

A wok, you can cook anything in one. It’s so smoky, you can vary the temperature, and it brings fire like nothing else. I have an amazing one that was sent over by Luke Farrell [who now runs Plaza Khao Gaeng in London’s Arcade Food Hall] while he was working in Thailand and it’s the one thing I’d save if my house was on fire. It’s a hand-battered steel wok. They take three days to make, and you can see where people have moulded it. I just love it.

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Firstly, it has to be through love, very cheesy but true. It also has to be about sharing, I love to share moments with people which is why I’m still so involved with the restaurants. And it has to be sensory, going back to the agak-agak way which is a ‘shuggle’ of this and that. Maybe my three words are shuggle, love and sharing!

First dish you learned to cook?

Big Fat Noodles, that’s what my mum called them. I have a mural in the Kopitiam saying “I’m making Big Fat Noodles!”. They’re actually Kway Teow – a type of rice noodles – and they’re very simply cooked with chilli paste, soy sauce, prawns, and beansprouts. But they’re made with wok hei for this amazing smoky flavour.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

I don’t find any foods guilty because I would have so many, if that’s what we were to call it. I love instant noodles. I think they used to be a dirty word, but they’re not so much anymore. I used to make this thing when I was skint from Indomie noodles in a wrap – I’m a carb monster. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of myself. But did I enjoy it? I absolutely loved it.

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

Malaysia is the obvious one but if I said anywhere outside of Malaysia it would be Jerez in the south of Spain. It’s relatively non-touristy, with lots of small restaurants and everything there revolves around sleeping and eating. I’m such a slug – when I can be – so I love that. They also have a thing there called tortillitas de camarone, which is very similar to a prawn fritter that you get in Malaysia. It’s very flat circular disc and it’s so crispy. Delicious.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing

I might not be a chef forever. It’s always important to try other things. I love decoration, which I think I get from my gran who is really big on feng shui. Me, Mark and Fraser [Julie’s business partners who also own the Thornwood pub nearby] designed this restaurant ourselves and that was really important to me. How a place looks and feels equates to so much of the dining experience, it’s not just about the food. So I think I’d love to be an interior designer for restaurants in another life.

Favourite restaurant in the UK?

It’s a place called Humble Chicken in Soho. I was actually trying to get a table at Koya next door, which I also love – and ended up sitting outside at Humble Chicken instead. It was a hot summer night in London, it was quite busy – as Soho always is – and we got this chef’s menu which was my first proper taste of yakitori. It blew my mind. Everything was amazing. They had this pork belly dish with Japanese mustard on top, which was spicy and then the meat was soft and gelatinous with super crispy skin. It was one of the most perfect dishes I’ve had.

What was the last great meal you had?

Acme Fire Cult. I really loved the barbecue flavours and that they don’t use much meat – I don’t actually eat that much meat. I would never call myself vegan because I don’t want to be run after by critics who see me eating the odd hot dog. But when I’m at home I generally eat vegetarian. I find it’s a difficult battle with your conscience, and what you want to eat. So Acme Fire Cult felt like a nice balance and a new way to cook outdoors but in a restaurant setting.

Read more about our Ayala Female Chef of the Year awards, including interviews with the likes of Lisa Goodwin-Allen and Chantelle Nicholson.

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