NURILKARIM Razha’s eyes were closed when the R.AGE Food Fight champion was announced, so it’s hard to tell what exactly was going through his mind.
“I was praying that even if I didn’t win, I wouldn’t take the loss badly,” said the restaurant manager from Penang.
For someone who presented himself as a flirty joker throughout the competition, Nurilkarim, 23, let shine a surprising moment of maturity and grace. “I didn’t know how things would turn out, but I just hoped I wouldn’t let it drag me down.”
The R.AGE Food Fight was a search for Malaysia’s next food celebrity. Young foodies and chefs from around the country submitted audition videos of themselves cooking with palm oil along with a blogpost, all in hopes of becoming R.AGE’s new food show host and The Star’s next food columnist.
The judges were looking for someone who could write, talk and knew enough about food to incorporate the many benefits of palm oil – the competition’s featured ingredient – into their recipes. Finding a winner who could tick all those boxes wasn’t easy.
Enter Nurilkarim Razha, who grew up in a predominantly Peranakan household. All he needed to know about traditional cooking, he learned from his parents.
“My mom taught me all she knew about traditional Northern Indian and Pakistani cooking,” he said. “Plus, dad was from Kedah so he knows a bit about local vegetables, herbs and spices.”
Even so, his parents weren’t confident that a career in culinary arts would put food (pun intended) on his table, so they sent him to study law. Nurilkarim, however, decided halfway through to pursue his passion in cooking and dropped pre-law in favour of culinary arts and tourism.
“It was very hard to convince my parents, who were academics, that I wanted to be a chef,” Nurilkarim said. “They didn’t see their son becoming a cook, they wanted me to become an academic too.”
But his mind was made up. After snipping away at the final ties to his law career, Nurilkarim then turned all his attention and energy to studying culinary arts. He graduated and went on to work as a commis chef in multiple restaurants before finally settling down in Penang to help his mother out with the restaurant they now co-own – Jawi House Café Gallery.
“Coming into the kitchen was exciting at first,” he said. “But after a few days, you realise it’s a tough place. The kitchen is a high-pressure environment. You exchange a lot of harsh words, and you’re always hitting or banging into someone else during service.
“It’s overwhelming, and it came to a point where I thought I couldn’t go any further. But I stuck to my guns and stayed in the line for another year and a half.”
When R.AGE Food Fight popped up on his radar, Nurilkarim decided to give it a shot, with his eye on one prize in particular.
“I joined primarily for the food column in The Star,” he said. “I’ve always had so much love and respect for local cuisine and I think writing about food is the best way to show that respect.”
His submission video helped him become one of the five finalists, the others being food stylist and home baker Li-Anne Kuek, food blogger and singer Kelly Siew, restaurant owner Ahong Yeang and tax consultant Ashley Pan.
During the finale, he narrowly edged out Yeang with a dish that incorporated palm oil brilliantly. It was a baked fish with prawn otak-otak, ulam pesto and paku salad. Instead of olive oil, he used palm oil in the pesto and paku salad dressing.
“Palm oil isn’t common in the professional kitchen, but I can’t see why. It’s versatile and it has a really high smoke point. For chefs, that’s really important,” he said.
Despite losing out, Pan was overjoyed for Nurilkarim.
“He’s got such great talent and knowledge but he doesn’t let it go to his head,” she said. “During the workshops and finale, he helped me with my prep work and gave lots of really good advice.”
The panel of judges, which included Chef Wan, was also impressed by Nurilkarim’s intimate knowledge of local ingredients.
“There was a lot of talent in the competition, but Nuril was the most well-rounded,” said Chef Wan.
Having gone through all the fun and excitement of being in the top five, Nurilkarim hopes more young talents will take that leap of faith and audition for Food Fight 2016.
“I think anyone who’s a food lover should join,” Nurilkarim said. “Not just to win it, but to experience it first hand – the workshops, new friendships and challenges – and to see if they have what it takes to become a chef.”
Starting today, Nurilkarim will be writing his column (on page 5) about his food adventures across the country.
He will be leading our video crew in search of little-known local ingredients and showing us how to elevate them into culinary works of art. Stay tuned for the full video series at rage.com.my/foodfight!