Sometimes you only need to look at a person to guess what they do for a living. And at first glance, 25-year-old Loh Yi Jun looks every inch the chemical engineer he studied to become.
But then, in his sprawling family kitchen, Loh cuts through a galette he has made, and you’ll find your opinion shifting. Because Loh slices through that crusty dough with skill, precision and total ease – like a man who has found his true calling in life.
In many ways, Loh’s divergence into the world of culinary arts is completely out of character. Growing up, he was always into maths and science. When he got into the prestigious Cambridge University to study chemical engineering, his future seemed certain. There were no blurred lines, no floundering or wavering. That is, until he discovered the joy of cooking.
“When I went to uni, it was always with the mindset that I was going to be an engineer or go into consulting or whatnot. But it was in uni that I learnt to cook, because the roommate that I had was really, really into cooking as well. After learning to cook, I thought, ‘This is really, really fun and something worthwhile to do as a life pursuit’ so I thought, why not take a leap and go into this industry?” he says.
Loh graduated with a degree in chemical engineering but has since pursued a career in food. He started his blog Jun & Tonic to document his adventures in the kitchen. – ART CHEN/The Star
So Loh did a 360° turnabout and went and did a diploma in culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu, spending six months in London and three months in Paris. Once he had completed the course, he signed up for an internship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a revolutionary farm-to-table eatery that doesn’t have a fixed menu and also happens to be one of the world’s 50 best restaurants. The experience proved both eye-opening as well as exhausting.
“It was super exhausting and a very different environment. It was a very different crop of people than the people I interacted with at Cambridge and it was quite refreshing. But at the same time, because you’re working so hard, and you see all these people working really, really hard beside you as well, that just pushes you to do better and work harder. I wouldn’t say I would do it long term, but for the six months I was there, it was a really good experience,” he says.
When Loh returned to Malaysia last year, he reached out to various food sites with ideas for food stories and soon found himself churning out pieces for US-based food media behemoths like Food52 and Taste. On the side, he began documenting his recipes and food experiments on his blog Jun & Tonic (www.junandtonic.com).
“The blog started off in uni – it was called Toffee & Tea before, which was a bad name. And it was basically me randomly rambling about stuff I cooked in uni with my roommate and then slowly from there, it kind of morphed into a more serious pursuit. So I found that this is kind of a good way to log what I cook and all the weird experiments that I try,” he says.
The blog is a hilarious, witty and highly interesting account of his adventures in the kitchen. Loh is a captivating writer, ably enchanting readers with his engrossing tales of culinary discoveries and interesting inventions. On his blog, you’ll uncover recipes for things you never thought would see the light of day: black garlic chocolate chip cookies, matcha, red bean and pomelo pavlova, Ribena kombucha and Milo Nutella!
“I think at the start, when I started the blog, it didn’t really have a clear direction, it was just about writing whatever I did in the kitchen, so some of the older recipes are really traditional kuih or roast pork belly. But slowly I found that some of my recipes were geared towards mixing different cultures and different ingredients and making new dishes out of them. And those recipes are the ones I have the most fun with, so I thought maybe this is the direction I should head towards. So it’s only in the past few months that I’ve found this clearer direction,” he says.
Loh often experiments with unusual flavours and ingredients and comes up with recipes like matcha, red bean and pomelo pavlova. Photo: Jun & Tonic
Loh says it takes him some time to come up with new recipes as many of the concoctions on his blog wade deep into unchartered waters, so there are no guides for him to look up or recipes to follow. Instead, he has to construct his own.
“The idea hits me when I’m watching food videos or reading food articles online, and I will slowly mull it over several weeks but not really do anything. And then I will give it two or three tries of iterating the recipes. Because there are no set recipes that you can find for most of the things I do – I just have to do a lot of trial and error. It takes me to up to three attempts to perfect the recipes, and maybe one day to write it up,” he says.
Given his ingenuity and innovative spirit, it’s little wonder that it hasn’t taken long for Loh to be recognised. What is more unexpected is that the recognition has taken an international form, as Loh was recently nominated as a finalist in the Best New Voice Category of gourmet American magazine Saveur’s 2018 blog awards.
Loh takes some time to come up with new recipes, as most of his concoctions are original ideas. Some of his zanier recipes include black garlic chocolate chip cookies (pictured here), Milo Nutella and Ribena kombucha. Photo: Jun & Tonic
The Saveur Blog Awards was introduced in 2010 to celebrate and herald food bloggers, food photographers and food videographers all over the world and is industry recognition that is worth its weight in gold.
“It was really surprising that I actually got in. I’m not sure how Saveur picks their finalists – they say it’s based on the number of nominations but also who the nominations are by, so it could be by their editors or past winners or past finalists,” he says.
Although Lo [...]