Angela May

The media multi-hyphenate is putting her heart on a plate as she attempts to break new ground in Singapore’s highly competitive foodscape—but can lightning really strike twice?

BY Prabhu Silvam | Jul 20, 2016 | Women We Love

Elvina Farkas

At exactly a quarter past 11 on Wednesday mornings, the atmosphere at Angela May Food Chapters in Robinsons The Heeren metamorphosizes into something of a recluse’s dream. Natural light and dramatic ceiling panels are the mainstays here, along with the avant-garde inspired furniture that tastefully dots the airy yet intimate space—which is punctuated by an unspoken commune of hushed conversations, fleeting glances and the obligatory light clanking of stainless steel cutlery against ceramic plates as the subtle scent of ginger-citrus candles plays hide and seek with you.

Seated on chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in a post-modernist furniture catalogue, we have the best spot in the whole joint—sunlight cascades through the floor-to-ceiling windows that give a panopticon view of the unusually quiet Somerset junction down below.

Fresh from an hour-long photo shoot for another publication, Angela May is seated to my right, poised yet relaxed, her luminous smile making an appearance every now and then as we engage in small talk about the weather, the space and everything else in between as she settles down.

She has her back to the windows, and the first thing that catches your eye is the sprawling urban cacophony of skyscrapers and gangly Angsana trees behind her that are blanketed by the midday sun, which casts a light glow around her, accentuating her lanceolate eyes. 

We order two long blacks, and I drop a cube of sugar in mine. As I watch it disintegrate slowly into the vast nothingness of a caffeinated abyss, she starts to tell me about the time she drank cobra’s blood, rode a mechanical bull, climbed a rock wall, and interviewed a transgender boxer—all in one night.

“I was interviewing this guy and he brought me to drink cobra’s blood. I remember chasing it with this Thai whisky called Mekhong, which only made matters worse,” she says, biting her lower lip with a tinge of disgust at the recollection.

“We moved onto a girlie bar next where we took turns on the mechanical bull. The next thing I know I’m climbing a three-storey-high rock face and speaking with a lady boy boxer.”

We’re rehashing memories of yore, in particular her television hosting days with Planet Food where she traversed the globe meeting some of the best minds in the culinary world while learning the secrets of their well-guarded recipes.

She’s come a long way from her stints in front of the camera as a model and a presenter. These days, she’s the founder and head chef of Angela May Food Chapters, a contemporary, Asian-inspired, “vegetable forward” restaurant. 

“That was some night. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”


Where the wild things are

The second of two children born to an American father and Thai mother, May’s earliest memories of food can be traced back to a highly visceral and multifarious experience—she was exposed to a mishmash of cuisines from different corners of the world on a daily basis.

A normal day in the kitchen meant hearty batches of Asian- and Thai-inspired food like Khao Kha Mu (stewed pork knuckle) whose unmistakable savoury aroma of star anise, cinnamon and soy wafted through the house whenever her mother cooked it, which was almost every other week. Almost instinctively, as if to complement the gesture, her father would start preparing minced meat, grated cheese and spices for chicken potpie the very next day.

What ensued over the years was a culinary back and forth that mixed together cultures, flavours and traditions, and paved the way for a curious palate and a sharp eye for sussing out the good from the bad—the kind of stuff that they can’t teach you in culinary school.

It is easy to see the impact that food had on her as she describes the kitchen as a place of refuge—almost like a private escape from the asphyxiations of everyday life. “Even growing up, my friends and I always gathered in the kitchen, prepping food for hours or just hanging out with a bottle of red around the dinner table.

“You know, to nibble, taste and get opinions,” she adds with a Cheshire grin that reveals itself when she’s trying to get a point across.

But just when things get too highfalutin, May brings the conversation back down to earth.

“I once had a pet monkey, you know,” she says matter-of-factly, as if to insinuate that simians are the universally agreed upon de facto choice of pet when it comes to picking a domesticated companion for your home. Her tone almost seems to suggest that having a dog or a cat would be something out of the ordinary.

An actual monkey?

A family friend had adopted a monkey from a nearby province who was constantly up to no good. When it became too hard to handle, she handed full caretakership of the monkey over to May’s family who bonded with him from the get-go.

Jaw, as they named him, had a soft spot for rambutans, or “mok mok” as they are called in Thailand, and he would walk the entire length of the house (on two legs, mind you) to get to the kitchen. Once there, he would call out “mok mok” before opening the fridge to see if there were any inside that he could help himself to. If there weren’t, he’d politely close the door and walk away without making a fuss. “Even now, when I’m on the beach in Koh Samui or some other place, and a pet monkey walks by, for some reason, it will always come up to me,” May says.

I theorise the probability of an unseen bond with monkeys that must have bloomed because of her relationship with Jaw. “Yup, must be,” she concurs.


The art of resolution

They say the surest way to glimpse a chef’s mind is through his or her menu. I finally pay heed to the minimally designed one to my left that’s been staring back at me since the start of the interview.

The menu is tight and curated; none of the mainstream brouhaha with an endless assortment of vaguely named, highbrow-sounding dishes. The food here is unpretentious and approachable, simple yet redolent of undeniable signature flair—very much like May herself. Words like “locally farmed”, “house made” and “naturally harvested” dot the elegant pages.

“My philosophy is simple: make sure you use the best ingredients and always ensure that everything has been ethically raised,” she describes with intense vividness the psyche behind her approach.

May prophesises a utopia in the near future of a back-to-nature kind of ideology where we will be able to enjoy local produce that is both healthy and affordable. Dialogues are important, she stresses. Conversations between farmers and the general public must happen to revolutionise the way we think and feel about food. “Food that has been mindfully farmed will genuinely taste better. There’s no two ways about it,” she states emphatically.

She admits, however, that the adrenaline-glazed euphoria that consumes her every time she steps into the kitchen is something no person or place will ever be able to replicate.

Her yearlong stint at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Sydney sticks out as conspicuously as a nun at a lingerie sale. You see the nun and you know she’s there, yet it’s rude to ask why and pass judgment so you look away. But she’s still there. So you ask her anyway.

May chose the merciless path of starting from ground zero to learn the craft of a chef by signing up for the notoriously mentally and physically challenging Le Cordon Bleu. It makes me wonder if she has an inclination for high-intensity situations—you know, the kind of person who thrives when placed in a tight spot. “Well, you’re about right. I love being in situations like that,” she admits readily. “There were tears, lots of them, but hey, it also taught me loads about myself.”

Angela May plays many roles, but the one role that clearly doesn’t suit her is that of a pushover. The air around us changes a little as she describes with a simmering intensity how she aspires to be the best regardless of what she dips her toes into.

In her case, not having a plan has been the best plan yet. Whether its being a chef, TV personality, emcee or author, a curious tendency to dabble in the unknown and a tenacity to evolve and stay ahead of the pack seem to resonate at the heart of her pursuits. 

More than just timely coincidences, she attributes her successes down to sheer grit and a brazen willingness to knuckle it out with the big boys no matter how impossible it might seem. “I think the universe conspires in your favour when you want something real bad. But before that happens, you need to take your chances, give it your all and want it bad enough.” She says.  

But look beyond the title and the acclaim, and what you’ll find is a grounded realist whose words hint at strong ambition and nous. For May, victory lies not in overcoming a challenge, but rather trouncing one’s personal insecurities and shortcomings on the way there. In short, success is but a temporal moment in the grand portraiture of life.

“I always focus on the process, which is more important than the result. Winning awards and getting recognised are great, but the process makes me a better person than the one I was yesterday,” she says.

Not unlike a sonnet, she juxtaposes the intensity of the kitchen with that of being a host. “They’re both very much the same. It’s intense, and then I have these moments of peace and quiet. I love it,” she exclaims.

Angela May: chef, TV personality, model and author. I start to wonder where the constant is in all of this—the measured algorithm behind the seemingly unrelated pursuits across different fields. “Always being around people. I think that’s what it is,” she opines.

Whether it’s slogging it out in the kitchen, presenting a TV segment outdoors in frigid temperatures or penning a book about a hundred things to do if you only have 24 hours in Bangkok, the idea of surrounding herself with creative minds acts as a natural stimulant for her. 

And deadlines. It feels like she has an unholy attraction to deadlines by the way she enthuses about their benefits and how they’ve helped her. She almost makes it sound as if deadlines are an actual person. “When you know that you have an end date for everything, you just hustle and push on no matter how tough things get,” she says.


The beauty behind the madness 

Just because May does many things, it doesn’t mean that she’ll do everything. She professes that her greatest fear is doing something when her heart isn’t in it. “I always want to do something that requires me to move forward. I don’t want to waste time on stuff that I don’t enjoy,” she reveals.

She replies with deadpan rhetoric when I quiz her about her inspirations. “It’s an easy question to ask, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific person because I meet people who inspire me almost on a daily basis,” she demurs. And then you see the inner workings of an individual who gains contentment from the smallest details. Almost like a poet who derives beauty from the seemingly ordinary and mundane.

May transports me to the cobblestoned streets of Lyon, France for the Bocuse d’Or and Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie—both prestigious culinary events that she emcees for annually. She describes how everyone works so hard around the clock, and at a phenomenal pace, to put the events together, as well as the contestants who eat, sleep and breathe food at the expense of everything else in their lives. Add to this mix the mentors who whip them into shape, and are legends in their own right. “Surreal,” she summarises succinctly, harnessing the power of a singular adjective to describe their dedication.

“But, then again, sometimes, it’s not just about the food, is it?” she remarks. There’s just something about a sentence like this being uttered by a chef that sounds scurrilous and heretical. But soon you understand why, when she says, “You open a restaurant because it’s about creating a space where people will come and get engaged, have fights and get back together again. It’s like creating an entire world.”

And creating worlds were exactly what she was doing as host for Planet Food where her role as a food connoisseur meant globetrotting to exotic locales like Tel Aviv, Barcelona and Turkey almost on a weekly basis, in pursuit of culinary heaven. 

Despite what seemed like an insanely packed filming schedule zipping across from continent to continent alongside a film crew of five, May recounts her hosting days with Planet Food with the same endearment as a soldier would of his or her battle scars. Citing the film crew’s relatively small size given the scale of the production, she explains that it was all hands on deck each time there was a shoot—an experience that taught her the importance of learning the tricks of the trade both on and off screen. 

She readily admits that braving the unknown in entirely unfamiliar surroundings is an exhilaration that cannot be summed up by words. “It was long hours, you’re in the trenches and you never know what’s going to go wrong. And a lot goes wrong so you stick by each other and see each other through.” She adds. 

At this very moment, a bossa nova track lightly streams in the background and I wonder aloud what her playlist looks like. She willingly shares that the top three tracks are:

1 | “Home” by Phillip Phillips (“What a voice by the way”)

2 | “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 (“I know as soon as I say that you’re going to have that going in your head. It’s going to be there”)

3 | “Fly Me to the Moon” by Astrud Gilberto (“She’s so lovely. That little riff at the start gets me feeling so relaxed and chilled. Lovely”)

Soon enough, the topic of culinary arts as a pop culture phenomenon naturally enters the conversation. Television these days is bombarded by an onslaught of celebrity chefs who prance around, each proclaiming lordship over the other; where every kid with a pair of tweezers who knows how to put dots on a plate has his or her own show.

I begin by saying, “A long time ago, all we had were Bourdain, Oliver, Ramsay, Marco Pierre…” before she cuts me off politely midway by saying, “Well, one of them is not like the rest.”

“Which one?” I reply, asking a question that I already know the answer to.

“Not saying,” she replies with a cheeky grin before explaining that the avalanche of cooking shows is absolutely fine, because people are naturally voyeuristic, and television shows, cooking or otherwise, help to fill this hedonistic need.

She goes on about how it’s not just about cooking, but almost like building a connection with a chef who unfailingly appears before you in your living room each day as you iron, do the dishes or have your breakfast—almost like a form of therapy without having to step out of your house.

Some prefer edgy, disgruntled and self-depreciating chefs, while others prefer the more pleasant, family-friendly types. Different strokes for different folks. “Not everybody has to like Seinfeld, right?” she adds.

This sense of diversity is also a cornerstone of her thought process whenever she gets down to conceptualising a new dish or a menu. From the light sprinkle of organically grown wasabi leaves in the asparagus and arugula mint salad right down to the Thai street food inspired slow charred Kurobuta pork collar on the restaurant menu, each dish is an ode—a personal interpretation aimed at recreating the nuances a particular place, person or experience that has left an indelible mark on her, she explains. 

And so the perennial question arises: what’s the sexiest thing that a man can ever do? According to her, cook. She allegorises the act of cooking with a loved one to that of performance art, of two souls intertwined in one kitchen.

“Cooking with someone whom you love is almost like having a slow dance in the kitchen. When you know what you want and you don’t get in each other’s way, there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”

Next up on the cards for May: authoring her first cookbook—her second attempt at publishing with the first being a travel book about Bangkok. But just like everything else she’s ever put her heart into, that all-too-familiar resolve and infectious fervour fill her eyes as she describes the idea behind the book. 

She expounds with lyrical ease the ability of a cookbook to go beyond merely serving as a journal of recipes but instead, transform into a reflection of one’s self—just as a photograph captures a moment for all of eternity. “Just like seasons, we all change. This cook book is almost like a personal diary of my thoughts, feelings and ideas and in a couple of year’s time when I pick it up, it’ll let me remember the person I am now at this moment.”

From: Esquire Singapore's The Big Food And Drinks Book.