The Star, Weekend, 25 Nov 2006, P. 26
Francis Western Food should carry a warning:"Danger: semi-starvation ahead!"
To illustrate what I mean, let me describe how Francis Cheah, 53, prepares my Cajun Chicken (RM11.50). He begins by laying a slab of tenderized drumstick meat over a clean sheet of aluminium foil. Over that, Francis neatly arranges a handful of chopped button mushrooms, julienne strips of ham, and several slices of freshly cut tomatoes. Finally, he crowns the stack with a slice of mozzarella cheese and a sprinkle of paprika, before popping the whole lot into the oven.
"Wah lau eh," Poi Sun, my housemate exclaims. "This guy really takes his sweet time hor. Can starve to death, man, watching him cook our meal."
In truth, it's only fifteen minutes of waiting. However, the kitchen is right smack in front of the customer tables, and observing Francis lovingly arrange his food like a piece of art, amplifies our anticipation a thousand-fold. He seems oblivious that his customers, inflamed to the point of hysteria, are nearly chewing the skin off their knuckles.
A modern-day epicurean equivalent of Marquis du Sade, you say?
Or perhaps, a badminton coach, as I found out later. That was actually how he honed his unusual fusion-style cooking - when he toured fifteen European countries during his coaching tenure. Trained in cooking, he subsequently abandoned racquet for skillet, but the teacherly demeanour never quite left him.
During my first foray to his stall at the antebellum Guan Hiang coffee shop,
I remember nearly jumping out of my skin, when he emitted a sudden cry and waved anxiously to his one assistant. "The exposure to air is drying up the potatoes! They're not going to be fit for consumption soon! You better empty this tupperware and get a fresh one out!"
As the spectacle unfolded in front of me and other bemused customers, my friend thrusted a flyer into my hand, eyes twinkling. "Here, some entertainment while you wait."
Wondering what he meant, I scanned through the flyer.
"The All New Francis Western Food! – Fusion Style!
New Venue: Guan Hiang Coffee Shop
Location: Junction of Pulau Tikus Traffic Lihgts (Look out for banner)
Business Hour: 5.30pm to 10.30pm
Business Off Day: Monday
Contact Person: Francis Cheah at 012-4930554
After that bit, it went on to say:
"Whoever has tasted Francis' food … knows what to expect.
Whoever has yet to…. Must try!!!!
Francis prepares all the food … Come and enjoy your meal with your loved ones at this simple and clean shop."
As if not to leave things to chance, he signed off in caps, "From ME, FRANCIS."
It raised my eyebrows all right.
That was two months ago. In irrefutable proof that life comes full circle, I now find myself thrusting the same flyer to Poi Sun. As her order is served, I watch in awe. My wisp of a housemate – a whopping five foot nothing in stockings – gobbles down pork chop, cheese, bacon, mushrooms, ham juliennes, mash potatoes, coleslaw, and two slices of garlic bread in record time. The cliché must be true, I think. Petite girls DO come standard with an industrial-size gullet.
She bubbles, "Today, I belanja. Very happy to find a nice place to eat!"
I'm ecstatic. Not only does it pass her exacting standards (Ipoh girls are notorious for their egalitarian palates), but I get to eat for free.
"You planning to write about this place?" she looks at me meaningfully.
I think hard. Yes, I have in fact considered writing about his place, but the little girl in me hasn't gotten over her childhood terror of the authoritative figure.
My insides quivering like a bowl of jelly, I swagger up to Francis, and in my most worldly-wise womanly voice, ask him if he would let me review his place.
He gives me a sidelongs glance. "Are you going to charge me for the advertising?"
"Of course not!" I exclaim, affronted. "I just like your food. I wanted to write about it, but thought it was more polite to ask for permission first."
In case you come after me with a giant cleaver the next time I show up, I think privately.
He nods cautiously. As he gradually warms up and expounds about the home-made sausages, tender meats and other finer points of cooking, I feel the cockles of my heart glowing. Why, the gruff exterior belies an artist who is just deeply passionate about his craft after all.
Speaking of artists, I do have one major bone to pick with the wordsmith who designed his menu. He has done a marvellous job with the flyer, but the menu is as dull as chalk!
How can anyone possibly say boring Baked Tom Yam sausage (RM8.50), when it is no less than four plump, juicy, fusion-style sausages, infused with a tangy accent thanks to an outrageous topping of finely-chopped ginger torch?
How can Francis live with plain old Bacon Wrapped Pork Chop with Cheese (RM13.50), when they are nothing short of a treasure trove of goodies capped by a beautifully browned canopy of melted cheese, accompanied by humongous hunks of garlic bread dunked in melted butter and some mysterious spread I can't quite put my finger on, a dollop of self-made mash potatoes?
You get my drift, don't you?
I know what I should do. I'll ask Francis to give me a call, when he wants to revamp his menu.Even stern headmasters welcome constructive feedback, yes?