Samantha Tan is an actress by day and a home chef-entrepreneur by night! She was born and raised in Malaysia, a gastronomical heaven. After leaving Kuala Lumpur as a teenager, Sam’s homesickness for Malaysian street food was her motivation to get in the kitchen. She’s since lived and cooked all over the globe, from London to Manhattan. Now, she’s serving up authentic Malaysian eats to LA diners with Sam Tan’s Kitchen.
How did you find your way into the historically male-dominated culinary industry?
When I first left Malaysia, my culinary skills were limited to instant ramen and maybe frying an egg on occasion! In London, I couldn’t afford to eat out often nor could I find authentic Malaysian food, so I started experimenting in the kitchen to recreate my favorite foods. One thing led to another and eventually Sam Tan’s Kitchen became a real thing that sustained me as I moved across continents from London to New York to Los Angeles. From what my customers tell me, I’m the only chef in LA serving authentic Malaysian food. I’ve very proud of that.
What has been a defining moment, positive or negative, in your career?
When I was poor acting student in New York, a young couple found me online and asked if I could cater their 100-guest engagement dinner. They wanted a menu of 10 Malaysian specialties, but customized into bite-sized hor d’oeurves form. I lived in a tiny, fifth floor walk-up in Harlem with an even tinier kitchen and no proper equipment. And, I was in school full-time! But I said yes because I really needed the money.
I single-handedly did all the grocery shopping, including trekking through Chinatown to get exotic Asian ingredients and lugging the bags on the subway and up five flights of stairs. I would cook from 7 pm when I got home from class, blending pastes and chopping things until 5 am. Then I would sleep for a few hours and go back to school. I did this for about two weeks. It was the most challenging cooking gig I’ve ever had, but in the end it was a huge success and everyone loved it! I knew then that if I could pull that off, I could do anything.
Tell us about the women who serve up culinary inspiration in your life.
Every old auntie, mother, and grandma out there in the world cooking to nourish their families who are often unpaid and underappreciated. Cooking is intense manual labor, you all inspire me to keep going!
What advice do you have for other women trying to build their culinary careers?
Be willing to fail. Women often wait for permission to do things or need to know they are good at something before giving it a try; I suffer from that myself. I would just say do it — you’re much stronger and smarter than you think! Also – cook with pride and love, and own everything you are. Authenticity tastes good 🙂