It seems counter-intuitive to place someone young and, well, dysfunctional into a high-octane environment stocked with knives and lit by dancing flames. But for the so-called “Street Food Chef,” Will Meyrick, starting work in a kitchen was the turning point in his life.
Not that he took to it immediately, mark you. “I fucking hated cooking at first,” he admits. “I didn’t know the difference between chervil and thyme and for the first weeks of my career, I spent hours every day skimming stock. I had a 2½ year court case hanging over me [he doesn’t go into details] and I needed to prove that I could turn up for work, on time, deliver what was expected of me and stick at it.”
Originally from Scotland, Meyrick was sent to boarding school aged seven after his parents divorced. He had a stutter and struggled academically, leaving school at 16 without a clear idea of what he would do.
He found companionship and comfort in the party scene of the early 1990s, but after running into trouble it became obvious that he needed some structure. After a few false starts, he settled on cooking and moved to London, where he worked for four years.
Fine-dining kitchens in the 90s could be brutal places: “The London cooking circuit was full of degenerates, operating on four hours sleep,” says Meyrick. He describes a culture of fear and the harsh treatment many young chefs received. “After service began, you would see people start to shake. At the end of the night, I would be put in the kitchen sink with the tap on, or be shut in the cold room. People called you a cunt every day.”
This severe working environment required resilience and discipline –but the incentive to tough it out was the promise of success. The kitchen is one of the few places where a person can start out with no qualifications, and, if they are good enough, reach the top.
“Even the army can’t claim that,” says Meyrick, now 40. “In the kitchen, there are no fast-track officers. You start at the bottom and you work up. You can go from nothing to being a successful business person. You don’t need an education; you just need to be willing to learn.”
The portable skills of the kitchen make traveling a real possibility for chefs – something which Meyrick embraced in working across Asia and Australia. He soon began to enjoy cooking more, realising that he had much to learn from being out of the kitchen.
“The more you travel the more you understand a place’s cuisine. I liked to see how people cooked in the villages, using their local produce. I gradually fell in love with cooking, when I could see history and meaning in the food.”
He began to gather recipes as he traveled, and ultimately decided to take the flavors and stories of Asian street food vendors’ dishes to the restaurant kitchen.
”Not all [chefs] get into cooking because they love it, they get into it because they are fucked up and the kitchen can rescue them”
He opened the award-winning Sarong Bali (in Kerobokan, Bali) in 2008. Today, he oversees seven restaurants that feature his “street food” cuisine, including Mamasan Hong Kong and Mamasan Kuala Lumpur.
His stutter is long forgotten – he regularly appears on television and hosts a popular YouTube channel on which he shares recipes he has collected on his travels.
“The kitchen brought me to life,” he says. “I needed structure and I think a lot of chefs are similar. Not all get into cooking because they love it, they get into it because they are fucked up and the kitchen can rescue them.”
In addition to supporting local suppliers and staffing his kitchen with local people, Meyrick initiated the charity Food For Thought, which offers financial support and careers in the F&B industry to young people in Bali.
“Poverty and harsh circumstances can drive young people to do things they do not want. By giving them the option to cook, or be a waiter, this gives them a future,” he says.
Meyrick’s kitchens are not the soft option. His “street food” has to be made with precision, rigor and focus and he expects high standards from his brigade, including silence in the kitchen when he walks in.
“I want my staff to create something out of themselves, so I am fair, but I am strict. I don’t throw pans at them,” he confides, remembering his formative years in London. “But I will send them home if they consistently get things wrong; I do shout at them. It is about getting them to understand the importance of discipline in the kitchen.”
He adds: “Cooking is about methodical thinking and getting yourself organised. What the kitchen gave me, and what it will give these young people, is freedom. You can go anywhere in the world and cook.”
You can visit Chef Will Meyrick’s StreetFood Chef YouTube channel here