Abby Lee

Abby Lee

Abby Lee

Abby Lee began her career predominantly cooking Italian food but after moving back to Malaysia during the coronavirus pandemic, began to learn more about the food she grew up eating and decided to pivot towards Malaysian cookery. She has since made a name for herself at her London restaurant Mambow, where her bold modern Malaysian dishes have gone down a storm.

It’s surprisingly common to hear about chefs growing up eating a certain cuisine but not actually learning to cook their native food until later in life. Whether this is down to the style of cookery taught at colleges or simply a rebellious urge to initially try something different when moving away from home, it’s hard to say but almost always, something leads people back to the food they grew up eating. For Abby Lee, it was moving back home during the pandemic that allowed her to rediscover Malaysian food and she hasn’t looked back since. At her London restaurant Mambow, she’s now introducing Brits to Malaysian food through her own modern take on the cuisine.

Abby grew up spending time in both Singapore and Malaysia, and some of her most distinct memories as a child are of time spent in her family’s bakeries in Singapore. ‘I started helping to slice sourdough and decorate the cakes at quite a young age,’ smiles Abi. ‘They’d put a little stool out for me to stand on and I’d be coating carrot cakes with walnuts. Even though it was baking, I was always surrounded by food as a kid.’ At the age of just fourteen, Abby made the bold decision to move over to the UK by herself and ended up staying, ‘it was the culture that I came for more than anything,’ she explains, ‘I felt like I’d be more creative and open-minded in the UK.’

It wasn’t until she was at university in Bristol however, that this creativity began to take hold in the form of cooking. Feeling uninspired by her economics degree, Abby started to learn how to cook for her friends. Dinner parties quickly became feasts and feasts soon became supper clubs, as she realised that cooking was more than just a hobby. The food she was cooking wasn’t remotely Malaysian at this point; she instead predominantly leant towards Italian recipes as they were more straightforward and produce-driven, ‘pasta-making really appealed to me,’ she adds, ‘as it has that baking side to it that I was very familiar with.’

Abby left university set on working in the industry but, as she didn’t have a working visa, instead attended Le Cordon Bleu in London to get some classical training, before returning to Singapore. Despite being back in Southeast Asia she still persisted with Italian food, working in a local Sicilian restaurant. Through contacts of the head chef, Abby then had the opportunity to move to Puglia to work in some of the region’s most renowned restaurants including at the Michelin-starred Pasha Ristorante. These two years that she spent living in Italy proved formative for the young chef.

‘It took a lot of getting used to working in restaurants like that,’ she explains, ‘but those long hours really toughened me up and I liked the discipline. Being surrounded by food in Italy just put me in a magical state of mind. I think after a while though, it did also make me realise that Michelin-level cookery feels like an art form more than anything. I reached a point where I just wanted to make food that was tasty; I didn’t care about gels or things that looked like olives but weren’t when you bit into them.’

This realisation informed Abby’s next move, which was to head back to the UK in 2020 to open Mambow mark one – a casual all-day restaurant in Spitalfields serving bowl food – which ironically was the first London restaurant she’d ever worked in. Her plans were scuppered however, when she was forced to close up shop after just four weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ended up returning home to be with her family. She didn’t know it at the time, but this forced change of plan would end up completely revolutionising her cookery style.

Over the course the six months she spent living back with her family, Abby discovered a new-found affinity to Malaysian food, and gradually learnt how to make as many traditional dishes as she could with help from her auntie, who had many of Abby’s grandmother’s recipes. ‘I remember just finding it so comforting eating food from my home,’ she explains. ‘It made me just feel far more aware of where I was from. At the same time, it felt crazy that I had no idea how to cook any of it and I also didn’t want to be the one responsible for letting my granny’s recipes die. My aunt was amazing because she’d just suddenly say ‘get a pen and paper’ and then we’d record how to make these dishes, weighing all the elements as we went.’

Abby returned to the UK with all of these recipes in hand and a plan to reopen Mambow in a brand-new location, but this time with an entirely Malaysian menu, inspired by what she’d learnt back home. This came to fruition in 2022 when Abby opened up in Peckham, and almost instantly her food was met with glowing reviews. Her punchy, modern menu offered Londoners something that many hadn’t experienced before – something which has always been important for Abby, ‘I want people to understand more about the cuisine,’ she says, ‘beyond just rendang, laksa and roti. There are so many other sides to it, and I’m also wanting to focus more and more on the Nyonya (a combination of Malay and Chinese cookery) side of things as that’s my heritage. Mambow definitely started with a lot of broader influences, and I want to gradually make it more and specific.’

For much of Abby’s early career in the kitchen, cookery was almost a form of escapism over anything else but since opening Mambow, she finds she actively thrives off service, ‘I crave a busy service,’ she laughs, ‘and I think that’s because I feel like I’m now cooking the food I was supposed to, so it feels like my life’s work rather than just a job.’ Abby’s certainly found her happy place cooking Malaysian food and this shines through in her menu. If she hadn’t returned home in 2021, Abby might not have ever rediscovered the cuisine in quite the same way, but thankfully she did and everyone who eats at Mambow is now benefitting as a result.

In 2023, Abby relocated Mambow to a larger site in Clapton.