Ones to watch: Julie Lin

by Lauren Fitchett13 January 2023

Julie Lin turned her love of cooking into a career when she appeared on MasterChef in her early twenties, reaching the quarterfinals. Since then, she has developed her Malaysian and Scottish cooking style and now owns GaGa in Glasgow, which celebrates Southeast Asian flavours.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Julie Lin wasn’t inspired to become a chef by a careers talk at school or a Saturday job. Instead, her path to the professional kitchen emerged from a hobby and a deep-rooted love of food – she’d always been a keen cook, hosting dinner parties and supper clubs, but worked in retail and as a music teacher before she joined the dots and realised she could turn her passion into a profession. ‘Thinking about what I was cooking for dinner was a big part of my day,’ she laughs. ‘Cooking was always in the background but it didn’t occur to me to go into it as a career. It has been a slow burn, but a natural transition.’

Today, she has certainly found her place in the kitchen of her Glaswegian bar and restaurant GaGa, which celebrates her half Malaysian and half Scottish heritage, and the spirit of the food on which she was raised. ‘There’s a huge culture around food in Malaysia,’ she says. ‘When you greet people you don’t say ‘hi, how are you?’ it’s ‘hi’, have you eaten?’’

Julie's chickpea, potato and coconut Malaysian curry.

Though she grew up in Scotland, as a child Julie spent months in her ‘second home’ of Malaysia every year, watching her mother and grandmother cook. Their Nyonya culture – a unique hybrid of Chinese and Malaysian – marries Chinese and Malay cooking styles and ingredients, including tamarind juice, lemongrass, candlenut, shrimp paste and galangal, creating dishes which are bursting with sweet, sour, spicy and salty flavours. A meal which transports her back to her childhood in particular is lap cheong – smoked and sweetened Chinese sausage, wok-fried with egg and peas – a simple recipe which helped prompt the creativity that is so present in her cooking today.

‘Sometimes mum couldn’t get her hands on lap cheong, so she’d use sweet-cured bacon and whatever she could access in Scotland instead, and turn it into her own dish,' Julie smiles. 'She used to have an abundance of ingredients to hand in Malaysia and when she first came here it wouldn’t have been as easy to get hold of the things she was familiar with, so she adapted. That’s really shaped how I cook today. In Scotland we have a huge larder, and it’s great to do a sambal with Scottish fish, for example. If we have wok greens it will be Scottish greens, deeply wok-fried to get that flavour. With French cooking there can be a lot of rules, but [in this style] it’s quite normal to bend them.’

Rather than lengthy recipes and complex processes, Malaysia’s agak-agak style is all about cooking with soul, relying on intuition, experience and common sense to create dishes which might include the same ingredients but can turn out differently every time. Julie remembers loved ones telling her to ‘season food until your ancestors whisper in your ear to stop’, an ethos which she believes creates more independent chefs who cook using their senses.

It also explains why Julie is more keen to hire cooks who haven’t previously worked in restaurants, but who live and breathe food (she has a Malaysian culinary scientist on the team), after being given a similar opportunity when she was low on experience. It was, after all, only in 2014 that Julie, then twenty-three, had her first taste of the rush of a professional kitchen when she decided to take her pastime more seriously and applied for a spot on MasterChef. ‘There’s pressure that you don’t want, but there is also pressure that you thrive in, where even if it’s hard work, you are enjoying it and figuring out how to get better,’ she says. ‘I don’t think pressure is always bad, it challenges you.’

Having reached the quarterfinals, she returned to Glasgow, left her job and applied for kitchen work, starting under the tutelage of Laurie McMillan at Café Strange Brew, who she says took a leap of faith in hiring her and who she remains close with today. She then headed up the kitchen at Rachna Dheer’s Babu Kitchen, a Bombay street kitchen which not only gave Julie experience in street food events, but also a glimpse into how she could one day serve her own Malaysian food.

GaGa in Glasgow.

Armed with the practical experience she felt she had been lacking and the guidance of two female mentors, Julie was ready to go it alone, starting Julie’s Street Kitchen stall in a former bin lane (‘Remembering that keeps me modest,’ she laughs), serving simple, Indo-Malay street food such as nasi lemak and curries. The stall gave her time to hone her craft, build her name and learn on the job, and at the end of 2017 she was ready to open Julie’s Kopitiam, her first permanent restaurant, in the city’s up and coming southside area, inspired by Malaysia’s lively coffee shops and night cafés.

‘I can’t remember much of that time – I do remember the first customer walking in and thinking ‘this is really happening’,’ she reminisces. ‘Soon, it was busy all the time – I didn’t do bookings, so we had long queues and people would wait hours for a table.’ It was a steep learning curve, she says, but one she is grateful to have had. ‘Throwing yourself in there and allowing yourself to make mistakes is the best way, I think,’ she says. ‘I feel a lot stronger as a person for the mistakes I’ve made. Allowing yourself to fail is the best thing you can do.’ 

The rice noodle salad with herbs, mango and peanut at GaGa.

In 2021, it was joined by GaGa, a venture with local businessman Marc Ferrier and his family; Ken Hamilton, Sarah Ferrier and Fraser Hamilton. Serving Southeast Asian street food and cocktails, Julie says its bigger kitchen means chefs can more easily experiment with the different cuisines which influence Malaysian cooking, from Portuguese to Indonesian. Its menu includes a sichuan hot honey burger, smashed chicken with green sambal, Malaysian vegetable curry and breakfast nasi goreng (fried rice, with bacon and egg). ‘Some food you cook at home will be better than that in a commercial kitchen,’ she says. ‘Both have their strengths. I have tried to keep both together – within the restaurant it should all feel home-cooked.’

In January 2023, Julie announced she would be closing the Kopitiam after five years, a decision she says was made with a heavy heart and after a lot of thought. Many of the restaurant's Nyonya flavours will be weaved into the menu at GaGa, which will have a renewed focus on Malaysian cooking. It will also give Julie the space to consider what comes next – though, between two successful restaurants, a MasterChef place and a growing profile in the UK’s food media, she has already achieved a lot since 2014.

There are, even so, plenty of plans afoot, including dreams of a cookbook which will celebrate her unique blend of Scottish and Malaysian cooking. ‘I wouldn’t be being true to myself if it was just Malaysian recipes,’ she says. ‘We do those at the restaurant, but for me it’s also important to change dishes to make them make sense for the country you’re in. I love the idea of using Scottish ingredients with Malaysian flavours. I would like to focus on a book for people like myself, who are interested in creating a cuisine and giving that cuisine importance. It’s authentic, even if it doesn’t use what people consider to be authentic ingredients.’

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