This Malaysian-Australian Chef Doesn’t Want You to Call His Food ‘Fusion’
Photo by Ruby Lott-Lavigna.

This Malaysian-Australian Chef Doesn’t Want You to Call His Food ‘Fusion’

Ramael Scully worked alongside Yotam Ottolenghi for more than ten years. Now, he's opening a London restaurant inspired by his dual heritage and travels across the globe.

I’m glad I arrived at Scully feeling hungry. It’s 11 AM, and my stomach is dissatisfied with the small slice of toast I consumed hours ago, standing up at my breakfast counter. Luckily, I’ve come to the right place. If there’s one thing chef Ramael Scully is into, it’s feeding people.

“Do you want a bacon sandwich? Can I get you something to eat? Do you want to hang out for the day and try some things?” These are the sentiments that greet me as I walk into his recently opened restaurant in Central London. I order a camomile tea, deciding to hold off the hunger until it’s an acceptable time for lunch.

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The menu at Scully’s is extremely eclectic, a consequence, in some way, of his career working with one of Britain’s most influential chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi. After co-authoring a cookbook with the Israeli-British chef, and spending over ten years in his restaurants, Scully wanted to start his own place—one where his menu could be as weird as he liked.

Scully restaurant in Central London. All photos by the author.

In food terms, this meant dishes that harked back to his Malaysian upbringing, as well as the less definable, like “forbidden rice” and parsnip ice cream. The menu at Scully is a mix of cuisines and cooking styles, with a heavy emphasis on vegetables. Italian spring greens can be ordered alongside red miso salad or white broccoli with salted egg yolk. Belligerent carnivores are kept quiet with pork belly and Welsh mutton if they so desire, but Scully insists that “the vegetable part,” inspired, of course, by Ottolenghi, is crucial.

“I find creating vegetable dishes is much much harder,” he says. “[It] needs a more creative mind to get a sexy plate of vegetables.”

Scully joined the Ottolenghi team in 2004 and became head chef at NOPI in 2011. He left last year to begin work on his eponymous restaurant.

“When the NOPI cookbook [a 2015 recipe book cook authored by Scully and Ottolenghi] came out, I thought it was time to do my own food,” he explains. “So I said, [to Ottolenghi], ‘Come and support me. You won't see your money for the next few years, but it's a small restaurant where we can have no restrictions on the menu.’”

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The parsnip ice cream would seem to suggest this. Nevertheless, Ottolenghi helped his former head chef with the investment needed to start the restaurant.

While classic Ottolenghi recipes often combine elements from Middle Eastern and Asian cooking, the dishes at Scully lean heavily on the owner’s upbringing in Malaysia and then Australia.

“I grew up in Malaysia, and I was always surrounded by food,” Scully explains. “I had eight aunties—all great cooks—and my mum spent some time in the UK in the 70s being a nurse, so cooked a lot of Western food at home. All my aunties had different ways of cooking curries to sambals, so I’ve always been surrounded by food being a Malaysian kid.”

Aubergine sambal and labneh, with an arepa.

“Then, when I got to Australia, that was another culture shock,” he continues. “I had Italian friends, Turkish friends, Lebanese friends, Greek friends, so I went to their house and their Mothers’ would be cooking some cool stuff. That's how the journey started, I was always surrounded by great food and people.”

It wasn’t until Scully was a young trainee chef, working alongside French and Italian cooks, that he learned to embrace the clashing food cultures he’d grown up with.

“At 22, I started working with a French guy and an Irish guy,” he remembers. “The Irish guy was a sous chef, and did all the Asian food, and the French guy would do the classics. They used to combine the French and the Thai food together, so I started using my Malaysian roots with the techniques I learned in France and Italy.”

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I ask how he would define the food. He pauses. “Back then in Australia, it was called 'fusion,’” he says. “I think it's a bad word right now.”

He’s not wrong. “Fusion cuisine” became the buzzword of the British food scene in the 1970s, lingering right up until the 90s—regrettably inspiring that time your mum put lime and peanuts in the Carbonara and you and your dad had to pretend you “weren’t feeling well.” Fusion evokes images of restaurants with tall leather seats and satin curtains, serving tempura shrimp straight from the freezer and dishes with names like “Noodle Surprise.” Asian-inspired? Yes. Fusion? No thanks.

Scully in his kitchen, constructing the tomato salad.

Tomato salad with pickled green strawberries.

Of course, there are many successful, contemporary restaurants that could be classed as “fusion cuisine,” but the term—although semi-applicable to Scully’s cooking style—still feels wrong. His menu doesn’t fuse cuisines, but evades them. Dishes like the aubergine sambal can be easily classed as Malaysian, but others push flavour combinations and cooking methods to new heights. Why buy fish sauce, when you could spend a year making it in the basement of your restaurant from the guts of a halibut? Why serve sambal when you could have it with a South American arepa, dusted lightly with crushed corn? Salt-baked avocado, anyone?

Arguably, not all of the dishes at Scully work (I do not think parsnip should be in ice cream, for the record), but when the risk pays off, it’s delicious—like the labneh with Malaysian sambal or the Italian vegetables with miso flavouring.

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“I'm confused half the time and sometimes it comes out as a disaster,” explains Scully. “When I first started doing my own food, I had too many things going on, but sometimes less is more on the plate.”

This attention to detail is not limited to the plate. The wall that greets diners as they walk into Scully is covered in shelves of jars, each one filled with preserves made by the chef himself. There are lemons, rhubarb sriracha, radishes suspended in vinegar, apricots in salt, and dehydrated mushrooms. About 40 percent of the jars’ contents I can’t identify, but each one of them is incorporated somehow into the cooking here.

The many, many pickles and preserves.

“That's how I work with my dishes,” Scully tells me. “I work with my pantry. It takes weeks before some of this stuff gets on.”

In another part of the restaurant, a huge, dimly lit glass chilling cupboard displays hanging fish, joints of meat, and oysters. The food here isn’t just for eating, it’s part of the decor.

We finish talking, and Scully disappears into the kitchen. Undeterred by my request for chamomile tea, he proceeds to bring out four courses of food, drinks, and two puddings.

I start with the aforementioned aubergine sambal, which comes with a labneh so delicious that I plead for the recipe. Next is the arepa, a tomato salad with the most beautiful green pickled strawberries, and a towering green salad doused in lemon dressing.

After finishing off the two puddings (the questionable coconut and parsnip sorbet, and a far less questionable vegan chocolate sorbet), I assume we must be done with the food. We’re not. Scully returns to the table with a tub of “mushroom bacon.” A gift, apparently, for me to take home.

“I can talk food all day long,” he says, “but I always feel it's better to feed you guys.”

I am certainly not one to disagree.