It Changed My Life: Meet Ahmad Zahid Isnin, a briyani maestro, metal musician and lion dancer

Chef Ahmad Zahid Isnin is a Malay member of a lion dance troupe, plays the guitar in several metal bands and sells briyani on Instagram. All three aspects, he says, have something in common: bringing people together.
Briyani chef Ahmad Zahid Isnin's hobbies include death metal music and Chinese lion dance. Joining a troupe was one of his childhood dreams.
Briyani chef Ahmad Zahid Isnin's hobbies include death metal music and Chinese lion dance. Joining a troupe was one of his childhood dreams.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Briyani chef Ahmad Zahid Isnin's hobbies include death metal music and Chinese lion dance. Joining a troupe was one of his childhood dreams.
Mr Zahid was invited to helm a pop-up at The Straits Clan last year, following his stints at Asian Masters 2018 and Brenners Park Hotel in Germany. PHOTO: THE STRAITS CLAN

In this four-part series brought to you by AXA, Insight features people who rewrite the rules. This week, meet Ahmad Zahid Isnin, equally comfortable on stage with a guitar as he is in the kitchen dishing out a mean nasi briyani.

Ahmad Zahid Isnin is a man of many contradictions.
 

He's a death metal musician with a communications degree, a bartender who doesn't drink, a Malay member of a Chinese lion dance troupe and a briyani maestro who spurns mainstream adulation.

The 41-year-old says: "I know my story is going to mess with a lot of people's perceptions of what things or how people should be.

"But I've long learnt that it's okay to be different," he says, adding that he rests easy because he approaches whatever he does with good intentions.

For those in the know, Mr Zahid is the founder of Global Mat Soul Kitchen, a private Instagram account which peddles, occasionally and in limited quantities, what has been described as the best briyani on the island.

His recipe was painstakingly "reverse engineered" from a version he tried and loved at a Dubai restaurant several years ago.

To savour his speciality - fragrant basmati rice and meat or vegetables cooked in a heady mix of spices - one has to follow his account, find out when he is cooking and send an order via WhatsApp.

Ordering is on a first come, first served basis.

"No matter how much money you have, you can't get to the head of the queue," says Mr Zahid, who sees his operation as a social leveller.

If successful, one has to wait for pickup instructions and make a trip, with exact change, to a void deck in his "hood": Aljunied Crescent.

"Some of these people have never been to a neighbourhood like that. It's my way of breaking barriers with food," says the chef, who started Global Mat Soul Kitchen four years ago.

Another barrier-breaker? His customers usually end up talking to one another while waiting.

A gregarious soul with an expansive vocabulary and a philosophical bent, the stocky man reckons he has always been a little unconventional.

The only child of a maintenance worker with the British Army and a housewife, he has lived all his life in Aljunied Crescent.

The area, he recalls, was more than a little rough around the edges in the 1970s and had a rampant drug problem.

"But it was a multi-faith, multi-ethnic neighbourhood with a very friendly vibe. My earliest memories were of late-night Chinese processions because there was a sintua nearby," the bachelor says, using the Hokkien word for spirit altars.

"Our closest neighbours were a Chinese and a Punjabi family," he says, adding that his environment taught him a lot about diversity.

The goggle-box was a constant companion. Children's programmes like Sesame Street and Electric Company reinforced his love for semantics - he was already using words like "clandestine" as a child - while soap operas like Falcon Crest and Dynasty taught him a lot about life, like "how people can be s**t".

The former student of Mattar Primary and Tanjong Katong Technical says: "My parents were protective but also gave me a long leash."

In his teens, he discovered aggressive music genres, including death metal and hardcore punk.

No, it didn't set him down any undesirable paths.

"I identified with the straight edge movement," he says before launching into a detailed, almost encyclopaedic, explanation of the movement's philosophy.

The godfather of straight edge, he says, is Ian Mackaye, a key figure in hardcore punk and frontman of the band Minor Threat.

"He ranted against the proliferation of foolishness and ignorance of society, which included drunkenness and rampant drug abuse," says Mr Zahid.

Straight-edge adherents stay away from drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

The self-taught guitarist, who has played in several bands such as Impiety and Tantra, makes no apologies for liking what some think of as inappropriate music because of its violent imagery and nihilistic lyrics.

It's an outlet for his angst, one not fuelled by drugs or alcohol.

 
 
 

"You have to draw the line, rise above it and appropriate what you like and is useful to you. What I am today is a result of everything I've been through."

His parents have raised him well, he says. "They taught me that if you have the right beliefs, you can be in any situation and the environment will not control you."

Growing up, Mr Zahid didn't harbour any concrete ambitions.

"I wanted to be a Muppet, with not a care in the world. And I wanted to be this Bruneian woman who hosted a cooking show which I loved, called Mari Memasak (Let's Cook)," he says, referring to the late TV host Sharifah Maimunah.

After completing his O levels, he studied mass communications at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

He didn't complete the course, but made his way several years later to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), where he obtained a degree in media studies.

To finance his polytechnic studies, he started bartending part-time in 1996.

His entry into the industry dovetailed with the start of the cocktail revolution in Singapore.

Reading a lot gave him a good grasp of the art of cocktail mixing, even though as a Muslim, he doesn't drink.

Really? That's like a vegan calling the shots at a churrascaria.

He nods, laughing at the irony.

"It's all about play and counterplay, knowing what base spirit and flavouring agents to use, throwing in the right herbs and spices," says Mr Zahid who, over the course of 15 years in the trade, worked in several bars - including Klee and Bar Stories - and won a couple of competitions.

With his earnings from bartending, he left for RMIT in 2006. Melbourne saw him honing another skill: cooking.

He had made his way eagerly to an Asian restaurant one afternoon, hoping for a steaming plate of briyani to ease the pressures of a stressful day. But it was sold out.

He was told to come back in the evening, but when he did, a restaurant worker told him they had not made a fresh batch.

"I then resolved never to depend on anyone for food. If I wanted to eat something, I'd learn to cook it myself and I'd make sure it would be the best thing ever."

He started venturing out to ethnic markets in Melbourne's suburbs to find inspiration. His apartment soon became a "canteen" for Asian classmates and their friends hankering for local dishes like nasi lemak and beef rendang.

Upon coming home in 2008, Mr Zahid went back to bartending. The grind of a nine-to-five job or a media career with a lot of schmoozing just didn't appeal to him.

In 2015, he left bartending to concentrate on cooking. He then secured a job as a chef de partie at Coriander Leaf.

He left the restaurant last year, by which time his reputation was solid enough to land him a spot at the Asian Masters 2018 dining festival, a 10-day guest stint at Brenners Park Hotel in Baden-Baden, Germany, in November last year, as well as a three-day pop-up at The Straits Clan in December.

Mr Zahid is now making plans to chart a new culinary course.

In the meantime, he is a proud member of the Hoon Hong Athletic Association. He regularly takes part in its lion and dragon dance performances at shop openings, anniversaries and even funerals.

Joining a lion dance troupe was a childhood dream, one he realised in 2011 when he was 33.

He is versatile: good with the cymbals, drums and even playing the Big Head Doll.

"Some say I've lost my mind, others say I have joined a Chinese gang. Some say I am no longer a Muslim," says Mr Zahid, who performed the umrah - an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca - six years ago.

He shrugs off the nay-saying.

"We are made of different tribes, colours and nations so that we may know each other and do good on the limited time we have here on earth.

"I just hope to bring people together through a potent mix of food, art and music. Despite our differences, we can still break bread and be friends."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 28, 2019, with the headline 'A man of many contradictions and passions'. Print Edition | Subscribe