A Fruitful Festival (part 1) - The Fay Khoo Award for Food & Drink Writing

I make a point of attending the George Town Literary Festival in Penang every year. The festival is the highlight of the Malaysian literary calendar and has evolved by increments every year. This year's was the biggest and sleekest to date.

Though I wasn't initially directly involved in any of the events, by chance (or by dint of hard work - take your pick) I ended up participating in two events - The Fay Khoo Award for Food for Food & Drink Writing - and The D.K. Dutt Award for Literary Excellence  (which you can read more about here)


The Fay Khoo Award is in its first year, established in memory of the Malaysian writer Fay Khoo who passed away in early 2017. Both the competition and the event were flawlessly organized by Bettina Chuah Abdullah, who also acted with food and drink writer John Brunton as judge for the submitted pieces. 
I've been around food all my life (who hasn't?), but I've probably been more intimately involved with it than most. I don't often reference the fact that several million years ago my background was in hotels and restaurants. I've occupied all sorts of posts within that difficult industry, including many, many grueling hours in kitchens. It's hard to calculate, and it's been a long time since I cooked full-time, but I can  probably still say I've prepared more meals in my life than I've eaten. 

Kitchen life is not easy. It gave me varicose veins, and while I can't lay the entire blame on the long hours cooking demands for the failure of my first marriage, those late nights and weekends worked certainly made a substantial down-payment in the over all cost. 

I once ran a vegetarian eatery in a little town in the south of France - no, not that South of France, the one with lavender fields and the sun glistening waves of the Mediterranean. I lived in the real South of France, marked by the magnificent mountain range that forms the border with Spain. The French are inveterate carnivores. Serving vegetarian food is not a recipe for financial or commercial success. Trust me on that.

I moved deeper into the mountains, into the heart of the Pyrenees National Park and worked three summers in a mountain refuge, serving up hot calorie-rich meals for  hungry hikers striking out to scale summits. Most of the rest of the year I spent in India, where to cut a long, and yet to be written, story short I ended up becoming the personal cook for a Swami in charge of an ashram in Southern India - as one does. And these are just a few extracts from my culinary curriculum.

Food, food, always food, yet it has generally held a marginal place in my writing. That said, those familiar with my fiction writing might have noticed  hotel and restaurant settings  have a habit of recurring. 

When it came to submitting a piece for the Fay Khoo award my mind reviewed a lifetime of incidents around food. 


The piece chosen by Bettina and Paul goes back to an incident that is almost exactly thirty years old, when I was just nineteen and spending a summer away from hotel school, working and living on my then-girlfriend's family farm in the east of France. It was the type of farm that nowadays would be considered organic, but back then it was just the way things had always been done. It was also the summer I became vegetarian. The curious can read about that here. (It also includes a section referencing the preparation of snails).

There are many things I wish I could tell that nineteen year old me - including to always check the salt contents of butter.

Read the story 'Escargots de Bourgogne' published on the Fay Khoo Award website here.


Many thanks to all those involved, especially Bettina and Paul, and congratulations to winner Renie Leng and my fellow-runner up Hsu-Lyn Yap. You can also read their pieces here


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