Words by Olivia Beba Haslam
Pictures provided by Julie Lin
The City of Glasgow is one that does not famously announce itself onto the culinary scene with performative flair. In central Scotland it sits quite happily with a quiet buzz of busy, fulfilled by itself perpetuating creativity and earnest diligence. The 1990 European City of Culture holds the legacy tangibly tight and is enthusiastically proud of its ever eclectic and diverse attitude.
Heading south over the industrially popularised River Clyde, past pockets of neighbourhoods and chases of highway, Chef Julie Lin can be found with an unfaltering lipstick-red smile, surrounded by an idealistic vignette of coconut milk and an endless queue of eager customers outside her Malaysian street-food cafe: Julie’s Kopitiam. Here she works tirelessly to produce an accessible style of Malay cooking that has evidently lent itself well to the adaptations necessary for restaurant survival in this last year. Since its opening in 2018, the restaurant has maintained a continuous place in the Michelin guide, a merit not to be overlooked given the casual dining nature intrinsic to Malaysian cuisine and the sparse recognition this Scottish city appears to receive.
The Kopitiam rests now as a staple in the Glasgow food scene, an accolade equally placed between Julie’s extreme likability and the quality of food which she serves. The mantra “Agak Agak” which in Malaysian means to cook with intuition, is a key to why a meal from this subtle cafe leaves customers with the feeling that they have been held, comforted, and rocked gently by the deep soul of a cuisine. Julie quotes her Cousin’s words of wisdom which she feels summarises her small team’s methods perfectly: “season the dish until the ghosts of your ancestors whisper to stop”.
By Julie’s account, Malaysian cuisine is an amalgamation of an influx of cross-cultural influences. And without praise for the sour history of Portuguese, Indian, Dutch and British colonialism, it has instilled a sweet (and savory) gastronomic balance that is very much part of Malay cultural heritage. For those struggling with the question of authenticity, this is a hybrid which holds all and none of the answers. Julie recounts a conversation she had with renowned Chef and television personality Ken Hom in which they discussed the importance of not gatekeeping Asian cuisine; to hold ownership of an earned culinary pride need not be to withhold from others.
Her name may head the door of her restaurant, but this is near enough the extent of her adherence to a tiered system – Julie believes in and operates her kitchen with a non-hierarchical structure. In part that is because this is what comes naturally to her. She explains, “We typically don’t have the same hierarchical structure in Asian kitchens”, and questions why all kitchen culture should be formed by the behaviour of one European country. She of course speaks of France, the determinative figurehead of modern restaurant practice. And, without demonising a structure that can and has in the past worked well for some, she leads with a strong suggestion that it might not continue to work everywhere and for everyone.
Another imperative reason for operating her kitchen in such a way is to disrupt and refuse a working environment that increasingly is being recognised for its toxicity. She aims to nourish the skills of and uplift “women and others who have been marginalised for years,” through means of cooking. This attitude is one that she acknowledges resounds loudly in the echo chamber that is the liberal chef world of Glasgow’s Southside, one that is prominent enough perhaps to temporarily lull anyone into a false sense of security that the progression of gender equality in kitchens is slowly finding an equilibrium. But a grounding conversation with the wrong person at a bus stop, or a quick glance at the gender imbalance in Michelin ratings is a reminder that to exist in this professional space can still be its own act of necessary and exhaustive activism. Now the conversation continues in the upcoming book by Hoxton Mini Press, The Female Chef: Stories and recipes from 31 women redefining the British food scene, in which Julie Lin participates with overwhelmedness. The book authored by Clare Finney and Liz Seabrook is available for pre-order and is launching on the 20th of September 2021.
It is the consistent figure of women that has guided a lot of Julie’s path. Julie began her journey as a contestant on Masterchef UK in 2014, and it took little time after for her to recognise that what she yearned to be doing was cooking. She was taken under the wing of fellow Glasgow chef Laurie McMillan to whom Julie credits gratefully both with her own professional progression and for singlehandedly leading the city’s strong brunch scene. It has been food that allowed her to connect with her own heritage; by way of mirroring her Mother’s cooking, she found her rhythm working in restaurants, running pop-ups, inhabiting street food venues and finally nesting her own successful space. Julie’s food is Nyonya, an identity which in singular means a woman of Malaysian and Chinese origin, but in ethos grounds the entire basis of what the Kopitiam stands for.
Julie believes strength lies in sharing Malay identity through cuisine, and her offerings reflect this immaculately. She serves buttery Roti’s that make fingers dewy as they brush into tawny pools of Nyonya curry daal; Nasi Goreng that is cyclically seasoned in an iron pan unadulterated by soap; Pork Belly that has chattered away under dark soy and ginger since the clatter of shutters at 9am which now nestles smugly, sticky and syrupy, on a pillow of floral rice. Our Chef’s ever-changing menu tastes of the weathered Scottish season, of Malaysian soul that has grown and adapted a hundred times over, and of a timeless Glasgow pride.
As she gently announces her new restaurant space, the details of which will be revealed in the coming month, Glasgow’s residents wait patiently for the next place to dine and be held in the cradle of the comfort that Julie Lin brings in abundance.
1109 Pollokshaws Rd, Shawlands,
Glasgow G41 3YG,
Tel: +44 141 237 9560