Akar Bernie Lee

Chef-owner Bernie Lee opened Akar in June 2019.

While doing their part to maintain social distance, home cooks everywhere are honing their skills in the kitchen. Feast consulted with some of St. Louis' finest chefs and business owners for their best advice on how to make easy, wholesome meals using simple pantry staples. Find out how to make the most of your groceries in this Q&A series, which outlines some pro tips for creating nutritious and comforting from-scratch meals, snacks and more.

Bernie Lee is the chef-owner of Asian comfort food restaurant Akar, which opened in Clayton last summer. Akar’s patio is currently open for dine-in service, and carryout is also available via phone-in or online orders. To view the menu, visit akarstl.com.

What seasonings or condiments are a necessity in your household, and how do you like to use them to spice up your meals? Fresh Thai chile, garlic and mushroom soy sauce to create more comfort and umami – it remind me of my mom’s cooking. Those are her favorite kitchen ingredients. 

What are some pantry staples or techniques commonly used in Malaysian cuisine that home cooks can use to take their cooking to the next level? A melting pot of cultures, Malaysia’s key food ingredients are fresh spices, shrimp paste, dark and light soy sauce, garlic, ginger, palm sugar, tamarind, chile, galangal, coconut milk and curry powder. I love them all and use them all the time, especially tamarind and shrimp paste – the secret ingredient for many dishes I cook and create.

I love the combination of tamarind with brown sugar for cooking whole shrimp, sometimes with a little Thai chile. It’s a little spicy, sweet and tangy dish that always reminds me of the southeast Asian classic.

Shrimp paste is curry’s secret best friend in my opinion. It brightens all spices and elevates the umami profile. Shrimp paste comes in different packages depending on which country they’re made. I love my Malaysian-made [shrimp paste], especially from Penang, my birthplace. It comes in dry paste packages. I usually toss them till toasty and fragrant before I mix it into my curry.

How do you like to meal prep for the week ahead? I don’t do meal prep unless I have to entertain friends at my house. I try to dine out as often as I can to support local restaurants. Some of my favorite restaurants to support right now are Mandarin House, Tai Ke, Cafe Natasha and Turn.

When you're cooking at home, what are your favorite go-to comfort dishes to make? All types of Malaysian curry, sambal and pork belly marinated with fermented bean curd (my grandma’s favorite).