David Rocco was able to experience the unifying power of food throughout the series as he travelled across South-east Asia. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Chef David Rocco’s new show explores Malaysia’s relationship with food, refugees, and feminism


KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 — David Rocco’s new TV series Dolce Southeast Asia will see the Canadian chef immersing himself in the vibrant cuisines of Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

The show is more than just a culinary adventure though, as Rocco, 50, shines a spotlight on social issues in each country and how food has managed to change the lives of some of the most underprivileged groups in the region.

Five of the 13 episodes were shot in Malaysia where Rocco travelled to Georgetown, Penang and Kuala Lumpur to spotlight the stories of his local guides as they took him on a food tour in each city.

In one episode, he meets with refugees who have found solace in Kuala Lumpur and how their heritage and food has added further diversity to the city’s ever-changing tapestry of cultures.

Another episode shows Rocco crossing paths with Malaysian female activists to hear more about what it means to live as a Muslim woman in the country.
David Rocco sat down for a local meal with socio-political activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, who has always been vocal about feminist concerns in the country. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic

Some of the notable figures he managed to share a meal with include activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Chef Wan, photographer and chef Zung Heng, singer Zee Avi, and The Picha Project co-founder Kim Lim.

In a Zoom call with regional media, the father-of-three said he wanted Dolce Southeast Asia to look beyond the surface of recipes and ingredients and focus on the lives of change makers and their relationship to food.

“The more you travel, the more you start to open your mind and your heart and suddenly you’re more interested in the people.

“And it’s always through food because that’s the vehicle that allows people to open up and share their stories.

“On the show, we talk over a meal where people feel comfortable opening up and sharing with us.

“Food is amazing because it really puts people in a comfortable state and allows them to talk about their struggles in a way that might not have been possible in other settings,” said Rocco.
David Rocco was able to experience both traditional and contemporary versions of Malaysian street food on the show. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic

The chef said he and the Dolce Southeast Asia crew often referred to the show as a food-focused version of the photoblog Humans of New York, in which photographer Brandon Stanton told stories about everyday people using street portraits and interviews.

Rocco said he was grateful for the chance to meet phenomenal people during his South-east Asian journey and hoped viewers would be just as moved as he was when hearing their stories.

Nasi lemak cravings

Rocco has frequently professed his love for Malaysian dishes over the last few years and while he’s still not sold on durian, he has been craving for nasi lemak while in lockdown in Toronto.

The chef said he has grown to love the dish despite finding it “rather boring” when he first tried it.

He now prefers his nasi lemak the simple way, wrapped in a banana leaf without the extra trimmings of fried chicken or fancy condiments.
From sumptuous noodles to delicious flatbread, Rocco was able to explore a wide spectrum of what Malaysian cuisine had to offer. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic

“Nasi lemak is something that is so comforting. When I first had it for breakfast, I thought it was rather boring at first.

“But what’s so interesting is the integrity and the honesty of the dish. After having it a few times, I started craving it for breakfast and I absolutely enjoy it.

“When it comes from a street vendor wrapped in banana leaf, it’s just perfect.”

Catch Rocco trying out more Malaysian food when Dolce Southeast Asia premieres on National Geographic (Astro CH 571 SD/CH 551 HD and Unifi TV CH 508 HD) on September 14, 10pm with back-to-back episodes every Monday.