It's three hours before guests are due to arrive for New Year's Eve dinner, and Zang Toi is busy in the kitchen of his apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The world-famous fashion designer has applied a greenish-white hydrating mask to his face, and he's wearing one of his signature short kilts (made by Kinloch Anderson, kilt-makers to the Prince of Wales; Toi owns more than 20 of them). Toi isn't in the kitchen because he's checking on caterers he hired to make dinner, though: He's doing all the cooking himself, sautéing julienned vegetables and soy-marinated shrimp and pork that will become the filling for his supercrispy House of Toi spring rolls. "The problem is, spring-roll filling is always cooked so long that it gets mushy," he says. "Cook the vegetables just until they're al dente—like pasta. That's the trick."
Toi is known for evening gowns that evoke Marie Antoinette, gorgeously tailored suits and a client list that includes actresses Eva Longoria and Gong Li and Melinda Gates (wife of Bill). But he is as eager to offer cooking tips for his favorite native Malaysian dishes as most fashionistas are to discuss their latest juice fast. He started cooking when he was a student at Parsons design school in New York City. "I got homesick, and thank goodness I have a good memory for the food my family cooked," he explains. But after launching his House of Toi line, he was too busy to spend time in the kitchen. "For the first 10 years, I ate out almost every single night," he says. "But now, I cook again. My friends always plead with me to make Malaysian food, because it's hard to find in New York."
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Can a Marie Antoinette–inspired style sensibility and Malaysian food really coexist at a dinner party? Says Toi, "I want my clothes to be different; I want my food to be different." He continues: "The French have a flair, and Marie Antoinette personified that. My Asian food has a flair, too. It might look simple, but there's so much construction behind it. Like my suits."