Asian flavours and Asian chefs have journeyed around and then conquered the world, fusing and/or confusing their food along the way. For hopeful young chefs the travelling has been to gain apprenticeships at celebrated restaurants in Spain, Copenhagen, New Delhi or New York where they have been exposed to the latest food innovations as well as the peculiarities of local palates and local customer expectations. For some the travelling has been to meet the challenge of opening a restaurant amid the high rents of, say, New York and to introduce Malaysian cuisines to a wary customer for whom rendang tok may sound more like a painful tropical disease than an astonishing delicacy. And for some the travelling has involved returning home to reacquaint jaded Asians with their own taste textures, to make afresh the powerful Malaysian, Thai and Indian flavours in new and exciting ways and to hopefully re-remind people of the home they have not left, but which has perhaps left them.
In this feature story we meet three Asian chefs at the top of their game. A Malaysian chef, Darren Teoh, who sharpened his craft in Copenhagen’s Noma (aka, “best restaurant in the world”) and who is now making waves at KL’s Dewakan where he and his students are revolutionising familiar Malaysian flavours. An Indian chef in New York who has won a coveted Michelin Gold Star for his Malaysian restaurant (the only Malaysian restaurant to have done so in America), and who talks about his sometimes strange sounding dishes and the business of staying afloat in one of the world’s most competitive markets. And finally, another Indian chef, Gaggan Anand, who gained his apprenticeship at Catalonia’s el Bulli (aka, “best restaurant in the world”) and whose eponymous restaurant in Bangkok has recently won the prize for the best restaurant in Asia (San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant 2015) and who is therefore being unofficially hailed as the world’s best Indian chef.
But first, a word of warning before you jump into Esquire’s menu degustation: Do not read this on an empty stomach.—Kam Raslan
Darren Teoh of Dewakan, KL
The most earth-shaking revolutions don’t always happen amid the thunder of war, but, rather, through change insinuating itself so subtly and yet indelibly that when the new era dawns, it can feel like a long-established fact.
And so it is with Dewakan of Kuala Lumpur, and Darren Teoh. His gastronomic history didn’t begin with the establishment of the now much-heralded restaurant that he set up and helms with his students at the KDU campus. Neither did it begin when he launched his constructively anarchic Food Cuisine Riot, which uses molecular gastronomy techniques to experiment with and create unique dishes for special events. You would even be hard-pressed to link the provenance of his life as a chef to his longstanding commitment to lecturing students on the history of Malaysian cuisine at KDU. Rather, it traces back much further, to his childhood, before he went on to become a stagiaire at Copenhagen’s Noma—to which his current culinary inspirations have a direct and tangible lineage—to a time of family and history, two key elements that have arguably been most instrumental in the germination of the seed that is today the embodiment of all that is hopeful and good about Malaysian cuisine.
As with most Asian families, Teoh’s gustatory journey began with his grandmother, who “no matter the inconvenience, found joy in hosting so many people in the small house that we shared”. It was the spirit of nurturing loved ones, but more importantly, understanding the pertinence of the history from which we all spring that has informed his culinary evolution, as has been the case for many great chefs. Treading the lonely path of the non-conformist, Teoh doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all, and is often misconceived as trenchant or obtuse because of this very refusal to accept compromised ideals. But because his pursuit isn’t for popularity, Teoh is rather more preoccupied with the future of dining in Malaysia, believing that “if we continue to consume the way that we do, we will find that much of what makes our food culture unique will eventually fade and die”.
Enter Dewakan. And because without the one, there cannot be the other, Dewakan’s existence today is invariably linked to Teoh’s myriad roles: as lecturer, mentor and gastronomic explorer forging new frontiers, all of which have collectively culminated in the unprecedented launching of a restaurant on a college campus that is primarily used as a culinary incubatory lab of sorts, while also serving world-class cuisine to guests. The raison d’être is simple: to forge, with his team, a modern Malaysian culinary identity that has hitherto not existed. And the establishment of such an identity goes far beyond the boundaries of a restaurant kitchen, because for Teoh, success is measured not merely by accolades from critics and peers, but by the survival and the success of the local producers whom he supports, and the knowledge that imitation is the best form of flattery, not least because it generates a groundswell that, with enough momentum, will become the status quo.
“We have spent so much of our resources chasing alien food cultures that much of our own is neglected. Dewakan’s focus is a modern Malaysian cuisine. We intend to create a micro-environment of a business that can sustain itself on high-quality local produce. That is the future we want to see ourselves in, so much of our effort is geared towards that. Guests come for our 10-course tasting menu and get excited because of how we use our indigenous herbs, buah keluak and pomfret. I believe that excitement is contagious. We will consider ourselves a success when there are more restaurants imitating what we do. This will translate to a decision for more quality produce and give business to farmers, fishermen or growers.”
Therefore, a degustation menu at Dewakan that has understandably generated considerable excitement showcases modern culinary techniques and a panoply of local ingredients to produce food that is restrained and nuanced, but definitely on the money where flavours, textures, theatre and visual aesthetics are concerned. The food from Dewakan’s kitchen is a masterclass of what can be achieved when boundaries are pushed, not gratuitously, but thoughtfully, so that the result is always considerably better than the precedent.
Example: Teoh’s forbidden rice porridge. Arguably the standout dish of the menu, it is understated yet a quietly spectacular visual treat, and encompasses flavours that are simultaneously voluminous yet muted. Roots are brewed with a mushroom broth in a coffee siphon to extract the essence of the vegetables. Then the broth is poured, steaming hot, over a tousle of black rice, quivering soft-boiled egg yolk and ox-tongue slices for a taste sensation that is utterly seductive and mesmerising. It is a dish, Teoh says, that best represents him, and which could be “plonked into a coffeeshop somewhere. It is complex in flavour and technique. It is theatrical but visually simple. I think I am like that, but maybe not as tasty”.
“I have introverted tendencies, which are often reflected in my cooking, which struggles with my liking for loud garishness,” he continues. “So as far as my craft goes, dishes that we serve in Dewakan also have these theatrical aspects with small nuances that not all guests pick up on. I enjoy simple roads, but they do not necessarily have to be easy ones.”
Perhaps most succinctly encapsulating this philosophy is the unforgettable razor clam dish. Ostensibly a riff on our ubiquitous ais kacang dessert, it is, on closer inspection, a complex symphony of Pulau Ketam razor clams, cashews, rose apples, tenggek burung herbs and “snow”, served chilled, and at the onset, rather than the conclusion, of the meal. As unexpected as it is pleasing, it sets the bar for the rest of the degustation to follow.
Friends will probably describe Teoh as being thoughtful, deliberate in his movements, and unwavering in his principles; they may just as well be describing Dewakan’s journey, from quietly conceived thought to actual brick and mortar. Very little about his actions are hasty or reactive, and it’s easy to imagine that, having spent so many of his adult years mentoring students at KDU on the true meaning of Malaysian cuisine, Teoh would have had the luxury of time to forge his irons and lay the groundwork for the restaurant that exists today.
The space is expansive, minimalistic and bright, with a show kitchen in which the team can be seen quietly and calmly going about the business of preparing food. Most of them are Teoh’s students, who have learned about the importance of keeping alive the legacy of the food that the local terroir produces. Inasmuch as he loathes labels, Teoh is also as inextricable from the framework of the team dynamic as it is impossible to exclusively credit him for the success of the restaurant.
“I am only the cook I am because of the team that I have. I think it rarely matters what you think of yourself, but what the important people around you do. The team at Dewakan embraces what I would like to do with the direction of the restaurant and they enable me to push my thoughts into realities; therefore, my strength is represented by them, and their strengths by me. As a chef, being the leadership of the restaurant, you appreciate and honour the efforts and the results that your team strives to deliver day in and day out.”
And yet, by his very creativity and capacity to produce food that is as considerate of the environment as it is satiating to the palate, Teoh has already set himself apart from his peers. His may be the beat of a different drummer, but it’s a beat that has resonated with the dining public, who are now sitting up and acknowledging that it’s time, it’s high time indeed, that we take pride in creating a modern Malaysian gastronomic tradition that is uniquely and incontrovertibly our own. And it would seem that by virtue of his consummate and innate understanding of what is needed to be achieved in order to get there, Teoh is our man for this gargantuan, but by no means, insurmountable task. In his own words:
“I think it would be pompous of us to say that we are at any pinnacle. There have been trailblazers before us who have made headway in order for Dewakan to exist. So very honestly, I would say that we are seedlings. But we are very hungry seedlings. I try not to compare myself to others or fit ourselves into a specific box, not because we are super anti-mainstream, but more because that is a question that we don’t have an answer for yet.
“In the future, we hope to be one of the successful restaurants around the world, not just because of the food and service that we deliver, but also to be thought leaders in the industry, and proponents of a cuisine that produces food that is more thoughtful, and which affects the way our country eats.” —Words by Fay Khoo.
Salil Mehta of Laut and Pasar Malam, NYC
Soon after meeting Salil Mehta, it’s easy to wonder at his detailed appreciation of Malaysian cuisine and his experience as a restaurateur. Between running the only Malaysian restaurant ever to have won a Michelin star in the US, while keeping the plates aloft at another door recently opened across town, he’s also been juggling parenting duties and his wife Stacey’s family medical emergencies—all at the height of the busy summer season.
He’s tired but surprisingly unruffled tonight. He’s an enthused and articulate advocate for Peranakan/Nyonya-influenced cuisine in the US. Thankfully for his business, it’s also a taste that has recently become more fashionable for the often-jaded palates of New York. Yet, he only bought into his first restaurant, Laut, a little over four years ago, and his latest “baby”, the Pasar Malam diner in Brooklyn’s hipsterville Williamsburg is not even a year old. Barely 30, Mehta admits he’s had a steep learning curve in the restaurant business, taking the plunge at 25 with Laut, near busy Union Square in expensive midtown Manhattan.
It seems an unusual move to make for a Parsons School of Design graduate from New Delhi, who soon after graduation scored a coveted albeit junior role at Armani’s Privé and couture departments. But as he soon discovered, the high-end design and fashion worlds and award-winning diners aren’t so different—both require lots of stamina, a particular tenacity in fashioning unique pleasures for others and relentless attention to detail. He learnt much about restaurants—and reinforced his bias for hybrid tastes and flavours—when he married Stacey at age 21, he says. Stacey’s family is a tale in itself. They still run two of New York’s (and the US) rare Indian-Chinese restaurants, a legacy of her generations-old ethnic Chinese family from Calcutta’s historic Chinatown. And like Armani, Mehta seems to revel in giving the classics a twist. It’s apparently how you get to perk up the Michelin judges, who regularly face the thousands of dining options popping up every year in the intense, perhaps overheated bain-marie of tastes that stretch across New York’s five boroughs. For Mehta, it’s been ensuring that the delicate mix of flavours of assam, galangal and creaminess are right before sending dishes out to diners usually unfamiliar with Malaysian cuisine.
“I like to consistently innovate and remember the classics,” he explains, in between directing his buzzing kitchen of a dozen people. It’s not yet seven on this mild mid-week spring evening and the 20 tables are already filling up. There is the full complement of eight waiting tables tonight, with another four delivery chaps expecting a similarly busy night outside. “By classics, I mean American and Asian classic recipes. So it’s easier for everyone to identify with what we’re doing, and in that process, expose them to flavours and ingredients they would not otherwise try. For example, Laut’s coconut cheesecake or coconut toddy: we make our version with fresh young coconut and Nigori sake. At Pasar Malam, we recreated oatmeal shrimp in the shape of a donut, that is shrimp and chicken mince with curry leaves, garlic and ginger and crusted with oatmeal.” He continues with a fusion that might confuse a Malaysian purist: “Another would be ‘Shrimp in a Sarong’. Essentially, it’s shrimp in a blanket, but we add cream cheese, bacon and chilli padi. We made a Chinatown waffle, which is the same sort of pancake that you get in Chinatown at 15 pieces for a buck, but we infuse ours with coconut milk fresh from desiccated coconut, not tinned like usual.”
Laut’s version of the classics that thrilled the Michelin judges—who this year have knocked off Laut’s star, spreading the love instead with the “affordable quality dining” Bib Gourmand awards to Laut and four other Malaysian restaurants—include Hainanese chicken rice, assam laksa, beef rendang and roti canai, with the umami dishes like sambal much favoured in the past few years’ guides. Having regularly ordered these above classics for years as well as several of Laut’s desserts-with-a-twist, Michelin-star and not, I can say that the quality at Laut remains consistently good. The shift from one-star to Bib Gourmand is perhaps a reminder of how the Michelin Guide can make arbitrary decisions in favour of consolation prizes, even if nothing apparently changes.
Mehta says he’s puzzled by the decision, but is mostly unfussed, having been preoccupied in getting Pasar Malam ready for last summer’s prime time. But Michelin Guide recognition is useful in growing new customer traffic, especially for the hordes of tourists who descend on New York like ravenous beasts during the holiday season, guides in hand for the sweltering summer. He laments how his Thai menu of the asics such as pad Thai and green curry still bring in half the revenue for Laut. But he’s happy that in Brooklyn, Pasar Malam can be “85 percent Malaysian and only 15 percent others”, because of a more “adventurous” public who have taken to dessert mash-ups like his Roti S’mores—Hershey’s chocolate graham crackers and toasted marshmallows on roti, anyone?
“The Michelin Guide helps us stay alive, keeps the tourist clientele coming in. And being in high-rent Union Square, we depend on the tourist traffic volume,” he explains, adding that it’s probably why the new entries to this year’s hallowed Michelin list are mostly located off Manhattan, and in Queens and Brooklyn, where the rents are cheaper. “My rent is almost USD28,000 a month, and labour costs are rising with our two dozen people. About 35 percent of our costs are the payroll, with food costs being another 35 percent. Ideally, for a restaurant, rent should only be about four to five days of sales, so you can imagine the traffic we’d need.”
Not for the first time, Mehta’s mood improves considerably as he dives into the details of how Laut and Pasar Malam tackle the “classics”, with the twists done by a tasty fusing of otherwise Western ingredients. He uses both his assam laksa and pulut inti dessert as examples of how Laut aims to keep a fidelity of Malaysian tastes with the reality of New York costs: “Traditionally, the pulut’s inti itself is gula Melaka, which in my experience, the Western palate hasn’t yet accepted. To remove that unfamiliarity, we slow-cook the inti with coconut but add (Indian) jaggery, palm sugar, rock sugar. This balances out the gula Melaka flavour, and even changes the texture somewhat, reminding me of the flavour of betel leaf. It becomes something quite different, and suits our winter season. We have to do traditional cuisine with a twist, because what you’d consider proper Malaysian cuisine is not yet acceptable to even a New Yorker’s palate.”
Even as Mehta explains his hopes for his dishes he is aware of the culinary and cultural power of a certain native New Yorker. “Let’s talk about assam laksa as it is one of [celebrity chef and Southeast Asian cuisine fan] Anthony Bourdain’s favourite dishes. Important ingredients to deliver flavour have to include fresh turmeric root—not frozen—which costs USD3 and change; galangal flower at USD3 a piece; lemongrass, which is now over USD75 for a 25-pound case; laksa leaf, usually very hard to source and USD20 per pound; fresh sardines; and laifun noodle, also hard to source. Consider also the fresh toppings and American portions that are usually a lot bigger than Asian portions, so for me one bowl of assam laksa can cost me about USD9.” It sells for USD15 at Laut.
A prevailing challenge across New York restaurants is securing and keeping talented staff, and Mehta learnt this tough lesson early when his two lead chefs went off to set up their own shop barely months into his new ownership of Laut. So how critical is continuity of staffing in the kitchen, and on the dining room floor, especially when dealing with crowds who are sampling Malaysian fare for the first time? “The staff is an extension of us on the floor and in the kitchen,” he says emphatically, “so having a consistent staff is very important because it’s hard to find someone who already knows about the food we serve. It takes longer to train someone as compared to a sushi restaurant. While people are okay with expensive Indian, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, higher-end Malaysian and Singaporean are not yet acceptable. Finding kitchen staff who know the traditional recipes so we can innovate is even harder, and because there is such a diverse mix back in Malaysia, it’s hard to determine the authenticity of some things.” Mehta requires chefs with a profound knowledge of Malaysian cuisine, and although his knowledge is impressive, even he has his limits. “There were a few dishes like ayam sio that some of my chefs had never heard of. And babi pongteh. But it’s the fault of the cultures because they safeguard secrets, with recipes taken to the grave.”
With Bourdain promising a “Singapore-style” food hall opening next year in lower Manhattan, on one of the most expensive plots of real estate on earth, this may be the best time ever for Malaysian cuisine to break out into the American mainstream of “Asia” alongside Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Thai food. “People like Bourdain are great because they are a medium to reach the masses, who tend to listen to someone from ‘home’ rather than explore something new on their own,” Mehta says, recalling how Bourdain has been to Laut a few times, even hosting a big Singapore food festival there once. “He personally has had a lot to do with educating people and introducing them to the richness of Southeast Asian cuisine and helping them understand how unique each region is and how they have influenced each other as well. Whether the market will respond or not, time will tell. But I hope this food hall concept of his gives someone who cannot afford the high rents and labour of a restaurant an opportunity to showcase what they can do rather than giving spaces to juggernauts like Shake Shack.”
In Mehta’s world, he needs to keep running at summer’s hectic pace until next year just to keep up with a demandingly capricious New York market. Sipping his restaurant’s signature kopi peng over tonight’s black, glistening Hokkien mee, he nods himself awake for the night’s second sitting that’s about to begin. —Words by Kean Wong.
Gaggan Anand of Gaggan, BKK
Asia’s Number One Chef calls me one morning from a Manila hotel, indisposed with a bad cold and intestinal distress. He sounds hoarse and weary from weeks on the road, away from his kitchen.
Does the world ask too much of its world-class cooks? Will success spoil Gaggan Anand?
When we first met a little over four years ago, he was merely Bangkok’s most engaging, accessible and original restaurant proprietor—a one-of-a-kind, zany longhaired rocker from Calcutta who had walked out of a successful life as a Taj Group chef in India to reinvent himself, and along the way, devise an entirely new category of cuisine: something we might call Hindu Molecular. Gaggan himself modestly uses the term “Progressive,” at least on his Gaggan Restaurant website. At the time, I won his eternal trust from a short review in which I called him the “Captain Kirk of cuisine—going nowhere Indian has gone before”. And, except for the effort required to achieve the feat of being the first Asian to talk his way into an apprenticeship at Spain’s groundbreaking elBulli, Gaggan seemingly did it without really trying—or at least trying only to be true to himself and follow his passion.
What impressed me most, even more than his fresh oyster topped with Bengali mustard ice cream or chicken tikka in intense minty foam, was his choice of a small, refurbished cottage down a Bangkok alley and his dedication to building his own style and menu without ambitions to expand or exploit his name.
But things have changed, now that he has progressed in the space of four years from the dinner where a few friends and backers urged him to start his own place as almost something of a dare to being affirmed not just at the top of the Asia list, but among the top 10 of the prestigious San Pellegrino Top 50 list. First, Gaggan’s impressive tasting menu has become somewhat predictable with oft-requested “greatest hits” like his Indian street snacks in an edible plastic sack, naan bread with kaffir lime dust and gelatinous curried egg-like yogurt on a spoon. Second, he has been lured into opening a second restaurant in Mumbai sometime in 2016. In addition, he has hired a crazy Catalan mixologist to add a whimsical bar to his Bangkok dining area. He has also hit upon launching a second restaurant right across from his first, this a more popular “curry house” that he terms his version of a “comfort food gastro-pub.” At the same time, while the lower-spending masses are steered in that direction, he plans to turn the upper floor of his cottage into a customised lab for further gourmet experimentation.
And he is so constantly in demand for cooking demonstrations and gourmet festivals that his hyperactivity and humour seem to have found a new outlet, or distracting detour. In today’s media-driven world, the last thing a successful cook can afford to do is exactly what he should be doing—namely, staying in the anonymous shadows of his restaurant back-of-the-house. Until recently, the only demands put on chefs—in themselves, a traditionally reclusive, if not obsessively shy, lot—was to appear to greet dining guests or perhaps, if moved, produce a single cookbook to go with the restaurant in question. Leading chefs are expected not only to be celebrities, but also performers. To stay in the public eye, they have to host televised cooking shows or serve as judges on popular cooking competitions. They also need to appear on news channels as well as food networks, as Gaggan did, when he was recently asked to retrace his Culinary Journey for CNN by letting cameras into his family home back in Calcutta. Preferably, these superstar spatula-wielders need to pen a series of books and be a constant presence on social media. And once they have established a single place to hone their culinary style and hang their shingle, offers from investors start flooding in to open other branches or spin-offs in almost any corner of the globe. They who start out with an urge to spend all their waking hours putting food on the plate for discerning others end up with hardly any time to grab a snack for themselves.
Not surpisingly, Chef Gaggan has also become nearly impossible to reach—almost a month of harassing was needed to get his attention for one brief conversation. Still, his refrain seems to be: “You haven’t seen anything yet.” Unwilling or unable to rest on his considerable laurels, he tells me, “All this success means that I’m working harder and working better. The new menu, which I am about to launch in Bangkok, will push the boundaries as never before.”
At first belittled and satirised for his spin on Indian tradition, and accused of “betraying” his country to find more freedom in easy-going Thailand, the chef now reports, “Everyone there recognises me, crowds me for autographs. Oh my God, it’s too much!” While he says he has turned down slews of offers from all over the world, he couldn’t help wanting to return to prove himself in his homeland, saying, “Choosing to set up a place back in India is the toughest challenge. People there really know their food, and you either make it or lose it. There’s no in-between.”
But he insists, “The new restaurant there will be completely different from the one in Bangkok. And it won’t have my name on it. I don’t want to be one of those absentee chefs whose name is on the shingle, but is never there. Even though I have a team of 48 now, helpers from all over the world, I’ve pledged to be there in person 200 days of the year.”
For the sake of his first and most devoted fans, I hope that’s a pledge he can honour. But when I ask Gaggan how people react to his cooking demonstrations, he instantly jokes, “They think I’m a much better talker than I am a cook.” —Words by John Krich
First published in The Music Plays On Issue, November 2015, Esquire Malaysia.