Is Malaysia's Fine Dining Scene Ready for The Michelin Guide?

UNRESERVED chats with the top local contenders to find out  what these industry leaders really feel about Le Guide.
Thursday 23 August 2018
Sitka's dishes prove that Malaysia can do fine dining, too. Photo: Sitka

It was conceived to market a product as prosaic as they come – rubber tyres. The brothers André and Edouard Michelin probably had no idea when they hastily compiled the first Michelin Guide in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, that it would become shorthand for gastronomic excellence.

Its now famous ratings system was also introduced in the 1930s – one star for very good cooking in its category, two stars if the restaurant is worth a detour, while three stars indicate an exceptional restaurant that is a destination unto itself.

It made its first foray into Asia via Tokyo in 2007. It also started awarding stars to the street food of Hong Kong and Macau in 2012, then Shanghai and Singapore in 2017. This year saw Seoul, Taipei and Bangkok getting their own Guide, so a popular subject at dinner parties among Malaysian gourmands is, when will it be Kuala Lumpur’s turn and which restaurants would make the cut?

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One of the best in Malaysia: Takashi Kimura. Photo: Cilantro

Cilantro – Takashi Kimura
The grand dame of KL’s fine dining scene, Cilantro Restaurant & Wine Bar, which celebrated its 20th birthday this year, would no doubt have first pip. After all, Takashi Kimura has been serving refined French fusion cuisine to swooning diners who’ve become firm regulars and consistently won awards (often consecutively) locally and internationally. It was number 1 in CNN’s top KL restaurants last year and most recently took home Tatler magazine’s Legacy Award in the T. Dining Best Restaurants 2018.

However, the unassuming Kimura is ambivalent about a KL Michelin edition: “Yes, KL is ready for a guide, any city is ready for one, but I’m not sure they can sell it here although it would be very good publicity for all of us.”

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Chef Darren Teoh of Dewakan. Photo: Dewakan

Dewakan – Darren Teoh
One chef who’s categorically unabashed in his opinions is Darren Teoh who helms Dewakan, the first fine dining restaurant in the Klang Valley to serve modern Malaysian cuisine.

The outspoken chef and author, who is highly regarded for creating sophisticated food using only local ingredients, doesn’t believe the city is ready for a Guide: “This is almost a chicken and egg conversation. There aren’t enough high calibre restaurants for the guide to survive. The Kuala Lumpur dining market is extremely small. We are a country of eaters, not all of us are diners.”

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Dewakan’s take on the humble popsicle. Photo: Dewakan

“It would be nice to see more people who are interested in things that aren’t hype-driven and have more sustenance. If more markets took more interest in the vegetables that they are purchasing, for example, perhaps we would be able to get more farmers to produce higher quality vegetables. This will then lead to a higher demand for quality at restaurants which will then lead to chefs being more conscious of the purchases they make.” Ironic really, because if the Guide were to make it to KL, Dewakan certainly would be on the shortlist.

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Chef Darren Chin isn’t quite convinced by the stars. Photo: DC Restaurant

DC Restaurant – Darren Chin
Another great restaurant which has captured the appetite of the glitterati and gastronomes is DC Restaurant where Darren Chin has been quietly refining fine dining in the Klang Valley with a combination of flawless classical French and modernist techniques showcasing terroir at its best.

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Have you ever seen such an exquisite stalk of asparagus? Photo: DC Restaurant

But like Teoh, Chin is unconvinced by the Michelin machine: “To be blunt, I do not believe in the stars. At DC, we often hear from our guests that if there ever were a KL Michelin guide, we would at least get a one star rating. But I started the year vowing to myself not to chase “the trophy/grand prize” and to solely focus on being honest to myself, my cuisine, my team and most importantly, my guests. Gastronomy is about enjoyment, laughter and happiness. A great chef whom I admired for the longest time and had the privilege to cook for, once said this to me, “Not all trophy restaurants make money and survive, always cook from the heart and be honest to yourself.”

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No white tablecloths here. Photo: Sitka

Sitka – Christian Recomio
A sterling example of an establishment which embodies Chin’s belief in honest joyful meals is Sitka Studio whose menu joyfully champions local produce and meticulous technique without the stuffy white tablecloths.

Nestled in Damansara Heights, seasoned restaurateur Jenifer Kuah and executive chef Christian Recomio have created a haven for foodies who flock to their Friday night dinners to be surprised, challenged and gratified. Recomio who hails from Scotland has been on the Michelin radar. His Aberdeen restaurant Moonfish was designated a Michelin Plate restaurant but closer to home, he believes that while we have some interesting restaurants here, the industry is still far too young.

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Sitka does a good duck. Photo: Sitka

Recomio’s doubts are echoed by his business partner although Kuah’s reservations stem from something else: “As with all borrowed concepts from the western world, we must ask ourselves how it applies to us here. Our food culture is far more diverse with an emphasis on quick, cheap and fast food. Food safety is undoubtedly secondary. There is also no recognition of culinary talent and the fact that such talent should be rewarded. While I love Malaysia and my part in the F&B industry here, we are really known more for our street food, and unfortunately, restaurants of exceptional standards deserving of Michelin consideration are still few and far between.”

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New kid on the block Kikubari plates up dazzling dishes. Photo: Kikubari

Kikubari – Jun Wong
Like Kuah, Jun Wong, Chef de Cuisine of Kikubari feels this may be missing the true spirit of the Guide: “Overall, le guide Michelin has a clear set of criteria which the inspectors adhere to when rating establishments, which is what makes it fair and credible. But of late I feel that the Guide is a little off tangent in its rating, especially for the Asian region. I feel like the line between Le Bib Gourmand and Le Guide has blurred. Take Hong Kong and Singapore for example, dim sum and chicken rice getting star ratings alongside top restaurants like Waku Ghin, Singapore, and Amber, Hong Kong. Flavours notwithstanding, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

Although Kikubari is a relative newcomer to the KL fine dining scene, Wong has been dazzling diners with her progressive Japanese cuisine which focuses on quality ingredients and sustainable practices.

Her credentials are impeccable; mentored by Cilantro’s Kimura, she then ventured to Macau, Tokyo and Sydney to work at some of the best (and Michelin-starred) restaurants in the world.

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Babe – Jeff Ramsay
On the subject of Michelin pedigree, Jeff Ramsey, chef and co-owner of Babe – Japas Fun Dining, earned and retained a Michelin Star rating while heading the Tapas Molecular Bar at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

He believes that beyond quibbling about the ratings system, having the Red Book here would energise the F&B industry. “It would be incredibly beneficial to have the Red Book here. The effect that I saw in Tokyo was amazing. You had chefs who were talking lots of smack about Frenchmen coming in to their turf and judging them when they weren’t asking to be judged in the first place. Chefs even “refused” their Michelin Stars.

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Chef Jeff Ramsay knows what it’s like to have a star under his belt. Photo: Babe

Once the Guide came out amidst incredible fanfare, there was an almost immediate traction in terms of the increase in business for those who were awarded a spot in the Guide. Restaurant chefs and owners quickly changed their views and almost everyone embraced the Michelin guidebook. Tourism had taken a huge hit because of the financial crisis in 2008, but if it hadn’t, I’m sure food tourism numbers would have shot through the roof. Even then, we definitely could see the increase in travel guests in the restaurant after the Guide came out,” he enthuses.

When asked what it takes to achieve a coveted star, Ramsey is charmingly self-effacing: “There are many chefs more talented, more focused, and more determined than me to achieve greatness in the everyday hustle of running a restaurant. Getting a Michelin Star is about being in the right place, at the right time, doing the “right” thing. What I mean is that you also need to have the right appeal doing the sort of food that Michelin would praise. You need to be somewhat connected so that if Michelin came to your city, they would have heard of you. So once the planets and “stars” align for you, then you can get to that plateau. Earning the Michelin Star has, and continues to open so many doors for me, so I am grateful for it. But you don’t need stars to make amazing food.“

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Helming the only fine dining Indian restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is Johnson Ebenezer. Photo: Nadodi

Nadodi – Johnson Ebenezer
Despite being open only last year, Nadodi has become one of the go-to places for amazing cuisine in the Klang Valley. Its intricate dishes take diners on an odyssey through the Indian sub-continent. As KL’s only contemporary fine dining Indian restaurant, comparisons to Bangkok’s two Michelin-starred Gaggan are inevitable but executive chef Johnson Ebenezer (who hails from Chennai, India) wholeheartedly believes the Michelin Guide rating system is a healthy impetus.

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Nadodi’s fine Indian cuisine impresses. Photo: Nadodi

“It’s a goal for every chef who puts in hard work and determination, it’s the drive and it’s the reason behind reinventing and constantly pushing the barriers to get oneself on that elite list. And after one gets it, that’s when it gets even more interesting to retain it year after year. So in my opinion it is the driving factor behind attaining perfection,” he opines.

And as to the impact of the Red Book? “It would put KL on the F&B map; as we are sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore, we tend to get lost. But, in a sandwich, everyone knows it’s always what’s in between that matters.”

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