How to raise an award-winning fine dine restaurant using local indigenous produce
"There is a discipline of investigation that happens in the mind of everyone here that allows us to look at ingredients and to imagine it in multiple dimensions." - Chef Darren Teoh (middle) with his team
An interview with Chef Darren Teoh, chef-owner of Dewakan
In the long history of hospitality in this fast-evolving Malaysian landscape, there definitely have been people before me who have used the same ingredients in their dishes or have taken different interpretations of the same dishes seen represented in various restaurants within the country.
For Dewakan (the only Malaysian restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list), we thought about the implications on a regional level to have a restaurant that's focused on ingredients that are very unique to where we stay and is also firmly tied to our motherland. From that aspect, we didn't start off with thinking whether we are going to be successful or not. We started off because we wanted to achieve a narrative for us that would reflect the way that we felt about cooking.
We'll continue to do what we can do and if the environment around us changes, then we will have to also adapt.
As a chef, the vision was to have a considerable impact on the regional and global stage. That was in the beginning and I actually don't feel the same way now. It may have been from an egotistical place, but now I've had space to internalize and make sure that we take pride in what we are doing with great consideration in using our products in terms of how we cook, how we present the dish, how we serve it, and how we approach the thinking of putting together dishes. It’s really just about being better than our past selves on a daily basis.
Behind the scenes to the creation of an experience dining at Dewakan
There is a method to the madness. Yes, it’s madness because our menus are intuitive.
You pay a certain amount not because you are receiving an experience in this one moment but it's the collective of skill, techniques, and the multiple experiences of a kitchen of 15
This, the madness, is distilled and makes up the chain of events that happens to you the moment you walk into Dewakan. It comes together in the form of a pleasurable evening of good food, a wine list, service. Each and every one of us brings our own expertise and contributes our part so that you can have this evening.
It doesn't take very long to write a couple of words to form a menu, but to write a compelling enough experience with the food takes expertise, techniques, it is made through the process of learning about a particular ingredient which could take anywhere from a week to two years. It takes a considerable amount of effort to be able to express ourselves in the menu.
We have constantly paid and invested in the continual process of learning. From a wide array of guest chefs at our restaurant to having the makers, purveyors, growers, and farmers come to our restaurant to teach us how to use the ingredients. I invest heavily in books, which I share with my team.
We are constantly speaking about different ideas and methods that have allowed us to come to the point where we are able to produce the menus that we do.
There is a discipline of investigation that happens in the mind of everyone here that allows us to look at ingredients and to imagine it in multiple dimensions.
In menu sequencing, the conventional way is to have and keep a particular format to things. We feel like we should change formats and keep improvising based on what we learnt from our previous menu.
Our menu thought process and learnings
The components of a dish are broken down into individual sizable parts which guests can combine themselves. It's like an interactive activity at the dining table
Take into consideration the way Malaysians (and cultures across the regions) enjoy their food, in multiple layers of complexities, which translates to a succession of four or five servings at-a-go, which makes more sense to us as a society
Reassess the European format of what people associate with fine dining
And, oh! Take into the account that Malaysians do not like to wait for food
We are constantly cooking and putting together ingredients. My regret about this is that we did not write all this down. We have more ideas than we have actual dishes. If someone picks up an ingredient and says, “Oh, you know what, this would be really nice on this.” And they go and try it out and if it tastes good, we pass it around, discussing and pushing boundaries. We imagine it could be something that we could use in the future, or in the next menu, or maybe not. This type of conversation has been going on for five years.
The challenges of sourcing and using indigenous produce
I think the biggest challenge really, starts from ourselves. We have to reposition ourselves to think about ingredients objectively and from new perspectives.
Anyone who joins our team realizes that the first thing that we have to do is to undo what we already know. The relearning process is important because a lot of us, in our culture today, have borrowed knowledge from a lot of external cultures, adopting them and assimilating them into our lives. We adapt quite easily as a society, and it's the same with cooking. There are these roads that our chefs have travelled and experienced. When you come to our restaurant, you have to unlearn the European or Asian approach to cooking. Not that it makes your experience less relevant, it just means that you cannot use the same methodology here.
It is only when we are able to re-evaluate how we think about things, then we are able to look at ingredients objectively. We will always have a bias but because we no longer have steadfast rules, like rice has to be a certain way. We don't have any of such binds to cooking, therefore, pushing our boundaries exponentially.
When you’re able to reposition yourself to come to a different perspective, then the ingredients no longer become a challenge.
First, you have to change your mind about how you think of a particular product or ingredient. For example, if someone gives you chilli, shallots, garlic and lime, the first thing that comes to mind is sambal, because those are the commonly associated ingredients with cultural references that you already have. The challenge is to break out of that, and that's what we're trying to accomplish here.
The ability to unlearn the conventional
If we are able to change our perspective of how things work, we can overcome the way that we think about say, how the chain of supply and logistics work, and then answer the why we are not able to work efficiently with our ingredient suppliers. There are many other challenges to face when sourcing from people who have a different perspective from you.
Nature of produce
Consider the different seasons, the different types of availability, and its perishability.
How to keep the concept consistent and maintain brand focus
It doesn't matter how loud we're shouting, it only matters who's listening. So, we pay more attention to people who are listening, people who understand the narrative of what we are doing and will continue to be our champions.
Everybody has their own mode of survival. I think what works for us is to pay attention and nurture the people who are our regulars, and we, as an operator turn them into our champions. This also means that you must have a message that represents your restaurant. For example, it could be as simple a message as - we grow our own herbs or our food goes towards the homeless.
Your restaurant needs to have a message that people will be attracted to believe in and also be attracted to be a champion for.
We are also very fortunate to have a mother company that believes in what we do. With whatever we have been given, we work diligently, knowing that with what we have been given, we will be responsible with more. All these have compounded over five years, where we are now.
Chef Darren’s words to aspiring chefs
It is absolutely necessary for operators, chefs, and people who want to open a restaurant business to do what it takes to keep the business alive and to not look to other people for validation of your own success.
Are we successful? Maybe and maybe not as well. Every restaurant has its own set of issues the rest are not privy to. Do not look at our IG and think that life is peachy. We are just like everyone else doing what we can, focusing on what is important to us. If we spend time listening to other people’s opinions and take it as the gospel truth, I don't think we’d have the guts to do the things that we have done. Just go out there and do the things that matter to you.
The interview has been condensed for clarity and length. Image credit: Dewakan. Interview and written by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen.