A MAT­TER OF TASTE

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT MINDY TEH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MAT THOMAS

Kai May­fair cel­e­brates its 10th year of the Miche­lin star this year. We sit with its Malaysian owner Bernard Yeoh and chef Alex Chow to cel­e­brate the mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion and dis­cover the restau­rant’s se­cret recipe for suc­cess.

Kai May­fair cel­e­brates its 10th year of the Miche­lin star, re­tain­ing the cov­eted hall­mark for 2019. We sit with its Malaysian owner Bernard Yeoh and head chef Alex Chow to cel­e­brate the mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion and dis­cover the restau­rant’s se­cret recipe for suc­cess.

Never tell Bernard Yeoh the odds. The pro­tean restau­ra­teur has been posed chal­lenges so many times, he rel­ishes the chance at tak­ing up a dare – and ex­celling in it. Yeoh’s restau­rant, Kai May­fair, is a good ex­am­ple. The suc­cess of this Nou­velle Chi­nese restau­rant has been largely fu­elled by what Yeoh face­tiously calls “a healthy grudge”, formed many years ago when he had met the author of a now-de­funct, pre­vi­ously ac­claimed food guide. Yeoh had no­ticed that most restau­rants serv­ing Euro­pean cui­sine at the time had gar­nered a full page in the guide, while those serv­ing up Asian food were rel­e­gated a mere sen­tence or two. De­spite what seemed like prej­u­dice from the out­set, Bernard had “ac­cepted this be­cause we (the Chi­nese food scene) were sim­ply not pre­sent­ing a full ex­pe­ri­ence for Chi­nese cui­sine. I ap­proached the author, made this ob­ser­va­tion, told him I wanted to do bet­ter and if he had any point­ers.” The author replied: “Do you know where you are? You’re in Eng­land.”

Rather than be in­dig­nant, Yeoh chose to see the markedly ar­ro­gant com­ment as a chal­lenge. “Game on!” he says, laugh­ing ami­ably. “Look, I’m not go­ing to sit here and say it’s not fair. I’m go­ing to try and per­suade some­one like that. That’s the mis­sion.”

It cer­tainly looks like mis­sion ac­com­plished, with Kai May­fair cel­e­brat­ing many firsts since the in­ci­dent. It is the first Chi­nese restau­rant in Lon­don to re­ceive a Miche­lin star, ef­fec­tively rais­ing the bar for Chi­nese cui­sine in the UK. It is also the first Malaysianowned restau­rant – and Yeoh and his head chef, Alex Chow, the first Malaysians – to be awarded such an ac­co­lade. Kai May­fair is the only restau­rant of its kind to be con­sis­tently awarded the star for a decade, its re­tain­ment hav­ing just been an­nounced for 2019. It has also set a 2005 Guin­ness World Record for serv­ing the most ex­pen­sive soup in the world.

That’s not bad for a for­mer law stu­dent who was called to the bar but de­cided to take on the restau­rant busi­ness with lit­tle to no knowl­edge of the in­dus­try. ”My fam­ily and I pretty much jumped in,” says the 48-year-old. “It’s for­tu­nate that my fam­ily pro­vided half the funds but, then, it very quickly be­came a case of be­ing thrown in the deep end to try to fig­ure out how to make it work,” says Yeoh. “I’m very for­tu­nate that the per­son who helped me in the ac­counts side is still with me to­day, com­mut­ing from Cam­bridge ev­ery day. We also had a great head chef. The orig­i­nal head chef was with us for 11 or 12 years. Then, Alex joined 13 or 14 years ago.

“In many ways, we are like the un­der­dog of the restau­rant busi­ness in this area – we’ve been around a long time and have kind of a fam­ily busi­ness ap­proach to things. Over the course of the years, com­pe­ti­tion has got­ten ab­so­lutely im­mense and we have to keep think­ing about how we are go­ing to carve a new niche for our­selves, how we are go­ing to stay rel­e­vant. It’s kind of like a re­ally long-term mar­riage with our cus­tomers.”

Yeoh in­stinc­tively knew, from the start, that Kai May­fair had to be a fine din­ing restau­rant. “Com­ing to Lon­don, a lot of the food that I was very at­tached to seemed to have some­thing miss­ing. Some­thing as (ubiq­ui­tous) as dark soya sauce, the chefs here didn’t know what it was. My ex­pec­ta­tion at that time was that Chi­nese food in the whole of the east would be very sim­i­lar but it’s not,” says Yeoh. “You have this gem in this Malaysi­aSin­ga­pore re­gion which has had the ben­e­fit of evolv­ing over the last 30 to 40 years, al­most in an en­vi­ron­ment of abun­dance. Even some­thing as sim­ple as break­fast has so many choices.

“The thought was why not we bring that to Lon­don – that was the first part,” says Yeoh. “The other part was, if you look at Chi­nese restau­rants in Lon­don at the time, you could al­most paint a stereo­typ­i­cal image of a Chi­nese restau­rant here. All the menus were the same, the ser­vice wasn’t so good and this is go­ing back over 20 years.”

Yeoh laughs about this, nam­ing two Chi­nese restau­rants in par­tic­u­lar and lament­ing the du­bi­ous rep­u­ta­tion Asian cui­sine had gar­nered in the coun­try at the time. “One of the most fa­mous Chi­nese restau­rants is known for its bad ser­vice rather than its food! An­other place had the owner come out dressed like Elvis and belt­ing out a cou­ple of tunes!” he says. “At no point was there any idea that Chi­nese food here was con­sid­ered some­thing to look up to. The whole in­dus­try at that point felt that it was time to el­e­vate it.”

Kai May­fair has done ex­ceed­ingly well in chang­ing per­cep­tions. For a start, its en­vi­able lo­ca­tion in May­fair makes it lit­er­ally the cen­tre of at­trac­tion on South Aud­ley Street. In­side, the restau­rant is sleek and con­tem­po­rary, with a glass and mir­rored ID con­ceived by Yeoh’s wife, Eileen. On the walls, large con­cep­tual pho­tog­ra­phy por­traits gaze out at din­ers.

Cui­sine-wise, Yeoh prefers to call the restau­rant’s se­lec­tions ‘Lib­er­ated Chi­nese’. “What we mean by that is we are re­spect­ful of tra­di­tion but we are not bound by it,” he says. “We’re re­ally proud of our Malaysian her­itage and where we came from. We are al­ways try­ing to repli­cate the lit­tle joys we had as chil­dren, tast­ing some­thing for the first time, our favourite chicken rice place – you know, lit­tle sim­ple emo­tions like that and try­ing to trans­late that emo­tion to a for­mat so that some­one who’s never been to Malaysia can ac­tu­ally ap­pre­ci­ate some of that sense. Of­ten, it man­i­fests in a lit­eral way. When they see a dish, they en­joy it be­cause it seems to have many el­e­ments. The dishes have many el­e­ments be­cause they have come about from a real story, a real ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Chow, who joined Bernard in this in­ter­view, is of the same mind. “I love my mum’s home­style cook­ing – I still re­mem­ber the flavours. I was on a trip with my class­mates af­ter SPM and I pre­pared a dish, gin­ger and oys­ter sauce chicken, from mem­ory. My friends said you made a good dish – you could be a chef one day!” That gin­ger and oys­ter sauce chicken dish has more than in­formed the chef, evolv­ing his culi­nary skills to empyrean pro­por­tions. One of Chow’s favourites is abalone with chicken truf­fle re­duc­tion, height­ened by a gen­er­ous serv­ing of fresh périg­ord truf­fles. “We have to con­stantly ex­per­i­ment and come up with new dishes,” he says rather mod­estly.

“What I saw in Alex was in­ter­est to go be­yond tra­di­tion,” says Yeoh of his chef. “Most Chi­nese chefs are very good at what they do but tend to stay within a very safe space. I saw Alex re­ally push­ing the bound­aries and dar­ing to say, ‘Let’s try this.’ I thought, ‘ Well, this is re­ally go­ing to work in Lon­don’.”

The word fu­sion, how­ever, grates on both of them. “It cre­ates the image of some­body who just wants to do some­thing new and not go­ing

“IT’S NOT A ONE-MAN SHOW. “WE NEED TO WORK TO­GETHER, BOTH FRONT AND BACK OF HOUSE.”

to bother about the tra­di­tion – ‘I’m just go­ing to make it up’,” says Yeoh. “‘It’s po­ten­tially in­ter­est­ing but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing you’d want to eat again.”

We talk about the most ex­pen­sive soup on their menu – and, in­deed, the world. “The dish was put in the menu again to chal­lenge per­cep­tions,” said Yeoh. “In those days, we would get some­one say­ing, ‘Oh the food is too ex­pen­sive, Chi­nese restau­rants shouldn’t be at this price.’ So, we thought what would hap­pen if we went the other ex­treme and put in the most ex­pen­sive dish in the world? There was a tra­di­tional soup that Alex knew how to make and al­ready ex­isted, and we said, ok let’s see what hap­pens.”

The run­away suc­cess of the dish – Kai May­fair’s record-break­ing ver­sion is a delectable trea­sure trove of scal­lops, sea cu­cum­ber, abalone, US gin­seng, cordy­ceps and Ja­panese flower mush­room in a rich, herbal corn-fed chicken stock, topped with gold leaf – has led Yeoh to be­lieve that he made the right move cu­rat­ing the menu to a se­lect few, with 80 per cent of the menu made up of new dishes and rein­vent­ing the re­main­ing from clas­sic sta­ples.

“Again, it’s about chal­leng­ing the stereo­type. Dessert ac­tu­ally fea­tures at the top of our menu. Most of the time, when you go to a Chi­nese restau­rant, they don’t think of dessert at all,” he says.

Both restau­ra­teur and chef agree that be­fore one can break the rules how­ever, one must un­der­stand them thor­oughly. “Our pas­try chef is not Chi­nese – he’s Pol­ish,” says Yeoh. “Be­fore he’s al­lowed to in­cor­po­rate Malaysian or Asian in­gre­di­ents into new desserts, he has to make the tra­di­tional desserts first. Once that foun­da­tion is there, you can evolve it. In the same way, if we use a ‘West­ern’ in­gre­di­ent, we’ll try it in its tra­di­tional for­mat to un­der­stand how it’s sup­posed to be done. We al­most force our­selves to go through that kind of ap­pren­tice­ship.”

Chow’s own culi­nary train­ing started from as far back as when he was 12 or 13, as a lackey in a fa­mous Chi­nese restau­rant on Imbi Road in Kuala Lumpur. “At the time, we were still us­ing a kerosene fire and my job was to put kerosene into the burn­ers.”

There is no mis­tak­ing that be­hind the glitz, glam­our and dar­ing do, it is an ex­tremely stress­ful in­dus­try to be in. “This is a busi­ness that is live,” ex­plains Yeoh. “The most ju­nior per­son can have a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the busi­ness – the guy wash­ing the dishes not wash­ing things prop­erly is as bad as a head chef pre­sent­ing a poor dish. It’s still a very hu­man busi­ness – and it’s of the mo­ment. You can’t say (to an en­quir­ing cus­tomer), ‘Send me an email, I’ll get back to you’.”

“It’s not a one-man show,” nods Chow. “We need to work to­gether, both front and back of house.” The chef looks calm, even benign, be­ly­ing the fact that he can some­times “be an an­gry chef be­cause putting (the best dish) out and do­ing it prop­erly is not easy. What I tell my team is we treat ev­ery cus­tomer as a VIP and at the Kai May­fair stan­dard. I don’t want to­day you do very good, then to­mor­row it’s down.” For the most part, how­ever, the chef ap­proaches his craft as “reg­u­lar and just do the work.”

Yeoh is amused by this un­der­state­ment. “Alex is be­ing very hum­ble be­cause he just does things as per nor­mal. But what is nor­mal? He’s do­ing amaz­ing as nor­mal! Ev­ery day is a spe­cial day – and at an ef­fort level that is way above what very few chefs can sus­tain, but that’s a nor­mal day for him.”

Per­haps the most ob­vi­ous val­i­da­tion of amaz­ing as nor­mal would be Kai May­fair’s decade-long con­fer­ment of the Miche­lin star. “What is the cri­te­ria for the star? That’s a big mys­tery,” says Yeoh. “As a restau­rant, you have no con­trol. You have no say, no in­flu­ence over what the cri­te­ria is or who the in­spec­tors are. On the day the re­sults are an­nounced, you could have had your in­spec­tions for the fol­low­ing year, so, re­ally, it’s an on­go­ing thing.

“I think that con­tin­u­ous pres­ence of doubt is re­ally healthy be­cause it makes us keep look­ing to do bet­ter – can we re­fine this,

can we make this more in­ter­est­ing – and then there’s this voice that asks if this is con­sis­tent with the brand?”

Tak­ing up the gaunt­let is cer­tainly part of Yeoh’s makeup. Some of the large por­traits adorn­ing the mir­rored walls were con­cep­tu­alised and shot by Yeoh him­self, as­sisted by Eileen – a self-im­posed chal­lenge to cre­ate arty con­ver­sa­tion pieces for the restau­rant that has since seen Yeoh be­com­ing an ac­com­plished and even com­mis­sioned pho­tog­ra­pher.

Yeoh also dis­cov­ered a ta­lent for trap shoot­ing, re­sult­ing in him rep­re­sent­ing Malaysia in the 2004 Olympics and win­ning sil­ver at the KL2017 (29th) SEA Games. “The whole thing came about as a re­sult of me meet­ing the owner of a shoot­ing ground. Ev­ery­one doubted this guy in his abil­ity to teach – I didn’t. We were con­stantly sur­rounded by peo­ple who said we didn’t know what we were do­ing and what chance would I have against pro­fes­sional shoot­ers? ‘You have no chance.’ I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘Right, that’s it’ and took on the chal­lenge. He gave me many hours of train­ing a week and I went from begin­ner to Olympian in five years.”

That same kind of ded­i­ca­tion to great­ness has yielded only the best for Kai May­fair, at­tract­ing not just a cos­mopoli­tan crowd that ap­pre­ci­ates the restau­rant’s so­phis­ti­ca­tion, but also stal­wart cus­tomers who have been com­ing for so long, their chil­dren now bring their own chil­dren.

Yeoh likens it to the city it­self. “There’s this sense of her­itage with the ar­chi­tec­ture but, when you look in­side the build­ings, there is in­no­va­tion. So, there is this mix. I think if you’ve done it well, then the au­di­ence will get it. It’s kind of like a great movie. It’s your job as a cre­ator to con­vey that emo­tion across.

“On a daily ba­sis, there is a ques­tion of is this the right thing? Who am I to say that my cus­tomers are all go­ing to like this and there are those lit­tle mo­ments of self-doubt, but you just have to say, let’s just do it. There is that ne­ces­sity to keep evolv­ing, and to say this is where we are now and what do we need to do next.”

With plans for a new Kai May­fair in Dubai and more ideas fu­elling the fu­ture, we can only wait with bated breath.

The in­te­rior of Kai May­fair is a sleek glass-and mir­ror con­cept con­ceived by Yeoh’s wife, Eileen

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.