THE ART OF DIN­ING

Eu­gene Ng finds out what ‘fine din­ing’ re­ally en­tails in the Malaysian F&B scene.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents -

Eu­gene Ng finds out what ‘fine din­ing’ re­ally en­tails in the Malaysian F&B scene.

Malaysians have of­ten been some­what at odds with the West­ern con­cept of ‘fine din­ing’. Whether it is be­cause of cul­tural clashes, or dif­fer­ent culi­nary per­spec­tives, or the vast gap in terms of so­cial evo­lu­tion, there are many awk­ward ex­am­ples of how we re­late to what the French call haute cui­sine.

How many of us have heard some­one com­plain that fine din­ing por­tions are too small and that they need a plate of char kueh teow af­ter? Or ask for chili sauce as a condi­ment. And have you wit­nessed the ut­ter shock and dis­may on the face of a fa­mous wine­maker left flab­ber­gasted by the sight of a group of Chi­nese busi­ness­men yam seng- ing to his pre­cious re­serve col­lec­tion of wines?

So, what then is ac­tu­ally ‘fine din­ing’, and how should it be un­der­stood and ap­pre­ci­ated? If we were to take a cue from the web­site of En­fin, a French fine din­ing restau­rant here in KL, promi­nently dis­played on one of the pages is a quote that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates this idea: “Din­ner is not what you do in the evening be­fore some­thing else. Din­ner is the evening.”

This quote is at­trib­uted to the late Art Buch­wald, an Amer­i­can hu­mourist best known as a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post. There is a first part to that quote which ex­plains what he was try­ing to im­ply, which is that Amer­i­cans are fi­nally be­gin­ning to “re­gard food the way the French al­ways have.”

And, of course, the whole world knows about the French and their love of food. Even more than that, they have a deep-seated re­la­tion­ship with good food. From the hum­ble ev­ery­day crois­sant to the es­o­teric re­vival of the eat­ing of the or­tolan (Google this, it is quite an eye opener, or should that be mouth opener?), from ar­ti­sanal cheeses to world fa­mous wines, and from rus­tic French farm cook­ing to Miche­lin stars, amaz­ing, ex­cit­ing food is syn­ony­mous with the French and they have el­e­vated the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to a de­gree like no other West­ern na­tion.

Ob­vi­ously, many other cul­tures and cuisines both East and West have their own take on what ‘fine din­ing’ is. But in the mod­ern con­text, by and large, you think of the French when you hear that phrase. So, es­sen­tially, this Franco-cen­tric con­cept should be viewed as an ex­pe­ri­ence, a cel­e­bra­tion of food and not just the con­sump­tion of it, a want rather than just a need, and to an ex­tent, a study of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a skilled prac­ti­tioner at a craft that is a per­fect blend of sci­ence and art.

Or as Chef James Won, the afore­men­tioned mas­ter­mind be­hind En­fin by James Won, puts it: “As a coun­try de­vel­ops; the din­ing cul­ture be­comes more ma­ture. The de­mand of higher qual­ity of­fer­ings and unique din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences will in­crease more than just eat­ing or en­ter­tain­ing over a meal. Din­ers will be seek­ing for re­fine­ment and at­ten­tion to de­tails. They will seek to en­ter into the mind and un­der­stand the knowl­edge of the chef or the cre­ator of their ex­pe­ri­ence.”

THE MAN WITH THE PAN: THE CHEF’S VI­SION A proper fine din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence doesn’t come cheap. In fact, it can of­ten com­mand an ob­scene amount of money just for one meal, a so­cial class di­vider if there ever was one. And as with all lux­ury goods and ser­vices, it is a sim­ple mat­ter be­tween the haves and haves not, a sta­tus sym­bol to many, where the up­per ech­e­lons make up the largest per­cent­age of those who can af­ford to splash the cash while the mid­dle and up­per mid­dle classes save up their sen to be able to af­ford such ex­trav­a­gance even if just once.

There is a rea­son why this is so. The path of a chef, in al­most ev­ery in­stance the most cru­cial ele­ment of a fine din­ing restau­rant, is not an easy one. It takes years of ex­pe­ri­ence, a vast amount of knowl­edge, a high level of skill and tech­nique, and no small amount of re­lent­less ded­i­ca­tion to be able to imag­ine and cre­ate a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to wow the palate and trans­port the diner to a realm that he or she has never tasted.

Take, for ex­am­ple, Chef Dar­ren Chin, the man whose ini­tials adorn the sign­board of DC Restau­rant by Dar­ren Chin in Ta­man Tun Dr Is­mail. As the son of the owner of a well-known restau­rant brand here in KL, he spent 14 years work­ing at his fa­ther’s deli af­ter he grad­u­ated from

culi­nary school in KDU. He then spent an­other two years train­ing in France learn­ing the finer points of cook­ing at Pierre Sang on Oberkampf and briefly at Lasserre.

Chef Dar­ren in­sists that he doesn’t con­sider DC a ‘fine din­ing’ es­tab­lish­ment per se but con­cedes that peo­ple may cer­tainly per­ceive it that way based on as­pects like price point and the type of food on of­fer. But his phi­los­o­phy on food cer­tainly falls within what is con­sid­ered fine din­ing - an hon­est, straight­for­ward ap­proach that hon­ours the idea of slow food, the prove­nance of in­gre­di­ents, and the skil­ful com­bi­na­tion of clas­si­cal and mod­ern tech­niques to ar­rive at a unique view­point.

“We still get cus­tomers who are not used to the idea that we only of­fer a prix fixe menu,” he says wryly. “But this is my vi­sion for this restau­rant which bears my name so we do spend time try­ing to in­form and ed­u­cate our cus­tomers on what we are try­ing to achieve.”

The role of the chef is such that an es­tab­lish­ment can of­ten be marred by var­i­ous con­flict­ing de­mands, in par­tic­u­lar, find­ing the bal­ance be­tween be­ing an artist sell­ing his vi­sion and a busi­ness­man con­cerned about the bot­tom line.

“I learnt a lot work­ing for my fa­ther,” he con­tin­ues. “He taught me the as­pects of how to man­age a restau­rant as a busi­ness in terms of things like cash flow, pay­ing your sup­pli­ers on time and man­ag­ing the more mun­dane stuff that comes with it. I be­lieve I am one of the few chefs around who can strad­dle both as­pects well.”

This learned acu­men has led him to the open­ing of a new eatery called Bref, a more ca­sual take on his cui­sine where he of­fers some of his sig­na­ture dishes a la carte. Not only that, he used the op­por­tu­nity to put his money where his mouth is in terms of his be­lief in giv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to the next gen­er­a­tion of chefs, a fact he proudly de­clares on his web­site. To that end, Han, his sous chef at DC restau­rant, now leads the team at Bref.

On the other hand, Chef James Won is less ret­i­cent about what his restau­rant is all about, as­sured that En­fin is firmly in the ‘lux­ury seg­ment’, and his menu and phi­los­o­phy re­flects that. The piece de re­sis­tance at En­fin is what he calls Jour­ney of the Senses, a seven-plate din­ner-only de­gus­ta­tion menu.

“This is an in­tro­duc­tion to our food phi­los­o­phy, logic and lat­est ex­pe­ri­ence cu­rated by the En­fin culi­nary team,” he says. “I say ‘lat­est’ be­cause the ex­pe­ri­ence fea­tures the best of in­gre­di­ents and tech­niques for the month, as we change our menu pe­ri­od­i­cally. We like din­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence our ver­sion of omakase based on the sea­son’s bounty. Jour­ney of the Senses evokes all five and we try our best to bring emo­tion to the plate to bring a sixth sense into play – mem­ory.”

EDI­BLE IN­CRED­I­BLE: WE ARE WHAT WE EAT Of course, all this imag­i­na­tion and glo­ri­ous de­scrip­tions would amount to noth­ing if the work­man doesn’t have the nec­es­sary tools to work with and, in this re­spect, fine din­ing chefs are al­most al­ways ar­dently con­cerned about the in­gre­di­ents that they use.

In fact, if haute cui­sine is a jour­ney one ex­pe­ri­ences, then one must ex­pect to be sur­prised and fed with some fine in­gre­di­ents that would pique our cu­rios­ity, de­light our taste buds and prom­ise us a culi­nary ad­ven­ture of the un­known.

We of­ten hear chefs speak about the prove­nance of food. Chefs seek out not only the best from sources with in­tegrity, but they also seek out the odd, the new and the rare. “One in­gre­di­ent that I am re­ally proud of us­ing is this hon­ey­comb that we source from north­ern Thai­land,” says Chef Dar­ren, who con­sid­ers Thai­land his sec­ond home. Ac­cord­ing to him, it has a unique flavour pro­file and it is an in­dus­try for lo­cal farm­ers from that re­gion. “It passes the taste test 100 per cent of the time.”

He also re­veals that he is cur­rently at­tempt­ing to get lo­cal farm­ers to plant spe­cific things for him but that he is still fac­ing some re­sis­tance to the idea as this sort of method­ol­ogy is still alien to tra­di­tional farm­ers.

“We re­cently dis­cov­ered that the land around the Ben­tong area is ac­tu­ally re­ally fer­tile and we would love to be able to grow pro­duce there,” he says. And it isn’t just lo­cally where he goes to great lengths to source for things to put on his plates.

“I have a Ja­panese seafood sup­plier in Hokkaido who ba­si­cally goes to the mar­ket there and then sends me pho­tos of live seafood avail­able on that day which he then ex­ports to us,” he re­veals. “This is one of the ways in which we en­sure we get the fresh­est seafood to our cus­tomers.”

Over at Chef James’ HQ, and if you are ob­ser­vant, you will no­tice the phrase ‘from Farm En­fin’ dot­ted all over the menu. “The farm plants only what we would use for our menu,” he says. “We care about the hus­bandry of our in­gre­di­ents, we de­mand only the best and al­low our pro­duce to reach its max­i­mum po­ten­tial with no ar­ti­fi­cial fer­til­i­sa­tion.”

He also re­veals that Farm En­fin has suc­cess­fully cul­ti­vated non­na­tive pro­duce deemed un­prof­itable by in­dus­trial grow­ers and in­sists ev­ery­thing from Farm En­fin is or­ganic. “I am also very pas­sion­ate about cham­pi­oning indige­nous pro­duce. I travel yearly into the hills and jun­gles learn­ing from tribes on har­vest­ing tech­niques and to also for­age for jun­gle in­gre­di­ents.”

“WE DE­MAND ONLY THE BEST AND AL­LOW OUR PRO­DUCE TO REACH ITS MAX­I­MUM PO­TEN­TIAL.” Chef James Won

IN­TE­RIOR MO­TIFS: IT’S WHAT’S IN­SIDE THAT COUNTS And yet, the fine din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t just made up on what is put on the plate con­jured up from the com­plex minds of chefs. Many other as­pects come into play with in­te­rior de­sign be­ing fore­most in that equa­tion. But just how im­por­tant is this as­pect?

For Chef James, it is an in­te­gral ele­ment, one which he over­saw as part of the En­fin de­sign team. “As a cuisi­naire, there is no de­tail too small. Ev­ery as­pect of the diner’s in­ter­ac­tion from space, fur­ni­ture, am­bi­ence, smell and sound are as im­por­tant as the plates we present. If th­ese de­tails are not in fo­cus then we are not of­fer­ing a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. “It is En­fin by James Won, there­fore it must be a com­plete James Won ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And for good rea­son. The dé­cor is the first thing that cus­tomers will no­tice when en­ter­ing a restau­rant so fine din­ing restau­rants have been known to spend hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, on in­te­rior de­sign. Chef James con­tin­ues: “Orig­i­nal, ar­ti­sanal and be­spoke. I want my guests to feel we have thought of their needs and it is worth their time to get dressed up and to ex­pect a mem­o­rable evening de­signed for each one of them.

“Ev­ery de­tail - from ta­ble, chair to table­ware - is cre­ated specif­i­cally for the restau­rant. Even the ta­ble height, which is some­thing most peo­ple would take for granted. The di­men­sions of most com­mer­cial ta­bles are de­sign with the Euro­pean physique in mind, but not at En­fin. We spent many months cre­at­ing some­thing to­tally Malaysian.” STEL­LAR SER­VICE If there is one com­mon glar­ing flaw in the lo­cal F&B in­dus­try, it has to be the lack of pro­fes­sion­al­ism in the level of ser­vice pro­vided. This is an as­pect many fail to mas­ter, and it is likely the most im­por­tant, per­haps even more so that the food served.

Don’t be­lieve that? Think about this. You can pla­cate a cus­tomer with out­stand­ing ser­vice if the meal was un­sat­is­fac­tory, but even the most ex­quis­ite meal can­not res­cue the most tragic and un­for­tu­nate ser­vice faux pas. Peo­ple will re­mem­ber if they were treated badly more than if they were fed well. It is as sim­ple as that.

“For a fine din­ing restau­rant, or any restau­rant for that mat­ter, I be­lieve that good ser­vice should start from the mo­ment you walk in the door,” says Yuw Ming Ho, the Gen­eral Man­ager of Le Cor­don Bleu Malaysia.

“It is in the way you are greeted, the way you are seated and how the menu is pre­sented to you. Af­ter that – and this is very im­por­tant in my opin­ion – is prod­uct knowl­edge. All ser­vice staff need to have this, so my ad­vice to all restau­rant own­ers is to please make sure to train your staff in this as­pect. Have a food tast­ing if you need to, but make sure you get this right as it is cru­cial to com­plete the ex­pe­ri­ence for the guest.”

In most culi­nary schools, ser­vice train­ing is in­te­grated into the course but there is no spe­cial­i­sa­tion fo­cused on this as­pect. “A lot of what makes great ser­vice is in­tu­ition and ex­pe­ri­ence,” con­tin­ues Yuw, “and this is not some­thing that you can eas­ily teach.”

In­tu­ition is key sim­ply be­cause dif­fer­ent peo­ple can have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on what is con­sid­ered great ser­vice. Some like to be fussed over, some pre­fer to be left unat­tended un­til they have a re­quest. It takes a spe­cial in­di­vid­ual with enough ex­pe­ri­ence and in­sight into hu­man na­ture to truly ex­cel at ser­vice and to read into what the cus­tomers want be­fore they ask. But a good rule of thumb for ser­vice prac­ti­tion­ers is to be dis­creet yet at­ten­tive.

Says Yuw: “A big prob­lem is that many peo­ple look down on the ser­vice sec­tor. It is some­thing they them­selves would never do so they will never re­alise how dif­fi­cult a job it is. But those in this line should keep in mind that sin­cer­ity goes a long way, and un­der­stand that their job is to make guests feel wel­comed to make their ex­pe­ri­ence at the restau­rant a good one,” she ad­vises. “And it bears re­peat­ing, be knowl­edge­able about the prod­ucts of the restau­rant, try and help the cus­tomers as best as you can, and please no mo­bile phones while you are on the job. This is an ab­so­lute no-no.”

But as our din­ing cul­ture evolves, even high-end restau­rants can take a more dressed down ap­proach, do­ing away with fussy for­mal­i­ties. Chef Dar­ren of­fers a sim­pler take. “For me, I hope that the ser­vice at DC re­flects my per­son­al­ity which is warm and sin­cere.”

Th­ese in tan­dem are key pil­lars of what el­e­vates a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. And yet this is just the tip of the ice­berg. As much as a high-end restau­rant tries and cov­ers all the bases, there will be many in­ci­dents that can and will hap­pen which fall through the gap.

“Of course, we try to do our best for ev­ery sin­gle cus­tomer,” says Chef Dar­ren, “but I can tell you now that there is no such thing as a per­fect din­ner ser­vice. You must al­ways strive for 100 per cent but even 90 per cent, at times, is a sat­is­fac­tory out­come.”

The end goal is the same for all though: To give each and ev­ery diner the best din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble and to serve good food. Ul­ti­mately, isn’t that what it is all about?

“FOR A FINE DIN­ING RESTAU­RANT, OR ANY RESTAU­RANT FOR THAT MAT­TER, I BE­LIEVE THAT GOOD SER­VICE SHOULD START FROM THE MO­MENT YOU WALK IN THE DOOR.” Yuw Ming Ho, Gen­eral Man­ager of Le Cor­don Bleu Malaysia

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