daily spe­cial

Here’s a chef who’ll get away with get­ting his own way.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By LEE MEI LI

Chef Max Chin will be in­tro­duc­ing the coun­try’s first ‘pri­vate kitchen’ where meals will con­sist of what­ever he feels like cook­ing.

CALL him crazy. Call him bold. But Max Chin is just plain con­fi­dent. The chef’s new­est res­tau­rant at So­laris Du­ta­mas in Kuala Lumpur op­er­ates on a “take it or leave it” con­cept.

Gone are the days when you get to thumb through a menu and take 30 min­utes to de­cide on a main course. Be­cause at Milles­ime (which means “great vin­tage” in French), you will lit­er­ally be given no choice.

Your meal will con­sist of what­ever the chef “feels” like cook­ing for the day. A mad ar­range­ment re­ally, but there is a per­fectly good ex­pla­na­tion for this. “It’s like com­ing to my home – I cook, you eat,” says Chin.

Open­ing this month, Milles­ime is a “pri­vate kitchen” with no fixed menu, only the chef’s rec­om­men­da­tion. Es­sen­tially, it boasts French-in­flu­enced cui­sine us­ing the fresh­est sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents. Scal­lops, lamb, foie gras, tuna, duck breast, wagyu beef cheeks ... you name it, they’ve got it.

The “off-menu” con­cept is noth­ing new – it is widely prac­tised in Hong Kong and Singapore – but the res­tau­rant is the first of its kind in Malaysia.

“(Milles­ime) will be the next ‘in’ thing in KL. I’ve talked to a lot of peo­ple and they are look­ing for­ward to it. It will sur­prise the town,” says Chin, who first cre­ated a name for him­self in 2006 with Max! Kitchen and Wines in Tengkat Tong Shin, KL.

What if you don’t agree with the chef’s choice of the day?

With a shake of his head, Chin en­sures that will never hap­pen. Any­thing served in Milles­ime will be a “guar­an­teed meal by Max”. If you have qualms over a spe­cific in­gre­di­ent, like beef or duck, you can al­ways in­form the chef be­fore­hand.

The 43-year-old goes by a sim­ple phi­los­o­phy: he al­ways buys the best in­gre­di­ents, pre­pares meals in the best way pos­si­ble and serves them at the best tem­per­a­ture. If the dishes served are still not good enough, cus­tomers just have to tell him how best they want it.

“Peo­ple might laugh and say: ‘ You don’t even know what you’re cook­ing.’ I ad­mit I do things at the last minute. I have no clue what I’ll be cook­ing un­til I go into the kitchen. I like to sur­prise my­self. It’s ex­cit­ing and fun.” Just like the con­tes­tants on Iron Chef, Chin draws in­spi­ra­tion from his in­gre­di­ents and also his guests.

While Milles­ime may seem like noth­ing more than a play­ground for Chin, when it comes to cook­ing un­der pres­sure, no pun in­tended, the ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t ex­actly child’s play. The res­tau­rant sports an open kitchen, not un­like the one in Max! Kitchen and Wines. Even af­ter years of prac­tice “per­form­ing” in front of his cus­tomers, the chef still finds it all a tad un­nerv­ing.

“Peo­ple look at you – your fa­cial ex­pres­sions, your voice, your tone and the oth­ers around you – like you’re an ac­tor on stage. Some peo­ple un­der­stand; some can be quite judg­men­tal. It’s not just din­ing. It’s a show.”

But the ta­ble is turned when it comes to who’s keep­ing an eye on whom. Chin will take full ad­van­tage of the open kitchen to in­ter­act with his cus­tomers. “I not only like to cook, I also like to ex­plain to the guests – like how to eat the goose liver with cro­quette and pan-seared duck breast.” From his large se­lec­tion of fine wines, the chef will also rec­om­mend a bot­tle that com­ple­ments the meal.

Those who are look­ing for a quiet din­ner for two won’t have to shy away. “I’m not in­tru­sive. I’ll find the right time and give (my cus­tomers) space. I think if I spend less time with them, they’ll get jeal­ous,” he jokes.

For the first week, cus­tomers will be able to de­ter­mine their own price for the food served. Chin plans to use this as an “ex­per­i­ment”, while the money col­lected will be given to char­ity. “Pay what you think it’s worth,” he says.

Chin may look like he has it all planned out, but the chef ad­mits that he only came up with the idea about two months ago. “It’s a com­bi­na­tion of the right tim­ing, the right peo­ple and the right lo­ca­tion. It’s also a re­vival of Max! Kitchen.”

In 2009, Chin de­cided to move Max! Kitchen and Wines to Ger­man In­te­rior Showhaus near Jalan Imbi as park­ing was a prob­lem at Tengkat Tong Shin. The new res­tau­rant, Max at iHaus, had am­ple park­ing space which catered to the chef’s grow­ing gour­mand cus­tomers. But it had one missing el­e­ment: an open kitchen. Chin missed be­ing at the heart of the ac­tion, or rather, the cen­tre of at­ten­tion.

A year later, the chef is fo­cus­ing his full at­ten­tion on Milles­ime. Giv­ing a “face” to go with his food, Chin says: “It will be a style based on me.”

So who is this man, you may ask?

Food foray

As the youngest in a fam­ily of eight chil­dren, Chin was used to get­ting his own way. “I was fussy with food. Af­ter foot­ball, I’d come home and look at the food on the ta­ble and if I didn’t like it, I would cook fried rice – throw in all the left­overs and add an egg. I got good re­sponses from my sis­ters and aunts.” His flair for cook­ing was ap­par­ent even at the age of 10.

So was Chin’s mother a “bad” cook? Au con­traire! “My mom was Hakka. All Hakka women can cook! She makes very gen­uine food,” says Chin. His mother never had dif­fi­cul­ties com­ing up with the menu of the day. “Once I fol­lowed my mum to the wet mar­ket. She’s very spon­ta­neous. There and then she would de­cide that we are hav­ing spare ribs and bit­ter­gourd. What she sees in­spires her.” As they say, like mother, like son.

“I ate a lot of good food as a kid. I come from a tra­di­tional Chi­nese fam­ily. Break­fast at 7.30, lunch at 11 and din­ner at 5.30. A typ­i­cal menu would be pork with pota­toes. We had a lot of Hakka dishes, but not fried stuff. If we were hun­gry in be­tween, we would have black cof­fee with bis­cuits.”

Chin re­calls that he also grew up with the won­ders of wine in mind. “My grand­fa­ther owned a wine shop in the vil­lage. We were ex­posed to whisky, brandy, beer. My dad later took on the fam­ily busi­ness.”

Sur­rounded by good food and good wine, Chin went on to grad­u­ate with a Swiss di­plo- ma in ho­tel man­age­ment, but not be­fore he forced his way through into the kitchen. “I was in (ho­tel) man­age­ment but I wanted to be good in food and bev­er­age. I wanted to be good with wine. That’s why I went into the kitchen – I never came back out.”

In 1988, Chin was given the op­por­tu­nity to train un­der two-star Miche­lin Chef Roland Mazere in Singapore. Tout­ing Mazere as the main in­spi­ra­tion for his cook­ing style, Chin mas­tered the art of “tra­di­tional French cook­ing pre­sented in a mod­ern way”. Five years later, he be­came the youngest ex­ec­u­tive chef in the re­gion for the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel Group. “At that age, you worry about noth­ing; you just go ahead. I felt ex­cited though there was also that fear of fail­ing.”

There was no stop­ping Chin. From there, it was Shangri-La Xi’an, JW Mar­riott KL, Sher­a­ton Hanoi, Melia Hanoi, Crowne Plaza Hainan, Melia Bali, Gran Melia Jakarta and Crowne Plaza Phuket. Food was an ad­ven­ture, but Chin also had his fair share of mis­ad­ven­tures – to date, he has sur­vived two bomb­ings and a tsunami.

He was there dur­ing the Bali bomb­ing in 2002. A year later, it was the bomb­ing of Jakarta’s Mar­riott Ho­tel and he was there, too. So guess where Chin was when the tsunami hit Phuket in 2004? Need­less to say, the chef is un­fazed by the dis­as­ters. “There’s this Chi­nese say­ing – when the sky falls, use it as a blan­ket.”

Fam­ily man

Even then, they say third time’s the charm. The chef ended his foray in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters and re­turned to Malaysia in 2006 to open Max! Kitchen and Wines.

“I had al­ways wanted to have my own res­tau­rant be­fore it was too late. I also wanted my kids to get to know their grand­par­ents.”

Chin and his wife have been mar­ried for 14 years and have two daugh­ters, aged 12 and 10. So does the man play take-home-chef, too? “On the week­ends, I do the cook­ing,” he says, proudly adding, “but my wife can cook very well.”

French cui­sine may be his forte, but Chin makes it clear that he is not one to be picky with food. “You look at my size, then you’ll know I like good food, but not nec­es­sar­ily ex­pen­sive. I like food that is not pre­ten­tious. I Chin is fa­mous for whip­ping up French­in­flu­enced dishes like the Bouil­l­abaisse, a fish and shell­fish stew. usu­ally start my day with a bowl of pip­ing hot noo­dle soup – it can be fish ball or pork ball. Lunch is a sandwich or chap fan (mixed rice). Din­ner is sim­ple; not al­ways rice.”

Chin reck­ons that 5kg of rice would be too much for his fam­ily to han­dle in a month. “Some­times we’ll have Western din­ners with roast chicken, potato and salad, or some cheese and wine.”

Some of his friends are as crazy over food as he is. With a laugh Chin says: “I have a few makan kakis. We eat, eat and eat. We have lunch, then tea, then snacks, then din­ner and end up at a wine bar.”

But nostal­gia glazed over when the chef is asked his favourite dish. “My mum’s mince pork with salted egg,” he an­swers. Even when Chin was mas­ter­ing his child­hood fried rice recipe, he never once used the dish as an in­gre­di­ent, pre­fer­ring to en­joy it on its own. “I miss it very much. I’m still try­ing to mas­ter it but there are cer­tain things you can’t repli­cate.”

Chin may be a chef who knows his stuff, but he is not quick to crit­i­cise. “I’m se­ri­ous about my food and yet I en­joy oth­ers. I’m not as par­tic­u­lar as some chefs to ban McDon­ald’s. I wouldn’t even ban my kids from eat­ing Maggi Mee – I like it, too!”

Those who have met the chef might re­fer to him as “a fa­therly fig­ure”. Take Chin out of his res­tau­rant and you would find that he “switches off”, pre­fer­ring to spend quiet time with his fam­ily or on his own, leaf­ing through culi­nary books and au­to­bi­ogra­phies. In­deed, a chef has many moods. If your con­cerns are catch­ing Chin on a bad day, don’t worry. “If I’m an­gry, I just don’t cook,” he says. And you best let him have his way.

In the spot­light: Chef Max Chin will be in­tro­duc­ing the coun­try’s first ‘pri­vate kitchen’, where meals will con­sist of what­ever he feels like cook­ing for the day.

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