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