VIEW FROM THE PEAK
So much goes into the creation of a dish that its very presentation belies the amount of thought and fine-tuning vested. I had the privilege of witnessing this painstaking process first-hand during dinner with the owner of Kai Mayfair at his famed restaurant, just a couple of months before its conferment of the Michelin star was announced for 2019. Eileen, his wife, had joined us at the dinner table and a new dish of scallops was presented.
What ensued was nothing short of fascinating as both husband and wife expounded over what worked, what didn’t, which ingredient seemed overpowering, whether the dish should be kept in the menu or excised in favour of something else. It was a thorough analysis. “Don’t mind us,” Bernard says to me halfway, apologetically. Eileen smiled: “We do this a lot.” Later, when Kai Mayfair’s head chef, Alex Chow, dropped by to say hi, further debate followed before both restaurateur and chef came to an agreement.
This level of curation is imperative and conducted daily at Kai Mayfair. It is quite possibly the reason why the restaurant has been able to maintain its one Michelin-star award consecutively for a decade, with Yeoh and Chef Chow effectively the first Malaysian recipients of the coveted accolade.
The secret to the restaurant’s success is deceptively simple, with Chef Chow maintaining that teamwork is of the essence. “This is a business that is live,” says Yeoh. “The most junior person can have a devastating effect on the business.” At the same time, there is a high level of experimentation and performance that Yeoh says makes “every day is a special day”, with Chef Chow operating at “an effort level that is way above” what most can sustain.
There’s something to be said about the restaurateur’s own extremely high standards and willingness to experiment. “I think that continuous presence of doubt is really healthy because it makes us keep looking to do better,” says Yeoh. “Can we refine this? Can we make this more interesting?”
The corporate world can identify with much of what Kai Mayfair is trying to achieve, with the likes of Dato’ Jagan Sabapathy even going for the F&B jugular and making a success of it with a chain of outlets including Mezze, Birch, Huckleberry and the speakeasy, Skullduggery. Dato’ Jagan, like Yeoh (a qualified lawyer), fell into the business quite by accident. “There was no great design or wild plans to start an F&B empire,” he says. “We are our own worse critics, so we are committed to doing the best that we can and doing it with passion.”
While it all sounds like hard work, the results should look effortless with customers enjoying themselves to the point where they become regulars. “When the patrons’ children start bringing their own children,” says Yeoh, “that’s when you know you’ve done it right.”
With Bernard Yeoh and Chef Alex Chow at Kai Mayfair.