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 Malaysian-owned 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 Malaysia- Singapore 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 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.
PHOTOGRAPHY MAT THOMAS