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
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.”
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.”
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?