What makes today’s Malaysians tick at the table? Does the pressure to plate up something new and exciting ever get overwhelming? The Peak Malaysia finds out how Kuala Lumpur’s leading chefs and restaurateurs tease and intrigue diners’ taste buds, while feeding their minds at the same time.
Chef Jeff Ramsey
It’s nearing lunchtime and Chef Jeff Ramsey is giving us hunger pangs with his description of chicken skin chashu – one of his favourite creations: “We pile up 40 or 50 layers of chicken skin, and cook it for 12 hours in a vacuum bag to convert the gelatine into collagen. Then we chill it, cut it into rectangles, fry it to a crisp and dunk it in chashu sauce so that it tastes like pork belly. Oh man, you have to try it!”
It’s one of many tempting examples of Ramsey’s ‘Japas’ – his Japanese-accented tapas that have led many a curious Malaysian gourmand to his restaurant, Babe, which sits on the 11th floor of [email protected] in Damansara Heights. Well, it’s that and his culinary reputation – as the first Michelin-starred chef to open a restaurant in the country (he earned his at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo’s Tapas Molecular Bar in 2009), more than a little stardust has followed him from Japan ever since.
Despite the buzz generated by the M-word, Ramsey is keen to emphasise that Babe’s diners should leave their expectations at the door. “We call it Japas because it’s small plates and tasty food without the white tablecloths and silverware that’s changed at every course. If people expect a Michelin-starred fine dining experience, they’re going to be let down, because it’s not that. It is what it is.” Not that Ramsey and his team don’t put their hearts and souls into their food – quite the opposite, in fact.
“None of our dishes go out to the guests until I get the sense that we, as a team, are proud of the food, happy with the dishes and that we think the guests will also be happy with them,” he says. How does he handle the creative pressure to come up with new, unusual offerings? “I try to get out whenever possible and take as much inspiration as I can from what I taste. Tasting something good helps me envision the interplay of certain flavours – it makes me think, ‘Okay, we really need to raise our game’.”
When asked whether he finds Kuala Lumpur less competitive than Tokyo’s densely populated restaurant scene, Ramsey insists the stakes are always high, regardless of geography: “No matter where you are, if you want to be considered a creative restaurant that serves food at a high standard, you have to please the die-hard foodies who’ve been there, done that, and eaten at countless restaurants around the world. You have to impress them, as well as the people who’ve come not because they’re foodies, but because they just care about good taste and they like the view.
“It’s about creating food capable of pleasing both types of diners, and that’s not an easy task. All our dishes have to taste good first, along with having a combination of interesting flavours and a concept behind them – but not too deep!” Ramsey notes. “It can’t be too deep, or you lose people. We’re called Babe, so it’s more free, fun, and supple – that’s the feeling behind it.”