Text by: Farrah Darma
Through his innovatively curated Shin’ Labo menu, Chef James is delivering an impressive range of courses for your palate to savour. Every detail behind the conceptualization of Shin’ Labo is pure indulgence and has been purposely and meticulously built to display ‘simplicity presented in a singularity of elegance.’
From a small Hakka village in Jinjang, Chef James has come a long way to place himself on Malaysia’s luxury and fine dining map. His love and curiosity for food has always been anchored in his Hakka roots and upbringing. “The concept of fine dining didn’t occur to me until I started venturing overseas. Before that, as far as I knew, fine dining was anything that was eaten with a fork and knife.”
His grandmother had the biggest influence on his interest in food. “I looked forward to going home after school every day because I wanted to find out what Grandma was making for my after-school snack.” Although Chef James’ grandmother did not read or write a word of English nor Chinese, she had an incredible flavor profile. “She could eat anything and figure out what the composition of that particular dish was. She’ll then go home and try to replicate it. So I was the lab rat, but it was the best,” he explains.
As a strong Buddhist practitioner, Chef James brings his charitable persona to the main ethos of his new 5-star restaurant centered in the very heart of Kuala Lumpur – bridging the elements of being mindful, making the right choices, and cultivating good practices. As consumers continue to seek more authentic experiences, Shin’ Labo offers Chef James’ latest adoption to ‘transcendental dining’ as soon as you set foot in his signature restaurant.
Paying homage to his grandmother through the careful curation of his dishes, Shin’ Labo brings us the intersection of Japanese and French cuisines, celebrated over indigenous Malaysian ingredients.
The Japanese cuisine can be broken down into two categories: The Japanese art of (1) Washoku and (2) Yōshuku. The latter being a Japanese interpretation of the western cuisine – which Shin’ Labo practices, but in an elevated approach. Chef James explains the delicate intricacies of one of his hallmark dishes. “Shin’ Labo promotes the elevated version of the Yōshoku heritage. Take for example our Hambagu patty.” His signature Hambagu patty is small and bite-sized, made from duck confit. “The duck confit legs are cooked in its own fat, strained down, reshaped into a patty, twirled with potato strings, then deep fried and crowned with our very own caviar. There you go, our elevated Hambagu.”
In tandem with elevating Yōshoku, Chef James does not fail to put his own Malaysian twist to his dishes. “I’m a proud Malaysian in whatever I do, and I want people to know, first and foremost at Shin’ Labo, we are Malaysian.”
He takes such a simple ingredient – for example, rice, inspired from his Malaysian Hakka heritage, and elevates it further. “I deliberately curated a dish from puff rice cakes. After puffing my own rice, it’s sandwiched with wild lemon butter from the Sabah Forest and then mushroom and truffle ketchup, topped with royal Beluga caviar. Not forgetting wild greens and flowers from Malaysia. I always want to showcase myself and our country in all the cuisines and dishes I do. Its part of my heritage and culture and some of it is very much my homage to my grandmother.”
With the growing trend of Omakase in Malaysia, Chef James makes a clear distinction between the concept of Omakase vs. Kappou. “People tend to get confused; the moment they see the dining counter at Shin’ Labo, they assume it’s an Omakase.” Shin’ Labo’s dining is less of a Sushi-ya (a sushi and sashimi driven place), but rather a Kappou dining experience – where one can expect a myriad of cooking techniques – fry, braise, grill, roast, barbecue, ferment, raw, all centered around Chef James’ take on an elevated yōshuku. “You’ll still get sushi and sashimi but not in the format you’re used to. A bit more adventurous for most. We’re not a sushi-ya, but we offer the whole degustation of tasting.”
What sets Shin’ Labo apart from his other restaurants is the nourishment of the mind you receive while dining. “We promise you an experience, not just food.” Chef James prides himself on each carefully thought-out decision throughout the preparation and assembling of a dish. “We want you to understand how much effort has gone into the preparation of something that could look so simple.”
Chef James and his team have dedicated careful time and effort in speaking with local farmers, having ingredients grown and delivered the way they want. These detailed intricacies and ethical sourcing capabilities while enlisting the help of local artisans are what at the end of the day, bring you that mouthful of appreciation. Chef James works closely with local farmers for specific planting, including young rooftop and micro farmers for the garnishes. “We made a conscious decision to support these local artisans. Our eggs come from Raub and are made for cancer patients.” Because of this careful sourcing, they aren’t your average joe eggs. It can take up to 21 toothpicks to finally break the raw yolk which up till then, remains intact, showcasing the strength of its albumen. “So rich and incredible, just like magic,” Chef James confirms.
Another defining aspect of Shin’ Labo is the quest to find the perfect balance between umami (the savoriness) and amami (the sweetness). With the perfect balance of taste, seasoning is removed completely. “No salt, no pepper. Whatever seasoning used; we make. Like the soya sauce for our sashimi.” Chef James explains that the beauty, thought process and effort that goes into producing a single ingredient can easily be taken for granted. “Just for this single ingredient (soya sauce), we ensure the highest standards are maintained with carefully curated and researched procedures. While working with the artisan on the fermentation, we make sure to find the right umai and amai balance.”
All red protein and seafood at Shin’ Labo are aged – This is essential in preserving the tenderness of the meat and concentrating its flavors, only made possible through this ageing process. “Highly fresh meat suffers from the effects of rigor mortis; it becomes chewy and tough. This doesn’t mean it’s of bad quality, but you need to relax the meat. Or that fish for example wouldn’t be as buttery and silky.”
Experiencing Shin’ Labo’s cutting edge food innovation, we are able to set it apart even by the most delicate differences and techniques applied. Chef James draws on his years of experience that has allowed him to create ‘one great detail through the collage of all other finer details.’
“When you progress in your cooking ability and experience, you don’t add, you subtract. Your plate becomes more quiet, more effortless. It’s a singular beauty.” He provided an analogy of an experienced Soprano singer. “When they sing, they are able to project their voice right to the back of the room without mics or speakers. Yet, you don’t see them screaming or straining their voice. It’s pure talent and love. It comes out beautifully. Compared to amateurs who need lots of compliments and sound effects to put on a show. When you’re experienced, there is no fancy lightshow, there is just the singular voice you’re captivated by.”
Bringing this to his own practice, Chef James believes that the same concept applies to food. “It’s not about complication. The complexity is in how to make it so effortless.” He has proven there are merits to his minimalist innovation, especially when the ingredients sourced are the top of its class. The intricate layering of every dish truly speaks for itself.
Of course, the element of subtracting allows for the removal of theatre. “Our plating ethos circles around the artistry makeup by the Japanese Geisha. When you see our plate, it’s a white background.” The dish itself is enough to center stage the color – similar to that of how a Geisha paints her makeup, a white canvas to remove all flaws with only key features (eyebrows and lips) highlighted. “So that’s what we do on our plate. We highlight the necessary and remove what’s not.”
Reflecting on when he first ventured into the culinary world, Chef James recalls his struggles to find the right people who were trained for fine dining. Unlike today, the workforce has matured with the ability for people to travel and gain unique experiences. “Malaysians are also becoming more affluent and are starting to understand there is pride in our own ingredients and beauty in our own natural resources. They understand that being Malaysian is unique and you don’t need to be French, Japanese, Swiss or what not. It shows that cuisine and culture is growing.”
Be that as it may, if there’s one thing he would like to see differently within Malaysia’s fine dining scene would be the call for support. “We Malaysians need to support the industry and believe it’s worth investing and understanding the beauty that comes behind the restaurant and the story it tells. It’s the ingredient sourcing, plate building and even interior architecture.”
Every detail within Shin’ Labo’s space tells its own story. The high walls with a subtle ‘finished unfinished’ look and an ombre touch stems from an interior ethos called wabi-sabi. It translates to ‘finding beauty in imperfection.’ Designed with acoustic properties, these same high walls enclosing Krug Chef’s Table is hence perfect for those seeking a more exclusive and intimate private dining experience.
Cemented with the idea of a French version of rough luxury, his private dining room provides spectacular privacy and personalization, allowing guests to savor the exclusive contemporary menu curated, enveloped by the chic vibe and ambience. Music, champagne and food pairing, all elements harmoniously gelling together to give guests a whole new sensorial experience.
To add icing on the cake, certain dishes are plated with the art of kintsugi – the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold.
Shin’ Labo’s ethos is a testament to Chef James’ perseverance in building and empowering his own team. “It’s not something that materialized overnight, it was planned meticulously to upscale my team to reach where we are.”
Chef James firmly believes that kindness is the foundational quality to his team’s success. He has institutionalized and fostered kindness within his restaurant. “The most rewarding part of my journey so far is building this team – seeing them able to form their own ideas and independently turn concept into food and experience. It’s my sunset song, where I’ll be passing on the baton and where I’ll eventually leave my legacy.”
Empowerment to his front of staff and kitchen team is further reflected through the incorporation of his staff’s Origami art showcased as part of the plating decoration and table setting. “Some plates showcase Origami, all made by my front of house. I want their efforts to be reflected so they have a true sense of ownership in what they make. It’s also important to me that they understand the ethos and purpose of why we do what we do.”
To Chef James, Shin’ Labo is so much more than just his ‘latest prestige restaurant’ – it’s a family, it’s a team and most importantly, it’s an experience for everyone.
From carefully curated ingredients, infinite luxury to all the details you might not see, Shin’ Labo is one but a unique addition to Malaysia’s fine dining landscape. It’s an innovation edge that the industry needed. With a few more tricks up his sleeve, Chef James is looking forward to introducing more things that Kuala Lumpur is yet to see. He hints at a fine dining experience with the coming of high fashion big brands and a potential expansion overseas.