by Tien Chew
The chef-founder of two restaurants in Penang – gēn and Communal Table – Johnson Wong and his team have been pushing the food scene forward for years with dining experiences that draw inspiration from traditional Malaysian flavours. The talented and pragmatic chef has made a name for himself in Penang’s culinary scene with a cooking style that celebrates local ingredients, their significance to our culinary heritage, and their roles in making Malaysian flavours so palatable. As a respected chef across the South-East Asian region, his views on his profession and place in the culinary sphere have evolved alongside his cooking.
“Back then, dreaming of becoming the best in your chosen profession was normal. But as you grow up, you realise that’s not what it’s about; it’s not practical. You realise it’s instead about being the best in whatever circumstance you’re in, wherever you are.” Wong reflects on what sustains his passion for his craft.
“Achievements also drive us to do what we do because they give us more confidence knowing that we’re on the right path. In anything you do, if you do not have a sense of achievement or accomplishment, it’s very tough to continue doing what you do.”
Although Wong is aware that achievements can be a source of positive reinforcement, he also acknowledges that it’s essential that one should always stay true to oneself in the pursuit of excellence.
“When I look back in 10 years’ time, I don’t want my restaurants to be perceived as just a restaurant. I see them as a nexus connecting the local food community. For example, I may be a chef, but my role isn’t limited to those responsibilities; I do everything related to the business,” he adds. “Our role shouldn’t be similarly limited to showcasing talent in the kitchen, but also the capabilities of the community, the city and the produce we find here.”
Those unfamiliar with Wong may also be surprised that the chef has a soft spot for the giant panda, which happens to be his favourite animal, one that surprisingly becomes a metaphor for the ambitions he has for his restaurants. “If you look closer at the panda, it’s an animal that can change the relationship between two countries. It’s very influential. It can even change someone’s mood. If you use the same logic to how you perceive your restaurant just as you would a panda, you don’t see it as just a restaurant, and you start to question what other meanings it may have,” he explains.
It is with this communal spirit and philosophical approach to cooking that it’s easy to understand why Wong and his restaurants have become staple names in Penang. Communal Table currently holds a Michelin Bib Gourmand award, while gēn continues to showcase the rich diversity of Chinese flavours through a contemporary lens. Johnson and his team have also collaborated with local and international chefs to give those not residing in Penang a chance to learn more about the modern-classic creations he serves.