One of the first restaurants in Malaysia to be awarded a MICHELIN Star, Dewakan is known for redefining modern Malaysian fine dining with a focus on indigenous ingredients. Here chef-patron Darren Teoh challenges himself and his team’s continual process of presenting a dish, as well as learning and unlearning cooking techniques to create new memories for his guests.
No Signature Dishes
Dewakan has no signature dishes. Teoh challenges the notion that a dish does not reflect a chef's identity. He says that the tendency to place a dish on a pedestal risks alienating chefs from their creation in the first place.
"Cooking is a dynamic process. Every new muscle memory — even if you have cooked for a lifetime — every variation over the years contributes to how it is being presented now," he says. "Designating a dish as the ‘signature dish’ implies that the restaurant or I have arrived. There is no more capacity to expand," he candidly shares. In essence, it is all about an exercise of being better than our previous selves daily.
“Dishes are not static. The creation of dishes is a constant dance with stages of arrival and departure; of learning and unlearning.”
According to Teoh, restaurants are collaborative, social environments that are highly stimulating.
"When you walk into a restaurant, the environment reflects the personalities and intelligence of the people who prepare and serve the guests. That's how restaurants work: it starts with an idea. We work on the recipe as a team, and it's passed on to the chef de cuisine, who sources the ingredients and cooks the dish. Over time, we work together on training and refining a dish. As a result, speaking about a single dish on a linear timeline, without the context of a lifetime of experiences, is impossible," he explains.
(Photo: MICHELIN Guide)
“A dish is the culmination of years of experience and the contributions of many minds and hands.”
The Process of Creating a Dish
Dewakan's discipline of investigation and curiosity allows its chefs to look at ingredients and imagine them in different dimensions. Teoh and his brigade of chefs orchestrated dishes with a rich imagination that inspired confidence in the combination of ingredients. Here, Teoh describes the process of creating one of Dewakan's popular dishes comprising charcoal-grilled mussels, a sauce made with fermented tapioca, cooked Saba bananas, dried gooseberries, and cured egg yolks.
"Because I spend my life tasting things, flavour profiles come naturally. Over time, I built a compendium of flavours that came to me instinctively. Much of it is intuition, which is not based on natural reflections that are ingrained in one's psyche. This intuition is built upon compounded experiences, practice and accumulated skills over time, giving me the natural propensity to create the combination instinctively," he says.
"We've been incorporating Saba bananas into other dishes and preparation methods. We received a shipment of mussels from Penang one day. The mussels' clarity was astounding. I could almost taste the sea. We were determined to include it on our menu," he explains.
Teoh and his team experimented with various cooking methods, from steaming to pickling. "The opposition was to serve it as is because it was already perfect! But that would have been taking the easy way out. We want to present the mussels through the lens of Dewakan, which means to explore the ingredients' full potential, pushing them to a limit." Teoh then tried making a sauce out of tapai ubi (fermented tapioca) and built the dish from there.
"When we paired the mussels with the tapai ubi, we felt it needed texture and acidity, so we decided to add Saba bananas and lift the dish with dried gooseberries and cured egg yolks. "The dish gradually comes to life to where it is now," he explains.
Going Against the Grain
Teoh charts his course from the get-go. "If we are persistent, we can affect change," he says. His focus has always been to develop a respectful connection with the indigenous ingredients of Malaysia, to honour the local communities that connect his guests to the motherland, and to have the freedom to express his values through food.
Within the industry, Teoh is an authoritative figurehead for this generation of chefs, paving the way for many to be courageous in producing new flavour profiles, pushing boundaries, and showcasing Malaysia's abundant produce on both regional and international levels.
One of the two restaurants in Kuala Lumpur recognised with a MICHELIN Star in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang in 2023, Dewakan is a play of the Malay words “dewa” (god) and “makan” (eating). The restaurant celebrates the bounty from Malaysia's vast lands and seas. Over the years, Dewakan has taken diners far beyond locally farmed vegetables and into the depths of the forests and wilds, showcasing ingredients like kulim (forest garlic), tapai ubi (fermented tapioca), ketumpang air (crab claw herb), and many more.
“Food is a first-hand, visceral experience.”
Teoh's values for cooking include curiosity, the courage to challenge the status quo, and authenticity.
"Authenticity refers to doing things earnestly and with sincerity," he explains. The menu at Dewakan expresses Teoh's values, and this sense of purpose sets the stage for the restaurant to present inventive dishes. There is no precedent for Dewakan's creations, and diners can rarely identify the unique flavour combination elsewhere. This apparent unfamiliarity only stimulates the senses, challenges the diners' thoughts, awakens new taste profiles, and weaves new memories for them.
All images are from Dewakan.
Dewakan is located at 48F, Skyviews, Naza Tower, Platinum Park, 10 Persiaran KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, 50088, Malaysia. Book a table here.