Duck has held a special place in the heart of Kim Hock Su, chef-patron of one-MICHELIN-Starred restaurant Au Jardin in Penang, since childhood.
"Duck is a protein I've enjoyed eating growing up, regardless of the cooking style. My mother is of Peranakan descent and is an excellent cook. Family dinners will always have kiam chye soup (pickled mustard duck soup) on every special occasion and celebration. Another favourite dish I ate growing up is Teochew duck with preserved vegetables and congee," Su recalls fondly.
According to Su, his signature dish of Cognac & Hay Aged Duck at Au Jardin is a delicate balancing act that tests the chef's skills. The duck needs to be moist and sensuous to the tongue, with crisp skin and intense flavours that do not leave an unsettling gamey aftertaste. Painstakingly detailed cooking methods, care, and patience are required to achieve the desired result.
Su says, "Au Jardin is a showcase of the freshest locally sourced ingredients, anchored by my French culinary training and Asian heritage, an accumulation of working experiences in the UK and Taiwan, and inspired by my travels over the years. The menu format for our main courses always comprises a swimmer, a two-legged protein, and a four-legged protein. The duck was the obvious choice for the two-legged one. Diners usually perceive duck as slightly more expensive, although it is as accessible as chicken [here in Penang]."
Preparing the Duck
Su's respect for local produce is showcased through texture and taste; and it is a masterful combination of grand presentation with a lasting impression. The latter is determined by the duck's caring and farming methods.
"The first version of this dish, introduced prior to the pandemic, was only on the menu for about a month. The texture was right, but the flavour of the duck lacked depth due to how the ducks were farmed. Farms in Malaysia will only grow a duck for 90 days because a duck will not grow in size after that period, and the meat will get tougher. However, we want the duck to age longer to showcase its more mature flavours." Eventually, the restaurant found a local duck farmer in Butterworth, also in Penang and a stone’s throw away from Au Jardin, that fits their criteria.
During the pandemic, Su and his team continued to develop this dish as time was on their side. "We experimented with the varying ageing processes and different combinations of ingredients to develop the flavour. After endless rounds of trial and error, we found a way to develop the desired depth of flavour." However, Su is not resting on his laurels. "Up until now, we are still continuously perfecting it," he adds.
Au Jardin's goal is to develop a Cognac & Hay Aged Duck that presents itself in the best possible manner at its peak. “For us, the perfect duck should be nicely flavoured and has a slightly gamey taste. The meat should also be moist and tender, with perfectly crispy skin.” Su explains.
The complexity of this dish lies in the various techniques applied. “The first step starts with butchering the duck and separating the skin from its flesh. We then brine the whole duck and stuff the cavity with hay and spices. After that, we seal the cavity and hang it for at least two weeks in a controlled environment to dry the skin and deepen the flavour. During these two weeks, we lacquer the duck with cognac every other day to enhance its taste. We will poke the skin of the duck as evenly as possible before roasting to ensure that the fat renders evenly."
Au Jardin's Cognac & Hay Aged Duck is currently paired with beet gel, pickled beets, pomme purée, and yuzu split jus. "Malaysia is hot all year round, so we try to introduce pickles or vinegar-based ingredients to cut down the richness," he explains. Previous accompaniments include pickled watermelon rind, orange segments, and soy sauce jus gras.
“During the height of the 2021 pandemic lockdowns, farmers could not source ducks, so we had to take the Cognac & Hay Aged Duck off our menu. What drove us to make it a mainstay was when we were given a bad review in a social media platform because it was unavailable!”
A Crowd Favourite
Su's goal was to create a show-stopping dish that his guests would be excited to talk about, extending the experience to the next day. "We take pride in this dish. Nothing is wasted — from the head and bones, to the legs. There's also a theatrical act of a smoke box presentation, and guests love the engagement. They also receive a crafted box of duck legs for the next day's dining pleasure, with accompanying condiments."
Coming in Full Circle
Su never set out to become a chef. "I could cook, but I did not find any interest in cooking until high school," he recalls.
Su attributes his pathway to becoming a chef by being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. "When I was finishing my tertiary education in the UK, I found myself cooking in a brasserie. The chef-owner referred me to work for his protégé, who was aiming for a MICHELIN Star. I moved to Wiswell, a small village in Lancashire, to work for him. There and then, I was determined to be part of the MICHELIN coverage."
Over the next decade, Su traversed from the UK to Taiwan, and then back to Malaysia. During his tenure, he staged in MICHELIN-Starred restaurants in the UK such as L'Enclume and The Clove Club. "The MICHELIN Guide Taipei was launched when I left the city in 2018. The decision was based on purely wanting to return home to Malaysia and launch a concept in Penang that reflected my culinary journeys. My decision also meant that I would be starting from scratch again without any accolades."
Even before news about the MICHELIN Guide launching in Malaysia came about, Su has always benchmarked his 18-seater to MICHELIN standards. "Every day, we strive to be better,” Su shares. "Earning a MICHELIN Star did not happen overnight. We must be doing something right from the start." Au Jardin is the first fine dining restaurant in Penang to receive a MICHELIN Star in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
The Malaysian diaspora is a known fact, with the pull factor being the promise of more attractive job prospects and lifestyle benefits in neighbouring countries — this is especially true in the hospitality industry.
“Our responsibility is to inspire the younger chefs to come back home. In gaining a MICHELIN Star, we set an example for the next generation — be good at what you do, and the recognition will come to you.”
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Au Jardin is located at The Warehouse@Hin Bus Depot, 125 Jalan Timah, George Town, 10150, Malaysia. Book a table here.
All images are from Au Jardin.