SHAH ALAM, July 19 — Just three months after its launch, Dewakan (which means food from the gods) has already left its mark on the dining scene in Malaysia. Serving modern Malaysian cuisine, it’s clear that this restaurant located in KDU University’s Shah Alam campus is in a league of its own.
The brainchild of Darren Teoh, a molecular gastronomy lecturer at KDU’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts, this restaurant was two years in the planning. Well-known in culinary circles, Teoh has an impressive background that includes staging (culinary apprenticeships) at restaurants like two Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen and the three Michelin star Restaurant Amador in Germany. Teoh first showcased an imaginative and progressive type of cooking coined as modern Malaysian cuisine in his 2010 book Re-definition: Molecular Cuisine: Traditional Recipes through a Modern Kaleidoscope.
“Most people would say if you take a very Malaysian dish, deconstruct and represent it, that’s modern Malaysian cuisine. I kind of disagree as that is a myopic facet of reconstructing or designing a cuisine,” he said.
He prefers to break the rules that anchors cuisine to tradition and culture. Instead, his approach is by looking at the ingredient “as is” and figuring the best way to cook it. “We focus more on produce and use what influences we have to incorporate it into our cuisine.”
The restaurant’s 10-course tasting menu demonstrates Darren’s approach to highlighting local produce, often overlooked by other restaurants who prefer imported ingredients. “I am here for people who are tired of Malaysian ingredients playing second fiddle,” explained Darren. The menu is a collection of Darren’s ideas curated to create a symphony of flavours. “It has to have a continuity from the first course until you leave the restaurant.”
When you dine at Dewakan, don’t be worried that the food will be too avant-garde and experimental for you to enjoy. You would find familiar items but used in different ways that never crossed your mind.
“The ingenuity of our menu is taking very accessible produce and reinventing how it is eaten.” For instance, the delicate yellow sawi flower often thrown in the wok together with the leaves for a quick stir-fry, adorns the roast mushrooms here, as rose apple is served as snow. Even herbs often found as ulam served at nasi campur stalls make an appearance in your meal.
Darren uses almost 70 per cent local produce in the menu since some items still need to be sourced overseas, like the lamb from Australia. All his seafood is sourced from fishermen in Pulau Ketam.
The delicate local herbs used extensively in the menu are plucked from the restaurant’s small garden or purchased. Assisting Darren in the kitchen is a committed team of his former students — Sarah Tan, Tristan Lim, Leng Yik Siang and Iliana Hashim.
“We’re a small team and everybody is putting in their best. These guys start early and end late. Everything is meticulous and done according to what I want. They put in a lot of work.”
Being a dynamic team with perfection on their minds, regular diners would have noticed that almost all of the dishes on the menu have gone through some kind of transformation, in terms of creativity and technicality, since Dewakan opened.
“Some dishes got different treatments as we found better ways to do them, nicer ways to plate them, better ingredients and better substitutes.” Usually, the team in the kitchen initiates the technical side since they spend most of the time with the ingredients, while Darren’s input is on how things would look conceptually.
For instance, the roast mushrooms dish now features a variety of herbs — white turmeric flower, ketumpang air, cashew leaf, sawi flower — each with a different flavour profile to accentuate the dish.
Previously, its highlight was just the green curry paste. “We realised it needed something more fresh and green in terms of flavour profile and the herbs came in.” Originally, the mushroom was roasted but now Darren has added another dimension by serving it two ways — roasted and raw.
Unlike other fine dining establishments located in the city centre, prices at Dewakan are kept incredibly affordable (currently the 10-course dinner is RM207), as it’s a business decision. “The pricing is to make things real for people and to get people to come out here.” The perfectionist in Darren still believes that it’s too soon to price an experience here any higher, as he feel Dewakan is still not up to the level of top flight restaurants outside Malaysia.
As diners in the Klang Valley tend to be rather fickle, jumping from a new trendy place to another, Darren does not want Dewakan to be like that. “If it escalates too fast, it’s just based on a trend then it becomes a fad and that is something I don’t want to do.”
Often asked if the menu will be changed constantly, Darren is quick to point out that constantly being in the flux is not necessarily good. “Most Malaysians just don’t get that the kway teow noodles seller got to 50 years, just by making that bowl of kway teow noodles, the same way every day.”
Another example he cites is French chef Paul Bocuse, renowned for his high quality of his restaurants where the menu of his restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges has not changed in 35 years! “If you really enjoy the food, you will come back because it’s good cooking as there’s been thought put into it.”
He prefers to maintain the 10-course menu as it is and not change it every week as a lot of thought was put into it. “To be very honest, I am not good enough to change my menu every week and I would like to have a certain quality that comes with my menu.” Nevertheless, the team is incredibly dynamic all the time and Darren cites that it’s part of their DNA to just push out and produce things all the time, including a new menu to be revealed in a few months’ time.
Darren also recognises an important point — great food needs great service to be a success with diners. “For me the pressure is what goes on to the plate and the customer experience.” For each service, he makes it a point to visit each table at the end of the meal to listen to the customer’s feedback. So far, feedback has been good and despite being a three-month old restaurant, they have a small following with regulars coming in around 5-6 times.
He also understands that diners do not want to wait too long even though it’s supposed to be 10-course fine dining meal. “I put myself in their chair and I don’t want to sit and wait so long, as I know Asians like to eat their food fast fast.” With a strategy to win one table at a time, Darren just wants all the guests at Dewakan to be happy. “We don’t spend any money on advertising. It’s not because we’re cheap but I rather spend the money here and make everybody extremely happy.”
Most importantly, Dewakan goes beyond just being a place to eat. “It has to be about people thinking about what to put in their mouths and kind of challenging status quo.” Darren also envisions Dewakan to be an international destination that attracts culinary talents, as it showcases how successful a restaurant can be when the emphasis is good local ingredients.
He also hopes to make a difference to the current supply chain of ingredients. “It’s like fashion... you look at haute couture, they will make a funky new design and there’s a trickle down effect, as it makes it to Sears or Tesco. It’s the same thing for our cuisine. At some point, if there are enough people creating a market, it will trickle down.”
That effect pushes the importance of freshness where buyers opt for freshly caught mackerel fish versus imported salmon. It also mean, people start questioning some startling facts, as explained by Darren, like how carrots at wholesalers such as NSK can be sold at below RM1 per kilogram, when agriculture uses the most expensive piece of real estate.
“There has to be something wrong with what we are eating and that decision is made by the people. Restaurants that have a focus on produce in the country will create an environment in a long run where people would say, I need to choose differently.”
Lower Ground Floor, KDU University College, Utropolis Glenmarie, Jalan Kontraktor U1/14, Seksyen U1, Shah Alam
Open: 12pm to 2.30pm (Mondays to Fridays), 7pm to 9pm (Thursdays to Saturdays). For Raya, the restaurant is closed up to July 21.