KUALA LUMPUR, April 23 — The menu at Shu KL, a restaurant exploring the Chinese "diaspora journey”, might be a masterclass in understatement.

Take the first item: Listed simply as "Snacks”, this trio of amuse-bouche includes a five-spice pancake, fermented black bean emulsion, and wagyu; a crispy mochi paired with saba pickled in Zhejiang black vinegar; and a boule of jasmine rice bread, served alongside the house signature Laoganma butter, topped with a pork floss crumble.

Bite-sized, certainly, but not diminutive by any means, be it flavour or creativity.

Shu is spearheaded by chef-owner Wong Chin Hua, more familiarly known by staff and regulars as Chef Chin Wong. The 37-year-old first began his culinary career staging and working at restaurants such as Long Chim in Singapore and Upstairs at Mikkeler in Bangkok.


Wong later helped Chef Riley Sanders to launch Canvas in Bangkok, followed by a stint at Ensue by Christopher Kostow in Shenzhen. Prior to opening Shu, he had headed the kitchens at Six Senses Singapore and Tree Tops, Anantara Lawana in Koh Samui.

Yet the Singaporean-born Malaysian was far from a culinary wunderkind. He shares, "I was a finance student, but dropped out to pursue muay thai in Thailand. Injuries took their toll, and that’s when I pursued my other passion, the kitchen.”

Inspired by The French Laundry Cookbook, Wong went on to stage — i.e. working as an unpaid intern to train under accomplished chefs — at Nahm, when it was still run by Chef David Thompson and Chef Prin Polsuk.


Chef Chin Wong (left). Teochew Braised Duck being plated (right).
Chef Chin Wong (left). Teochew Braised Duck being plated (right).

Wong recalls, "It was a paradigm shift. There was no mirepoix used in any of the stocks? Instead chicken skin was added to a fish stock to enrich it for a curry, Kanom Jeen Nahm Ya Gai.”

The then novice cook learned to reconsider Asian ingredients; how our food and culture were a form of heritage to treasure and champion.

"What was this hairy eggplant? What was this shampoo ginger? These were available in our backyard? This was about 11 years ago, before local terroir was all the rage, and my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that all these ingredients were available yet so unknown,” he says.

That sense of flying below the radar might well extend to Wong’s new restaurant, which has a discreet location on the eighth floor of Menara IMC in the KL city centre.

Design wise, the ambience at Shu is elegant with warm lighting and wood accents. Were the doors and doorways a nod to the different paths we take in life?

Isn’t that part and parcel of the diaspora journey, though? One group travels West, another East, and new cultures are formed.

Doors and doorways at the restaurant reflect the different paths we take in life.
Doors and doorways at the restaurant reflect the different paths we take in life.

Take the aforementioned jasmine rice bread. Wong explains that at first he felt that it didn’t make sense to serve bread in a restaurant that leans towards Chinese cuisine.

He adds, "For most of us growing up in Southeast Asia, rice was our staple. To bridge both, we fermented jasmine rice and used it as the foundation of our bread.”

This might seem a lot of work, and indeed it is. F&B is a tough industry, and fine dining is probably the most demanding segment. Many cooks get burned out along the way.

Wong was no exception. When he shared that he had an interlude of two years between Nahm and Upstairs at Mikkeller, I knew he had a more personal story to tell.

He recalls, "I went to Upstairs a bit of a broken cook to be honest. I had the passion trampled out of me, and was on the verge of quitting the industry.”

It was a bit of a gamble at the time, what he describes as "a last attempt to try to salvage my career.” The only thing Wong knew about Upstairs at Mikkeller was that it was headed by Korean chef Dan Bark, previously a sous chef at the famed 3-Michelin starred Grace in Chicago.

The weather, inclement as it was, turned out to be in Wong’s favour. He explains, "I walked there in the pouring rain, whilst suffering from food poisoning. It was why Chef Dan took me in. In his words ‘You looked like you were about to die. You must really have wanted to be here.’”

This proved to be a turning point in Wong’s career.

Knife prep work.
Knife prep work.

He says, "Chef Dan saved me. There’s no other way I could describe the influence he had on me. He taught me discipline, he taught me cleanliness, he taught me to have a sense of urgency. I still hear his voice in my head sometimes telling me to ‘work with purpose’.”

This renewed sense of purpose can be seen in mundane acts such as how Wong would come in early to prepare his knives, sharpening each individual blade, to the deep research he does in order to develop recipes that are seasoned as much by story as they are by flavour.

Another mentor was Chef Riley Sanders at the 1 Michelin-starred Canvas in Bangkok.

Wong shares, "Chef Riley was the single biggest influence in my career. At Canvas, he gave me room to fail. I could request any ingredient for R&D. He would also constantly put me in difficult situations to see how I’d react.”

Such trials included asking for two different 9-course vegan tasting menus half an hour before service began, or switching him to pastry duty without being allowed to look at the recipes.

"Chef Riley did this as we were chasing our first star, and he put his name, his reputation, behind me. I owe that man a lot. He gave me every single opportunity a cook could have asked for. We still talk every other week to this day.”

Once Wong earned his wings, opening his own restaurant seemed the next logical step. Yet it wasn’t till he moved to Shenzhen as part of the opening team at Ensue that he noticed how Teochew food in China was vastly different from what he ate growing up in Singapore.

He says, "The dish that sparked this thought was really a braised duck platter. I’m half Teochew, but why did the flavours in China taste so different from those in Singapore or Malaysia or from pbet parlow in Thailand?”

The question that haunted Wong was how a single dish could change so much when people moved. He says, "Why were the Chinese cuisines of each South-east Asian nation so different when the terroir wasn’t that dissimilar? Shu is our attempt to find out.”

'Sarawak' (left) and 'Caramelised Soymilk' (right).
'Sarawak' (left) and 'Caramelised Soymilk' (right).

Currently Shu is showcasing their Homecoming Menu, with courses that include "Sarawak” (Wong’s rendition of umai, akin to a Sarawakian ceviche, using dry aged pomfret and daun kaduk oil) and "Caramelised Soymilk” (umami-rich soymilk cooked down with various aromatics, paired with seared celtuce and celtuce pickle).

Other standouts are Wong’s "Mustard Green Fish” (aged fish with a house fermented mustard green broth), and "6 Pepper Duck” (aged duck sourced from Bidor that is brined with six different peppercorns and served with tofu purée).

Which sounds scintillating but what diners don’t see is the amount of work that goes on behind the scene, in the kitchen. Mayao fish being seared, then portioned, then waiting to be plated. Duck breasts roasting slowly in the oven. Ingredients in various stages of brining or fermentation.

It’s a lot.

Fish being seared (left). Roasted duck breast (right).
Fish being seared (left). Roasted duck breast (right).

Unlike some restaurateurs who prefer to paint a pretty picture, Wong didn’t mince words about the struggles he faced.

He shares, "The restaurant’s operations were a disaster when we first started. I might have been the biggest challenge. I am a cook, and was sorely unprepared for starting a business.”

There were the usual obstacles of sourcing ingredients, staffing, negotiating leases, working with contractors, etc.

Wong says, "Luckily I have a very strong support system that was always there for me. I am quite proud of the team and how far we’ve come in six months — but we still have a long way to go.”

Part of the growth is improving dishes, transforming them with each iteration. Wong describes the original version of their Teochew braised duck, which is no longer on the menu, as the dish that first inspired everything.

Portioned 'mayao' waiting to be plated (left). Braised Duck Rice (right).
Portioned 'mayao' waiting to be plated (left). Braised Duck Rice (right).

Fast forward to their latest menu and braised duck makes an appearance again, this time as Braised Duck Rice with glutinous rice, pulled duck meat, and duck and mushroom broth.

Another inspiration: Diners often find their eyes ineluctably drawn to the feature wall where a large piece of calligraphy takes centrestage.

The character is 姝 (Shū) and typically refers to a beautiful woman in Mandarin. It is also the name of Wong’s Sarawakian mother.

He explains, "After all, she’s a member of the Chinese diaspora, who would try any recipe that she saw in books, and have me try them. She’s the reason why I’m as obsessed with cooking as I am.”

Such attention to detail is all part of the fine dining experience, one imagines, or ought to be. Wong knows this isn’t always the case, though he has dedicated himself to this high benchmark of professionalism.

The warm tones of the restaurant décor, and a calligraphy centrepiece.
The warm tones of the restaurant décor, and a calligraphy centrepiece.

"I once asked Chef Dan what it took to work at a Michelin 3 star. He took a few days to get back to me. He called me over as he was dicing a shallot. He told me ‘Everyday I come in, I try to cut this shallot a little better than I did yesterday. That’s what it takes to work at a 3 star.’ I’d like to think that I bring that mentality with me to work everyday now.”

Moving forward, Shu has a couple of collaborations lined up, including with a one Michelin-starred restaurant in Bangkok. Wong is also consulting with food historians and aims to serve "a menu built off of the cuisine of the region before mass migration happened.”

Dining at Shu is to experience the tales of diaspora come alive. And perhaps not always what you might expect; Wong teases, "What of a menu where we cook Italian food with Chinese ingredients or vice versa?”

Returning to the present, it is the conflation of Chinese and Japanese cuisines that demands our attention.

Drunken Prawn features 'akaebi' (Argentine red shrimp), Huadiao butter sauce, braised squid and 'ikura'.
Drunken Prawn features 'akaebi' (Argentine red shrimp), Huadiao butter sauce, braised squid and 'ikura'.

Shu’s Drunken Prawn features akaebi (Argentine red shrimp) brined overnight in Shaoxing wine and lovingly slathered with Huadiao butter sauce. Morsels of braised squid and ikura (salmon roe) complete the vision.

The dish tastes — and looks — divine, of course. But it is the journey we are brought on that is worth holding our breath, just for the nonce, until we can no longer resist and must savour the destination too.

Restaurant Shu KL

Open Tue-Sat 6-11pm; Sun & Mon closed

Level 8, Annexed Block, Menara IMC, 8 Jalan Sultan Ismail, KL

Phone: 011-2769 6838

Web: https://www.restaurantshu.com/

IG: https://www.instagram.com/restaurantshukl/