Initial’s Chef Koh Returns To His Hometown And Works His Magic On Fresh Local Produce

Chef Koh Chin Hong grew up in Yong Peng on a farm in Johor that included durian trees and pumpkin patches. But even as he relished the bounty of country life, his ambitions went beyond taking over his family farm and he soon found himself on a plane to Tokyo to begin his culinary journey. There, he honed his skills for four years, cooking in Michelin-starred establishments the likes of Joel Robuchon. New Zealand called to him next, and he swapped metropolis living for the fresh air and even fresher produce at the Huka Lodge, known as much for their celebrity approved luxury accommodation as they are for their top-notch restaurants. Then onward to the much fabled Noma, where Koh stayed for four months in Copenhagen before returning to the state of his birth.

In an unassuming row of shop houses in suburban Johor Bahru’s Taman Molek he opened Initial, where the minimalist décor with its emphasis on natural materials like timber and stone gives it a warm welcoming feel. The impetus for coming home came from Koh’s recollections of his earlier years. “I wanted a farm-to-table concept because I felt confident I could do them justice to the produce… having learned how to tease the best out of ingredients in those highly regarded kitchens,” says Koh. By cooking with local ingredients, Koh felt it allowed him to get reacquainted with Malaysian produce and flavours.


To this end, Initial’s seven-course tasting menu (RM198) is as much an exploration of the fresh produce—which Koh handpicks from markets and regional suppliers—as a discovery of how local flavour profiles may be best showcased by modern culinary techniques. As with all menus dedicated to utilising whatever is seasonal and freshest, Initial’s menu is not set in stone but this should not deter the curious diner to just surrender to an evening of culinary adventure.

To start, a duo of amuse bouche are presented featuring bites of homemade brioche with delicate slivers of walnut and edible flowers, and a glistening mouthful of walnut cream topped with tropical caviar. These concise bites set the tone for the visually appealing courses to follow—beginning with a dish comprises braised daikon and pumpkin finished tableside. As the poetically arranged root vegetable “petals” are gently submerged in translucent miso dashi broth, the ritual is as soothing to watch as it is to savour. The prawn course came next, with its avant-garde plating symbolising Koh’s aspirations of zero waste on a dish. “We use every part of the prawn, even the shell which is boiled, deep friend, baked and dehydrated to make it palatable. This is finished with the prawn head stuffed with a curry and dried shrimp filling,” Koh enthuses. 

The chef’s Japanese influences are especially apparent in the next course, a masterfully composed dish of an onsen “kampung” egg served with seasonal vegetables and dehydrated mushrooms with a genmaicha broth. It’s also easy to discern Koh’s Noma inspiration in the fish course which is presented with a smoked “bouquet” of herbs, edible flowers and pines picked by the chef. The recommended order is to take a whiff of the scented bouquet before tucking into the sea bass beneath it, finished with a dashi jus infused with pine oil. From smell, sight, touch and taste, this dish engages the senses and enhances the experience of this understated dish. Rounding off the mains is pork belly, a wobbly slab which had been cooked sous vide till mouth-meltingly tender, accompanied with a sauce made from slow-roasted pork bones.

A pair of desserts complete the meal with the standout being chef’s elegant take on tropical fruits combining passionfruit jelly, coconut mousse, lemon and mango sorbet with Italian meringue. Drizzled w sour local honey, the concoction is served in a beeswax bowl which Koh made himself. From making his own serving receptacles to putting together “bouquets”, Koh is passionately involved in every detail of the dining experience. His quest to put Johor on the fine dining map may be quixotic to many, but his motivation to make food that is true to his roots while crafting it with his substantial talent is surely worth the trip down south.

Initial Cuisine

Photography: Soo Phye

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