In the end, after building up to a feverish pitch, the inaugural edition of the Michelin Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang delivered a bonanza of revelation, not just in the stars – of which there were four awarded – but also in how this game-changing move to introduce Michelin into Malaysia would forever change the landscape of the country’s culinary scene.
In this very first coming of the Michelin Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang 2023, a total of 97 restaurants were named, in categories ranging from Michelin Selected (34 in Kuala Lumpur, 27 in Penang), Bib Gourmand (15 in Kuala Lumpur, 17 in Penang) and the coveted Stars (2 each for Penang and Kuala Lumpur). Four restaurants were conferred one Michelin Star; Dewakan – presenting modern Malaysian dishes through local and indigenous produce, DC by Darren Chin for French classics with seasonal local produce and regional seafood, Au Jardin for its European fare with subtle local twists and probably the biggest surprise of the night: Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, serving Peranakan cuisine based off secret legacy recipes and quality produce.
When met the morning after the momentous occasion, Gwendal Poullennec, the International Director of the Michelin Guides reflected on a journey that was more than a year in the making. “The initial challenge is really the field work to shortlist, identify and research the city; some of the best places remain unknown because the marketing does not always reflect the quality,” he says. “It’s in the interest of the inspectors – and the value of the guide – to say, ‘don’t go to this popular place, but look at the back street because there is a hidden place that is worth a try.’”
Poullennec, who joined the Michelin group in 2003, recalls how he was involve in the project when they started in Japan. “In a city like Tokyo – just an evaluation revealed approximately 17,000 outlets with no official listing, where the best places are quite exclusive and private at the same time, and there is nothing online and not even a sign on the ground.”
This is why the methodology had always been in working with a team of inspectors; F&B professionals with decades-long work experience who are employed full time by Michelin to be independent, anonymous and exhibiting an incredible passion in food. In many cases, consistency – one of five key rating criterions – necessitates repeat visits by different inspectors so that every selection is a team decision.
At the Michelin Star Revelation 2023 event, which took place at the Grand Ballroom of the Berjaya Times Square Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, there was a palpable sense of emotion among the many recipients of the Bib Gourmand and Michelin Star awardees. For some, it was the near collapse of their business during the pandemic to winning a commendation by the Michelin Guide which was scarcely believable. For others it was the unexpected but very welcome fruition of three decades long, or in the case of Bib Gourmand Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Kuih – three generations of cooking which was absolutely cathartic.
For Chef Darren Teoh, whose Dewakan restaurant was among the four one Michelin-rated restaurant, the award doesn’t change the fact that he and his team have to continue to innovate and build on their restaurant. In the case of Darren Chin of DC Restaurant, the award signified a great platform and offers confidence for local, young chefs – to spread their wings and ascend greater heights. Su Kim Hock, of the one Michelin Au Jardin in Penang, notes that the result justified the efforts of his entire team, including that of Lim Yan You, 32, his chef de cuisine who was the sole recipient of the Michelin Young Chef award.
Probably the biggest story of the night, was the one star conferred to Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, which specialises in Peranakan food, one of the more esoteric cooking styles and the result of the blossoming Straits Chinese culture from the turn of the last century. For Beh Gaik Lean, the chef behind the establishment, she paid tribute to the late Datuk Lim Bian Yam from whom she learnt her recipes, excitedly stating that at her current age of 69, she never expected the honour of earning a star for her eponymous restaurant. Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery now joins Candlenut in Singapore as the only other Michelin-starred restaurants for Peranakan cuisine, while on the Bib Gourmand level – characterised by the affordability of food (approximately US$25 per person or under) – Malaysia boasts three outlets – the same as Singapore – for this type of cooking.
Most intriguingly, despite plenty of speculation on the identities of the possible winners, the guests of the night and all those watching on the streamed awards ceremony had to resort to Google to look up some of the winning outlets. “Our philosophy is to leave no stone unturned,” states Poullennec . “We have to be humble to embrace the destination as a whole – to refine the scope of our fieldwork and to do our best to ensure that all the places that are maybe worth it has been considered – and we do this in an ecosystem that is not structured, an industry which consists of many independently run businesses where the more popular options may not be the best in quality.”
Poullennec points out that even in Abu Dhabi, where the Michelin Guide had previously announced its results, the relatively modest-sized city teeming with food critics surprised the public with its announcement of outlets which some had never heard of. “Ultimately, we serve the public, I don’t think you can find one person who knows all the places – but the guide is for the people – we don’t rely on the industry and to make it happy, and this is absolutely the key to how we have been doing for over a century.”
For Poullennec, the Michelin Guide is here to stay in Malaysia. “We want to be here forever, and play a role in structuring the industry,” he says. “We have seen how with the Michelin Guide, the entire gastronomic system is positively impacted; starting with supply chain of quality product, local people becoming real gourmands, and influx of international brands and investment, and the awareness of the restaurant industry as a whole, which inevitably adds and elevates the existing dynamic of discerning restaurants and diners,” he says, adding, “the point is, you have the restaurants that the people deserve.”