Last Friday (November 17, 2023), we had the opportunity to attend the Michelin Guide Ceremony Kuala Lumpur and Penang 2024.
There, we got firsthand scoops of every restaurant that received the much coveted Michelin Stars, Bib Gourmand, and Selected titles.
But aside from that, we also had a short press conference with six of the award winners. Namely:
- Yap Cze Ying, sommelier and restaurant manager at Hide KL who won Michelin’s Sommelier Award
- Johnson Wong Jia Liang, chef and owner of Gēn who won Michelin’s Young Chef Award
- Wan Mohd Zulkifeli (Zulkifeli) from Gai by Darren Chin, who won Michelin’s Service Award
- Ramesh Thangaraj, chef at Jwala, who won Michelin’s Operations of the Year Award
- Raymond Tham, founder and chef at Beta, the newest restaurant to earn one Michelin Star
- Darren Teoh, patron-chef of Dewakan, the first Malaysian restaurant to earn two Michelin Stars
During this, they shared six key pieces of advice for aspiring chefs who want to be globally recognised for their crafts.
1. Forget trends, passion should always come first
In this day and age, it’s quite easy to get swept away with the latest trends and fads. After all, there’s no denying that social media awards trends and fads with high coverages. Crowds flock to places that are the talk of the town, and those tend to feature quirky products or services.
This could make it tempting for you to take the easy route and just follow what’s popping off. But that’s not how you should be building your career.
Speaking frankly, Darren stated, “I think, and I speak for many of the chefs that have received awards and are on the stage, that we don’t cook for trends.”
“We try to form businesses that bring people joy, that bring people some sort of experience they might not get elsewhere.” Simply put, these chefs have a passion to do their best in mastering the craft and providing patrons with their best work.
The goal isn’t focused on coming up with “crazy” menu items and services that would catch the media’s attention. Instead, the unique offerings should come from a place of creative innovation.
And from there, trends happen. It’s not the other way around. Which is why paying attention to your culinary passions is more important than chasing trends.
2. Don’t get stuck on traditions, break them
Living in a country with such a rich cultural background, one concern you may have is how to balance tradition with innovation.
If you cross the line too much, you could potentially get backlash. But if you stay within the constraints of tradition, you risk losing out on opportunities to grow your skills.
To this, Darren explained, “We all have to understand that tradition is fluid.”
Tradition isn’t a set of things that define a period in time. Rather, it reflects the needs of the present and will continue to evolve and change with time.
He continued, “Tradition is always a result of innovation. So tradition was innovation 100 years ago, and you have innovation now that would be tradition in 15 to 20 years.”
With this in mind, you shouldn’t be too afraid to experiment and develop new culinary techniques, whether that be in the form of flavours, cooking methods, or presentation styles.
3. Focus on satisfying all customers, not just critics
As the founder and chef at Beta, Raymond shared that one thing he’d usually tell his team is that, “I would like all the guests that step into Beta to enjoy the meal rather than me chasing the [Michelin] Stars.”
Yes, he acknowledged that it’s an honour to earn recognition. But what’s more important to him is realising his dream of showcasing Malaysian cuisine in a different way.
So the effort that he pours into his culinary journey isn’t to gain awards and prizes. In this sense, he understands that it’s about serving the patrons a good experience, whether that’s in terms of the food or the service.
Because at the end of the day, customer satisfaction plays a large role in how successful your restaurant is. And when you have more happy customers, you’d feel more motivated to further improve your craft.
This isn’t to say that you should not be aiming for the Stars (pun intended). While having a goal of gaining culinary honours is wonderful, it should not be the only objective.
4. Really take your time to hone the craft well
Canadian journalist and public speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, once said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything.
Although that number might look intimidating, it’s actually just 417 days. If you take into account weekends, sleeping hours, and the occasional holiday, that’s roughly two years.
But that is only doable if you’re giving 100% of your time and efforts every day. And as humans, we all know that’s not really possible. Our energy levels fluctuate, our mood and motivations shift.
Sharing a similar sentiment, Darren said, “I think like every other job, you put your head down and learn your job, do it well. Whether it’s cooking, washing plates, serving wine, or greeting guests, you keep your head down and do it well.”
“Do it well long enough, one day you’ll realise that you’re good at your craft. And then things will happen for you.”
So it’s unrealistic to give yourself a short timeframe to be a master chef. Instead, you should focus on making the days count by doing your craft well whenever possible.
5. Persevere despite the challenges and doubters
In every phase of your life, there are bound to be tough times that test you. And this is even more prominent in your career, whether that’s as a chef, sommelier, or front-of-house member.
But what matters is that you don’t give up. As Billy Ocean once sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Each of the six individuals who were part of the conference panel would not have gotten there without persevering against the odds.
Raymond even shared his personal tale to drive the point further. When he was younger and voiced his thoughts on being a chef, his mum said no as it’s not a profession. “It’s hard work. You’ll want to consider something else,” he recalled her saying.
However, once he completed a degree in the UK for another field, he returned to the culinary world again. Still, it wasn’t an easy journey. He openly confided that during his training days, there were times when he’d call home and cry on the phone to his mum. Yet, he persevered.
“In Cantonese, there’s a saying, ‘when you ride on a horse and your horse dies, then you just come down and walk’,” he said. It essentially means that you should persist on your quest come what may.
6. Build a good team that can achieve success together
You’ve probably heard this a million times but it’s undeniable that most things in life require teamwork. Sure, you can be a wonderful solo talent in the culinary world and that’s a good goal to have.
That said, in most cases, the scale of your success will not be as great as that of a team.
And it’s simply because everyone has limits to their capabilities. If you’re focused on being the best at one thing, chances are you don’t have the time to be the best at everything.
This is something that Johnson strongly believes, as he humbly credits his team at Gēn for him winning Michelin’s Young Chef Award.
“The cuisine we do is really… we don’t have a reference. [So] it’s never about myself,” he said. “Different team members create different stuff.” In other words, without his team, Gēn would not be what it is today.
Similarly, Zulkifeli explained that in his front-of-house line, it’s all about teamwork. “[When] we talk about mass service, it needs a good team and good direction. It’s impossible for you to achieve this as a single, one-man show.”
- Read articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post