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Malaysia Chic | December 2008

The Edge | Opinion | 27th Feb 2006

Harper's Bazaar | August 2006

TRENDS Magazine | September 2006

New Asia Bars + Restaurants | design book | coming soon

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Metro | M40 Food | 11th August 2006

Corporate Journey Magazine | September 2006

Le Prestige | June 2006

Star | September 23rd 2006









The Edge | Opinions , Kuala Lumpur


February 27th 2006

Text : Cheryl Lambrose

Image right | Kenny Yap | The Edge



Michele and Chef Stroobant are on the road to transforming the Malaysian dining experience


Photos copyright sevenatenine | untold

G L O B A L    C U I S I N E   

Concept plus ingredients equals a marriage of new flavors

Snob appeal, once limited to designer handbags, well-aged wines and the best plastic surgeon, has crept into the most basic of human needs - food - and is quickly transforming the way we perceive the experience of dining out. And it's all thanks, or no thanks, to celebrity chefs.

Yes, those guys who rush around chopping, blanching and stir-frying in front of a camera crew, produce cookbook after cookbook and open up restaurants with reservations stretching a few months ahead. They've taken London, New York, Sydney and Singapore by storm but the question is, can they satiate a true Malaysian's appetite?

Keeping up with the fine dining scene isn't as difficult as it once was, regardless of which major city you live in. These days, all it takes to discover the hottest new restaurant is to find out who's in charge of the kitchen. Chances are the chef has numerous coffee table books on a bestseller list, makes weekly appearances on the Discovery Travel & Living channel and divides his time between consulting for restaurants and running his own.

Unlike all those cities, however, KL hasn't quite picked up on this celebrity chef thing and it's pretty obvious why. Food is our passion. Where else in the world would you find scores of people tucking into a plate of char kuey teow [or any other dish for that matter] while standing by a roadside stall, oblivious to the fact that eating is supposed to be done sitting down?

But is this all beginning to change? Australian celebrity chef Cheong Liew Who developed the menu for the Grange in Adelaide's Hilton also created the menu for Hilton KL's Senses. The relative newcomer to Bangsar Baru's inconsistent tenants, Chutney Mary, consulted one of India's "most celebrated gastronomic ambassadors", Jiggs Kaira [who also consulted to the renowned London restaurant of the same name] for its offerings.

Early this month, the couple behind the massively successful restaurant and bar, Souled Out in Desa Seri Hartamas, Fred Choo and Michele Kwok, flung open the doors of the old Nine Ascott - renamed sevenatenine after a RM 3 million makeover that includes custom designed furniture - boasting a menu designed by Singapore's acclaimed Emmanuel Stroobant.


On a Tuesday evening three weeks into sevenatenine's existence, way too early for happy hours and much too late for lunch, the large white sofas in an open air section of the restaurant under a canopy of trees, were completely occupied. Head count stood at about 50 pax. The crowd continued to grow as the evening progressed. By seven, the ice bar, made of bleached wood and textured glass resembling blocks of ice-cubes, had a sizable number of patrons and a private function was in progress one level up. By 10, all the reflexology chairs [chairs that adapt to your body contour] were taken. The place was jam-packed.

Chef Anthony Bourdain calls the cult of the celebrity chef and cooking 'the new porn". Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey hates the term but claims that more people can identify with these chefs, the more they want to go to their places, buy their books, have some kind of contact with them. Yet no one recognized Stroobant as he strode between the kitchen, the bar and the function area that night.

"The restaurant's concept is a resort in the city," he says of sevenatenine's soothing ambience "and yet very modern. The food had to follow the concept. I can't do a robust charbroiled steak. The menu has to be simple, Simple but creative".

The concept of a celebrity chef might appeal to parts of the world where being seen is more important that what you actually eat, but serve Malaysian's food and don't live up to our fussy taste buds and no amount of clout or status can keep an outlet in the black.

It's all in the food and that is a concept that Stroobant can easily live with.

'I hate the term celebrity chef," he says, as do most of them. "I'm just a chef. I still cook and I still cut myself." And yet, once word gets out that a name runs the kitchen at sevenatenine, that he personally created 90% of the menu and that he was awarded Best Expatriate Executive Chef by World Asia Media, Malaysia in 1999 and Chef of the Year 2002, at the World Gourmet Summit, Awards of Excellence 2002, things might slowly begin to change.

Stroobant, who spent his formative years at various Michelin star establishments in Belgium, built a solid foundation in understanding classical French cuisine, leading him being named Best Apprentice Chef in 1987 and 1988 in the country. The Belgian, however, continues to resist the lights and glamour, preferring instead to spend his time creating works of art on ceramic platters.

As just one example, instead of serving escargots in the usual sludge of garlic and cheese sauce, Stroobant kept the appetizer light by placing three snails sans shell on three pieces of shitake mushroom, finishing with a sliver of deep-fried garlic. The flavor was subtle and the outcome was brilliant. Unexpected yet satisfying.

The same, however, could not be said for all the dishes the Opinion team had tried the night before. The biggest gripe came from the quality of the meats rather than the flavors [although that was questioned on occasion]. The night we dined there, however, Stroobant, who divides his time between his award-winning restaurants in Singapore, Saint Pierre and San Marco, and now sevenatenin9 in KL, wasn't present. The quality of food increased significantly the night he was in charge. So, there might be something to be said for this celebrity chef thing.

Despite a complete meal of starters, mains and dessert, though, we still couldn't find one word to describe the type of meal we had. So, we asked Stroobant to define it for us. The peroxide blonde was equally stumped. It's not fusion, that's for sure.

"Fusion is a bad word. Don't call it that," Okay, so how do you describe food that isn't bound be geographic location? Is this the new Malaysian cuisine?

In a sense, it is global cuisine Just as the lines between cultures are quickly blurring, it's becoming increasingly difficult to define food.

"people now travel from London to Bangkok to see the modern [interiors] there. It used to be the other way around. There's a huge Asian influence in Europe now; everything fashionable comes from here," he explains.

Anything Asian and therefore Asian inspired, is the true trend.

"Everything starts with ingredients," Stroobant says, explaining that that is the basis of the menu he created for sevenatnine. A few days spent at the local markets to discover what was readily available followed by numerous experiments and much sampling later, the succinct menu was developed, tailored to suit local tastes. Mains include the basic meats and seafood, pastas and local fare but all done with a fresh, unexpected twist. That twist, he says stems mainly from the use of local ingredients.

But while Europe is just beginning to appreciate the finer nuances of Asian ingredients, Asia is caught in the tangle that global cuisine has created. We know what to do with our ingredients. The question is how do you teach Asians to appreciate the very ingredients they've grown up without our preconceived notions getting in the way?

Our own preconceived notions were put to the test when we ordered the cremé brulee, which was flavored with kaffir lime leaves. On paper, it sounded fine. But after one bit, all we could think of was tom yam. Stroobant looks shocked when I mention this and then nods in agreement. "I never thought of that." Only an Asian having grown up on such herbs could possibly make that association.

Unlike some chefs who cannot and will not tolerate criticism, he takes the trouble to understand each complaint. Which is why he finds it easier to work with Australian chefs rather than French chefs, he says. Stroobant continues that he once ordered a Chinese dessert that had a herb typically used in savory dishes in the West. He didn't enjoy that dessert one bit. Clearly, he understands the dilemma.

"I think I understand Asian food but I haven't grown up on nasi lemak or curry laksa. So I won't touch it," he continues. He won't cook it, is what he means.

Click image above for larger view.

The Petronas Twin Towers are a sparkling backdrop to a night out at the alfresco mezzanine at sevenatenine.

"Twenty-years ago when I was doing my training, I saw ginger for the first time. The chef then told me that it tasted like soap," he says. Needless to say, he stayed away from ginger and other such ingredients for a long time. Ironic then that Stroobant has found his calling in attempting to find that perfect balance between East and West, experimenting with Asian ingredients using typical French-cooking styles. "Now I don't think I could go through a meal without chilli and ginger."

The Asian influence might be affecting the rest of the world, but in Asia the trend is to carefully marry our Asian ingredients and tastes with traditional Western dishes by using common sense an not to perpetrate the short-lived fusion movement.

While the Western world is just beginning to appreciate the finer nuances of Asian ingredients, we who have grown up on them have to slowly shed our prejudices towards the new ways they are being used. That is the challenge. Any restaurant that can successfully enhance its Western dishes with just the right touch of Asian influence will do far better than one that insists on experimenting for the sake of creating something new and not necessarily edible.

So, what you gonna do with the cremé brulee, I ask hours later as chef walks pass the bar.

"Lime zest," he says between gritted teeth. Well, it's still Asian.



The Ascott Kuala Lumpur

9 Jalan Pinang, KL

noon till 1:am Mon-Sat | closed Sundays

Reservations : 603 | 2161 | 7789

Office : 603 | 2162 | 7789

Fax : 603 | 2163 | 7789