City on a Plate: Interview with Dewakan’s Darren Teoh

Published by Culture Trip on April 20, 2020. Click here for original.

Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells and sensations that drive their approach to food. Darren Teoh, head chef at the first Malaysian restaurant to appear on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, shows us the remarkable diversity of Kuala Lumpur.

Chefs chopping methodically. Pots clanging and banging. White smocks blurred in flux. Stepping into Dewakan, it’s easy to think you’ve come in through the wrong door. Instead of a stylish bar or reception area, diners are greeted by the commotion of a busy kitchen – it’s jarring, but very much intentional. “We want guests to remember that there are people cooking their food,” says head chef Darren Teoh.

While undoubtedly unusual, to Teoh there’s nothing strange about his restaurant’s entrance. As he was growing up in his grandmother’s house, the kitchen was the centre of the family – a place for talking and relaxing, as well as cooking. As such, it’s a space he’s always felt comfortable in; somewhere his presence feels natural. For him, “life surrounded the kitchen” – a feeling he wanted to recreate at Dewakan.

Dewakan’s entrance, just like its food, takes an unorthodox approach to haute cuisine. It’s experimental, with a focus on fine produce, something Teoh gained an appreciation for in Singapore while working for the award-winning Les Amis Group. Upon returning to Malaysia around 2010, Teoh turned his gaze to molecular cooking during a teaching stint at KDU University College. The two would culminate in Dewakan, with Teoh and the university collaborating to open the restaurant in 2015. Finally ready to steer his own ship, Teoh looked to home for inspiration.

The menu at Dewakan is laden with obscure ingredients, sourced from Malaysia’s verdant hinterland, tropical forests and rich seas. Jungle nuts and fruits, such as kulim and nam nam, are used to craft delicate desserts; shards of compressed pumpkin garnish goat tartare; king prawns are served with kerdas (a type of wild seed) and banana blossoms. Green ceramic urns, each filled with yet more produce – fermented banana, coconut milk, soybeans – line the kitchen shelves. Leftovers, transformed by the fermentation process, are used anew in different recipes; it’s this curiosity that has led Dewakan to the top of Malaysia’s fine-dining scene. Culture Trip spoke to Teoh about Kuala Lumpur, cultural fusion and the simple nuances that make a city special.

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