The Business Times
LUNAR NEW YEAR: Special Feature

Connecting through food and relationships

Published Fri, Jan 29, 2021 · 05:50 AM
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IN A TUMULTUOUS WORLD where change is the only constant, the one thing that keeps Darren Teoh firmly rooted to the ground is connections. That is, connecting with people and the environment, building genuine relationships that go beyond the transactional; and following basic human values of honesty, integrity and sincerity.

Not that he's gunning for sainthood or mouthing platitudes. But it's something close to the heart of the chef-owner of hot Malaysian restaurant Dewakan in Kuala Lumpur, which has won accolades for its locavore-centric cuisine.

REUNION MEMORIES

Family connections, for one, rank highly for chef Teoh who grew up in a loving Chinese-Indian home that saw him enjoying the best of both cultures, especially when it came to food. He remembers growing up with Chinese New Year reunion dinners at his paternal grandparents' home in Subang Jaya, and having a field day exploring the garden where "ants' nests in the rambutan tree or a sunbathing lizard were part of the allure of visiting that house". His grandmother would prepare a repertoire of dishes that would only appear on Chinese New Year, and "we would have dinner in family groups because the dining table was small and there were a few families in the house." But what the then nine-year-old looked forward to was after dinner, when his grandfather made sure he and the other children had plenty of soft drinks and fireworks to play with.

Chinese New Year became more sombre when his grandfather passed away. A few years later, his grandmother suffered a stroke and moved in with his family. "My mother took to caring for her, and it wasn't easy for both of them," he says. "My mother also started cooking reunion dinner, with my grandmother's repertoire and adding a few dishes of her own. When my grandmother passed away, my mum continued the tradition. But since my father's siblings have families of their own, we started to invite my mum's family over. So ours was definitely one reunion dinner where Indians outnumbered Chinese! My father was the only Chinese at these dinners until recently, with the addition of my wife."

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

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Finding a connection to local ingredients is also central to Dewakan's purpose, which chef Teoh says isn't about being eco-conscious per se but "the potential of a reimagined cuisine, a discovery of a terrain that seems familiar but unknown". He describes it as "a focus on ingredients, and getting the best that we can from this country", drawing on everything from heritage, travels and personal experience to create his signature plates.

His drive for authenticity and building personal relationships with his guests dictates the design of Dewakan's spanking new space on the 48th floor of Naza Tower. It also marked the start of a warm friendship and partnership with luxury kitchen specialist Sub-Zero and Wolf – whose top-of-the-line refrigeration and cooking appliances grace the test kitchen/chef's table that also boasts a stunning view of the city skyline. Now a culinary ambassador for the brand, he recalls how he felt an immediate kinship with Yam Churn Meng and Karen Gonzago of Sub-Zero and Wolf Southeast Asia, who reached out to him when Dewakan was still at its old location. They were all on the same wavelength in terms of wanting a long-term relationship based on their shared values of authenticity and sincerity, says chef Teoh. "Despite the distance (between KL and Singapore), we have made it important to be involved and present in each other's lives – that is what makes the relationship easy and valuable."

THE SUB-ZERO AND WOLF CONNECTION

The test kitchen reflects this as "it was designed with the thought of the intimacy friends share when they come over for dinner," he says. "And like our home, a seat at the table is by invitation."

Discreetly incorporated into the kitchen's design are all the Sub-Zero and Wolf refrigeration and cooking appliances. "We felt that the aesthetics of the space should reflect what Sub-Zero and Wolf mean to me – a deep confidence in one's ability that doesn't need to be flaunted to know it's there."

If anything good has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's that chef Teoh will be home for Chinese New Year. If all works out well, he and his family will tuck into reunion dishes like fried glass noodles and braised pork in black vinegar, "which both my grandmother and mother make exceptionally well," he says. "Like how a Keralan chicken stew is Christmas to me, these dishes exemplify Chinese New Year. I could just have these two and be perfectly fulfilled."

The House of Sub-Zero and Wolf is located at 31 McNair Road, Townerville, Singapore 328529. Tel: 6386 9335. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm. Saturdays by appointment only.

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