Interview with Chef Kim Hock of Restaurant Au Jardin
Chef Kim Hock of Restaurant Au Jardin, Penang sheds some light on work life in Malaysia and compares it with the kitchens of Taiwan.
By Monica Tindall
You have recently returned to Malaysia after a stint in Taiwan. Tell us about that transition. What were the struggles and celebrations?
I think both countries are great in different ways. On one side is a country where I am born and brought up while the other redefined my view on cooking and exposed me to an entirely different dining scene. I realized, however, while working in Taiwan, that I lacked drive and motivation. I was running a restaurant without any bigger commitment.
I recalled a couple of years ago when I was one of three contestants that represented Taiwan in the San Pellegrino Young Chef award. That is when I realised I should be representing my own country Malaysia and not a foreign country. The lack of sense of belonging is what I felt was holding me back in the competition.
Nevertheless, Taiwan, a country with an abundance of locally grown and reared ingredients has taught and trained me well. Last year as our tenancy contract ended, I knew I had to move back to Malaysia and to contribute to the dining scene in Penang, a place I call home. The struggle is real, unlike Taipei, sourcing can be a real challenge in Penang. In Taiwan, often you come across proud artisanal growers or micro farmers where often their produce can be a real deal with a lot of characters. Which I personally think Malaysia, as a whole, still has a lot catchup to do.
How do you compare work life in Taiwan with work life in Malaysia?
Pace. I think the biggest difference is the pace. Taipei has a very high population density as compared to Penang. For me, it is hard to compare these two places hand in hand as Taipei is the capital city whereas Penang is the second largest city by population. Now, the genre of the restaurant is very different to what we used to have in Taipei. We used to run a bistro during our stint in Taipei, but now Au Jardin is more of a smaller scale fine-dining restaurant.
You have opened an elegant dining concept in what is known as the street food capital of Malaysia (if not Asia!). How has the response been to this type of dining?
We used to run another bistro in Penang approximately six years ago. We can tell that the food scene has improved so much. Back then, the majority of the local diners only worshipped the local street food and I don’t blame them. I too love our own local offerings. With just a fraction of the price, you get to enjoy food as delicious if not better than what you get in the restaurant. To spend at least 50-times the price to dine in a restaurant is definitely not appealing and not everyone’s cup of tea. As years passes and air tickets have become more affordable, the world became smaller. Diners became more exposed to this genre of dining. They became more receptive to the idea of spending more time enjoying their food. They began to appreciate the service that a restaurant offers in contrast to the typical street fare. Hopefully in the coming years, the chefs and restaurant within the scene can join hands to make Penang a notable gastronomic destination not just for street food but also for restaurants.
You also have a unique location – a warehouse in the historical bus depot! Why? How have people reacted to this?
The credit goes to the proprietor of the Hin Bus Depot, Mr. Tan Shih Thoe. He used to be a diner of our previous bistro. He is a prominent figure in Penang, well-known for being very supportive of young talent and artists. He worked very hard to make Hin Bus Depot an influential and vibrant hub for arts and crafts and we are happy that he too recognised culinary as a form of art. We are fortunate and privileged enough to be accommodated within this historical Penang Bus Depot. As for the site, it was love at first sight. Me and my partner were brought to this space which was formerly used as an art assembly, rustically cladded with zinc and polycarbonate sheets, high ceilings and charming timber flooring. This is when we knew that we had found a gem. One of our concepts when renovating the place was keeping the charm of the original structure and the character. We have decided to keep the zinc cladded exterior. In return, we manage to surprise most of our first time diners. The front yard is a transition point. As they walked through the door, the expectation changes immediately.
What are some of the most underrated Malaysian ingredients that you think chefs would love to get their hands on worldwide (if only they knew about them)?
Buah Kulim. Buah Kulim is a wood garlic that can only be found in the forest. It has a pungent garlicky fragrance, almost earthy and has a strong resemblance to truffles. It’s a fruit of the kulim tree and the fruits are harvested on tree in contrast to truffles.
What are three things you’d recommend visitors must try when they visit Penang?
Of course the restaurants! Penang restaurants are definitely up and coming, be sure to visit us!
Other than the restaurants, I particularly like the chendol in New World Park during daytime and in the evening, Koay Chiap which is a thick noodle served in a rich duck broth at Kimberly Street.
Your team has been with you for a long time. This is quite rare in Malaysia. What is the key to keeping such a strong team?
Respect and communication. In our restaurant, no position is too little. Be it the managers or the kitchen porter, everyone plays a part in making this place a success hence it is important to make sure that everyone is respectful to one another. My job is to maintain the equilibrium within the working environment. Communication is crucial too. The more the communication, the lesser the friction.
What’s your view on the restaurant scene in Penang? Where do you think the industry is headed?
I think Penang’s restaurant scene as a whole is beginning to improve. Still a niche but definitely advancing. You can see more chefs are coming back to their roots now, so that is a positive sign of things are about to change. On one hand, you have avant-garde restaurants like Gen that is constantly pushing and working very hard to promote local ingredients and flavours while on the other hand, you have restaurants like Jawi House and Kebaya promoting our heritage cuisine.
What is one of the most valuable things you learned in your international kitchen experience?
The appreciation of local produce. I’ve always worked in the countryside during my years in the UK. Imported goods don’t come by easily. We are obliged to sourced locally and that, in a way made the restaurants different from one to another. The terroir – the environmental conditions, the soil, the feed and climate contribute a lot to the availability and character of the ingredients, making them different from one region to another. This has influenced me significantly. This is exactly the Au Jardin direction now. We made it a point to source ethically, to support and to work closely with the local and urban farmers.
What do you think Malaysia has to contribute to the culinary world?
I think Malaysia’s culinary team is slowly making an impact to the industry now. With the recent triumph of the Malaysia’s Pastry Team in the Coupe de Monde de la Pâtisserie, and the entry of Dewakan to the Asia’s top 50 restaurants people are starting to observe our culinary scene and effort.
If you could turn back the clock and give yourself one piece of advice as a young chef, what would it be?
Do more stagiaires. I did a couple of stagiaires during my late 20’s. I should have started earlier. I think stagiaires is a good eye opener and exposure for chefs. To look at how different restaurants operate would be advantageous for chefs.
If you could prepare a meal for anyone in the world, who would you cook for and what would you prepare?
Both my mentors, Mike Shaw and Steven Smiths. I think they have yet to see my progress after I left the UK. It would be good to show them how much I’ve grown and improved.
Thank you for your time Kim Hock. You want to see more from him? Check out his new recipe.
How did you start your career as a chef?
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