A few years ago, a man got to talking with two other people. That man was Darren Teoh, the acclaimed local chef behind Dewakan, the first restaurant in Malaysia to be on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
The other two people were Leisa Tyler, an Australian food journalist and former board member of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants who now owns Weeds & More, a series of farms in Cameron Highlands, Pahang that grow Western-style vegetables; and Julian Teoh, a Singapore-based food writer and wine enthusiast.
“We were talking about how there seems to be this lack of attention towards restaurants in the country when it comes to culinary tourism and also a general lack of any festival with substance that is driven by restaurants and produce. We felt like a lot of the festivals so far were gimmick-based.
“And then we thought ‘What if we pooled together our resources?’ We could put together a relatively interesting curation,” says Darren.
The Covid-19 pandemic of course threw a spanner in the works and with the restrictions on international travel, Julian couldn’t be involved. Instead Andrew Yap, who runs experiential food events like Tiffin at the Yard, came onboard.
And all those tentative conversations and discussions have now finally come together in the form of the first-of-its-kind chef-driven Kita Food Festival, which will run from Dec 3 to Dec 12 in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
The event hopes to foster and celebrate collaborative culinary efforts and camaraderie among industry players and build a community of sorts for talented chefs in Malaysia, something that is both sorely lacking and much-needed in the current barren landscape.
“What we see is there has been a lot of movement in the restaurant industry in Malaysia. There are a lot of new chefs coming to the fore and lot of exciting new producers. We see a real opportunity to try and embrace that, nurture and promote it and plant the idea of Malaysia as a culinary destination.
“If we can get people and producers together and allow them to share stories and experiences, this will create a sense of community. From that, a lot of things will emerge, people will start to explore new things and get excited and it builds the industry. So we thought it was a nice opportunity to give the industry a bit of a shuffle along,” says Tyler.
Tyler also says that while having the spectre of Covid-19 looming in the background isn’t ideal, the organisers are determined to follow all the pandemic-related guidelines and SOP to ensure that the event is a safe space for fully-vaccinated participants.
But putting together a pioneering food festival in Malaysia is no easy feat and Darren likens it to a start-up where “all of us do everything”.
The trio only started assembling the pieces for the festival together a month ago, as they were invited to apply for a government grant, with the stipulation that the event must be held in December.
“It was really last-minute, so that was a big challenge. Also even though the economy has opened up, no one has money anymore, so getting sponsorship has been really tough,” explains Tyler.
What’s in store
The festival is divided into two segments: dining events, which are mostly collaborative dinners involving different chefs; as well as masterclasses with various industry leaders.
“For the masterclasses, we wanted to make it interesting and accessible, we wanted the curation to be thought-provoking, so the spectrum we selected was quite wide – from Orang Asli cooking to cocktails to natural wine appreciation. The education and exposure were the key values for putting those curations together,” says Darren.
With the restaurant dinners, Darren says he put together a shortlist of chefs and checked their availability and ability to commit. He also wanted to shine a spotlight on restaurants with younger chefs – either those who have been doing new things or have a niche following that can be expanded on.
In looking at the line-up, there is certainly a lot to whet the appetite at the inaugural festival. On the masterclass front (limited to 12 people a class), you can expect to be face-to-face with culinary mavens of all stripes.
For example, you could learn about French cooking from the redoubtable Takashi Kimura of hallowed French eatery Cilantro or decode the fine art of making a lemon tart with Tan Wei Loon, the World Pastry Champion 2019; or even discover the unique food of the Temuan Orang Asli, with featured dishes like a bamboo chicken meal that utilises wild semomok leaves (a type of leaf used as a seasoning and reputed to smell like a stink bug!).
“I definitely think it is a great opportunity to bring the Orang Asli to the city – it’s a different experience for them and it makes their food a lot more accessible. And when we told them about this, they were excited because they felt it was a good opportunity to rediscover traditional recipes that they themselves only make for special occasions,” says Daniel Teoh, the founder of Native Discovery, an Orang Asli-driven tourism entity which will be running the masterclass.
In terms of the dinners, expect to see some of the most exciting names in the local culinary scene from Darren himself to Gary Anwar of Ember Modern Bistro, Tyson Gee of Atas Modern Malaysian Eatery, Johnson Wong of Penang’s famed Gen, Jun Wong of progressive Japanese eatery Kikubari and many, many more.
Many of the menus seem to have a focus on local ingredients, condiments and dishes interspersed with sophisticated cooking methods and techniques, so you can expect to see homegrown staples like jackfruit, tempeh, cempedak, rose apple, turmeric, bunga kantan, Bentong ginger and local duck embraced on these upscale menus throughout the festival.
This is an experience that Malaysian diners will likely find both inventive as well as inviting – like having a favourite friend come over, but asking them to dress up for the occasion.
Some of the dinners to bookmark (if you’re in the mood to splurge) include Darren’s collaborative dinner (priced at RM616 per person), taking place at Dewakan on Dec 8, with chefs from Akar Dining, Ember Modern Bistro and Char Line.
The army of chefs will be working together to put forth an 11-course plant-forward menu, with tantalising creations like bamboo shoots and buah salak, grilled jicama skewered on pine and pickled perah and pumpkin agnolotti.
Other dinners to look forward to include the collaborative effort of Jun Wong (Kikubari) and Jack Weldie of the innovative Japanese-Malaysian omakase eatery Chipta11A on Dec 10 (priced at RM524 per person). At this dinner, expect to savour delicacies in the form of miso-infused ugly pumpkin, asam jawa rice with seasonal fish; and duck, negi salsa and house-made tempeh.
Jun says as a chef, she feels like an event like this has been needed in the industry for a long time.
“Getting to connect with the industry really feels good and it is something that is really great for the community. It is about stimulating healthy competition but also about supporting each other, because we face the same problems. And without events like this, we don’t have the time to do this,” says Jun.
And it is exactly this sort of bonding that Darren and Tyler are hoping to inspire with this year’s installation of the festival (the festival is going to be an annual affair).
“The focus for this year is to build solidarity with each other, to create camaraderie between restaurants and to excite other chefs and restaurants to want to be part of it, so we can then open ourselves up to a larger net in the coming years,” says Darren.
In fact, next year Darren and Tyler say they will be looking beyond the Malaysian border in an effort to imbue the festival with a more international sheen.
“After Covid-19 subsides, this is going to be an international festival. We will be bringing in a lot of chefs from the region as well as other countries like Japan, Europe and the United States,” confirms Tyler.
For more information, head to www.kitafoodfestival.com.