Trust the skinny chef

From left: Loo, Woo and Lim at the Chinese Palace.

It’s often said “never trust a skinny chef”, but I have complete faith in chef extraordinaire Frankie Woo who has maintained his lean build throughout his 43 years in the culinary world. At 61, he still has those sparkling eyes and quick wit when talking about how he started as a kitchen hand at 13, working his way up to where he is today.

Coming out of his self-imposed 10-year retirement, Woo is now culinary director at the Chinese Palace Restaurant, housed within the cultural heritage building of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur.

His forte is modern Chinese cuisine with a Cantonese bias. He curates the menus, creates new dishes, guides the chefs and kitchen staff at Chinese Palace.

His Chinese fine cuisine with Japanese and Western elements is fondly remembered by all those who have dined at the hotel restaurants he has worked in before. Former patrons of his restaurant Gu Yu Tien have been frequenting Chinese Palace ever since they got wind that he is there.

“There was this Tan Sri who asked for dishes I used to cook at my old restaurant – my Panfried Wagyu Beef with Shoyu Sauce,” says Woo who can deliver an impeccably cooked wagyu steak and steam a high-end fish to perfection. “Here, I’m just a consultant chef, training the junior chefs but I’m hands on when I get special requests like this.”

He also likes experimenting with new fresh ingredients and his latest discovery is the Hak Kam Wong Tai Yu (Black Gold Emperor Fish).

“It’s on par with the Empurau, very fatty and wonderful in taste and texture,” he explains, hoping to impart his culinary skills and experience to the kitchen staff at Chinese Palace. “I want to guide them and take them to a higher level in cooking. I stake my reputation on this.”

If you like fried salmon skin, that’s a Woo invention from way back in 1994 when he won a gold medal at Salon Culinaire in Singapore. His winning entry, Pan-fried Salmon Fillet with Wasabi Butter Soya Sauce, had two pieces of crispy salmon skin perched on it. The judges were duly impressed and a Norwegian salmon supplier tried to pry the recipe out of him.

The main dining hall at Chinese Palace Restaurant.The main dining hall at Chinese Palace Restaurant.

Woo’s famed Gu Yu Tien Soft Boiled Egg with Foie Gras won rave reviews when he was invited by the renowned James Beard Foundation to represent Asia in a world charity event at the Rockefeller Centre in New York. There, he cooked alongside “iron chefs” like Wolfgang Puck, Nobu Matsuhisa and Cheong Liew!

A true rags to success story, Woo started in 1976 when he was still in his early teens. He peeled prawns and did all the rough kitchen work in a well-known hotel in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, for a mere RM2 a day, and recalled his hands becoming sore and painful. Nine months later, the hotel workers went on strike and he was out of a job.

Then, he joined the Chinese restaurant in Mirama Hotel, cleaning dried seafood such as shark’s fin, sea cucumber, fish maw and abalone. He stayed there for five years and learnt early not to gamble. The restaurant chef bought a motorcycle and during weekends, would go to the race course. Woo, on the other hand, chose to hone his cooking skills. That same chef later introduced Woo to Mandarin Hotel where he learnt how to cook Shanghainese dishes.

“I was just a relief cook, cutter and wok. The chef would go out to drink during the day and come back drunk. I would take over his job and cook all the dishes,” says Woo.

He soon became skilled enough to get a job at Shang Palace in Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, assisting the three Hong Kong chefs there. He learnt everything he could in two years about cooking Cantonese cuisine. At 24, he joined Hyatt Saujana as chef de cuisine and later, became part of the opening team for the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong in 1989 where he worked for six months.

One of the private rooms at Chinese Palace Restaurant. — Photos: LOW BOON TAT/The StarOne of the private rooms at Chinese Palace Restaurant. — Photos: LOW BOON TAT/The Star

“I communicated with the gwailos a lot in the hotel and we had lunch together every day. I realised my inadequacy in English, so I enrolled at a tuition centre in Petaling Jaya to study English.”

Two years later, he left for Singapore to be group Chinese executive chef at Concorde Hotel. During his eight years there, he also oversaw the restaurant operations in the Concorde Kuala Lumpur. In 1990, he became executive Chinese chef at The Regent Kuala Lumpur’s Lai Ching Yuen.

Woo is proud of the fact that he was the first Malaysian chef to work in such a senior position in a five-star hotel and his team went on to win numerous awards.

In 1988, he applied for permanent residency in Australia as a Western chef and was accepted, but he didn’t take it up.

After nine years at The Regent, Woo started his own restaurant, Gu Yu Tien, which drew a faithful following of diners. After 10 years, he had to close the restaurant following news of a big development happening at the location of Gu Yu Tien. He then “disappeared” from the restaurant scene for a decade. During that time, he rested, travelled and occasionally cooked for friends.

Chinese Palace Restaurant is housed in a 100-year-old heritage building.Chinese Palace Restaurant is housed in a 100-year-old heritage building.

“He rejected us three times before he agreed to join us at Chinese Palace!” said Ivan Lim, managing director of The Chinese Palace Sdn Bhd. “Only on the fourth attempt did he agree to join us, after he saw this heritage building, the location and its history.”

The Chinese Palace showcases a Nanyang theme in a 100-year-old building that used to be the assembly point for Chinese immigrants to Malaya.

Currently, Woo leads a team of 10 in the kitchen, from chef de cuisine Sam Loo to the other chefs who are ever eager to learn from him. Looks like the chef who never sleeps, but keeps thinking up dishes to cook, is now back where he belongs.

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StarExtra , Frankie Woo , chef , culinary


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