Welcome to Episode 29!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 29 is Darren Teoh Min Guo
Darren Teoh Min Guo is the head chef and restaurant owner of Dewakan, where in April 2019, it became the first Malaysian restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at 46th place with the title Best Restaurant in Malaysia.
“Dewakan” derives its name from a combination of two Malay words: Dewa (meaning “God”) and “makan” (meaning “to eat”). And at Dewakan, Chef Darren is known for taking rare and forgotten ingredients from peninsular Malaysia – including the sea, mountain, jungle and farmlands – and elevating them into unique dishes that diners have described as ‘modern art’.
But how did it all begin?
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Who is Darren Teoh Min Guo?
Darren is of Chindian descent (his father is Hokkien & his mother is indian) and growing up as the eldest of three siblings, he was always someone who was good with his hands.
In this STIMY episode, we talked about:
- 2:00: Why Darren once considered doing fashion or graphic design
- 3:38: Being good with his hands
- 5:15: Studying at Ternas, which had a dual programme with Institute Cartel
- 7:13: Why he moved to Singapore to work
- 10:25: Being caught sauteing mushrooms in a pan that wasn’t hot enough
- 14:58: Working in the cafeteria of KDU
Lecturing at KDU & Forming Dewakan
Darren eventually transitioned from working at KDU’s cafeteria (which was modeled after Google’s cafeteria) to being a lecturer in molecular gastronomy and finally, collaborating with KDU to form Dewakan.
Darren shared his experiences in:
- 15:46: Lecturing on molecular gastronomy at KDU
- 17:14: Unexpected challenges in running Dewakan
- 18:44: Diving into the history of “Malaysian” cuisine
- 21:12: Figuring out how to use local, often forgotten, ingredients in Dewakan’s menu
- 23:17: Developing relationships with local producers like Langit, Chocolate Concierge & A Little Farm on the Hill
- 24:09: Differentiating good/bad local producers
- 29:04: Impact of being on Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants List in 2019
- 31:55: How listeners can help Darren
- 36:38: Be very, very good at failing
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories of people in the F&B industry, check out:
- Ning-Geng Ong (Part 1, Part 2): Founder of Chocolate Concierge & Culture Cacao – produces Malaysia first origin chocolate with unique flavours like nasi kerabu & laksa!
- Shawn Chong: x3 Diageo World Class Champion, Mixologist & Co-Founder of Omakase Appreciate
- Yi Jun Loh – Malaysian food blogger, writer & podcaster on transitioning from being an engineer to studying at Le Cordon Bleu, starging in Chef Dan Barber’s popular two Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns & what it was like carving his own career path
- Renyi Chin – Co-founder of Malaysia’s popular & highly innovative burger joint, MyBurgerLab & MyPizzaLab
If you enjoyed this episode with Darren Teoh, you can:
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I’d love to include more listener comments & thoughts into future STIMY episodes! If you have any thoughts to share, a person you’d like me to invite, or a question you’d like answered, send an audio file / voice note to [email protected]
Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- Dewakan: Website, Facebook, Instagram
- Darren’s TEDx Talk, “What do you mean before the chili?!”
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Ep 29: Darren Teoh Min Guo - Head Chef & Restaurant Owner of Dewakan (only Malaysian restaurant in Asia' Top 50 Restaurants list in 2019)
Darren Teoh: He said, come over and do a day starge and we'll see how it goes.
I went over and it was hectic. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before. And it was super, super, super, super interesting.
I didn't have a very look at any of the plates. I have no idea what they were cooking. But it was interesting because the buzz, the speed, the efficiency, the way that the whole restaurant was working. So I think I got kind of hooked on that rather than just the cooking.
And that was when I thought like okay, you know what? I could do this. It was exciting. It was quite adrenaline filled.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone.
Welcome to episode 29 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah and today's guest is Darren Teoh - a lecturer turned head chef of Dewakan: the first Malaysian restaurant ranked on Asia's 50 best restaurants list.
Darren talks about his journey. From loving to do things with his hands in his childhood, to going to a hotel school and eventually working in restaurants across Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, where he was exposed to high level French cooking and acquired a love for using fresh local produce.
We dive deep into the workings of Dewakan, how it came about, where they source their local ingredients and incorporate them in ways that most might not consider. And finally, his one big piece of advice for those inspiring to also become cooks.
Are you ready? Let's go. Darren Teoh: My childhood was running around.
I mean like, we climbed mango trees out in my grandmother's house. And we usually go to the playground. I spent a lot of time there.
We watched Tamil movies, she would feed us food.
Ling Yah: I think you were considering at one point to do fashion design or graphic design?
Darren Teoh: Yeah. Well I think someone else who's had like a very severe influence in my life was my dad. And he was responsible for crafting the idea of a career. And I was always better with my hands than I was with discipline in doing homework. He helped me explore a few things that would have made sense to me.
At that time I thought fashion designers as an interesting way to have a creative output. And graphic design was also because at that time, you were messing around with things like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
This was like almost 20 years ago. SO it was very rudimentary work at the time. Like, there was flash and a few things that you could just download and you could just mess around with at that time. And that looked like it would have been interesting to do as well.
I think another aspect that we kind of looked at was the aspect of whether you had any commercial value law and, it seemed that it was a lesser commercial value then maybe say going into hospitality.
Ling Yah: Because around that time, it coincided with an economic downturn, right? As you were trying to decide where you want it to study.
Darren Teoh: Yeah, it was what 97, 98. The industries were recovering and also I think my generation was a fairly large generation, so there were a lot of people who were also doing things like graphic design.
So, I mean, if you are going to be one in like a couple of hundred thousand or a couple of thousands, that's just going to narrow it on your chances.
Ling Yah: You said you were always good with your hands. What do you mean by that? Were you always making things like chairs? What did that mean?
Darren Teoh: I think I can say this quite confidently. I'm quite inquisitive by nature. And that has allowed me to pursue certain things. It's always that can do attitude.
So if there's something that I figure like, that's something that we could do or that something that it could break down or reverse engineer, then I'll do that and you get quite real success, when you're young, you learn how to make sting shots. And you made props with discarded containers and things like this. And you could always fashion something out of your hands,
Ling Yah: Yeah. I think the closest I came to making something was Kemahiran Hidup where they make you make a ruler out of a block of wood.
Darren Teoh: It was odd. I did better with the sewing and cooking part than the actual work part. I remember, I think we split it, maybe that was informed three or something like that, I think I did better than actually doing the carpentry work. But I mean, fast forward about 5 or 10 years later, I can do quite a fair bit of carpentry work now.
I think it's also very natural for me to figure things out in the physical and then find a way to translate that out. I think for people who make stuff, I think it's very rarely the end product. Like, I don't have a lot of attachment to the things that I make. I think I maybe have kept maybe one or two things, but a lot of times I make, and then I give them away and I don't have an attachment to it.
I do enjoy the process of figuring things out and that smaller success when you do achieve it, or when you make a little bit of a headway, I enjoyed those things.
Ling Yah: So what was it that led you to go to this, I understand now defunct school called Ternas in Kompleks Antarabangsa.
Darren Teoh: There. This is T E R N A S pronounced. it was under Perbadanan National. I think that was a site by site option. If the design thing didn't work out then probably would be doing some form of cooking as I think like that. But my dad had a little bit more foresight than I, and he said I do a degree program.
And since it was a local degree with a dual parchment with the Institute cartel in France. So that's why we decided to take that.
Ling Yah: So what was it like studying at the school? You have described it as an amazing time for yourself and you meet lifelong friends there.
Darren Teoh: Yeah. Yeah. It was an amazing time. We had a lot of fun. It's a dynamic industry and, and, very contrary to, going into doing a college or university education currently before it was super hands on.
and after college, I got to go and work part time in some restaurants along Jalan Le Sui and Changkat Bukit Bintang.
The restaurant was a braise. It was not really a restaurant. Actually was a wine bar, a really small kitchen at the bottom. ANd they made some very, very French. cooking. But like very bistro style of French cooking.
The internship that I remember the most was at Le Bouchon. This sort of corner restaurant opposite little Havana and back then in Changkat. There were like maybe a handful of restaurants and most of them were quite good. Before it's become the thing that it is now.
Ling Yah: And how did you find working in an actual restaurant?
Darren Teoh: Just put your head down or you just do what you gotta do. I mean, there's no romanticizing a career. It was hard work. That's what it was.
I mean, I just did what I needed to do. They asked me to wash this floor, I washed the floor, mop the floor, I mopped the floor. Fry the French fries, you fry the French fries.
I don't think that there was this light from heaven shining down and telling me, like, this is my life work, and this is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life.
Ling Yah: But then after that you finished your degree, you went to Singapore, what was the decision-making process behind that?
Darren Teoh: I think it was that time to go and explore possibilities and see what things were like outside of the country. There was an opportunity that opened up in Singapore for me to join a restaurant there.
But that didn't fall through. And because that didn't fall through, I was then knocking on doors in various restaurants, in hotels in Singapore. And then Les Amis picked me up by chance. And I joined the Les Amis group.
And within the Les Amis group, I had the opportunity to work both at Les Amis as well as in OSHA done in the EGH corner house in the Botanic gardens. There's Les Amis and also Sebastian's bistro, which was on Greenwood Avenue.
Yeah, they were fantastic years of cooking, fantastic years of honing the skill. But also it was just fantastic years of living. I mean, it was a London living to be honest, but you live from moment to moment, but he was super educational.
Ling Yah: What was the food scene like in Singapore at the time?
Darren Teoh: At that very time, so this was like pre MDs, right? So I think they've always had a large expat community and that's why Greenwood Avenue did very well.
Sebastian's at Greenwood Avenue was very, very busy. So we would have news on bucket Tema, and it's in the middle of a residential area. I would say it's very close to something like Damansara Kim area but half that size. It was only in one stretch of a road.
That was quite cool because Les Amis had a few restaurants in that area. four or five restaurants that were at the same time there. So it was quite interesting. at that time Singapore's probably, maybe say almost the same as kale at that time. Maybe they had a few more better restaurants.
The ones that people think at the highest level were restaurants like Raffles Grill, Les Ami, Oshadone maybe Kleenex. So this was all before Jan and all the other stuff that's become quite popular now.
And I read that your first day working, that was when you realized you wanted to do this for the rest of your life.
Yeah not the first day working.
So what happened was a friend of mine put me in touch with a friend of mine here. We'll be in touch with a chef who put me in touch with another chef in Singapore. I was sleeping to start work with him.
And then when I made all of the arrangements to go down and on my first visit to the restaurant that I was supposed to work at a week before my starting date , the chef said like, okay, look I can't hire you because I'm hiring someone else.
So that was problematic. I called the guy who hooked us up in the first place and said, okay, this is what's happened, so what do I do now?
And then his restaurant used to be on Havelock road. He said, come over and do a day starge and we'll see how it goes.
I went over and it was hectic. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before. And it was super, super, super, super interesting.
I didn't have a very look at any of the plates. I have no idea what they were cooking. But it was interesting because the buzz, the speed, the efficiency, the way that the whole restaurant was working so I think I got kind of hooked on that rather than just the cooking.
And that was when I thought like okay, you know what? I could do this. It was exciting. It was quite adrenaline filled.
Ling Yah: Would it be fair to say that you realize how you had to hold yourself to such high standards? Because I read the book that you produced and you shared a story once of how you were caught sauteeing mushrooms in a pan that wasn't hot enough and you were abandoned from using that.
Darren Teoh: Yeah, well, yes. True. Well, actually the three restaurants that I worked in in Singapore all under the same company did hold cooking to be quite disciplined. That's the thing that I think differentiates a lot of restaurants from our restaurant is the level of discipline.
And it's not a level of discipline, like running like an army discipline, but it's like it's discipline in making sure that every step that you take contributes to a higher quality of the product that you're cooking. and every whether painstaking or not , that was the gold standard to reach .
I mean at Oujadan, we used to filet fish on the order . Or well things like shallots and garlic, which you can only cut to the order so that you get a quality that doesn't sit inside.
And so that the shallots are not sitting inside some oil or in like in the chiller and losing a lot of its flavors as it's just sitting inside there and you're not using it. THese really small things that kind of like make up the genetic makeup of a cook that came from these companies from these restaurants.
Ling Yah: And when you say fish, I read the story about how your chef was very particular about getting fresh fish. Because at that time you were always getting important fish.
Darren Teoh: That's a true story. I mean, we still talk about my buddies and I. We all used to cook together.
And French restaurants at the time in Singapore would have. Used French produce in terms of like seafood, especially because it was following seasons and it was also as well as fashionable at the time. and the problem with that was that he gets flown in like twice a week into the country and you don't have control over what it is that you're purchasing.
So if you buy monkfish and the monkfish, something about it, from like the tail is bruised or part of it was not stored properly or it was not packed in ice well enough. You basically cannot return it because it's air flown and there's no return policy on that.
So Jeff was what, there's no reason for us to be using these fish anymore, or not all of the menu needs to have imported fish. So he started buying tiger groupers. And I was on the fish site at that time they would call it posanie. So I had processed that fish and it was the first time dealing with live groupers.
And if you don't know, groupers are very angry fish. They're very violent and their spikes on their dorsals and there's like a very sharp bone and where their gills are as well. So it was the first time and I've never processed that sort of fish before.
BUt you could taste it. Like you could taste the difference in terms of, would you rather have a very nice fresh fish or like a decaying foreign fish? I'm not sure.
It just made us think about what kind of double standards we have as a community or as a society. I mean, like why was salmon? And we're talking about like 10, 15 years ago. Why would salmon be like a more highly priced fish if it's been decaying for the past three to four days before you get it?
So imagine if you. pick up fish out from the farm, and then it goes to the butchery and then from the butchery, it gets iced. And then it goes through like a hanger somewhere that gets onto a shipment and is air flown all the way down to say Air Pagar and it sits in containment again. And then it goes out to the restaurant.
That sort of process of about 3 days to go. Fish is already dead for 3 days, and then it goes to the restaurant being on the 4th day. And then, you're not there on the fourth day, but maybe you come 3 days later. So the dead fish had been there for 7 days already before the next one came in.
But then that same person would then go to a Chinese restaurant and if the fish wasn't dead like 30 seconds ago, they complain it's not fresh.
Why is this double standard? So, I mean, I think that was the point of contention for me with using farm produce.
Ling Yah: Was it uncommon to use local produce at the time?
Darren Teoh: Well, I mean, Singapore is a little bit tricky, right? Because everything is foreign produced for them. but it was not uncommon in Chinese restaurants. It was not uncommon in the markets.
you probably would have found them in like the grill or any inspiring restaurant.
Ling Yah: Why did you decide to leave Singapore to come back to Malaysia?
Darren Teoh: I think I gave it five years. I didn't see anything worth staying for that time.
Ling Yah: So what was it about KDU that drew you in? Because I understand you were working in the cafeteria for 2 years, right before you became a lecturer.
Darren Teoh: Oh yeah. So when I came back, I was looking for different opportunities at that time, the first job I got when I got back was with Taylors and I was teaching there for a semester. They didn't want to continue my contract. So I looked up at other places.
And since with a degree in hotel management that allows you to do some teaching. So I went to KDU and the only thing they had on offer for me at that time was this sort of like an assistant manager for a cafeteria concept that they were putting together.
It was supposed to be slightly modeled after the Google cafeterias which didn't really happen, honestly. But I took the job and I did it for a couple of years before there was an opening and I said, okay let me try teaching.
Ling Yah: And you mooted for molecular gastronomy. Was that not something that was already offered at the time?
Darren Teoh: No. No. Most people have mentioned that they didn't even know what it was.
It wasn't what I wanted to teach. There was nothing that I was truly passionate about teaching.
But when we were looking at how we could take hotel school and make it a little bit more interesting, and these were some of the things that we wanted to do.
AT the end of my tenure was , we would say it was about 2011. I wanted to stop teaching and after I wanted to stop teaching, I wanted to leave, but at the same time they were doing the new campus and that was an exciting prospect of putting together 11 kitchens . Designing them.
So we did that.
I was like okay, so that this the end. And then they said, what if you had a commercial restaurant in the building? Something that would be interesting to do. And I say, okay, you make sure that I can do whatever I want and nobody gets to tell me what I should or shouldn't cook.
Let me say, okay. That's how Dewakan kind of started.
Ling Yah: And Dewakan, I think you envision it to be something like NOMA in Copenhagen, right?
Darren Teoh: I didn't envision it to be like NOMA.
I mean, the first iteration of what they are going to look like already was not anything like Noma, but I think that we did borrow certain principles from the Nordic movement that helped us to define further what we will and what we wanted to do.
Ling Yah: What were the challenges that came at you that perhaps you didn't anticipate.
Darren Teoh: I think my own failings.
There were many things that were about running a restaurant that elude you until you're actually doing it. Things that you're not prepared to know how to do, and then you've had to learn how to do it and then accelerate that.
How to deal with people and profit and loss, understanding accounting concepts. Things like that.
Ling Yah: Because choosing, as I understand, choosing the right team was quite a challenge for you, you lost two members on the first team and just trying to get that original team get going was quite difficult, right?
Darren Teoh: Yeah. Yeah, that will partly be it. I think I'm also more resigned in that whoever you hire will not be aligned to you. Like them not aligned to your objectives, they're aligned to their objectives. Like when people complain about like oh, I'll get like staff and stuff like this and my stuff and I'm into it, I have to motivate them, blah, blah, blah.
More often than not, I think that it's not that they don't like their job. It's just that the objectives don't align with your objectives. And that happens with everyone. Everyone. I mean, you work and you don't work for whoever it is that runs your company, you work for yourself.
And then with that reality, people are just going to come and they're going to go.
Ling Yah: And another thing you always talk about is your ingredients. That's like the crux of everything that Dewakan's doing. And you've said for a lot of times to figure out the future of cooking, you must look into the past. And I was very fascinated.
You've talked so much about how a lot of the ingredients that we take for granted, like chilli actually, wasn't a part of our original cuisine.
Darren Teoh: No, it wasn't. Yeah. like, okay. So like original cuisine like, what is original cuisine? I think that the critique most people have of my argument about this is that like where do you draw the line for things, right?
The truth is that you need to know at least where the lines are. If all we can say is oh nasi lemak, it's our national dish. And the question is like why? What part of it is our national dish?
Truth be told, if you want to talk about what's being consumed and that reflects on our national dish, then I would say it's KFC.
Because look at the amount of fried chicken being consumed in our country. Look at the amount of McDonald's that are around this country or KFC around this country.
I mean, there's a higher acceptance rate for that then for say, I don't know some Chetti Peranakan dish, for example.
Ling Yah: So how do you draw the lines in terms of how far you go back?
Darren Teoh: I don't draw the line. Because I don't know where those lines are. So I think it's that acquisition of knowledge. I mean, at least in my generation and in my time it will be the acquisition of knowledge. That's just going to be a priority for me and then somebody else might sort it out.
Ling Yah: How did you do that research? And just go back in time to see what people were doing. Because Europeans, they wrote a lot about the literature and culture surrounding food, but Malaysians, not so much. So that must have been difficult for you.
Darren Teoh: Yes. Yes. I think that a lot of the things I say, I mean are from external sources. There isn't a primary source anymore for a lot of things because our knowledge is passed down verbally more than it is written. And because of that, things get muddled a little bit or they get lost and have all these keepers of the secrets and then they're no longer around.
They're no longer with this or the secrets are no longer relevant.
That's why I say it's about the acquisition of knowledge at this point. We have to at least know something about something, having the knowledge about something and not knowing, I mean, compared to where we were before and not knowing anything about it.
It's better to know something, at least, even if it's not as accurate.
Ling Yah: When you say acquisition of knowledge, how do you take an ingredient and how do you explore the many ways you can use it and cook it?
And for example, like I understand that keluak is something that you use a lot and it's actually a poisonous fruit that is edible only through fermentation.
So how do you discover that whole process of okay, you can eat it now, but you have to go through a certain process in order for it to be edible and how to pair it with other ingredients?
Darren Teoh: Well, I think, this is our problem. The assumption is that what is common knowledge for me is common knowledge for everyone and what is not common knowledge for me, it's also not common knowledge for everyone.
So the keluak or the kepayang is something that's been used for generations. You find them in Peranakan cooking.
So it's common knowledge for a different subset of people, just because it's not common knowledge for Klang Valley people, perhaps . We assume that this is new and novel. And I think that's our problem. We're not explorers or at least if we used to be our explorers, we've failed to be explorers now.
That's why cuisine, or at least our takes on cuisine are so myopic.
Ling Yah: When was the last time you were truly surprised by something.
Darren Teoh: Maybe not very long ago, we took a trip out to a village there. And we were having a conversation with this chap who has a few initiatives in the area. And we were just talking about some of the ingredients that they use and how they use it. Surprise might be an overstatement, not right, but it was definitely an interesting conversation.
Ling Yah: What kind of ingredients were they using?
Darren Teoh: I think we were talking about the perah. We were trying to source for the perah because the season was then, but we couldn't get anyone to get them for us. We were just talking about how they use it. And they would crush it with some salt.
So the perah is also toxic. To treat it for you to eat it so they would peel it and then they would crunch it with some salt and then they were putting it into bamboo poles and then they would smoke it for about a day or two.
And then through the smoking process, this oil was split from inside the perah. And then they would store that and they would use that as a seasoning or flavoring.
Ling Yah: And you mentioned before that you were talking to other people to figure out how they were using certain ingredients.
And I noticed that you do a lot of collaborations with people like a little farm on the Hill, Chocolate Concierge, which is the chocolate that you gave when we finished the food tasting at your restaurant.
How do you build those kinds of relationships and figure out these are the people that I want to work with and source ingredients from?
Darren Teoh: Always starts with a phone call, I guess. And then a conversation. And then, we see if we like each other or not. And then we just kinda works that way.
So I think a lot of the people who supply to the restaurant , the specialty ones, at least, developed relationships over the years, like Langit, like Little Farm on the Hill.
So they've become good friends. And then when we feel that their cause is like something that is worth joining them in, we partner with.
When I travel to go cook at other restaurants, I always bring Langit rice with me and we incorporate that into the menu somehow.
Because that's how much I think it's good. Also, it's not only that it's good, but the people who are doing it and the sincerity that comes off from them.
Ling Yah: What's the best way for people to know the ones that are doing this work and how do they save the good ones from the bad ones and support?
Darren Teoh: Oh, now that's a tough one. I think you have to know who you're buying from. A very big difference between my grandmother's generation and this generation.
My grandma's generation knew who the fish supplier was. She knew who the fish uncle was. They develop relationships, they know who their daughters were, where they were going to school, if this was going on all right or the wife was sick blah blah blah. They knew who they were. And therefore the relationship helped to mean the quality of the produce. You know what I mean?
So you wouldn't give someone that you see on an almost daily basis. You're not going to give that person rubbish stuff, right. Okay la I'll save you the nice one, aunty aunty hi ini udang besar ini saya simpan.
So they would do that. They did stuff like that and that's relationships. And then our generation kind of grew up in buying stuff from Fajah or Tesco or Carrefour. So it was fairly disassociated. It's not unheard often to think about someone who's not seen chicken, that's there's a whole bird. And I think that's what's missing. We don't make connections. I mean, we're not a dining nation, we're an eating mission.
We want to stuff our faces. We're not curious about where our ingredients come from. I don't think we understand the word foodie. I think we're more concerned with consumption.
Ling Yah: How does one change something like that?
Darren Teoh: You kind of have to want to change yourself, right? And I don't think it's impossible to step out of their reality. Think about why pre-COVID, why do buffet restaurants still exist in our country?
Everybody knows it's subpar food. Everybody knows it's not great, but people go for a free steamboat, buffet hotpot, buffet hotels, but why?
I mean, we think about the quality of the food that's going on like say steam book restaurant. RM20 per person eats all you want. What do you think you could possibly get for $20 per person?
Grab delivery fees are more expensive. It's not impossible for us to remove ourselves from thinking about all these kinds of things. You cannot say poverty, I guess if you say $20 and eat all you can, then there's not poverty, there's grief.
And you cannot say that okay I did not know that I was greedy. And I think that's very important. If it's important enough for them, they make that change and they will stop it. If it is important enough for them.
Ling Yah: Have there been any countries or places where they have succeeded in inculcating that love of food itself, as opposed to just gorging themselves.
Darren Teoh: I think many countries are that. Look at our obesity rate. I'm not slim and trim myself, but I'm aware, but look at the obesity rate. The question is, why is that? Why is that rate so high? Look at Thailand. Thailand has a very unique food culture.
Vietnam has a very, quite a unique food culture.
I mean, okay. So for example, Thailand. Thailand has at least 3 or 4 restaurants that I know of, maybe 5 Thai restaurants serving Thai food that have made it into the 50 best list or earned 2 stars Michelin.
Some of these restaurants are just by preserving old Thai recipes.
What do we have? We have nothing. We continue to have nothing, because we don't care.
Ling Yah: I noticed a lot of people around the world who're doing the same thing that you're doing. And I think Christian Bowman from 108 in Copenhagen came once with Maya and Alan to collaborate with you.
How do you build that kind of relationship with different people in your field, around the world? And share that knowledge and experience and collaborations.
Darren Teoh: I think it's because we've been very true to what we've professed ourselves to being. So we've just been doing what we do and trying to escalate the quality and level of what we do.
And because we do that, people have taken notice of what we do. You know what I mean? Maybe we are not famous or anything like that, but when you tell people the story and this is why we're doing, this is how we'd like to do it, we'd like to have you to come over.
And then you develop a relationship from that.
Ling Yah: So would it be fair to say like social media, for instance, is quite important for your work, because that's how people know about what you're doing, hear about it and share?
Darren Teoh: Unfortunately. Yes. Unfortunately. I don't like it, but what to do.
I think a lot of just like fanboying, lah really. I don't think it creates the market. It amplifies the market.
You need to have content, first of all, right. So the content is very important. And if you don't have the content, then what are you going to put on and what are people going to follow you for?
And I think that around the world it's become like restaurants like Noma and restaurants, like Farvicon or Rouleau, these are the top of my head. Scandinavian, I know, but at the top of my head, they all have interesting stories to tell.
Instagrams are great media for it because it's visual. And it's written so you can look at it and like a kid, or you can look at it and read it, or you can just read it as well also.
Ling Yah: The awards are also a big thing as well, right? Once you got into the Asia's 50 best restaurants list, did you feel that there was a sudden spotlight on what you were doing and everyone wanted to come?
Darren Teoh: Yes, yes and no. Suddenly people who have been saying they're going to come after four years finally came. I mean, the support that we got from the majority of Malaysians was less than admirable. We've also had a lot of Malaysians that have been strong supporters of us.
So we chose to concentrate on making sure that those guys are happy.
It was a relief, I think. I think it was a validation at least every day. And even after today I question what it is that we're doing.
Ling Yah: How reliable are these award listings?
Darren Teoh: I think all of these things have a bias.
To say something is tasty is an objective review to say something like I prefer this over then. That's a subjective review. I think people need to be able to tell the difference between both. But I think that the ones in Malaysia are far from being accurate, lah.
If you want to be a critique of something like the 50 best list and Michelin list, you'd better have an alternative because I think within the scope of what they're doing, they're doing it a lot more successful lah.
Ling Yah: They didn't tell you, right? They just came and then they just sent an email saying hey, you're on the list.
Darren Teoh: Yes, they don't come just once. It comes from an Academy of jurors and then they come in and they eat they didn't go back and they wrote a certain amount of people who just vote lah. Maybe the top five or the top 10 restaurants, and then it kind of gets aggregated from there.
It is anonymous. At least for us, it was anonymous. We didn't really know.
Ling Yah: You used to be in Shah Alam and then you moved your restaurant to KL. How has that move been for you?
Darren Teoh: Expensive.
Yeah, it's just been expensive, really. I think maybe it is a little harder to say because we've got this whole COVID thing going on. So yeah. I don't think what we are experiencing is an accurate reflection of how it should have turned out.
But it's also an accurate reflection of how it should that out because it is what it is, right? I mean, whatever the circumstances are.
Ling Yah: Could you share how COVID has impacted you and their work in,
Darren Teoh: I think it's similar to most of the restaurant industry and we've been quite blessed because we have a parent company that values what we do.
So we've been fairly sheltered from a lot of the repercussions of the business. But it has been a struggle to fill the dining room daily.
Ling Yah: Do you have any plans for the future in terms of how to improve the situation?
Darren Teoh: Hmm. I'm not very good at making vaccines. I think that's the frustration most people feel. And I think in every industry it's what do we do now?
And you can't do anything because you can't plan for more than a week in advance and you can't plan for one month in advance. A lot of the work that we do is reactionary now instead of proactionary.
Ling Yah: And so for those listening to this who want to help you, what's the best way they can support your work?
Darren Teoh: You can Whatsapp me and I'll give you my account number. You can just bank in money.
Well, I mean, I don't know if there's anything you can do at the end of the day. It's a restaurant and it's meant for sustenance and it's meant for having a good time it's meant for the act of socializing. that the best thing is to just come in and enjoy an evening off. I think what I would really like is for people to have a better understanding of one finding is, and or at least to give different people a chance.
I think the opportunity to do something that not many people have. And I think it should be relished and it should be enjoyed. And I think that those opportunities shouldn't be taken for granted lah.
Look for restaurants and support restaurants that have integrity in the things that they're doing.
Look for restaurants that have care for what they're doing, I think I would rather see these things happen than to sell an extra jar for like blue mayonnaise or something like that.
I think it's far more important that the Malaysians that just grew up lah. I mean, like you have all of these Instagram reviewers. And the thing is that You've never walked in the shoes of the people who cook the food for you. Number one or a lot of them have a very flat palate.
Creamy, rich and buttery. Easy. I could make a cream of everything soup and you'd enjoy that tasting menu.
My point is why review something that you cannot do, you're trying to feed the ego more than you're trying to do something.
Ling Yah: And you mentioned finding restaurants off, the kind of values that you appreciate. Do you want to give a shout out to certain restaurants that you think would be good for people to be patrons of?
Darren Teoh: No. And the reason why I won't do that is because I think we have this obsession with list things and obsession with recommendations.
I think we should be far more adventurous and go ahead and try a restaurant that you've never heard of or you never saw before. Why do we have to wait for KL Foodie or whenever the reference point, and then going bucket list it like, I'm just sick and tired of bucket lists.
I mean, how many more lists do we need and how many more entries into this do we need what happened to discovering places by yourself? What happened to appreciating restaurants for what they are and not what you think they should be?
I think that you would enjoy yourself a lot more. Hell of a lot more, if you allowed yourself the opportunity to have that sense of an adventure.
Ling Yah: And what about those who want to be chefs? What is your one big piece of advice for them?
Darren Teoh: Don't do it.
It's a lot of hard work. We get a lot of kids that come in and do their internships with us. And not many of them make it because they didn't know how much work it's going to be. And the salaries are a little bit better from 5, 10 years ago, but it's still not by much.
We don't earn a lot of money.
Given the values that are instilled these days and today, I think maybe you will find this profession very, very difficult to bridge that gap between expectations.
I mean, I've been cooking for about 20 years. And it takes many years to be able to do something that you want to do.
For many years, you will be doing what other people asked you to do. I think if you concentrate more on developing a good work ethic , being a person with integrity and honesty then it wouldn't matter if you do end up cooking as a profession, or if you end up doing anything else you will enjoy it.
Ling Yah: do you feel that you have found your, why.
Darren Teoh: Hmm. Yes and no.
I think that we're always in transition. We're transient.
There's this very interesting line from a movie called a waking life where this person says that we are constantly in a state of arrival and departure, which means that we never stay constant. You are never just a still moment. I think that the same with your whys, there are seasons for it. The times where there are more than one why.
Sometimes not having a way is also important. To not have a way at that time, , and then you develop a while later on maybe. I think sometimes I do have a why sometimes I don't.
Ling Yah: And what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Darren Teoh: When I die, I want people to remember me as a thoughtful person and as a person who was not selfish and a person who had integrity and a person who live this life in the best way that he could and I think that that legacy should be translated into the way that my children would then live their life.
Ling Yah: And what'd you think are the most important qualities a successful person should have
Darren Teoh: Be very good at failure. Very, super good at failing. I think that that's success. Success is when you don't fail. That's what I think is.
I mean, I don't think I'm successful. We have achieved some degree of success, but successful has a soft, like finality to it. And I'm not ready for that finality just yet.
I think we still got a few more tricks up our sleeve. Probably knock some things out of the park, do something interesting. I think failure means that you take risks and maybe that's one of the things that are finding it's not as exciting anymore because there's so few people that take risks.
For example, opening our bubble tea shop in section 15 in that whole road, that's a risk. I can't see for the life of me why they would do that, but okay.
So I'm not talking about those kind of risks, but like being adventurous with doing things that are different counter, counter culture and just questioning culture in general.
I think you'd find some degree of success when you're ready to put yourself out there and become this category of one. Just be that one person who is in that box, doing that thing that you're doing, just because you're doing it.
And not open black burger shop, just because you saw someone do that.
Ling Yah: In that vein, is there anyone that you think is doing this well that you look up to?
Darren Teoh: I can't think of anyone right now, but I will say that Dewakan can only happen because we stand on, the shoulder of giants. There were restaurants before us who have paved the way not in the same vein as what we're doing, but in this country have allowed the evolution of restaurants to come to where we are right now.
And we in turn will then be the giants that other people, other giants get to stand on. So that we pave the way and then other restaurants can also do greater things than what we have.
Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you and support what you're doing?
Darren Teoh: Well, yeah, I mean, our usual channels are DewakanMy on Instagram as well as on Facebook. That's about it. Don't want to say to me,
Ling Yah: Unless they're giving you money.
Darren Teoh: Unless they're giving me money, yeah, and it has to be a lot of money. Otherwise you can just do it through reservations.
Ling Yah: And is there anything else you'd like to share that we haven't covered yet?
Darren Teoh: I think one of the things that I've been pondering about over these past few weeks just before this conversation was first, there was the sense of finality.
Yeah. I think that we tend to approach success or approach stories in a snapshot of where we are right now. But I think it's important also to recognize that there has never been a singular moment that leads you to this point.
There's always a series of moments and some of these decisions are great decisions.
And then some of these decisions are wrong decisions, but the wrong decisions also still bring you to this point. And some of them it's the wrong decisions, which you feel like oh my god it's the end of the world, but it's not the end of the world.
And being wrong and being mistaken and taking bad decisions. A lot of them are not as bad as people scare you to feel.
And I think that our society tends to promote a lot of fear because we think that whatever you do, it's gotta be right the first time or else you're never gonna make it and that finality, it leads me to my second point of fear.
And I think that for a generation that has got so much access to information and so much technology that allows us to do things that are inevitable, we still do the very thinkable.
And that's because we're so afraid of this finality. They're so afraid of making this mistake and we're so afraid of upsetting someone or something like this. And the truth is really that we have ceased to believe the potential of the environment that we have around us.
if there was anything that I would say to anyone, it would be do not be afraid, be courageous.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 29. The show notes and transcript can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/29.
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