Sometimes, all it takes is a simple move to stay on top of things. When pressure mounted after Pertinence won its first star in The Michelin Guide France in February, chefs Kwen Liew and Ryunosuke Naito removed two tables from their 18-seater Paris restaurant.That quick decision gave the pair — together for five years, and partners in the kitchen since Pertinence opened in March 2017 — breathing space to take stock of what has happened and how they were going to cope.
“We were shocked when we got the star. Yes, things have changed a lot — it’s a little more exaggerated than usual. Clients demand more and they compare,” says Kuala Lumpur-born Liew, 30.
“In the last few years, the winners were announced a month ahead of the awards ceremony. This year, a day before the (Feb 5 event) some people came to our restaurant with cameras. Ryu knew who they were but I didn’t. I was shocked and blanked out for about two minutes. Then I tried to hide.”
There is no hiding now for Liew, the first Malaysian woman to be honoured by Michelin. She is one of two women on the 2018 list, which has 621 starred restaurants, including 57 new ones. The guide cites that “[Naito] carefully and expertly transforms market-fresh ingredients into succulent classical French dishes, brushing away the cobwebs of tradition along the way”.
“It is very hard to get a star in France ... that’s why we never thought we would get it,” Liew adds. “Now that we have, the most important thing is to keep it — that’s the hardest. We can understand [why people return the award]. It’s really pressure, and there’s only both of us in the kitchen.”
Fame may be an unexpected guest at their intimate eatery tucked away in quiet Rue de l’Exposition, but it is a welcome visitor the chefs hope will stay. They have no special recipe to handle their new-found status beyond a steely resolve to “just go ahead and do it, keeping in mind our philosophy of serving traditional French cuisine... We have confidence in ourselves.”
It is a confidence accumulated over 14 years of working in France for Naito, 33, from Nagano, Japan, and three for Liew, whose food journey kicked off when she learnt to cook around the age of six. “I love to eat ... anything. I cannot stop eating.”
After completing secondary school at Catholic High in Petaling Jaya, she tried different things, such as design and make-up, but found they were not what she wanted. “I watched lots of cooking shows on YouTube and was looking for an F&B college. So, when a friend introduced me to Le Cordon Bleu in Australia, I thought, why not?”
She did two semesters of the hospitality institution’s cuisine course in Sydney before transferring to Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School in Bangkok to complete her final semester in 2010. “I always told myself, ‘One day, I will open my own restaurant.’” Taking a firm step towards her goal, she signed up for a nine-month pastry course in the south of France. Following that, she interned at Restaurant Antoine in Paris, where she met Naito, the sous chef there then.They kept in touch over the next three years while Liew worked in Singapore. Moving from one place to another every few years was a deliberate choice, she says, because “I love to explore and see the culture, food and lifestyle of different countries”.
In 2015, Naito asked her to join him in Paris to work on the Bistrot Alexander III, a boat restaurant docked near the Pont Alexandre III bridge that spans the Seine. There, together with a third chef, they served up to 600 people a day.
“It was a good experience but I told him that was not what I wanted. We were searching for quality, not quantity. I already had years of experience and needed to [think about] my future.”
Naito, who had worked in the kitchens of three-Michelin star Taillevent and Le 1947 at Cheval Blanc in Courchevel, and was a sous chef at Le Meurice, one of Paris’ most iconic luxury hotels, did not need much persuading. Thus began their eight-month search for a place to set up their own eatery. The paperwork and renovations took another 10 months before Pertinence opened last year.
“When we started, from scratch, our greatest worry was competing with the French as both of us are foreigners,” Liew recalls.
Staying true to what has served Pertinence well and put it under the spotlight means making the best use of seasonal produce and trusting their palate in the quartre-mains — four-hand chef in French — set-up where, apart from a maitre d’, Liew and Naito do everything together, from cooking and serving to the washing up because “it’s very hard to get someone with the same palate and skills”. They used to have a dishwasher but he kept breaking the plates!
The restaurant, formerly an ancient bistro, is small, bright and inviting, with a glass frontage and white leather drapes covering two side walls. Wooden slats strung across the ceiling run down a recessed partition, stopping just above a copper serving hatch through which diners get a peep of the chefs at work. Christofle Mood cutlery eggs in rose gold add a classy touch to the 30 sq m of dining space, adjoining an 18 sq m kitchen. A 25 sq m underground cellar accessed by a hydraulic cylinder system near the front door holds 4,000 bottles, which the pair sources directly from chateaus and domains.
“For food culture, it is better to be in France, where the season’s products and doneness are very important,” Liew says.
These were talking points at the three-course lunch at our table earlier this month, which began with an appetising lentils and ham mousse. The starter, in-season white asparagus with anchovies and orange marmalade, was refreshing with its balance of plain and strong flavours. Then the maitre d’ asked how we wanted our duck done. This main, served with beetroot, chicory, spinach and radish and done exactly to our liking, was hearty, unpretentious and truly delicious. Dessert — cream mousse lemon, fresh strawberries and strawberry ice cream paired with a puff pastry — was a treat of different textures and tastes.
When asked their strengths in the kitchen, Liew says Naito is good with fish and meat and she, the sauces and sides. As the partner with the “more feminine” touch, he also takes care of plating as visuals are very important nowadays.
Pertinence, a name they chose to reflect their endeavour to make everything “great and perfect”, changes its menu every six to eight weeks. Typical of the adventurous chef who is game to try new things, Liew has thrown bits of Asian ingredients such as kamquat, tong kwei and kei chi into her broths.
Having “downsized” as an initial response to fame, she and Naito are in no hurry to expand the restaurant. They dream of opening another, eventually, but for now, their focus is on maintaining their star and making things better at Pertinence.
“There are lots of things we have to be very careful about — our food, presentation, service, reasonable pricing, quality products and who you can get them from, and how to put them on the menu. We cannot rush it or things are going to be upside down,” Liew says.
The pressure is constant but “we have wine”, Liew says with a laugh, in response to how she keeps cool.
Incredulous people have also asked her: “From eating, this is now your career?”
“Why not?” she tells them. But behind those two words are years of learning, toil and determination.
“It’s not easy being a woman in the kitchen. You have to be tough in physique and mind to run a restaurant. Atttitude and mentality are very important. You also have to know what you really want to do, then go ahead and do it.”
Having done so herself, she gets joy from hearing diners say, “Your food is very nice.”
Adamantly a Malaysian at heart, Liew misses food from home, such as nasi lemak, curry laksa, Ipoh sar hor fun, assam laksa and yong tau foo. These are not available in Paris, so she and Naito head to a Chinese restaurant when such cravings arise.
And when they go out for a meal, the choice is ultimately French. “It’s traditional cuisine, sexy and very gourmet,” she says. “You see the techniques and doneness of the meats. You see how different chefs use different products and techniques to produce this fish or texture in food.”
Pertinence Restaurant is located at 29 rue de l’Exposition, 75007 Paris. This article first appeared on Apr 30, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.