The chef behind The Best Restaurant in Malaysia 2022, as decreed by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, is known for living up to his dining room’s name, Dewakan — a portmanteau of the words dewa (god) and makan (food or “to eat”). Famed for honouring provenance and using local and indigenous produce, such as jungle fruit kulim and pepper varietal ketumpang air, Teoh talks about the business and passion of eating and cooking and how he prefers to spend his rare days off.
Options: Congratulations on Dewakan being named Malaysia’s Best Restaurant and for making the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022. How did you feel when you heard the news?
Darren Teoh: I just didn’t want to be last. But in all, it’s a great result.
What’s your message, though, to all the tireless individuals working in the industry, after what has been a particularly tumultuous two years?
Be unafraid. Do what you think is best for you at the time and which still keeps you true to your values. We forget but history is a lot more lenient than we think. And also guard what occupies your mind!
We loved that you mentioned several other favourite dining establishments in your social media platform fresh after your inclusion in the prestigious list. It was a generous gesture, but why did you feel it was also important to remind other people of good places in your moment of glory?
Because we are, by far, not the best restaurant in Malaysia. There are great restaurants of varying degrees within the country with voices that need to be heard. I think what we achieved is consistent with what we value. Any city can boast of having one good restaurant. But people who enjoy travel, food and culture don’t come for just one good place. They want to see and experience a proper representation of the myriad nuances that a destination has to offer. The other restaurants we mentioned — including Entier French Dining, Hide KL, A Little Farm on the Hill, Alta Cafe, Wong Mei Kee for the famous Datuk siew yoke, Aaliyaa, Beta KL and The Regent Chinese Cuisine — help others unravel great things about our country. We had a lot more to list but Instagram, unfortunately, only allowed us to post 10 pictures on the carousel.
You mentioned once that you sometimes spend more time trying to convince Malaysians about Dewakan compared with the rest of the world. Why do you feel this is the case?
It is hard to say. We have amazing supporters and people who believe in what we do, people who have been behind of any amount of success Dewakan has experienced. We are always grateful for that. But often I feel that, generally, as a society, we see more worth in imported culture than we do our own. Globally, there is a larger acceptance of restaurants that are doing things others are not. In Malaysia, we pay greater attention to trends and more visceral experiences and not necessarily dining experiences.
What do you normally eat off-duty, though?
I can’t say I am ever really off-duty as I have two young boys. We basically eat what we have prepared for them or whatever they are eating.
Now that travel is a viable reality once more, which countries are you looking to visit first and, more importantly, what is your “Eat List” looking like?
We should be travelling to Spain and England soon. My sister is getting married so we will be visiting Valencia and Portsmouth. This time, the itinerary revolves around family and not so much on food. What we would definitely not be able to avoid is airline food!
Where are your all-time favourite destinations for gourmet adventures?
Spain and Denmark.
What do you, as a rule, never order when eating out at a fancy spot?
I usually just leave it up to the maitre d’ or chef to make the decision, so I rarely have something I ‘never order’. I believe they know what the best choices are when curating the overall experience.
What are you reading right now?
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings.
What are you listening to right now?
Jaja Ding Dong by Will Ferrell and My Marianne. It’s hilarious and, truth be told, I’ve watched the movie about it [Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga] six times already.
Do the kids listen to it?
Well, it’s not crude per se but it’s still Will Ferrell, so no, not for kids’ ears. But I listen to a broad spectrum of music usually, anything from N.W.A to Kendrick Lamar and Pantera.
Describe a perfect day off for you.
Hanging out with the kids and wife, doing nothing ... or everything.
This article first appeared on Apr 18, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.