Chef Darren Teoh Of Dewakan: Mum Has Been More Of A Support Than I Give Her Credit For
His is not a melancholic approach but the use of a vocabulary that’s reflective of a childhood hero who nurtured him. Darren Teoh of Dewakan, the first Malaysian restaurant ranked on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List, reflects back on his mother's recipes, her resourcefulness, and her all-encompassing influence upon his globally-recognised restaurant.
Familial Environments & Fish Cutlets
I spent a lot of time growing up with my matriarchal family. They are Malayali from Kerala in South India; because of that, life largely revolved around the kitchen table in our longhouse in Seapark. You’d finish your homework and carry out food prep on the same table. One of my earliest memories of this space is learning how to desiccate coconuts on a stool grater. That and using a rolling pin to crush cream crackers.
My grandmother, mum and aunties made fish cutlets every Christmas. It was a dish that I enjoyed eating the most. Instead of using breadcrumbs, they would use the crushed crackers to coat each cutlet.
Family meals are important to me—it’s something my mum has instilled. At Dewakan, you won’t catch a picture of someone sitting on a trash can and eating his meal alone. It’s important that everybody eats at the same time.
The Act & The Art Of Creation
When we were young, we had everything we wanted but we were by no means rich. Mum would make toys for us that in retrospect, enriched our view of how entertainment should be. One Christmas, I received a replica of the Sword of Omens. Do you know ThunderCats? Well, it was the ThunderCats sword. What she did was—and I remember this ever so clearly—was to use a leftover lid from a paint can and to turn it into a shield. She painted it, made a decal of the Thundercats insignia, and put a handle on the back.
It had nothing at all to do with the cartoon, but I didn’t care, man. It was one of the best toys ever.
Mum's penchant for starting things from scratch has shaped the DNA of Dewakan; it's why a lot of our stuff is made from scratch, whether it's plates or cloths. Beyond being creative, mum is resourceful. She doesn’t let a lack of materials determine what she can or cannot do. She does things without fear because she knows she will figure it out along the way. She enjoys the act and the art of creation—I think that’s what's most interesting about my mum.
When Firestarter Meets Firestorm
We’ve had a rocky relationship because we’re more alike than we care to admit.
Call it a dichotomy if you will, but when describing someone who’s compassionate or caring, a Mother Theresa kind of figure comes to mind. Although her name is Theresa, mum wasn’t that. Because of her iron will, she could also be a firestorm. We were often in conflict throughout my teenage years and when I first started cooking as I didn’t have a very good temper either. It was only until I had learned to humble myself that our relationship improved. She has been more of a support than I give her credit for.
Putting Family Before Fantasies
I don’t think previous generations had the privilege of discussing their dreams or ambitions. They worked very hard for us to have the opportunity to say, "I would like to be this or that."
My mother was a draughtsperson but she took a break each time she had me, my sister and my brother. She then took it upon herself to care for our grandparents in succession—my father’s mother first and then hers. As a result, I think there were things in her life that she might have wanted to do but didn’t get to. When the opportunity arose, she went into child education. Right now she runs an enrichment centre called Lambano Learning Centre, which she started in her 60s. She’s quite the entrepreneur! So she’s not one to sleep on her dreams but having said that, she’s had a lot of support from her husband, my father. Mum also runs science camps on the side.
Radical Accomplishments Versus The Right Attitude
We’d been on my parents' prayer list for a long time because they know of the difficulties of running a restaurant and of my desire to take the most difficult route. Like with many of my accomplishments, mum was very pleased and proud, but...
Next year, Dewakan might not be on the list. People will forget. We could even close, for all we know. What society places so much emphasis on could disappear overnight. Which explains why she cares more about who I am and what I do as a person than what I’ve accomplished in the eyes of others. She cares more about who we—my brother, my sister and myself—are as people.
Her teachings have an impact upon how my staff and I treat each other, but our mutual respect doesn't stem from my mother’s values alone. Our other team members too harbour memories of how their mums have shaped them. Whether these women were good cooks or not is beyond the point—they imparted something constructive towards their children, who they are as people, and how they see the world at large.
[As told to Samantha Lim in Darren Teoh's own words]