Dewakan's New Space Observes Quiet Splendour Instead Of Showy Display
"Those final weeks were a mess," intones Wayne Wong. Dewakan's sous chef, whom I've probed to paint a picture of the restaurant's exit from Shah Alam, says, "We had to meet a tight deadline to leave our old place, but the new space wasn't ready yet."
Eschewing their starched whites for casual sweats, the chefs and interns packed, sealed, and loaded a seemingly endless succession of cardboard boxes without forgetting that they'd have to repeat the process in reverse. "No third party was involved," underscores Wong. The team 'moved house' themselves between November and December 2019.
Said to be more stressful than splitting from a spouse or starting a new job, the process of moving took a lot out of everyone, but once the dust had settled ("And believe me, there was a lot of dust," says Wong. "Construction was still happening all around us when we started")...
There can be no clean slate without first dusting off one's hands.
Buttery light bathes Darren Teoh, Joe Tan and Avinesh Kutty in Dewakan's R&D space, which accommodates kitchen appliances by Sub-Zero and Wolf and a glossy counter fashioned from Chengal Batu, a tropical hardwood renowned for its robustness. Like larger than life deities listening in, the Twin Towers and a mountainous landscape hover to our left and right. I am in the presence of giants in more ways than one.
"To simplify things, there were basically two parts to building the new Dewakan," begins Kutty. "My company, DWG Studios, oversaw the overall interior design, whereas Joe’s company crafted the kitchen with Darren’s input."
To call today's dialogue a 'round-table discussion' would be ironic given the jelly bean-shaped counter around which we have congregated. Rapping his knuckles against the said furniture, Kutty recounts, "We considered a circle, a rectangle, and an oval for the shape of this tabletop before saying, 'Enough! We need to decide once and for all.' This was at McDonalds at like 2am."
Something must be said for the organic flow of the table, which ingeniously allows even those sitting in a row to converse face-to-face. But its conception was just one thread that needed to be unraveled—building Dewakan 2.0 was akin to untangling yards of yarn.
The Monk Who Loves A Good Meal
Meet Joe Tan, a chef turned chief revenue officer turned lecturer turned consultant turned monk turned kitchen designer—and that's simplifying the culinary hyphenate's colourful life.
Those who want to journey into the depths of kitchen design will find no better Virgil than Tan. Barely speaking above a whisper, the soft-spoken creative who spearheads Kitchen Inc has also helped Johnson Wong of Gen Penang and Darren Chin of Bref and DC Restaurant build their dream kitchens.
The seeds for Dewakan 2.0 were sown during a well-watered dinner, according to Tan.
"I have no recollection of this at all," interrupts Teoh. Perhaps the drinking...? I suggest, but the chef-patron is adamant: "I don’t imbibe much. Although I do remember conveying my initial vision for the kitchen to Joe, who then set down some rationale and logic."
"Once Darren confirmed the location, our first move was to lay down all technical issues and construction constraints," explains Tan, thereby exposing another habit of successful creatives: identifying obstacles and clearing them before proceeding with a project. "The low ceiling height posed a real problem." Presently occupied by Blackbyrd and Dragonfly, drinking and dining spaces owned by Indonesia's Ismaya Group, only the 50th floor was designed to house F&B establishments.
News travels fast through the grapevine, especially when it entails KL's compact fine dining scene. Weeks before my visit, I'd heard whispers of a one-of-a-kind kitchen. Without exhaust fans, it was said to promote pin-drop silence.
To see this technological and mechanical wonder in person today is nothing short of exhilarating.
"You heard right," beams Tan. "It is the first of its kind in Malaysia, designed and built by Kitchen Inc with the assistance of multiple international consultants and engineers. This particular ventilated ceiling is integrated with air-conditioning, fresh air, exhaust, lighting, fire alarm and sprinklers, and provides the kitchen staff with a comfortable environment for their long working hours: there is no stench, no pressure, no heat and no noise."
But the reason the restaurant looks the way it does now is because of the limitations that were imposed.
The Experience Creator
Looking every bit the architect with tortoise shell glasses and a soft-collared button-up, Avinesh Kutty clears his throat gingerly. "This is actually the first high-end restaurant my company has worked on. We usually specialise in very homey eateries, from cafés to chain pizzerias."
"But they were cheap," blurts Teoh in his usual blunt manner that makes it impossible to know if he jests. "We contemplated a few more established contenders, but it became evident in our first and second conversation with Kutty and his colleague Arief that they had a hunger—this appealed to us. In fact, both Joe and Kutty are here because they wanted to build something out of the ordinary, and by default, I only try to do things that are different."
Nothing short of novel, the shelving unit behind us is just one example of how Dewakan is doing things differently. "We are displaying something that would normally be hidden away," says Kutty, who invites us to inspect row upon row of pickling jars.
A sample label might read, 'Sardine, fish head, 24 December 2019.'
"We initially didn’t want any private dining rooms, but in KL it's a requirement," mentions Teoh. For a split second, it seems as if he is about to walk straight into a wall, but the partition pushes inwards.
Evoking desert modernism, Dewakan's private dining room reflects the taste of the uber wealthy who covet subtlety. Were it not for KL's unmistakable skyline before us, we might as well be in a Silicon Valley king's home in California's Joshua Tree.
"It was Kutty’s idea to have a seamless door. There’s something very brash about private dining rooms, especially in Asia, where the 'atas' relish their VIP section," opines Teoh.
A private dining room should be private. It shouldn’t be a place where people get to brag.
"Instead of extravagant, we've gone for truthful," interjects Kutty, whose gaze meets the hollow sockets of a bovine skull. Death is clearly not hush-hush at Dewakan, and why should it be? Especially in an industry that entails sacrifice, and at a restaurant whose very name acknowledges a higher power.
Still on the philosophical route, Dewakan also unravels what it means to 'be.'
"In some of the briefs, I requested a sense of arrival and departure, which Kutty has tackled quite satisfactorily," says Teoh.
Moving through Dewakan feels like a meditation.
"As you exit the lifts, the slightly sombre lighting gives you a sense of having arrived someplace. Approach the signage and you’ll see another corridor, which gives you a sense of transience. Explore different nooks and crannies to arrive here or there," expounds Kutty. "I think you will agree, it all feels very ethereal."
Tasteful Malaysian Typology
Taking precedence over physical and experiential lexicons is cultural context: one wouldn't expect any less of Dewakan.
"What is a quintessential Malaysian restaurant?" asks Kutty rhetorically. "If you look at a humble chicken rice stall, you'll see the poultry up front and someone at the chopping board."
"Darren’s directions were very unique," adds Tan. "He said, 'I want a Malaysian restaurant,' which means that from the moment you enter, the kitchen should be the first thing in view."
Backtrack a few steps and you'll notice even more 'Malaysian-ness.' Kutty points out the lucky horseshoe crabs and songket designs that frame the entrance.
It isn't unusual for kampung folk to hang 'belangkas' on their front doors to ward off evil spirits. Why horseshoe crabs? To make up for a lack of horseshoes!
Everything, from height of the tables to the tessellations in the tiling, was purposefully chosen to reflect locality.
Ebb & Flow
"Sawadee kap," says Teoh while shimmying past a stagiaire from Thailand. "And that's Ronny, our dishwasher..."
Our promenade of Dewakan ends at the kitchen, which is uncharacteristically peaceful. "As you can see, no one is stressed out or bustling about unnecessarily. There is a flow that is…"
"Intuitive?" I proffer.
Turning to Tan abruptly, Teoh divulges, "What you didn’t know is that the back of house went through every single one of your drawings in the early stages. Pattaya (Leanne Lim, who handles Dewakan’s beverage programme, clues me in: "That's our nickname for our chef de cuisine; he’s the one who looks like Doraemon") sat down with the team to scrutinise the sketches before communicating with you."
Who best to involve in a kitchen's floor plans than its primary occupants? It's the reason why the cogs in this wheel click into place and tick to an underlying symphony.
- Photography Khairul Imran