Chef Chai transforms the culinary experience of years of travel into a new tasting menu at Datai Langkawi

Sarawak-born Chai Chun Boon knew he only had one chance to go overseas. So, every time he worked while traveling, he saved money to eat at the best restaurants, thinking, “If not now, then when?”

Far from being a gourmet indulging in culinary pleasures, he was a young chef in search of accumulating memories of flavors. “I did my best to understand what I was being offered and what was being presented, and how the pairing of flavors worked.

“After a long period of building this memory bank, when you come back to Asia and you receive a certain amount of ingredients, you start to connect the flavor profiles that you have from the last 12 to 15 years. And things generally work.

They certainly do, in a tantalizing nine-course tasting menu that allows this new senior chef to The Datai Langkawi to combine his service experience in two and three Michelin star European restaurants with what he does best.

When Chai plans a tasting menu, his goal isn’t to show off his culinary skills. “I don’t think I’m the best cook in the world and I tell everyone that. What I know how to do is marry flavors. I’m selling you the best flavors I can orchestrate. So I spend a lot of time tasting.

He believes that food should engage all the faculties and stimulate the emotions and does so by providing guests with a savory dining experience that tips the scales in his favor in the fiercely competitive culinary world. Chai is also known for favoring a farm-to-table approach that guarantees freshness.

“I am ready to challenge anyone in flavors, anyone, because I know my strength. I say the same to my team: you already have the Europeans who have built the foundations of the kitchen. You can never do better than them.

“What I can do better is invest in things they don’t have — the Asian flavors I grew up with — and combine them with European flavors and techniques. I spent all my money eating in restaurants to create flavor profiles. So when I need to create my dishes, they will come to mind.

Chai credits his late father for traveling around the world that brought him back to Malaysia, and now honors him through food. Tribute Royale — the first item on her tasting menu at The Datai’s all-day The Dining Room — is an organic egg with truffles, jungle garlic and caviar, presented in a “bird’s nest.”

“The first place I stopped and dined with my own money was Alain Passard’s three-star L’Arpège in Paris, famous for its hot and cold egg. I took the idea of ​​this and implemented it my way – hot and cold, sweet and savory.

Another French chef, who won his three stars in Japan, blew Chai away by flavoring his sauces with soy sauce instead of wine. “I could use anything,” he thought, and began introducing vinegars and different types of liquids into his sauces.

Chai, who founded non-alcoholic European restaurant Copper in Kuala Lumpur, says he likes cooking a plate with aromatics more than alcohol, “a shortcut to making sauces”.

Menu ideas and takeaways shape Chai’s food concepts and help him bridge the fundamentals of European haute cuisine, cross-cultural techniques and Asian palate sensibilities. It surprises diners by combining textures, aromas and ingredients to broaden the palette of flavors and intensities of a traditional tasting menu.

An interesting example is the black and white Iranian Sevruga caviar, served with scallop umai, sago pearls and coconut kaffir dressing. Kaffir lime, chilli, lemongrass and masala spices add zesty flavors to this dish inspired by umai, a traditional Borneo dish made with raw fish.

The staff offers a selection of artisan breads to accompany The Datai’s signature yeasted butter after three courses. The man and woman would have feasted only on the focaccia and charcoal bread if these had been laid out in front of them at the start of the meal.

Chai knows the temptation of a succulent bread. “They are always great and you go, go, go. Then you’re full and you don’t know what you’re going to have next. Placing the bread on the table later helps diners calm down, he says.

Vichyssoise served hot with Catch of the Andaman Sea – lobster and squid – showcases what the resort gets in abundance from the surrounding waters. The many pounds of langoustines served across the venue mean plenty of shells, to which the chef simply adds water and simmers over low heat to bring out their sweetness.

The luxury resort’s tasting menu is accompanied by fine wines and Champagne handpicked from its wine cellar by the resident sommelier. For those who don’t drink, light mocktails and a range of teas also make satisfying pairings.

“The dining room offers locavore cuisine inspired by our locality, the land of the Andaman Sea and its riches, the history, the people, the culture as well as the [our] strategic location. Combined with the use of local herbs and spices, our goal is to create flavor nuances that aromatize and tease the palate,” says Chai.

It certainly knows how to tease a foodie’s palate. The first time he met the resort’s management at an off-menu event in Kuala Lumpur last year, he served them pesto porridge, consisting of kombu-glazed sea-caught prawns, puffed cereal, herbs and garnishes. Everyone was making truffles and wagyu, but Chai chose to cook porridge, something he grew up eating and does quite well.

“It is also moving for me. If you give me porridge every morning, that could be my breakfast. It could also be my lunch and dinner.

Impressing with porridge recalls what Chai calls his ‘greatest revival’ of a three-star restaurant where, instead of caviar, foie gras and truffles, the star attraction was a dish prepared with just about the vegetable cheapest in the world – cucumber. “The highlight was being able to present a simple ingredient and have people say ‘wow!'”

The same could probably be said of his porridge. Next thing Chai knew he was flying to The Datai to cook for a VIP but due to miscommunication ended up cooking a meal for General Manager Arnaud Girodon and a few executive staff at the place. “They offered me a job right after.”

He brings some impressive references to The Datai’s table. After studying European Culinary Management in Switzerland, he worked at the two-star Michelin ABaC in Barcelona and the three-star Oud Sluis in the Netherlands. In 2011, he moved to Singapore and joined Santi, the first Asian outpost of three-star chef Santi Santamaria’s gourmet restaurant. His next stops were Pollen at Gardens by the Bay, then Graze, where he was a chef. He turned to Malaysia in 2014 and established Copper a year later. The restaurant closed mid-2020 after the lease expired.

When cooking for guests, Chai’s goal is always to nourish and delight with enjoyable and soulful dishes. “I like to give soulful dishes whose passion and love you can feel in the flavor.

“A lot of fine food – when you go up to three-star level – becomes very, very good. It’s no longer exploratory; they want things to be perfect, manicured. It’s very predictable.

“I don’t think I want my guests to feel that way. I want them to always find something new in my dishes. There may be failures. I think accidents can be very beautiful sometimes, while over-prepared food loses its soul.

“I want to be able to showcase foods with flavors that showcase the love my mom has for my [three] children. A chef friend I told this to said no, it’s not possible. This is not what a Michelin starred restaurant is.

With his vast experience, his experimentations, his influences and his bank of flavors, of course, the impossible becomes a challenge for this chef. Impossible to guess what he has in store for The Datai guests.

This article was first published on June 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

Freeda S. Scott