I’m quite disciplined with myself and what I want, if there’s something that I want, I make it happen. You just have to stay focused.
Chef Elfwing is the head chef at Senses Restaurant at Hilton Kuala Lumpur. Originally from Sweden, he studied the culinary arts in Australia from age 16 after being inspired by his father, who was also an international chef. He’s worked with the legendary Chiong Liew at Grange in Adelaide, and at the world-famous Fat Duck restaurant with Heston Blumenthal, among others. He’s published his own cookbook, which features his gorgeous photography. His Senses restaurant has won several awards including the prestigious 5-Star Diamond Awards as one of the Best Restaurants in the World and Hospitality Asia Award for Best Western Cuisine.
But he’s so much more than a pile of fancy titles and accolades. He’s warm, innovative, passionate, creative and inspiring to say the least. He’s humble about his extraordinary feats and talents, and willing to admit there’s always more to learn. He has an infectious energy and he continues to work hard to earn the fruits of his labor. Tasting his culinary creations assured me of that. He was kind enough to let me interview him, snap some photos, and prepare some of his classic dishes for me.
Needless to say, I was blown away by Chef Eflwing’s food as well as his character.
~ What I Ate ~
Table smoked Tasmanian ocean trout, Nordic deep sea shrimp with sour cream & chives
Unbelievable texture, melt-in-your-mouth trout. The presentation is so unique–watching the smoke seep out as the jar is opened, smelling the soft wood chip smoke as it makes its way towards you, and the unbeatable taste.. top-notch combination. Truly delights your Senses.
Seared cod, slipper lobster, Scottish diver scallop, saffron potato & roast roma tomatoes
Another brilliant presentation–first you’re served the cod, lobster, scallop and potato so you really see what’s in the soup. Then they pour the soup over it all, piping hot, as the aroma fills your nose. A perfect, hearty soup for winter.
LERØY Salmon Trout
Organic salmon trout from the pristine fjords of Norway served with a sea garnish of edible sand, fresh clams & Dutch grey shrimp, smoked potato purée
Another fantastic presentation. Bursting with fresh ocean flavor. ”Edible sand” concoction unlike anything I’ve seen or tasted, paired perfectly with the potato purée. A sophisticated harmony of delights from the sea.
Chocolate Tart “Michel Chaudon”
Exclusive to Senses by Parisian chocolatier Michel Chaudon.
This handmade chocolate simply transformed into a light & warm chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream
Extremely innovative dish inspired by a larger traditional tart. Smooth, silken molten chocolate and creamy light ice cream. A classic.
How long have you been living in Malaysia and working at Senses inside Hilton Kuala Lumpur?
Eight years, it was the 1st of July, 2004 that I started here. I’m Swedish but I worked 7 years in Australia before coming here. I worked in Adalaide before with Chiong Liew, and Kuala Lumpur wanted to “bring papa home” because he’s Malaysian, so they asked me and Kelly Brennan to open and run Senses, based on legendary KL chef Chiong Liew‘s themes. It has changed a lot since opening, because of the clientele: people go to Chiong Liew’s personal restaurant to eat Chiong Liew’s food: he cooks about 20 dishes and it has been that way for 10 years.
But here, the Malaysians request new meals. You have to listen to your customers. That was something I had to learn, I came from the very stubborn, determined Chiong Liew mentality because I learned from him, that “this is my dish, nothing can change.” The Malaysians are very loyal in that they like coming back to a place, but they don’t want the same thing time and again–they want different dishes from the same chef. We might think we know how things work based on previous experince, but its always changing.
What are your favorite ways to integrate aspects of local Malaysian food or culture into your creations?
I think I learned a lot about Malaysian food, and its integration of Malay, Chinese, Indian aspects while working with Chiong Liew in Australia. We opened Senses with the concept to cook gourmet Malysian food, but the locals were saying, “I don’t need you to cook shark fin or bok choi for me here, I can go to the local Chinese restaruant for that.” We had all these beautiful lychees and mangosteens, and they’re saying, “I’ll just get that at my corner market, can you please give me some rhubarb? Something special from your culture?”
Smoking Allowed, my signature dish–the one served in a smoke-filled jar, is certainly Scandinavian, but it uses ocean trout from Australia. I wouldn’t be allowed to use a Norwegian salmon for this because of the texture and fat content, I had to test and try to find the right fish. So that’s why I integrate different foods from different places, to get the best ingredients from where they are in the world. I buy local, but I don’t buy the typical Asian vegetables. My fish is imported from Japan or Australia, but a lot of this is because of customer demand, because they want something special, something they cannot find on the streets.
Cheong’s food is very modern Malaysian: if you’re Malaysian, you might understand where his food is coming from, but you might not like it because it’s not prepared in the traditional ways. The locals are very protective about how a laksa should be, but every single person makes it a different way.
My food is a bit more straightforward, it might be refined, but the flavors are very recognizable and familiar.
What do you eat when you’re not at work?
I tend to cook at home on my day off.. I lock myself in my home on my days off. It’s taken me years to be this relaxed. Some chefs are all over the place, every two years a new place.
What will you do after you’re finished at Senses?
Right now Senses and the Hilton here is my plan and my life. We’re going to renovate, we’re actually going to have a new restaurant and new bar.. this is a hotel that doesn’t stand still. We’re going to move more towards a western, European restaurant. When I want to leave again, I will move back to Australia. I have citizenship there as well.
I never planned to stay this long but I like it and I’m happy so.. why move?
We met an Executive Chef in Thailand, and he is in charge of managing the chefs but no longer cooks. Are you cooking still?
Yes, we have 160 chefs and 8 outlets at this hotel, so we have an executive chef here too–but I said to myself.. I don’t want that job, I don’t want 220 headaches. I am spoiled, lucky even, that I am just one head chef in one restauarant. I never planned to stay this long but I like it and I’m happy so.. why move?
Was it your dream to become a chef when you were younger?
Yes, I would say. I’ve always loved reptiles and fish, so I was interested in marine biology and the like, but cooking was more instantly gratifying and when I was 15, 16 it seemed like an easier choice to study cooking than marine biology. Since I was young, my father was an international chef, and I would visit him wherever he was and it was always a kind of holiday to see him cooking on those big cruise ships. My dad was working as a chef at Carnival cruise ships company when Hurricane Katrina hit. The company offered to house people for free but they had a huge problem with criminals on board, so he quit and moved to Australia. I visited him there, just thinking it was a vacation, and I was wowed by all the sunshine.. endless sunshine! So it made me think, maybe I should study here, so I studied at culinary school there from age 16. Most of my inspiration came form seeing my dad, working all over the world, traveling. It all started from there.
I saw you featured on Molecular Gastronomy, can you explain what molecular gastronomy is and how you use it?
Your basic french training is always in the background in your mind as a chef. My food, in terms of molecular, is definitely.. well, I spent a month at the Fat Duck with the legendary Heston Blumenthal, and that showed a side of molecular gastronomy that really appealed to me. Heston’s style is more about time and temperature, and he is very precise with this. You’re not adding foreign ingredients for a texture that’s not there–the Spanish chefs change a lot of texture: you have a familiar flavor but the texture is strange. I would love to go and eat it, but it’s not the kind that I enjoy cooking. Smoking Allowed is vacuum cooking, which is old-fashioned already, but its very precise, and so very fool-proof, so you get a very consistent product every time you do it. But we haven’t made a trout into a shaving foam texture, so it’s still a fish. The edible sensibilities comes form my inspiration from Heston.
Who are some of the coolest people you met here?
Mel Gibson, Louis Hamiltion (he had two-well done tenderloins, french fries and heinz tomato ketchup) because we have the Formula 1 races. Sebastian Vettel who won Formula 1 for the past two years, he comes every year, I was lucky enough to give him one of my books.
Have you ever had any failures that you felt you could not overcome?
What can I say.. cooking is very personal, because YOU are the one choosing the ingredients, serving the dish. Sometimes you care if the guest doesn’t like it because you might believe in it so strongly and like it so much, but after 15 years in the kitchen, I think you learn to be humble. Not everyone can like what you like. You have a lot of failures testing recipes, but you test it–if its not good, you don’t serve it. Testing is a different type of failure–it doesn’t hurt as much. Being very much hands-on you eliminate a lot of that. I haven’t had any serious failures I think. I’m quite disciplined with myself and what I want, if there’s something that I want, I make it happen. You just have to stay focused.
For more information on Chef Elfwing and Senses Restuarant, please visit:
Be sure to check out his book:
Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel
3 Jalan Stesen Sentral, 50470 Kuala Lumpur
Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Special thanks to Chef Elfwing, the Senses staff, and Sabrina Loh for making this happen.
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