PETALING JAYA: For a chef who describes herself as an “ordinary girl who loves to eat and cook”, being awarded a coveted Michelin star for her restaurant Pertinence in France is nothing short of extraordinary.
And chef Kwen Liew is still thrilled to bits about it. After all, the Kuala Lumpur-born also did Malaysia proud when she received the recognition in 2018, becoming the country’s first-ever female chef to have received such an honour.
The Michelin Guide described the classical French and Japanese cuisines at Pertinence as having “carefully and expertly transformed market-fresh ingredients into succulent classical French dishes, brushing away the cobwebs of tradition along the way”.
Speaking with FMT Lifestyle recently about the recognition, the modest Kwen said: “Malaysia has a lot of talented chefs, so I am honoured and ecstatic to become its first female Michelin star chef.”
Ironically, Kwen never liked cooking when growing up, regarding it as more of a chore she was instructed to do rather than an activity she was excited about.
“When I was young, my sister and I were obligated to cook for the family when our mom was away for work. Because it was asked or expected of me, I didn’t like it one bit,” the 35-year-old said.
However, she also admitted that most jobs she attempted once completing school didn’t hold any “spark” for her and soon she found herself longing to be back in the kitchen, where it all began years ago, chopping, slicing, stirring and frying.
This newfound appreciation for cooking led her to train at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney. Finding herself caught up in this heady new romance with food, she transferred to its Bangkok campus and later pursued a pastry course in France.
This followed a stint in Singapore and then to Paris, when she, together with her Japanese partner Ryunosuke Naito, founded Pertinence in 2017.
And just seven months after the restaurant’s grand opening, Pertinence was honoured with a Michelin star.
While it may sound like a fairy tale to many, Kwen can attest to the fact that this is a cutthroat industry, and earning your stripes through hard work, discipline and creativity can sometimes still not be enough. There are also gender stereotypes to contend with.
She highlighted the prevailing misconception that females were less capable of being effective leaders compared to their male counterparts.
And by her own admittance, it was indeed difficult issuing orders to the male employees in her team, particularly when they had been longer on the floor than her, were older or considered seniors in the industry.
“Giving orders to them to do something just falls on deaf ears. It was hard at the beginning, but you just need to find the conviction or motivation you need to carry on and work out a solution in order to gain their respect slowly,” she said.
On a lighter note, FMT Lifestyle could not resist asking Kwen what her favourite Malaysian dish was. She was stumped for a bit, admitting that it was too tough a choice to make.
“Most, if not every delicacy you can find in Malaysia, I love. Like Assam laksa, nasi lemak, rendang, all of it. It’s impossible to choose,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air, and flashing a big, bright smile.
So beloved are her native dishes, that Kwen borrows from her Malaysian roots when cooking, infusing her food with spices and herbs such as dang gui.
When asked what advice she would give aspiring female chefs attempting to break into the culinary world, Kwen listed “true passion and not giving up” as the keys to success.
She also had this to say: “Being a chef is tough, so you have to prove your dedication to everyone with your actions.”
Wise words indeed from one who has been there, done that and earned a Michelin star along the way.