Interview with Chef Michael Elfwing

This week’s Chef in the Spotlight is a talented Chef as well as dear friend , Michael Elfwing -Chef de Cuisine of Senses, KL Hilton. If you see the previous post on Dimsum at Elegant Inn, we actually had lunch together and I managed to see the fun and laid-back side to Michael .. when he is not in the kitchen. This guy is really a cool-cat with an articulate and engaging personality and one of the most charming smiles I have ever seen! Here is Michael on life as a Chef and the MIGF (Malaysia International Gourmet Festival).

image3What were your favorite foods growing up?
At home in Landskrona, my mother cooked really tasty Swedish husmanskost. Husmanskost is the Swedish name for the type of home cooking we do. Yes the world famous Swedish meatballs is a typical husmanskost dish. Growing up eating home cooked food and having my mother to cook and eat with me and my younger sister everyday is something I will do my best to continue when I start a family. My memories of my mothers cooking will always be with me, and sometimes it can be seen in my recipes.

When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
I left Landskrona in 1997 to visit my father who had moved to Perth, Australia. What was supposed to be a 6 month holiday became a 7 year long passion for all things Australian. I arrived in Perth in October. And it was only in April sometime I saw the first cloud in the sky. This was enough to get a northerner like myself to start seeing myself living down under. My first job was with my father at a winery in the Swan Valley just outside Perth. My father left his job as executive chef at one of the five star hotels to open his own restaurant.
Little River Winery and Café was the place of choice. The café already served rustic French countryside cuisine. Terrines, duck confit, lamb pie and chocolate decadence are dishes I will never forget. Little River Winery’s winemaker and owner Count Bruno de Tastes was the chef in the café and also the winemaker. Bruno and his wife Jan are the owners of Little River Winery & Café and although it was hard for them to let go of the restaurant at first, it gave Bruno more time to spend in his winery.


Where and when did your career in food begin?
So there I started. In full chef’s uniform and with my own knives. Although for the first three months I did not do much more than wash lettuce, maybe peel a few vegetables, doing dishes and mopping the floor. My father is from the old school where you will need to learn everything there is to be a chef, and as a chef you must love to clean. –Clean kitchen clean food.

Looking back at this, I can see that the 5 years spent with my father in the kitchen gave me the best foundation I could possibly ask for. Seeing the importance of having every label of every bottle, every can, every container facing out so it is easy to read, are small things that allow you to do big things. The last thing you want to do is waste time looking for something that is right in front of your nose right? It takes just as long to place things properly on a shelf, than it does to just throw them on the shelf, he used to tell me. But when you need to find what you are looking for it is a lot easier in a well organized kitchen.

Working at Little River gave me the opportunity to see a lot of vintages of Bruno’s wines being made. I did not like wine when I started at Little River. Seeing how the grapes are picked, crushed, pressed, fermented and then aged built my curiosity for wine. And it was not long before my father and Bruno were talking about what wines to pair with his food and what food to pair with his wines. I had a chance to taste every vintage of every wine that Bruno made. I can still see the shiny vats of chardonnay and viogner, the cold cellar with barrels and barrels of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. The smell of wine and yeast, that at first was so bad that I could not stand it, though I now kind of miss it!



If you didn’t become a chef, what would you be?
I think I would work in a Zoo with snakes and reptiles, haha! I have had reptiles since I was a little boy in Sweden and here in KL I have a green tree python at home.

Who/what has shaped your cooking the most over the years?
The years working with my father and my years with Cheong Liew. Also customers, travels and ingredients shape your cuisine to.
To elaborate, I left Perth and Little River for Adelaide, South Australia. Here I got a job on the pastry section at Bergerac. Bergerac’s owner was an organic vegetable purveyor and needles to say the produce we used in the kitchen was outstanding. I was part of the restaurants opening team. There were 5 of us and we were all hungry for success. There was chef Julie Ziukelis and chef Robert Paglia. Julie was the person that later would introduce me to Cheong Liew and the start off a new culinary chapter of my life. Robert Paglia was the first Australian Italian I really met. He was a cool and passionate chef. Thought me to have fun in the kitchen and how to make a proper cup of coffee. We had some good times at Bergerac and in our first year we were the best new restaurant in the state.

It was working here that led to the opportunity to work for Cheong Liew at his legendary Grange restaurant at the Adelaide Hilton. It was hard to leave Bergerac and go into something unknown to me. I could not say no to the opportunity to learn about Asian ingredients and to learn hands on from Cheong Liew that made me ease into my position.  Also, the endless support from Executive chef Simon Bryant is something I never noticed working there. Now I can see what great chef Simon Bryant is.  Cheong Liew opened my eyes to Asian ingredients, why and when to use light soya and dark soya sauce. –Hey, I am from Sweden, we pour Japanese soya sauce on our steamed rice! Going into a kitchen and knowing nothing after coming from a restaurant were everything I used was familiar was a challenge. I soaked in everything Cheong thought me and I was curious to learn from the other chefs in the Grange to.

Living in Adelaide and still having an interest in wines could not be better. The Grange sommelier Trevor Maskell would even bring me and my colleagues to Barossa Valley winery Rockford to be part of their yearly harvest of their Home Block cabernet sauvignon.

While working at The Grange the opportunity to open Senses at Hilton Kuala Lumpur came up. Before I arrived in KL I travelled through France, Spain and Italy to learn about European produce and to see why they are so loved and many times expensive.

image2What are your favorite culinary weapons in the kitchen?
My tweezers that I brought from Sweden and use it to plate up food with. My whole team are addicted to them and every time I go back to Sweden I buy a few more pairs back to Senses.

What influences your cooking style and particularly your menu?
Ingredients available, my mood and my customers. I feel my cooking style is well reflected in my cookbook “Cooking with Michael Elfwing”.
Influences from my family, travels and fellow chefs can be seen in 120 of my very own recipes.

What is your favorite secret ingredient and why?

Simply because we all work with the same equipment, the same ingredients, the same guest, the same targets. But it is that little extra that makes us all a little different from each other.

What is the one rule or value you try to instill in all of your staff?
That Every day, Every plate, Every guest  needs our full attention, and a guest should never be affected if you are having a good or a bad day.

If I’m trying to watch my weight and I’m eating at your restaurant, what am I ordering to eat?
Of course my Manjari & Evian water emulsion, 30% chocolate and 70% Evian water,

but before that you should have Smoking Allowed, any of my soups and then the Dorper Lamb steak or a Stanbroke steak from their Diamantina range.
If its my birthday and i am being super-indulgent and the sky’s the limit, what am I ordering to eat from your restaurant?
You are not ordering anything, you tell me what you don’t like to eat and I will cook everything else for you!

What was the most challenging meal you had to make? Why?
It was earlier in 2010 when we had a Senior Leadership Conference at Hilton Kuala Lumpur. The person with the least experience was a General Manager with “only” 26 years experience. Even the president for Hilton was there so it was a big event.

I was in charge of writing the menu, preparing and cooking with my team for their gala dinner in the hotel. The dinner was such a success that now I have been invited to Waldorf Astoria Shanghai to cook for Hiltons owning company Blackstone. That will be another great challenge.

image13What is your least favorite food?
Mass produced food that taste of nothing.

What is your beverage of choice?
Coffee, like all chefs. I used to teach my service staff that my recipe for my coffee was 1-1-5.

That is 1 shot of coffee, 1 cube of sugar and 5 ice cubes, topped up with cold milk. Now the recipe has evolved to 2-0-8, 2 shots of coffee, no sugar and 7 cubes of ice. I guess KL has changed my palate over the years.

What are some recent dining and culinary trends you have been observing?
I see sous-vide cooking become more and more common. It is only a good thing, cooking sous vide is generally fool proof and allows you to be consistent. But what do you do when your thermal circulator or vacuum pack machine breaks down? I teach my team to walk before they can run, basics are very important and take time to learn. Cooking sous vide is much faster to learn.

When you are not eating at your own restaurant…you are eating at?
Sek Yuen, Elegant Inn, Rakuzen, Mizu or a great dinner cooked by my beautiful Aly!

Which foreign country inspires your style most?
I must say Sweden, Australia and France. Sweden because its flavours are something I can relate to easily. Australia and France for their superb ingredients.

What was the most spectacular meal you have ever had?
Possibly an $1800 something dinner by Cheong Liew I attended at the Grange just before I started working there.

What is your best cooking tip for a home enthusiast?
Don’t be afraid of getting your fingers dirty. Touch the food you are cooking, get the feel of what you are doing. Its all in the hands, it’s the chefs touch that makes the difference.

What do you eat when you are home?
Toast or Swedish crispbread (Knäckebröd) with with prawn cheese (Räkost)

You obviously rely a lot on your sense of smell. Why do you think that an educated sense of smell is important to developing a good dish?

I think all Senses are important and come into place when cooking. A lot of aromas are released when preparing and cooking food before it is being served. The trick is to serve food that has a nice comforting aroma when served.


Finally, what is your advice for all those new, up and coming Chefs out there?

Boys and girls aim for the top and when you find a chef whose food you like, stick with him or her and you will be rewarded in the end. Oh and yes, it will be a long and bumpy ride along the way so buckle up and bite your lip when times get tough. There is light in the end of the tunnel.




MIGF (Malaysia International Gourmet Festival) fever hits the Malaysian shores..



Regarding the MIGF.. It’s no secret that KL is now in the thick of things. What was the most challenging thing about organizing this event?

MIGF is a fun event , it puts the chefs in the centre and brings us all together.  We are all busy and don’t see each other much so MIGF is a great event that brings us all a little closer each time we meet.



What have you learned from the MIGF?

There is no other event like MIGF in Malaysia, so I feel it is in place to step out of the box and stir things up a little during this festival.  Dato Steve Day has such a drive and passion for MIGF. Seeing somebody that is not a chef, or even working in hospitality put so much effort and passion into his work has thought me that we should not limit ourselves to our profession and instead do things we are passionate about.


What is the importance or significance of the MIGF to you? to Malaysia?

It is a great PR platform for me as a chef. For Malaysia I feel it is starting to put the country on the map as not only a country that has great hawker food but also great restaurants serving various cuisines.

All photos courtesy of Michael Elfwing from Senses, KL Hilton



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