A new Swedish chef arrival to Kuala Lumpur ensures some level of influence from the Swedish cooking traditions and definitely, that some specialties from Scandinavia can still be sourced in this Mecca of food – Malaysia. Tommy Franssila (with Finnish parents but born and raised in Sweden) has been around since January 2012 as the Executive Chef of the all-new, elegant and luxurious hotel, the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur.
This is Tommy’s second stint in South East Asia and by this December, it will mark his 14 years with the Hyatt brand, which began during the previous years he spent in Australia. His most recent position prior to Kuala Lumpur was his first Executive Chef position at Grand Hyatt São Paulo, Brazil for four years.
With the hospitality industry and the international hotel brands in a period of strong growth, becoming a chef seems to increasingly offer great opportunities for one to see the world. “It depends on yourself, in what you wish to do and where the career will take you”, says Tommy who has already covered a few of the world’s continents.
“You have to look for your own opportunities, but yes, in a sense it can be a gateway to an international career. Going to the university for those years set you up with a lot of contacts and opportunities as you come in contact with various people from within the industry. If you maintain those contacts, you can possibly use them for your career.”
He took his B.A at the School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts & Meal Science in the mid 1990’s, at the university connected to the legendary Grythyttan Gästgivargård, well known for its inn and well-respected kitchen since years ago, and the Nordic House of Culinary Art, where he had his university studies.
For Tommy, he had already placed much thought in choosing an international path from the very beginning. This started with a sabbatical year, whereby he went to work in the residence for a Minister of the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow. Once he had finished university studies, he started looking for travel opportunities while working at smaller restaurants back in Sweden. A scholar-ship funded exploration trip to the U.S made him hungrier to travel and there was no turning back.
After returning home, he did not stay long and went for job interviews in London via an agency and landed himself a position at London’s oldest hotel – Brown’s Hotel. From there on, he continued looking for opportunities to further his knowledge.
“As a young chef you have very itchy feet. You just want to go to the next place and see what they are doing.”
Tommy continued working in London for a while and then it was time for Australia and Sofitel Melbourne.
“After eight months, a chef I had previously worked under in London, who was also in Australia at that time asked if I would come and join his team, which was the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. So I went to work there, and the rest is history, as they say. I’ve been with Hyatt ever since.”
Authentic food is key
Getting the position in Kuala Lumpur, he had the opportunity to arrive prior to the hotel’s opening and played a major role in the preparations for the opening, including doing all the recruitment.
“We are at anytime, anywhere between 110 – 130 chefs working in the hotel! So we’re quite a big team but we have a lot of students who comes here and have their apprenticeship and so forth.”
“I travelled a bit around Malaysia to try to understand their food culture and flavours to allow us to be as authentic as possible when serving local food in the hotel – which is very important for us.”
Not that the Swedish chef would cook local food himself: “We want the food to be as authentic as possible or have authentic flavour so it has to be cooked by locals for locals.”
Grand Hyatt has no branded restaurants with a uniform formula for its properties, but instead, focuses on local adaptation and each particular hotel’s core guest clientele.
“Yes, we try to be a little different than the other hotels – unique, if you like. Again, authentic is the keyword; real food and authentic flavours. If we have Indian food, we have Indian chefs cooking it.”
The Indian cuisine plays a big part in the food served at the JP teres outlet on the ground floor, serving the best of Malaysian cuisine.
Malaysians are also known for going the extra mile in order to get an excellent meal. Travelling far for a certain dish in a certain restaurant is not uncommon and Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur is no exception to it.
“All dishes are popular but our top seller is the roasted chicken rice – people come from all corners of Kuala Lumpur to try our signature chicken rice in JP teres.”
Adjacent to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, the hotel’s lobby is unconventionally placed high up in the building and connects to the top floor restaurant, wine bar and lounge – THIRTY8 which offers a great panoramic view, overlooking, and yet looking up on, the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. Here, guests can enjoy breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner as well as Sunday brunch – with the offer of three cuisines: Japanese, Chinese and Western.
“There was a base concept that we all worked on together [Hyatt, General Manager, F&B Manager…] and it continues to evolve. As you get to know the market better, you tweak it a little bit here and there.”
A lunch buffet was added for business people in a hurry.
“We try to cook – as much as we can – live and freshly hot piping food in front of the guests. If you head to the Chinese section, there are all the ingredients for you choose and the chef will be there to cook it.”
“We also have afternoon tea: it is also popular to come here in the afternoon, especially sitting against the Petronas Twin Towers and enjoying the view.”
Guest chefs are frequently invited and even for the afternoon tea, one chef from Australia came to do a chocolate promotion.
Also from Indonesia and Thailand, guest chefs have visited.
Gravlax somewhere, somehow
As for to the influence of his background in Nordic cooking, he adds some flavours into the dishes here and there.
“You cannot have a Swedish chef in a hotel and not have Gravlax somewhere, somehow. And Swedish meatballs will definitely pop up. You have to stick to your roots one way or another. In events, when there are coffee breaks, there might be some Swedish items as well as on our buffets and so forth,” states Tommy.
“Sometimes, someone comes here and requests something Scandinavian. Then, it’s very easy for me to design a menu. As long as you have salmon and dill, it’s easy to make a start out of it.”
I believe, being Scandinavian/Nordic, my family is, of course, that there are always these influences from childhood –– maybe not in the restaurant, but we have a Club lounge, where we have breakfast or evening cocktails. So, on a rotational basis it’ll pop up some things.
Privately he enjoys eating pretty much everything.
“I enjoy the local food a lot, so being raised and eating Western food predominantly, I go outside to try to eat something local, whatever the mood is in on that day. For me, food is a mood thing; today I feel like Italian, tomorrow Japanese.”
Between 2005 and 2007, Tommy also worked at Grand Hyatt Bangkok, Thailand as Executive Sous Chef. How does the two Asian countries compare?
“There are lots of similarities and there are lots of differences. English, first and foremost: here it’s widely spoken, so it’s easy to communicate if you don’t speak the local language whereas in Bangkok, that was a barrier at times. But you learn a few words in Thai and also by demonstrating; when in a hurry you just do it hands on, which is fine when it comes to being a chef as most of our work in the kitchen is hands-on anyway.”
“Food is different: if you compare the local Malaysian food to the Thai food, yes, both use a lot of spices, but I find Thai food is maybe a little bit lighter and so forth. It does not fill you so heavily, whereas Malaysian food is heavier because of Indian curries and so on.”
“People-wise, there are very friendly cultures; you’re very welcome in both countries. You get a smile pretty much everywhere you go.”
“Me and my wife very much enjoyed Bangkok and Southeast-Asia, so when the opportunity came up we were delighted to return to the area.”
“I’m very happy here and have no immediate plans, but then again, in this industry you never know. Maybe they’ll need support somewhere or something like that, so it could happen.”