Swedish Star Chef in Malaysia

It was pure coincidence when ScandAsia came across the Swedish chef Michael Elfwing at the five-star Hilton in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Given how rare it is to find Swedish Chefs in this corner of the world, it was no surprise to learn that this young and highly talented Chef De Cuisine from Sweden had already been discovered by the Swedish community in Malaysia and was consequently being utilized on a regular basis for various events. DiGi’s Swedish CEO, for instance, hires him on special occasions and MASBA arranges a yearly Christmas dinner at the hotel.
It was the Nordic fish soup on the menu – while lunching at Hilton – that caught our attention. In addition, reading a story in the very same hotel’s own magazine about one of their chefs bearing a familiar-sounding name, added up to the realisation that the chef in that printed story – Michael Elfwing – was the very same one seen in the kitchen – and Swedish!
With the interesting concept of presenting Australian cuisine and a very appealing menu this high scoring Senses within the KL Studio restaurant complex will challenge your culinary horizons – no matter if you are a novice or highly knowledgeable. Expect exciting flavours and creative approaches to dining, such as ’molecular gastronomy’.
And Scandinavians will get the bonus opportunity of a chance to discuss cooking methods and their dining adventure in their mother language with Chef De Cuisine Michael Elfwing.
Here we learn some enriching details from the world of chefs and how Senses, under his direction, has evolved into one of Malaysia’s most popular fine dining experiences.

How Michael ended up in Kuala Lumpur in the first place has its logic explanation.
With Senses being the brainchild of the Master Chef Cheong Liew, the Swede was entrusted for the opening team at the new Hilton Kuala Lumpur-based restaurant, thanks to having worked under him in Australia.
A celebrity chef in Australia for nearly three decades and originally from Malaysia, Cheong Liew was asked by Hilton, since he was running a restaurant at one of their hotels in Australia, if he would agree to bring his concept to their new hotel in KL. Indeed he would and at 23 years age Michael was offered one of the chef positions and has been there since its inception, now approaching five years.
Under Cheong, Michael had broadened his skills, after stints at a vineyard restaurant in Perth and a city-based French-Italian restaurant.
“I learned about Cheong Liew and met him. I had then worked for six years in a western kitchen, wanting to progress. Learning how to use Asian ingredients in a non-Chinese setting was an immensely gratifying experience,” recalls Michael.
Though Senses has always had an Australian focus, under his guidance other international elements are also being embraced
“It has always been an Australian restaurant because the first executive chef in the hotel was Australian. The director was also Australian, as well as the food and beverage director. I too have an Australian passport.”
“Given those circumstances it was easier to open with an Australian concept, instead of calling it… say French or Italian. But increasingly with the freedom I got and the more successful we have become, I can add on with more, also Scandinavian dishes like Sea Trout, Bleak Roe etc. Not necessarily in the way one would cook back home, but in a way I believe will work here.”
“Now when I live here I can see that it’s fairly modern Asian and Western – very Chinese but cooked in a western style,” he explains further. “So what I learned from Cheong is very different from what we cook here today.”
Still showcasing innovative Australian cuisine, Michael’s origin also plays a part.
“I always try to include a few dishes with some Scandinavian touch.”
“But branding has always been Australian because we import almost everything from there.”
A glance at the menu confirms this with odd names included in some dishes, such as Kangaroo Island Marron (an island outside Australia and a gigantic sweet hummer) or King George Whiting (one of South Australia’s most important food fishes) – names which both attract attention and are there for a reason.
By the way, Michael has become something of an expert in sourcing ingredients.
“We bring in char, for instance. Then I send a sms to the Scandinavian managers about the delivery, offering them to book a table.”
Sometimes they wish to buy a fish to cook it at home, which Michael and the hotel gladly caters to.
“In that way you bond with them. Or when they have guests about to come here: ‘Tell me what you want I can arrange it but give me at least a week’s notice.’”
The Nordic Fish Soup, he describes as a tasty white soup with cream.
“People in Asia are used to a lot of taste; it shouldn’t be too balanced or mild. Then they’ll say: ‘This is a bit too tasteless for my liking.’ So clearly, coming here as a Swede, it won’t be Swedish cuisine, but you can recognize the Scandinavian touch slightly.”
The diners, the majority of them locals, appreciate foreign ingredients like dill or basil more than those from their own cuisine, according to Michael.
“Selling Asian food in Asia but in a western setting does not really work well, so after a few years we turned around the menu drastically.”
The hotel’s Chinese restaurant does the genuine Asian bit just as well and the guests of Senses were asking for more western food.
Regarding how to pinpoint what Australian cuisine really is Michael says it is very difficult to add to the branding.
“It means different things to different people. It’s more the method in how to cook the food – straightforward, fresh ingredients, not so much braised, French sauces, but more light. And that has more to do with the weather and depending on where you are in Australia.
One example of a creative dish with a Swedish touch is ‘Smoking Allowed’ – a modern interpretation of smoked salmon. This is a smoked Sea Trout in a jam can from Ikea, where a small smoke machine is placed in the pot!
Without disclosing too many details Michael is currently experimenting with molecular gastronomy as a way to progress.
This adventure started in 2008 when he was invited for training at the famous culinary test bed and gastronomic laboratory that The Fat Duck in the county of Berkshire, England is.
Here the 27-year-old learned more about mastering the techniques in preparing the food, flavours and optimising ingredients and brought a new appreciation for other aspects of cooking which he had not thought of as important before
Molecular gastronomy, originating from another famous restaurant called El Bulli in Spain is a scientific approach to food that manipulates its textures and flavours through cooking temperatures and food combinations.
Having spent in total eight years in Australia, educating himself as a chef, followed by the move to Malaysia and Senses, Michael’s wish is to continue as a chef in the kitchen and not an overseeing role, such as food and beverage manager. So he is very satisfied in his current role. Even though he might eventually step up the ladder, his wish is to stay hands-on and where he sees a promising future in the region.
”I chose to be a chef because I want to be in the kitchen. Clearly, I think there are still lots of opportunities in Asia. There are lots of people appreciating what you accomplish; appreciating good food, and who are happy to spend on it. Thus there is still work for someone like me directly in a restaurant like this.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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