By June 2011 the Swedish Chef de Cuisine had been over seven years at the helm of Senses, Hilton Kuala Lumpur. And in December the previous year he launched his first own cooking book – Cooking with Michael Elfwing.
Previously featured in ScandAsia, Michael is now something of an institution at Hilton with his long stint there – and which has no ending in sight. On the contrary the hotel keeps him on board by, as he says, changing the job for him. The much-anticipated refurbishment of one of the Malaysian capital’s finest restaurants Senses is now slotted for early 2012 so he can look forward to a completely new Senses.
“They know I’m very happy with my position at my little Senses. So when building a new restaurant and kitchen for me I’ll be fairly happy with that too,” is his response to whether other Hilton establishments, and competitors, are trying to entice the successful chef over to them.
In fact he is very appreciative of the fact that he is allowed to stay on.
“At the hotel one is just an employee. Tomorrow there can be another chef doing it even better. One must be humble when things go well. I’ve been lucky the business has been so good for so many years enabling me to stay on. I look forward to the renovation. We are just waiting for a suitable period to close.”
First cooking book
During the years there, and also very much influenced by his apprenticeship years and career start Down Under he has come up with quite a few signature dishes.
And now the time has come to reveal it all and share his secret recipes with the rest of us who are those hobby chefs learning more and more from the TV cooking shows, or proficient in cooking.
Learn for yourself how to cook for example Michael’s signature dish Smoking Allowed.
“This one is perhaps not so easy to do back home, but it’s possible. But one does perhaps not have a smoke machine, but it was fun to work on it, and the photos are mine! I took them here. Some is just from the collection never intended for a book or taken in order to use when doing a large dinner so everyone knows how to place the dish.”
Photographing is just a hobby and something fun to do, thinks Michael but he very rarely finds the time to cook a dish ten times in order to get the perfect photo.
His idea is to be very honest in the presentation: what it looks like in the book is exactly the same as when his Senses guests are served the dishes, rather than using any effects.
Here he highlights that it does not have to look fabulous all the time; the taste result is more important.
But, surely certain talent is required after all to make the dish look good?
“Yes, sometimes it can be so-so with non pros, but as a chef one is always keen on making it looking very attractive for the dining guest. It is expected. At home it’s not, as long as it tastes good.”
“Some guests wanted to buy it and cook back home but then seeing the pictures they think it looks too complicated – which is one of the reasons the images should not be exaggerated. So there are pluses and minuses with that; many chefs would have preferred a styled book while others are afraid not being able to make it look exactly the same.”
“It’s a book for home cookers and for pros cause you have both; quite a few restaurant secrets but that you can also do at home and that people don’t know much about. Quite a lot of soups, fish dishes and quite many meat dishes that you can do at home in the same way as we are cooking it in the restaurant. But of course we created some recipes to cook at home and that one can find the ingredients for wherever one is. Then there’s a dish with Foie gras, but that’s also to show what one is doing in the restaurant.”
My cooking style
“It’s not a Senses book or the food here and the restaurant, but a bit more my own cooking style that has evolved more during my time here. When in Australia I was influenced by other chefs and followed them but as a kitchen Chef de Cuisine one must create one’s own style based on what one has learned and depending on what guests one has.”
“It also includes my profile and my thoughts. There are very few Asian influences in the book but it’s rather western with my cooking style. Clearly there are dishes that are inspired from Sweden, and Australia. As a Swede one can easily recognize which ones are Swedish but as an Australian it may just feel European.”
The collection of more than 80 recipes is written with great detail and covers everything one needs for an impressive dinner – entrees, main courses, desserts and cheese. Only a few require advance preparation and exclusive ingredients.
Flavours magazine from Malaysia challenged the notion that anyone can cook the dishes by inviting people to cook some selected dishes – in Michael’s home.
“Those cooking had to go out in Kuala Lumpur and source the ingredients and bring home to me and cook it there, because I am stating very clearly that anything can be cooked in an ordinary kitchen. I could only show a bit if something started to go wrong.”
“This test also gave me confidence that it works,” he continues, “I was impressed by their efforts in getting it right. And one can realise that there are variants. It was fun to see how people made their own version of certain things.”
Furthermore fans of Michael Elfwing and of cooking in general can enjoy monthly cooking classes in ‘Get Cooking @ The Hilt’, taking place at Senses
“We do these cooking classes nearly every month. It’s been going on for over six years, with usually between 20 – 30 attendants. Sometimes a group of people requests a cooking class but with focus on something, be it soups, fish or chocolate, and then we don’t invite the public and we try to do it a bit more hands-on, in the kitchen.”
A recent theme was: Be Healthy! Go Organic! Where one could learn about what it really means to go organic.
We talk about what is certified organic food compared to organic, that is also available here – but very expensive. One does not dare to believe in the local certification in terms of certainty.
I show different samples and price comparisons so they can see the difference. Clearly we use organic quite a lot depending on the seasons, but one does not always state it as it’s not always available. Now one can buy a lot of berries towards the end of the summer.”
“In a way one is well situated in South-East Asia being able to import from different places.”
At Senses he prefers having a large menu – around 30 dishes – rather than going for Menu for the day.
“It’s more challenging cooking a bit of this and that and one has a larger opportunity to change the menu and buying, for instance, different kinds of fish, and as long as it is busy there’s no problem to have many choices on the menu.”
Next encounter with his fellow Swedes will be at the annual Christmas Dinner arranged by MASBA towards the end of the year.