Michelin-star chef rides wave to innovate Kuala Lumpur’s culinary scene
He blends, freezes, shatters and shakes. His ingredients and tools include carbon dioxide, liquid nitrogen, food dehydrators, thermal immersion circulators, hydrocolloids and syringes. Oh, and food glue, and an ice cream maker, too.
Welcome to Jeff Ramsey’s world of Molecular Gastronomy – the blanket term used to describe a method of cooking that is probably more Einstein than Julia Child. Many Michelin-starred chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria prefer terms like modernist or experimental cuisine, deconstructivist or even techno-emotional cuisine but sometimes they just call it “a new approach to cooking”, and that is exactly what Jeff is bringing to Kuala Lumpur’s already-exploding food scene.
Even before BABE was launched in November last year, the hype surrounding his “fun dining” establishment serving Japanese-accented tapas – or “Japas” as he calls it – in the affluent suburb of Damansara Heights, had hit overdrive. Here was Malaysia’s first restaurant by a Michelin-star chef. Japanese-American Jeff was only 32 and helming the Tapas Molecular Bar in Mandarin Oriental Tokyo when it received its first Michelin star.
You could say there are two main components to the menu at BABE – science and fun. Partnering with Kuala Lumpur-based BE Group, which has a wellness centre and gym, Jeff is out to create a multi-dimensional experience for diners, especially wellness buffs, through his food. Inspired by the balanced lifestyle concept for the jet-setting generation – typically alluding to a healthy lifestyle during the day to balance out partying during the night – BABE is the good-times counterpoint to BE’s healthcare regime.
In explaining how the name came about, Jeff says it was based on the concept they had for the food, representing the “Best of Asia”, as well as a new way of doing things. The initials to the catchphrase (the letters B and A) combined with the BE of BE Group became BABE.
Although the menu is maintained as mainly Japanese cuisine, he wanted to incorporate something local in the menu. “We’ll do whatever is the best here and put our spin to it by incorporating the best of Malay, Indian, and Chinese flavours into the food,” he says.
“To really get people to feel something from eating your food, they have to love it. The food that touches your soul is the food you grew up with, right? We can give you something you remember from your childhood but in a completely unexpected way that makes you say, ‘how in the world did they come up with this?’ We’re focused on fun, social, lifestyle experiences.”
“With the launch of our a la carte menu (tentatively in March), we’ll have a few health-driven dishes although our main thing is not a focus on health. It’s about the fun, the dining, (and) the tasting experience. A good life is about creating that balance, and a full life is pushing those two sides of the extreme. We are the extreme of the enjoyment part of that lifestyle,” he explains.
New Way of Doing Things
Jeff is not just introducing a new approach to food and lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur, but also a new work culture to the restaurant industry. When asked about the challenges in setting up BABE, he reckons he probably had it easier than most in terms of staffing due to his Michelin-star status, which attracted local talent.
“The most difficult part was to get guys who have never been exposed beyond their hometowns to try to understand where you’re trying to go to,” he says. To help them along, Jeff and his team prepare lists of YouTube channels and books pertaining to food for staff to look up to better understand his concept.
To get wait staff more involved, Jeff is teaming up with other chefs around the city in a “training system” he came up with. Under this system, staff from one restaurant will eat at another at a discounted price, after which they’ll report and share their experience, and their boss will contribute to the bill. Jeff calls this a bonus for everyone involved as it trains staff to be better servers, a network is created and everyone grows together.
Jeff also has a garden on the rooftop terrace of Clearwater Residence, a luxury condominium next to the building where BABE is located. He describes the garden now as a hobby but hopes it will eventually yield high-quality herbs and vegetables to supply the restaurant. Urban gardening is a relatively new concept in Malaysia and BABE is partnering Eats, Shoots & Roots to grow the garden. For now, Jeff sources his greens from A Little Farm In The Hill in Janda Baik, and from several other local farmers.
Jeff credits famed Japanese restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa for opening his eyes to Kuala Lumpur. “I think Nobu sort of gave a signal to other international groups that Kuala Lumpur is ready. If he could do it, then we could do it too,” he acknowledges. On the cards are plans to bring in other Michelin-starred chefs for pop-ups and other collaborations.
“There’s so much possibility here. People are crazy about the next big thing. It’s like, ‘what’s next?’ They want it. They’re hungry for it. So I think we’ll just be part of that wave, building the name of Kuala Lumpur.”