Kuala Lumpur – Any culinary tradition is an accretion of ideas and techniques shaped by the moment in which they were first introduced. Food, after all, is woven through stories that evolve over time. As such, flavours have been augmented by ingredients available at the time and modified to suit the local tongue. Indian food, in general, has catered to a palate that prefers the spicy heat of chillies alongside heavy, enthusiastic seasoning. After all, Malaysians love all things spicy and flavourful.
To dine is to participate in culinary history and, even more so, to seek the possibility of evolution through discovery, whether by chance or on purpose. Here then, FLOUR®, is the latter.
A first of its kind in the world to introduce French-Indian cuisine, this restaurant is on a quest to broaden the spectrum of Indian flavours using the classic complexities of French culinary techniques in an attempt to redress the difficulties in balancing spices, dusting the cobwebs off traditional Indian cuisine and breathing new beginnings into how Indian cuisine is perceived as a whole.
Chef-proprietor Yogesh Upadhyay, an Indian native with roots in the north-west State of Rajasthan believes in shifting the narrative and exploring the entirety of India and the rich diversity of flavours and cooking techniques each region offers.
Yogesh, more fondly known as Yogi, and his team take cues from the heritage and traditions of the North, South, East and West, indiscriminately, end-to-end, on a personal pursuit to level up Indian culinary that’s future-forward in its outlook. His creations are about interweaving stories of the past with contemporary applications, guided by a set of principles to honour the history of these dishes and curating them into a menu served in FLOUR® today.
“I am here to make food irrespective of rank, origin, and background. FLOUR® is for everyone, and we want to celebrate the heritage of every Indian region.” he says. Coming from a lineage of Rajasthani elite and having to rebuild again from nothing, this rare upbringing has fuelled Yogi to raise the bar in broadening the offerings of Indian cuisine in Malaysia while at the same time celebrating the rich culture of Eastern flavours we have to offer.
Having found a home in Malaysia with his beloved wife and business partner, Natasha Ng, it stirred up a calling within himself to educate and elevate the Indian food scene in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking to him and Natasha, one could not help but be drawn by their sincerity, passion, and integrity in all that they do.
Dining at FLOUR® is not just about consuming the food. Diners will be whisked away on a journey as Yogi moves from table to table, sharing stories of his creations. It gives him absolute delight to share about his process and for guests to take interest in the dishes he has created and the flavour journey they are to embark on.
“When you are pursuing something extraordinary, something unfamiliar, it will take time for people to come to acceptance,” he says.
As we move ahead with the future in sight, I hope that people will be encouraged to explore and find that Indian cuisine is more than what we know; it is varied, refined, spiritual, balanced, and can be elevated to greater heights.
Roots tracing back to “Land of Kings”
When we asked where he got his start, he earnestly began with, literally, the first day of his life. “I was born into F&B,” he shares, detailing the ups and downs of his upbringing with us. He came from a well-respected family line in Rajasthan. When the family moved from Rajasthan to Bombay, his father opened the family’s first restaurant in 1965. Diners of the highest ranks, the who’s who of town, and influential names had dined in their restaurants over the next six decades before his father decided to close the businesses for good.
Yogi’s culinary journey began from humble beginnings as early as he can remember. His first foray into the kitchen life was washing dishes day and night at the tender age of 14. After that, he was upgraded to peeling and chopping duties, having to face at least 80 kilos of onions and 30 kilos of garlic daily. “I despised it,” he says.
To escape the hazards of the Indian restaurant kitchens, he decided to further his studies in classic French Culinary instead, thinking that he would fool his father into not returning home to take on the restaurant business. In further rebellion, he uprooted himself to Dubai, careful not to enter any kitchens, and rose up the ranks in the high-flying, high-paying corporate world of the aviation industry.
From Dubai, he made his way over to Malaysia with his last job at AirAsia X where he met Natasha, a whip-smart, beautiful Malaysian woman who would later become his wife and would convince him to stay grounded in Kuala Lumpur.
One night when they were still dating, Yogi invited Natasha for a home-cooked meal. “It was just a simple meal of rice, vegetable, okra and lentils.” Yogi could not recall anything special about the meal, but it completely changed Natasha’s perception of Indian food. “Growing up eating Malaysian-Indian food, I always thought that Indian food was overpowering and I struggled to savour the flavours because the spiciness just killed any delicacy of the spices. And the restaurant settings were always either too crowded or very stuffy.” The simple meal that Yogi prepared set alight a fire within her to contest the Malaysian way of eating Indian food.
In 2016, Natasha left her role and FLOUR® was born. By the end of the following year, Yogi followed suit. This restaurant is founded on a desire to showcase authentic Indian flavours, traversing every continent of India with a mission to broaden people’s perception of what Indian food truly is.
“What we are trying to do here is to push the boundaries of the Indian dining experience in Kuala Lumpur – the flavours, the interior setting, the service, the plating, and down to even the type of chair you will sit on,” says Natasha.
The progression of FLOUR® Restaurant
FLOUR® did not start as a luxe-dining Indian restaurant serving ten course meals. The very first FLOUR® was located in Damansara Heights. It was also Yogi and Natasha’s first foray into the restaurant business. The à la carte menu served sharing portions and hearty Indian fare. At the time, it was indeed very different and took some getting used to amidst the backlash that what they served wasn’t familiar. Remember, FLOUR® was shaped in response to the lack of hometown Indian food served at an elevated tier. Soon, by word of mouth, they became a destination for both local and international diners to head to Damansara Heights.
The menu was interesting and the flavours that focused on using whole spices was like a breath of fresh air. It became a household name with many considering it to be their new favourite Indian restaurant to go to because there was “no other like it”, setting a new benchmark for Indian cuisine in the city.
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At the peak of the property boom at Damansara Heights, and for several other reasons, Yogi and Natasha chose to close FLOUR® in early 2020. At the same time, Yogi felt it was time for them to take it to the next level. “At the peak, we were operating like more of a factory, churning out food day and night. We had 30 staff members at that time.” It was a general consensus to call time on FLOUR®, and they soon relocated, finding a new home in the heart of the city centre, just next to Bukit Bintang.
The transition could not have come at a worse time – just when Malaysia announced its full lockdown in view of the rising threat of COVID-19. The entrepreneurial couple had spent a sizeable RM4 million to renovate and convert an 80-year-old, dilapidated residential bungalow into a fine dining establishment. Left with no other options, they persisted to launch the restaurant anyway in June 2020, deemed by industry contemporaries as an act of bravery.
Despite the challenges, FLOUR® is poised to play at a different league. They want you to remember you’ve eaten here. Their standards, from food and service to ambience, is designed to raise the bar not just locally but globally, with a vision to make Malaysia a notable food destination.
At FLOUR®, your menu is presented to you in the form of a story noting the origins of where the ingredients are sourced from, which season they are paying homage to, and accompanied by a card written by Chef Yogi himself that introduces the dining experience you are about to embark on. “This is no ordinary experience, it is a journey.”
When we spoke with them in August of 2022, the Rajasthan menu, their sixth menu launch, offered creations that explored the rituals of spice roasting and grinding, bridging Indian flavours with French cooking techniques and regionalism dating back as early as the 6th Century.
“Where did you find the confidence to reinterpret classic Rajasthani dishes?” we asked.
Reading, research, and more research. History is critical in understanding the ways of life in every specific region. It helps you understand why they made certain foods in the way they did.
“Chefs in those days were regarded as a high calibre profession. There is science and art involved in what we do. What I am presenting is finding opportunities to marry the past with the present.” That lead-up has allowed Yogi to make the risky but forward-moving decision to present an outstanding Rajasthan menu.
“Taste with an open mind,” Yogi insisted that we do. At the start of every course, Yogi would visit each table and personally introduce the dish, taking his guests on a journey through time without having to leave their seats – his stories detail each iconic dish expounding on the cultural background and rich tapestry of history involved in finally crafting what is served.
Beans, asparagus, berries, yoghurt
The star dish, to us, came early on its third course. This dish was crafted, taking cues from its origins that was served as a hot dish in Rajasthan. The original Ker Sangri, which consists of wild beans and berries, was invented because of the State’s arid climate. Reimagining the feeling you would gain from consuming the original Ker Sangri, Yogi turned it on its head and served it cold. Maintaining its essence, it is a dairy-based dish using Western ingredients such as asparagus and French Beans to give it a refreshing crunch with a burst of colour and subtle heat from the sprinkling of paprika. It was a constant push and pull with each bite balancing and neutralising between sweet, sour and clean flavours.
Roasted duck breast, pumpkin, berries cream
A most memorable meat dish that utilises one of the oldest and simplest cooking methods: a gas-fired oven. With none of the bells and whistles of a modern kitchen, his respect for the fresh produce and skill in cookery makes the Saféd Maas a perfectly cooked serving of duck breast alongside a slightly spiced pumpkin purée with a kiss of acid from berry purée. Enthralled by the evenly tender meat, we asked what the secret was. “Cook with your eyes, of course!” Yogi confidently shared a reminder to us that age-old cooking methods prove true throughout the times.
The Rajasthan menu is a splendid ride, an experience, and a celebration of the past and present. To Yogi, “The food feeds the body, the intention feeds the soul.”
Dulce de leche, liqueur, fruits, nuts
Then, there is theatre. Flames of flambéed Drambuie liqueur danced on top of a decadent pool of Dulce de Leche laced with cardamom and cinnamon. A layer of meringue sits beneath it, waiting to be discovered. This version of a reduced milk-based dessert brings richness to a kind of slippery indulgence that lifts it far beyond the origins of this humble dessert.
It has been six years since FLOUR® first opened. Even though the brand has garnered a strong following, and people associate Damansara Heights synonymously with FLOUR®, it has yet to win any international accolades. When asked what Yogi’s sentiments are, “We have people who hate us. We have guests who’ve supported us from the start till now. Regulars who’ve turned up at every new menu launch. Then, there are the merely curious. We cover the entire spectrum. Then, I know I am doing something right here. FLOUR® is our baby. I’ll keep moving forward, I’ll keep breaking the rules until everyone pays attention. The Rajasthan menu is just the beginning, there will be more to come, covering India in its entirety,” Yogi teases.
“There are no rules, but there must be a story to every dish,” he says, an attitude that lends itself well to his identity as a chef. His creations pay tribute to traditional dishes – to refine and redefine while also pushing the envelope by bridging regional Indian cuisine with classic French techniques.
With in-depth research and investigation into every dish, dining at FLOUR® is much more than just delightful mouthfuls. They’re driven by an insatiable appetite for redressing the balance of flavours, breathing new life into the traditional and depth at which Indian cuisine is perceived. The dining experience here is not just about the food, it is an education.
For reservations and more, find out here. The Rajasthan menu will be available until December 2022.
Image credit: FLOUR® Restaurant. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Written by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen.