Meet Executive Chef of Botanica+Co Chef Chuan, who presides over an 80-strong kitchen team. Filled with lush greenery, Botanica+Co (part of Platform Hospitality Group) is one of the most irresistible establishments in Kuala Lumpur. Today, the brand is nestled in the 5-star hotel Alila Bangsar on the ground level, and within the urban metropolis of Bangsar South. Deliver consistency in taste and presentation is critical in managing high volume restaurants. One has to be able to lead a team strength to strength that is continuously challenged by time and volume, yet plate out dishes that are always consistently good. Since Chef Chuan took over as Executive Chef, the kitchen has become much more efficient, effective and seasonal promotions have been more exciting.
Here, he shared with us his inspiring story and what makes a good leader. His story is one of grit, sheer perseverance and tenacity.
I started as an intern at A’Famosa Resort in Malacca City (the capital city of the Malaysian state of Malacca) and worked my way up. After that, I travelled the world, fully living on-board the ship sailing through Asia, India to Europe and the Mediterranean as Commis 3 chef (Commis 1 being the highest). An opportunity brought me to Singapore for eight years working in five-star hotels (Carlton Hotel and Marriot Hotel), moving up the ranks from Commis 2 to Senior Sous Chef. During these 13 years before I returned to Malaysia for good, I learnt different things from different chefs, both above and below my position. I’ve learnt a great deal about meat produce, roasting and braising meats with Australian chefs – as they are incredibly particular about handling meats.
I worked on my day-offs. When you are young and energetic and don’t have any family commitment, it’s the best time to learn all that you can. I was curious about Asian cuisine, so I will request to work part-time in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant during my days off, and from there, I learnt various techniques, the usage of different ingredients in specific ways. That gave me a diverse experience, and it has allowed me to propose new ideas for our vibrant seasonal promotions at Botanica+Co
Be prepared to work your way from the bottom. A career in F&B is about resilience, taking the long, hard road and mastering your techniques and skills to perfection. Behind the recognition, the achievement (and sometimes, glamour), is an arduous journey of “climbing up the ladder”. When you manage to climb to the top, you will feel it is all worth it. For me, this journey is worth it. It’s my passion.
I most probably will not encourage my kids to go into this line of work. However, if you ask whether will I choose this path again, I will still say, without hesitation, a resounding “Yes!”
This industry is demanding, the amount of teeth-gritting hard work you have to go through is not for everyone. In general, culture in most kitchens is very hierarchical, and there will be many humble pies for you to eat. There will be instances where you probably feel that you haven’t done anything wrong, but you still have to stomach it in and keep your eyes on the price.
The most challenging event was at a 4000-pax event at the one-week World Gourmet Summit event when I was in Singapore, working with One Altitude. I was the Sous Chef then, and I was the chief coordinator between the team and guest French chefs. It was the most challenging because of the scale of it, the language barrier and meeting the requests of the guest chefs.
When I first started, I peeled 100kg of onions at a go. I was an intern then, just standing there peeling with two other interns. After many hours of peeling, you’ll start wondering why you’re doing this. Every chef will have to go through such experiences.
What makes me happy as a chef is still ultimately hearing from my guests that they enjoyed the food. To satisfy the appetites of my customers is my top priority.
Leadership & Team Management
How do you manage your team, and what is your leadership style?
Achieving where I am now from my beginnings at the lowest ranks, there’s undoubtedly an initial worry that my team won’t respect or listen to me. That’s why I have been very strict with myself, that I will lead by example, and to guide them step by step such that they will understand the “why” behind my decisions. I can be very strict and stern at times, but not without reasons. I balance my high expectations with a right balance of friendliness, and I am open to accepting suggestions and ideas on alternative ways of doing things or new recipes, as long as they have proven with an excellent example to me.
How do you keep your team inspired and motivated to love what they do?
We are always coming up with new ideas for seasonal specials and menus. I will split the team into groups for them to brainstorm and use their creativity and ideas to present their dish for the seasonal special. If they present a recipe that meets Botanico + Co standards, I will include that in the menu. The team is highly motivated by this because it gives them a chance to show what they can do differently, and build a sense of ownership to their work.
Besides that, we also have a quarterly outstanding staff award to recognize the efforts of the team, based on internal voting. When we can afford the time, we gather for team building activities.
In general, BOH and FOH don’t quite get along. How do your teams work together?
When you work in the service line where the human touch is vital, there’s bound to be differences with other departments, not just between the BOH and FOH. Through time, we have all learnt mutual understanding, and we keep our communications open. With the leaders of all departments, we always stress the importance of honesty and keeping the conversation open. And that’s what we do – when we face any differences or issues, we come together, we put it on the table, discuss without pointing fingers, and we come to a common ground. It works!
What can other establishments learn from your kitchen?
- Mindset – consider customer’s satisfaction and experience first
- Quality – don’t compromise
- Mutual respect for the team
- Don’t skip the processes
The ability to deliver decent dishes out promptly is only part of the job of a Head Chef. Knowing how to handle a team is another. So, what makes a good leader and chef?
You skill sets is not the most important factor here. It is how you manage your team. You have to be people-oriented and to be grounded even if you are on the top of the ladder. I came to where I am today from the base, so I understand the mindset of every level. A good leader understands his people and gives them room to grow.
Set an example
Start with practising food hygiene with the highest regards and organize your stations systematically and cleanly. If the team doesn’t pay attention to small details, the day-to-day operations will fall apart. Each of my team members needs to have this mindset in their tasks. We cook as we clean, we follow the protocol, and we ensure we handle our ingredients and tools properly because it’s our responsibility. I believe that the leader of the team is exceptionally crucial in how effective the team will be – a strong leader will have his/her followers.
Throughout your career, you will receive criticisms, feedback, or even dealing with angry customers about the food you serve. At the same time, you are essentially creating food for customers with diverse cultural backgrounds and palate. There is a reason behind every feedback. You need to be able to discern and receive feedback constructively. A chef who can do this will go a long way.
What inspired you to be where you are now? What is your advice to younger chefs?
Be persistent in pursuing your passion and success will follow.
My advice to my interns and younger chefs, if you would like to progress in this career, you must expect to endure hardship and be open to feedback from others. Take feedback as a chance for you to improve. If you are hard-headed and are unable to accept pointers or always become defensive, you will not progress. If you’re able to regulate your mind to come to terms with feedback, then you will have an easier time down this path.
What’s next for you and your team?
We will be releasing a full line of gourmet products, such as house-made oil infusions, cooking pastes and pestos, house-blended seasonings and more. We are also continually working on new products for new seasonal menus. Stay tuned on our social media @botanica.co and @botanicadeli on Instagram, or find out more about us on our Facebook and website
Images credit: Platform Hospitality. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview by Tay Hui Ying. Written by Theri B.