WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT? CHEF MALCOLM LEE TELLS ALL
You’d think being the only Peranakan restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star is a point of pride — and you’re not wrong. But for owner and head chef Malcolm Lee, it was also a painful lesson in loss and learning to value the people around him more deeply. Speaking candidly about his struggles and revelations after sacrificing an important relationship to achieve the restaurant’s star, he talks about Candlenut’s four-day work week and what work-life balance means to him. He also makes the daring declaration that “being traditional is actually modern” and reveals how he walks the fine line between paying tribute to and reinventing the cuisine — by remaining authentic to mum’s recipes, but with cutting-edge precision and incredible thoughtfulness.
Your approach at Candlenut is about refining traditional Peranakan cuisine. Do you have a guiding philosophy that helps you pay tribute to the original recipe while creating a modern reinterpretation of the dish?
Well, my mum and I started the restaurant together. Over the years, I would try to introduce new ideas, but she would always question me and make comments like “it’s not like that one”, or “it’s not meant to be like this”. After a few years, I better understood the history and culture behind certain dishes, and started to realise why keeping that traditional flavour is so important. When you try to push the flavour for the sake of technique or in an attempt to be different, you end up not producing a very good dish.
So now I’ve returned to being quite traditional. The philosophy that now guides Candlenut is that we focus on producing our signature dishes. When we make kueh for example, we pay attention to the kind of rice we use, how we soak it, and how long we steam it for. We also research a lot on how to extract pandan juice properly to achieve the right flavour. All of our processes are temperature-controlled and time-controlled. This helps us, for example, get the custard of our Kueh Salat perfectly smooth. If you have it somewhere else, you might see curdles and wrinkles, which is nice, but we wanted to represent it in a much finer way. The flavours are exactly the same, but how it is presented is where it’s truly different.
And how have your reinterpretations been received by your family, especially your mother and grandmother?
When my mum comes to the restaurant, I’ll ask her and… there are a lot of opinions, let’s put it this way (chuckles). But overall, she enjoys Candlenut’s food, thankfully. Otherwise, I’ll hear no end to it. (laughs) Grandma loves it very much too.
KF Seetoh once said that you were a chef with gumption. What was it that kept you going when critics and customers casted doubt on your decisions?
What kept me going… Of course, I had a dream to do good food. But I think the real reason that kept me going was my then-girlfriend, if I’m being honest. She was the one who really dragged me along. When Candlenut received very bad reviews, I remembered crying because it’s not easy to be criticised. When she found out, she rushed down with a sunflower and sang me songs. It was small things like that that kept me going. When I was tired of trying, she would print menus and just try anything that would make me move forward. A lot of people don’t know it, but she was really the strength behind me. That’s why I will not lose the family culture at Candlenut — because it was built on this. It was never about the money or the Michelin.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice before you started Candlenut, what would you say?
That work is important and achieving your dream is important. But never sacrifice your loved ones — they still come first.
99% of chefs will always say their reason for going into food is because they love to see people smile, that they love to make people happy. And that’s perfectly correct, but sometimes, we use this as an excuse to be busy. For many years, I just kept working and repeating that mantra. But now, I’ll ask the younger chefs: we all say we want to make people happy — but who are the ones that you’re making happy, or rather, unhappy? It’s your family, friends, and loved ones. And I don’t think that’s right.
My girlfriend then was part-timing at the restaurant and she helped with everything, from service to even cleaning the toilet. She supported me wholeheartedly. We were together for five, almost six years, but ultimately went our separate ways. We didn’t have an argument or anything — it was just that I couldn’t see beyond my job and give more time to her and the relationship.
I felt nothing when Candlenut won the Michelin award. Nothing. I thought, all I’ve wanted to achieve is this Michelin, the biggest prize for a chef to win, but when I went on stage to receive the award, I felt nothing. That was the breaking point — everything just crumbled after that. I thought: so what if I’ve achieved one-star? So what if the business is successful? I have all this but I lost what truly mattered to me.
The first year after winning the Michelin, I would come to work and not feel anything. It saddened me to look at the restaurant because it felt empty. During my meltdown, I was depressed and struggled to sleep because my thoughts would keep me awake. That episode ultimately made me say, if doing this is about people, then everybody must be happy. The customers, staff, and the families and friends of the staff also have to be taken care of.
So when I realised this, I changed a lot of the systems here in the restaurant. The kitchen staff, for example, only work for four days and get three days off in a week. To me, you work hard for four days, and have three days to spend time with your family. If you don’t have children, take the time to rest and recreate. Come back fresher. I’m trying to teach them that life is more than just work.
Has that worked well for the Candlenut team?
It took two years to adjust but our turnover for the kitchen now is almost zero. I believe guests can feel if you treat your staff badly, which is why I always say our service can speak for itself. To me, when you decide to be a chef, it’s because of a love for people, then a love for food, because that is the medium. Love for people includes your staff, the customers, everybody.
There’s always pressure to fit into a certain mould for restaurants — to be open six days a week for both lunch and dinner. But really, who’s stopping you from opening for only dinner? Who’s stopping you from only opening four days a week? It’s your restaurant; decide what you want. That’s what I would have told myself when I first started. You might earn less, but at least your loved ones are all happy together. When people come to me now and say, “I have a family”, I will tell them to go even if we’re shorthanded. It’s very clear-cut how we make our decisions now. I am lucky our partnership with Como Dempsey is great. We still open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, but I’ve at least managed to rework the system so that everybody has the relevant time off.
That’s wonderful. Could you share with us how you would like Candlenut’s journey with Peranakan food to unfold in the coming years?
I want to uncover more Peranakan stories and dishes and share them with people. Something I’m planning to try this year is to have Candlenut do a four-hands collaboration with Peranakan aunties. [Ed’s note: a four-hands collaboration is a one-off cooking collaboration between chefs from different restaurants.]
We’ve had some guest chefs in the past, but I thought that since we are Peranakan, we ought to use the restaurant as a platform to further celebrate Peranakan food. So let’s say your mum is Peranakan. We’ll put one of her dishes on my menu as a special and credit her name. I don’t see why not — the best chefs are our mums.