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 The St Regis Langkawi executive chef Mandy Goh.
The St Regis Langkawi executive chef Mandy Goh.

IT can’t get any better than this, I think.

With a glass of bubbly in hand, I’m seated at the table in Kayuputi, Langkawi, the beautiful, vast-windowed whitewashed destination restaurant overlooking the glistening Andaman seas.

Feeling a little inebriated by the generous pourings of wine, I’m ready to be wowed by St Regis’ newly-minted executive chef, Mandy Goh at a multi-course degustation wine dinner aptly called Taste, Texture and Theatre.

Fresh from successful stints as the Chef de-cuisine of Shanghai’s Fifty 8° Grill Restaurant by Michelin-starred Chef Richard Ekkebus, The Manor at The St. Regis Macao and Michelin-starred Restaurant Guy Savoy, Goh now takes on the enviable role as the first woman executive chef hired by The St Regis to oversee the operations of brasserie L’Orangerie, over-water restaurant Kayuputi, and the Gourmand Deli, amongst others at The St. Regis Langkawi.

 One of Goh's creations, the Himalaya salt baked 24-days aged quail breast.
One of Goh's creations, the Himalaya salt baked 24-days aged quail breast.

For those of us with knife and fork at the ready, the executive chef’s tasting menu offers a delectable window into her gastronomic philosophy. “I’d like guests to feel the soul of the culinary team for every dish they put forward, delivering only their best. This will leave a lasting memory in the minds of guests,” said the chef, in an earlier statement.

This is a challenge no chef should saunter into casually. After all, making each course as different as possible from the last isn’t just a chance for the chef to show off; it’s necessary to keep the diner’s attention.

Yet in the hands of a chef who grasps the challenges and possibilities of the form, a tasting menu can yield a succession of delights that a shorter meal could never contain. Goh doesn’t disappoint.

With the heady combination of select wines from the cellars of the esteemed house of Edmond de Rothschild, the degustation dinner delivers on its promise of taste, texture and theatre. Goh takes on the French fine dining’s menu dégustation and transforms it into a theatrical tour de force: a marathon exploration of the chef’s creative vision across seven courses.

The amuse bouche is a gloriously refreshing combination of royal of spring peas with oysters. I eat it, love it, and am instantly full. Of course though, I continue the eating. Scallops paired with caviar! Lobster bisque! Salt-baked quail breast! Barramundi! Wagyu beef! Truffles! I slip away to look at myself in the mirror after course four. Still there, if a bit hazy round the edges. At the last plate I’m starting to feel like I’ve flown too close to the sun.

While some of these dishes were a one-night only deal due to the ingredients used, the skill and inventiveness behind them showcase Goh and her talented team's knack for serving up cuisine that will most certainly please. This of course extends to the restaurant's daily menu.

 The executive chef explaining her degustation menu at Kayuputi, The St Regis Langkawi's unique destination restaurant.
The executive chef explaining her degustation menu at Kayuputi, The St Regis Langkawi's unique destination restaurant.

The diminutive bespectacled Goh bounds in at the tail-end of the dinner, and in halting English, begins: “Hope you enjoyed tonight’s dinner,” before explaining each of her plating in quick staccato-ed detail.

It’s clear that she isn’t quite as comfortable outside of her kitchen as she is within. She talks rapidly and leaves her last words hanging in the air. “She spoke too fast,” someone finally breaks the silence, in a bemused tone. No one minds. The good food, sublime wine, pleasant chatter against the backdrop of crashing waves, coalesces into a pleasant evening.

In my inebriated, sated state, I can’t help but take an instant liking to the reticent chef. I obligingly eat her final showpiece — her dessert Texture of Rhubarb, confit of Fuji apple marinated with vanilla, and then leave, eyes watering, swooning, but in a good way.

GIRL FROM PENANG

 Goh admits to spending equal amounts of time holding a pen as holding a knife in the kitchen.
Goh admits to spending equal amounts of time holding a pen as holding a knife in the kitchen.

Goh proved last night that cooking has never been so cool; she has become the epitome of the power shift in the culinary pantheon. Forget portly middle-aged male epicures who’d never be seen out of the kitchen during service; Goh practises Muay Thai, rides her sporty bicycle around the sunny island and accessorises her neatly-pressed chef tunics with tattoos. As the first woman executive chef at St Regis Langkawi, Goh wears that badge of honour with pride.

“I’m excited!” she admits, smiling, showing none of the reticence last night. It’s a position she says she’s growing into. “I’m just grateful to be given the opportunity to grow while being a lot closer to my family in Penang. It feels like I’ve come full circle!”

Langkawi is a lot more familiar to Goh than anyone realises. “I did my national service here at this very spot!” she reveals. This very spot? I repeat. “Yes, long before this hotel was built, we had our national service camp here. I spent three months at this place!” she says, grinning.

The idea of 18-year-old Goh camping on the hotel grounds is intriguing. “Oh I enjoyed my stint during national service,” she remarks blithely, revealing with unashamed candour: “But I’ve got an embarrassing secret: I was an awful student in high school. I slept in class, I never studied, and my academic performance scandalised my family!”

She’s thoughtful, outspoken, funny and candid, sometimes in the course of a single sentence. Unlike many chefs who keep their heads down and their focus on the kitchen, she isn’t afraid to raise her voice — about family, relationships, gratitude and other topics only tangentially related to food.

 Chef Mandy Goh at Kayuputi.
Chef Mandy Goh at Kayuputi.

While cleaning her house for Chinese New Year recently, Goh found her SPM results. “I know many colleagues and friends won’t believe this or will think I’m exaggerating, but my SPM results — with just one A, one B, seven C’s, one D and (gasp) one E — show this is no hyperbole.”

In high school, she confesses she had a large problem with authority. Parents or teachers threatening her with consequences didn’t motivate her; it only guaranteed her non-performance. But being stubborn has upsides because she was unafraid to think independently and ignore the consensus.

But one might also assume that an individual who has mastered gastronomy as thoroughly as Goh would’ve been fascinated by food from birth, gone from crib to kitchen at a crawl, yanked her mother’s apron strings, licked pots, cried out for crème brûlée, been fascinated by the rituals of the family table. Not so, says the Penangite.

“I decided on culinary school because I didn’t want to study,” she shares, grinning. Did you not grow up helping out in the kitchen and getting your inspiration from there? I ask aghast. “Nope,” is her merry reply. “I didn’t spend any time in the kitchen. For what?” she asks pointedly, looking faintly surprised.

BECOMING CHEF

 Cognac infused Boston lobster bisque served at the degustation dinner.
Cognac infused Boston lobster bisque served at the degustation dinner.

She found herself largely unmotivated even during culinary school, “...but I liked being in the kitchen,” she remarks, adding cheekily: “It was the only time I didn’t have to pick up the book and read-lah!”

For her industry training, Goh opted to move to Kuala Lumpur, and joined the Mandarin Oriental where she spent her time “... peeling onions and hard-boiled eggs!” She loved the experience, she confides. “I didn’t have to pick up the pen at all, so the on-the-job training was rather enjoyable despite the monotony,” she recalls. Soon after graduating, Goh joined the same hotel as a permanent staff in 2008.

It was still “just a job” for Goh, who still hadn’t found her calling yet — until she met her mentor, executive chef Marcel Kofler who saw potential in the rough-around-the-edges young chef.

 Chefs Mandy Goh, Marcel Kofler and See Lay Na at the Bocuse d”Or Asia in Shanghai 2010.
Chefs Mandy Goh, Marcel Kofler and See Lay Na at the Bocuse d”Or Asia in Shanghai 2010.

It was Kofler who trained Goh for the Bocuse D’Or Asia — a prestigious chef competition. Not just any chef competition, of which there are many, but the chef competition, not unlike the Olympic Games.

The Bocuse d'Or is the brainchild of Paul Bocuse, France's most esteemed chef, the genius who gave the world soup aux truffes VGE (so-called because he once fed it to former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing) and the heavenly truffled Bresse chicken, cooked inside a pig's bladder that’s still served at his celebrated Lyon restaurant, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges.

The competition takes place every two years — the first was held in 1987 — and it has complicated rules. Each team comprises a chef, a commis (who must be under the age of 22), and a "coach" — a third chef who doesn’t cook, or even enter the kitchen, but who has been on hand to help and advise during practice runs, and is there for encouragement on the day.

Because Goh was the only staff who fulfilled the age requirements of the commis, Kofler asked Goh whether she was interested in joining the competition. Why not, she replied. “Free trip, free training… how could I say no?” she asks in retrospect.

 Goh managing the workflow of the kitchen like an air traffic controller.
Goh managing the workflow of the kitchen like an air traffic controller.

The idea of stress in the kitchen is nothing new, and has been presented as the curse of the culinary genius in pursuit of glittering prizes. The Bocuse D’Or challenge had Goh working tirelessly, putting in between 48 and 60 hours per week.

“Here I was, barely out of culinary school, putting in the normal eight hours at work every day, and the extra eight hours after that, prepping and training for the competition,” recalls Goh.

It was gruelling and exhausting, but she discovered her calling after all. “It was there that I felt I learned more and wanted to grow my wings and explore new possibilities. The competition brought out the best of me.”

“It was intense,” recounts Goh, gushing. “I loved every minute of it.” She competed in the all-female Malaysian national team for the Bocuse D’Or Asia and took home gold — a first time for an all-female team to win this highly competitive culinary competition.

Kofler later was instrumental in installing Goh at the Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou in 2014. Her journey in the culinary world began with an impressive career trajectory from her stint at Bocuse D’Or Asia that has seen Goh work in five-star hotels across Asia while picking up invaluable experience at the finest establishments in the region.

“I count myself lucky,” she insists, adding: “Most people would have instantly dismissed this girl from Penang who could barely speak English, but not Chef Marcel. For that, I’m very grateful.”

These days, Goh has been doing more than peeling onions and scooping out ice-cream at the buffet. She admits to spending equal amounts of time holding a pen as holding a knife in the kitchen.

“My place used to be in the kitchen with the knife and cooking. Now I catch myself learning more about holding a pen and knife at the same time while thinking about maintaining food quality, cost and profitability!” she quips, chuckling.

So you’re back to doing something you strove to avoid — reading books, I tease. She grins in response. “I got some of my inspiration for last night’s dinner through books… I collect them now!”

She’s certainly grown since her days as a “naughty student” at Chung Ling High School in Prai. Mouthing the ultimate cliche, Goh remains earnest and means every word: “There’s only one recipe for success — hard work.”

You have to put in the long hours and make sacrifices. “I’ve not celebrated Chinese New Year with my family for 13 years,” she admits wryly, adding: “It was only this year that I finally got to go home.”

Her hard work has definitely paid off. Not just in the way she presents her food with its decidedly French twist, but in the handling of her kitchen especially during high octane moments like last night.

You’re most likely to notice it in the abstract — if you notice it at all. The work of a good leader is in the pacing of your dinner. It’s in the steadiness of the room. It’s in the sense that everyone in the restaurant is moving to a single, unbreakable rhythm. As dish after dish poured into our dining hall like clockwork, it’s hard to imagine that over 300 courses of food were prepared by just a 15-man team.

 Goh and part of her 15-man crew who were behind the Taste, Texture and Theatre dinner at The St Regis Langkawi.
Goh and part of her 15-man crew who were behind the Taste, Texture and Theatre dinner at The St Regis Langkawi.

Last night, Goh set that rhythm, managing the workflow of the kitchen like an air traffic controller. She fired dishes — signalling cooks exactly when to push ahead and finish a dish — and she kept time, continuously planning the next move.

“There’s an exhilaration factor,” recalls Goh. “It’s a quarterback kind of position — you’ve got a whole team, you’ve got your guests and you don’t want to let any of them down.”

As I scraped down the remainder of Goh’s dessert on the plate, I’m fairly certain that she never does.

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