When the opportunity arose for Werner Kuhn to explore the culinary world of Asia, he grabbed it and took up the position of Executive Chef during the pre-opening of the Penang Mutiara Beach Resort.
Kuhn recalled, “It was in the 1980s and I was already an Executive Chef in Acapulco, Mexico. However, it was every young chef’s dream to gain knowledge of the Oriental world of flavours, and I was no different. Without a second thought, I packed my bags and headed to Penang.”
Penang Mutiara Beach Resort was subsequently voted number one resort of Malaysia and one of the most luxurious hotels of Southeast Asia. “To stamp my mark as a chef in the region, I worked tirelessly on establishing a Signature Hotel Restaurant, and I am happy to say that we were successful as our Italian restaurant ‘La Farfalla’ was awarded Best Hotel Restaurant in the World by Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) in 1989,” shared Kuhn.
A native of Germany, growing up in Saarbrücken, Saarland, Kuhn already demonstrated his flair in the kitchen when he was only 15 years old. He then trained to be a chef in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“It was during the time when European kitchens were transitioning from ‘classic’ to ‘nouvelle’ cuisine. Therefore, I was taught the best of both cuisines when it came to traditional cooking methods. As a chef, I consider myself a traditionalist – rustic, real and flavourful, rather than cooking for Instagram,” explained Kuhn on how he obtained the nickname of ‘The Rebel Chef’.
After decades being attached to hotels, Kuhn decided that it was time to branch out on his own, like every other professional chef who aspires towards running his own restaurant. “For me, there was no better time to do so than in 2005. After ten years in Penang, I decided to move to Kuala Lumpur, where I pioneered the movement of a European-style, pork-centric cuisine at my first restaurant, El Cerdo, at Tengkat Tong Shin,” Kuhn reminisced.
While many other restaurateurs have followed suit since then and pork has become a big hit on restaurant menus, Kuhn can certainly hold claim to the fact that he took the lead.
Following the success of El Cerdo, Kuhn, a former Michelin Star Chef, expanded his business rapidly, and today, The Werner’s Group owns six F&B establishments within steps from one another in the Changkat Bukit Bintang area.
Running his group of restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, rather than in other Asian cities, seemed to have been a wise move for Kuhn. He said, “Malaysia is unique in its heritage of different Asian cultures, resulting in a mix of a variety of herbs and seasonings. The Peranakan cuisine exemplifies this better than any other cuisine type, marrying the beautiful cooking traditions of the Malay and Chinese. Nevertheless, a huge obstacle that professional chefs in Malaysia face is the lack of availability of produce from international markets due to restrictions set by authorities.”
At 63 years of age, the bachelor continues to oversee the overall operation of his restaurant group with the intention of preserving the values of traditional gastronomy. “Although I am no longer operating around the clock in my kitchens like I used to, I still have a strong hand in running the business and that is not going to change any time soon. I need to ensure that all our dishes are up to mark and this is one discipline that I will not drop.
“Additionally, with a young and energetic team, I am kept on my toes and I am positively challenged to stay in good spirits,” the Master Chef said.
To Kuhn, success is of little value if one is not healthy. With more time on his hands now, he is able to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular visits to the gym coupled with a controlled diet. “I also have the liberty to travel freely these days, combining business and pleasure, where I research on restaurants in my respective travel destinations, and bring home newly discovered highlights, whether culinary or conceptual,” he added.
Kuala Lumpur has certainly undergone tremendous changes since Kuhn’s arrival almost thirty years ago. “Although there are a few personal dislikes, with ‘traffic’ being top on my list, I hope for the city to flourish further, ultimately becoming a recognised Asian metropolis, yet preserving its unique heritage, However, I am excited about the new MRT lines – they will enable the suburban areas and the city centre to move closer together,” he opined.
Note: An edited version of this article [Taste for perfection] was published on 11th February, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.