LIKE an exotic dancer, the flames from the pitfire dance coquettishly, teased by the gentle sea breeze. A father and son seem to be enjoying what appears to be a beach picnic not far from the flaming pit.
In the distance, the glimmer of a light from a passing vessel slices through the darkness. It’s a balmy evening at the Westin Langkawi Resort and Spa and I’m just about to be serenaded by the culinary repertoire of Chef Jiro Ho Chia Wei, the resort’s recently-appointed chef de cuisine, and the man who has taken over the reins of its cosmopolitan restaurant, Tide.
With its curving slate grey roof, the restaurant, located just off the main building, is an eye-catching structure that enjoys stunning views of the Andaman Sea and nearby isles.
This is where guests head to for Mediterranean fare, pizza and pasta, fresh seafood and inventive platters of authentic Malaysian fare. The open dining concept is lovely, offering a resort feel to the dining experience.
As I wait for the chef to join me from the kitchen where he’s been ensconced engrossed in his creations, my mind drifts to the last time I was in Langkawi for a visit.
Ooh, it must be just shy of 10 years ago. Certainly, much has changed with the Jewel of Kedah (as Langkawi is known), its transformation apparent in certain parts of the island. The familiar languid island feel seems to have been replaced by a more heady cosmopolitan buzz.
“I see you’re captivated by what’s happening over at the beach,” goes a deep voice with just the trace of an Indian lilt. It jolts me back to the present. I turn, only to clap eyes on a tall, smiling gentleman whose hand is extended towards me for a handshake.
It’s Abishek Singh Negi, the resort’s director of food and beverage. Ah, I’ve been expecting him to join me for my dinner tonight. “We try to give our guests unique dining experiences,” begins Abishek, taking his seat opposite me.
“The pitfire on the beach is for those who enjoy their meats and want to feel the sand on their feet, the breeze in their hair and the smell of the sea in their nose. Those who enjoy barbecues will love our Brazilian bbq, which we hold by the pool on Tuesdays. There’s also our wine dinners and our Catch-of-the-Day. There are plenty of experiences tailored for guests.”
As Abishek and I engage in an animated exchange about the resort, the stocky figure of Chef Jiro, clad in a dark chef’s uniform minus the toque (chef’s hat) comes into view. He takes his seat next to me, apologising profusely for having kept us waiting.
“Just needed to finalise a few things in the kitchen,” explains the 32-year-old chef who has been with the resort for the last eight months.
According to Abishek, since his arrival, Jiro, who is half-Japanese (on his mother’s side), has completely revamped Tide’s menu and given it a more creative and lively feel. “The previous menu was a little dull, had no real focus and hadn’t been changed for a while. So guests just came back to the same things.”
A new direction
When he took over the reins of the restaurant, Jiro was given a simple brief: One of Westin’s pillars is wellness and wellbeing. So create something that would showcase this concept to a tee.
It’s a challenge that the KL-born chef is more than happy to accept.
“My forte is actually homestyle, comfort food — but crafted and presented in an elegant way,” shares Jiro, who enjoys blending his love of fresh and locally-sourced ingredients with the various techniques in his arsenal of skills acquired over the years of working in different kitchens.
Prior to joining the Westin, Jiro served as chef de cuisine at The Andaman and enjoyed stints at DoubleTree by Hilton KL, Le Meridien KL and The Westin KL moving through the ranks impressively.
Noting my look of confusion, he adds: “Take risotto for example. It’s a comfort food of the Italians, right? So what I do is I remove the risotto rice and use barley instead so it becomes barley risotto. Barley is healthy, no carbs. I think at Tides we’ve managed to strike the balance of creativity and delicacy.”
The affable young chef was raised in a single parent family. His mother was an accountant who juggled a very busy career during his childhood years. So he found himself spending a lot of time with his grandmother.
“Grandma was always in the kitchen preparing all our meals. So the kitchen was where I’d be too watching her cook. That’s where I picked up some invaluable skils,” recalls Jiro, who has one other sibling who followed in his mother’s footsteps and ended up crunching numbers for a living.
He was 13 when he first cooked his first proper meal for the family.
“Grandma wasn’t feeling so well so I took over. It wasn’t any fancy meal but it was a homely one, complete with chicken, fish and rice.”
Suffice to say, grandma was a treasure trove of recipes. More than just recipes, she taught him the most important lesson of all — the importance of cooking with love.
“Love has to be your main ingredient,” says Jiro, emphatically. “You can be cooking for anybody but always approach it as if you’re cooking for your family or loved ones. When you do that, you’ll be cooking from the heart.”
As he made his foray into the culinary world, Jiro admits that life as a chef is not all sugar and spice and all things nice.
“You need to be inspired all the time in order to create and innovate. And that’s not always easy. I’ve spent plenty of late nights surfing the Internet and flipping through recipe books just to get ideas and find out what’s out there.”
The Langkawi culinary-scape, adds Jiro, is not as buzzing as that of, say, KL, where culinary innovations are a constant.
“So once in a while I’ll return to KL to see what exciting things are happening and then I try to bring back what I learn to Langkawi.”
But if there’s one good thing about being on an island, adds Jiro, looking thoughtful, is the fact that he has the opportunity to experiment more.
Concludes the 32-year-old: “In the big city, you can’t really afford to make errors. There’s very little opportunity for trial runs. Langkawi is small, which means that things can be more flexible. And the fact that we’re never short of customers drives me to continue creating and innovating.”
Jiro’s culinary showcase
Seared Sesame Maguro Salad — seared sesame crusted tuna maguro, avocado and tomato salsa, capsicums with arugula salad served with Goma dressing.
“This salad is Japanese-inspired although it’s not completely raw. Three-quarter cooked, you get a nice crispy texture, the sesame seed adding a nice crunch.”
Thai squash and coriander soup — Thai flavoured squash soup infused with coriander and creamed with coconut milk.
“Thai influence is infused into the soup with the addition of coriander, plenty of Thai spices, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves into pumpkin soup. The normal western pumpkin soup is boring and oftentimes bland. This one has a kick because of the addition of salted fish sauce and seasonings. ”
Seafood doublet — Half grilled lobster served with Asian-style cous cous, grouper on quinoa pearls, spiced with tom yam stock, young crunchy zucchini.
“The cous cous is mixed with Asian spices — bunga kantan, kaffir lime leaves, and other herbs. For the fish, garoupa is used with quinoa — very healthy. The quinoa is cooked in tom yam stock, giving it a nice tangy taste, not too spicy.”
Mango coconut chia pudding served with black sesame ice cream
“A dreamy end to the culinary journey that blends elements of the west and east.”
Tide Restaurant, The Westin Langkawi Resort & Spa
Jalan Dato Syed Omar, Kuah, Langkawi, Kedah