Glocal Flavor

How do you impress the world’s top chefs with the menu at a gala dinner? The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre chef decided to go all in with Malaysian cuisine. 

An appetizer of prawns in a budu sabayon (a custard laced with fish sauce) was served at the Worldchefs gala dinner.

Cooking to impress does not faze chef Hisham Bin Jaafar. By the time Jaafar was appointed executive chef of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) in 2017, the Malaysian chef had already spent a decade at the center and more than two and a half decades in high-end hospitality. For him, preparing sumptuous banquets for hundreds and sometimes thousands of people — including dignitaries and heads of state — is all in a day’s work.

In his role at the center, Jaafar oversees Malaysia’s largest commercial kitchen and 52 full-time staffers. Members of his culinary team have traveled to Japan and throughout Europe for competitions, “and some have also worked around the world,” Jaafar said. “We know how to present our signature dishes to European palates.”

Executive chef Hisham Bin Jaafar

This summer, however, Jaafar and his team faced the challenge of preparing a gala dinner for an audience with especially discerning palates. That would be the hundreds of their peers — chefs and culinary professionals — who attended the Worldchefs Congress & Expo 2018, held at KLCC, July 11–14. “For Worldchefs, we were going to serve to all the big-shot chefs from around the world. This was like the World Cup for chefs,” Jaafar said. Adding to the pressure was the fact that this was the first time in the organization’s 90-year history that its biennial congress was being held in Malaysia. Therefore, serving this group of 700, he said, felt “like 7,000 for us.”

Taking a Bite Out of Malaysia

Worldchefs, originally the World Association of Chefs, was founded at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1928; seminal French chef Auguste Escoffier was the group’s first president. The organization is now officially the World Association of Chefs Societies and remains headquartered in Paris. Worldchefs has held a congress every two years — barring a pause during World War II — and during those early years, culinary European capitals like Paris, Bern, Brussels, and Vienna hosted the event. The Worldchefs Congress, which attracts industry leaders in food and beverage and provides “complete solutions for industrial kitchens” according to Worldchefs’ website, first came to the U.S. in 1984, when it was held in Orlando. Its first foray into Asia was its 1990 congress in Singapore.

Malaysia won the bid to host the 2018 event in 2014, with unique Malaysian cuisine as a draw and the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre as the chosen venue. The KLCC was well positioned to host the gathering of culinary professionals from 105 countries — a total of 10,000 guests — for the event: The center’s culinary facility has earned halal certification for all five of its kitchens (Chinese, Western, cold, pastry, and Malay), as well as ISO 22000 certification, a comprehensive standard for food safety. “We are very rigid, to ensure that all the items that go through our receiving have qualification or certification for food safety,” Jaafar said.

Worldchefs Congress & Expo 2018

Jaafar and his team supplied all of Worldchefs’ meals and snacks in the breakout rooms, as well as the congress breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks, and ingredients for the chefs’ competitions. But the gala was their pièce de résistance. About 18 months before Worldchefs arrived, Jaafar and his colleagues reviewed what had been served to attendees at recent conferences in Athens and South Korea and decided upon a wholly Malaysian menu for the gala — a departure from their strategy for other large conferences. With 60 percent of KLCC’s delegates throughout the year coming from outside of Malaysia, Jaafar’s team regularly blends European-style dishes with local flavors. “It’s not easy to tell the palates of people from seven continents to taste our local tastes,” Jaafar said.

Malaysia’s inventive, polyglot cuisine has three main national influences: China, India, and Malaysia. Rice and noodles are staples, as are fish and chicken. Desserts can be wildly unique, with coconut, candlenuts, kaffir lime, galangal, tamarind, and soy sauce regular ingredients — in addition to chilis. “We eat a lot of spicy food,” Jaafar said. That was one aspect of Malaysian cuisine that he resolved to blunt for the Worldchefs dinner.

On the Menu

The KLCC team was relentless in researching ingredients, dishes, and techniques, and the menu took shape about three months before the July 14 gala. Fortunately, Jaafar had cultivated longstanding relationships with farmers, fishermen, and other food producers across Malaysia. It’s not uncommon for him to tour fishing operations to ensure sustainable practices, and for the meal, he sought the choicest prawns and seafood. He also sourced Sakura chicken, or poultry raised humanely for flavor and tenderness — “It’s like Kobe [beef] farming,” he said.

For dessert, Jaafar chased down a rare palm sugar produced in a region that’s a six-hour drive from the center. “I have to work a bit hard sometimes,” he said. All told, 80 percent of the ingredients were sourced from within the country.

Amidst the last-minute planning, Jaafar was momentarily flustered by a Worldchefs committee request for a tasting three days prior to the dinner. “That gave me a lot of pressure,” Jaafar said. But he told them that he couldn’t fulfill their request. “I had to bite the bullet, and assure them everything would run smoothly.”

Worldchefs Congress & Expo 2018

The night of the gala brought another surprise: With tables set for 700 or so guests, about 40 covers were added just before the dinner. “We had to get more ingredients in half an hour,” Jaafar said, which was especially challenging, given that the dishes were prepared with rare and high-quality components. While Jaafar said he usually “keeps 10 percent [extra] in his pocket,” he had to make some last-minute substitutions for the extra meals — such as cod for the Norwegian salmon (donated by a sponsor, the Norwegian Seafood Association) for an appetizer of kerabu, a Malaysian salad made with salmon marinated in kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, and tamarind, and smoked with tea leaves. Alongside the dish were prawns in buda sabayon, or custard flavored with fish sauce. The Sakura chicken was minced and folded into a main course of percik, a cornerstone Malaysian dish. And the sira, a northern Malaysia dessert of salted peanut madeleine, caramelized bananas, and mango curd, featured a gelée created from that sought-after palm sugar.

It’s not easy to put three elements of cuisine on one plate.

The congress chairman, Andy Cuthbert, called the dinner “spectacular.” For Jaafar and his team, the meal marked a turning point in how they’ll market KLCC catering in 2019 and beyond. “When people come here, they are not coming for Italian or French food,” Jaafar said. “They want to have Malaysian food. It’s not easy to put three elements of cuisine on one plate, and we did it well. This is what we see in the future.”

To learn more about the Worldchefs Congress & Expo, visit worldchefs2018.org.

F&B is supported by Louisville Tourism, gotolouisville.com.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.