INTERVIEW: Candlenut is Chef Malcolm Lee's pursuit of respect for the craft of cooking

SINGAPORE — "Thank you, Chef," I said, reaching across the table to stop the voice recording of this interview. "Wait. I want to share a story with you," Chef Malcolm Lee announced matter-of-factly.

"People accuse me of being arrogant because I charge S$3 for my sambal belacan. They don't know, Zat, that when I want to make the sambal belacan for Candlenut, I have to email the other tenants in Como Dempsey to inform them. I will open all the doors and windows in this building so that the smell will dissipate by the time we open for lunch. So much work goes into the sambal. I have customers who compare my belacan to ketchup. They say that they don't pay for ketchup at fast-food restaurants. Trust me. If the restaurants made their ketchup, they would charge for it," he intones, the exasperation audible in his voice.

Today, Chef Malcolm is dressed not like other chefs I've met. He's in his signature black chef's garb—a choice that stands out amongst the other chefs on stage when he receives the Michelin star for Candlenut a few months prior. His jacket is trimmed close to his lean frame to match the black slim fit joggers he's wearing, such that he looks very well put together. But I notice a slight restlessness in his demeanour which in turn makes me nervous. There's no witty repartee pre-interview which worries me as I count on that to make people I speak to open up to me.

But as the interview wears on, he starts regaling me with stories about his life, passion, and frustrations about this job that he loves more than life itself. And if his words don't reflect that, his food will. It takes a certain audaciousness to price a plated Puteri Salat at S$16. But his is not mere blind courage. It comes from a deep and profound respect for the craft of cooking and the artisans striving in the kitchen, an esteem that has led to Candlenut being conferred the title of the world's first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant.

Chef Malcom Lee. (PHOTO: Candlenut)
Chef Malcom Lee. (PHOTO: Candlenut)

Zat Astha: How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

Malcolm Lee: Oh, I tell them I cook curry and rice (laughs). Essentially I think that’s what my role here is. You know, my name card doesn’t even have my title. I want people to want to hang out with me because I’m me—Malcolm Lee. Not because I own a restaurant, or I am a boss, or that I have chefs working for me.

For me, it’s very simple. I wanted to do Peranakan food, cook what I love to eat, and share that with people. I think that was a very simple start—in fact, it’s too simple. I didn’t know much about the viability of the business or how to make money. It’s just like “Okay, we’re going to cook and serve Peranakan food”. That’s how we started.

Do you think you’re lucky?

I wouldn’t use the word ‘lucky’. If anything, I’m blessed that along the way, I’ve had the support of friends and family.

I think a lot of people are surprised at how Candlenut has grown over the years especially because it’s just local Peranakan food—curry and rice. I never imagined when I opened ten years ago that it would grow this big. When I was younger and just starting in this industry, I would often come up here to Dempsey because I love how this place felt. I’ve always wanted my restaurant to be here. Fast forward to today, and here I am as part of Como Dempsey. This has always been my dream.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Have you accepted that this—Candlenut opening in Dempsey, being awarded a star by Michelin for the 4th year—has happened?

I have to accept that this is the reality now. If you look at a snapshot of today, everybody looks at me, and they know that I have a restaurant in Dempsey with the Como Group and there’s a Michelin star. They will think “Wow. You’ve made it, Malcolm.” But to me, I always feel like I’m still just an average person. I still like to eat curry and rice. I still like to travel, eat hawker food. I’m not suddenly a different person just because I’m successful, you know.

Even with success, there are all these challenges of running a restaurant. The reality is yes, I have this today, but what do I do tomorrow and many years to come? If I don’t focus and work on the sustainability of the business, next year we may not even be here. That’s what the reality of success entails.

Do you think that’s the reason why restaurants in Singapore close?

As a business, we always have to look at how this business can be sustained for the next year, or three years, or even five years later. I always tell my team that I want to go for ten, twenty, thirty years. I don’t want something fleeting—something that is just for now. I love what I do, the team I work with, and the people that come here. I owe it to them to do this for a very long time and for as long as I can.

What was the one set back that you’ve encountered in this journey that surprised you?

Relationships. That would be a significant setback. It sets the tone for everything. Running a restaurant is time, financial, and emotional investment. I’m always working, and that means I would leave my family members alone most of the time. I don’t have time to spend with my friends and loved ones. Those are very important things that I’ve had to sacrifice. And as much as I don’t want it to be true, it’s the reality of things.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Has things changed now? Are relationships still something that you struggle with?

Oh, yes, yes. It has changed a lot.

It’s about people. It goes back to what I said just now about people wanting to work with me because I’m me and not because of the Michelin Star or other accolades this restaurant has been awarded. Yes, I admit that those are helping factor. But what’s more important for me is that we are all able to work together as a cohesive whole.

You could be going through training, or you’re a service staff, a hostess, or even a steward. Each of them has a name, a life, and a family. You have to respect them as individuals. They are here to take care of their family, so indirectly, I’m also responsible for taking care of their family. My focus now is more on the people who work with me rather than the business itself. Sure, the numbers are essential. But it’s the staff that helps you achieve that. So you need to take care of your work family first.

Then how do you take care of yourself?

Slowly over the years, I’ve learned to let go a little bit. It took a while for me to reach that point because I always feel bad that my staff work so much, so I always try to be here as much as possible, making sure that they are in a very good working environment, paying them well, and that everything they need is there. Their growth is very important to me.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Do you find it easier for that philosophy to materialise here or at your first, more cosy outlet at Neil Road?

I think it can materialise anywhere. You need to adapt to the change in the environment, whatever they may be. The core of it cannot change, which is about people—the guests, and equally important, the staff.

What was the worst thing anyone has said to you about opening Candlenut?

When I first opened Candlenut, I was very young. At times, I didn’t know what I’m doing, that much is true. And I do realise that this cuisine comes with its rich heritage and history and that every person has a different interpretation of what a Peranakan dish should be. I always tell people that I’m still learning, even until now.

I want to gather these stories slowly and share them with everyone who steps through our doors. There’s a misconception that I want to dispel: that Peranakan food, or local food for that matter, should be cheap. I don’t understand why we glorify so much and pay such good money for non-local cuisines, but when it comes to local food, oh, it must be cheap. It must be affordable. Why? Why must it be like that?

It could be because local food is more accessible. I think Singaporeans find it hard to pay more for food that they can get at the nearest hawker centre.

It’s also about valuing the craft that goes into making the dishes. When compared to other cuisines, why must Peranakan food be cheaper? The quality of the ingredients is the same. People don’t seem to appreciate the craft or understand that they’re not just paying for the food, but for the time and effort that goes into making the dishes. My chefs have to manually cut the beef, cook it for three hours over a stove which cannot be used for anything else in the meantime. I have to prepare the rempah, and that takes time and skills too. It all adds up.

Look, I’m not charging customers a premium simply because I want to make more money. But people need to understand that what you’re paying for is not just the raw ingredients, or the salaries of my staff, or even the rental of this space. What you’re paying for is the amount of time my chefs and I have taken to be able to do what we do here. It’s the experience and craftsmanship that we’ve honed that ensures the highest quality food coming out of the kitchen every single time. I stand by the worth and quality of the food we serve here at Candlenut.

(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
(PHOTO: Ian Nale for Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

What is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you first started that you can share with a young chef?

Wah. So many leh. I guess it’s to make sure that you have sound financial knowledge. You can have passion, you can have a brilliant concept, you can cook the best food, serve it on the best plate, using the best ingredients, but you need to combine that with some form of financial prudence to sustain it. No matter how passionate you are as a chef, if you don’t take care of the business side of the company, it will eventually eat you.

Do you think chefs struggle with this because they feel like if they attend to anything else but the passion aspect of cooking, it makes them less of a chef?

What actually is the role of a chef? It must be put into context. We are here to feed people, to give them a good time, and make sure they’re happy. This don’t change. The context, on the other hand, changes. It could be an eight people dinner or a bigger, 300 people dinner, or a fine dining restaurant. The context changes but the philosophy doesn’t. I think as long as you stay within that boundaries, you’ll be alright.

When you look at the state of the Singapore dining scene today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

It’s the people. Specifically, the younger generation of Singaporeans give me hope. Yes, they may not understand the craft, but they are starting to question their roots and look back at their heritage. Some of them come here to Candlenut to learn more skills and knowledge, and it’s great. It makes me want to go forward and share what I know to people who want to learn. It’s very inspirational and motivates me to do better too.

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