How did a chef who trained under two chefs with Michelin stars at restaurants that have reached numbers one and four on San Pellegrino’s list of the best restaurants in the world end up running his own outfit in Kuala Lumpur?
After honing his skills at Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca and Mugaritz, chef Toni Valero arrived in Kuala Lumpur for a short break before taking up a position in Singapore. That turned out to be a turning point for Valero, who decided to stay a little longer to further explore Malaysia’s cuisine and culture. Along the way, he became the head chef at the now-closed Ohla Tapas at The Intermark, where he earned rave reviews for his food.
Three-and-a-half years later, Valero has teamed up with business partner Tricia Kandiah to set up Coquo, a restaurant and wine bar that serves dishes using fine-dining techniques yet sets prices slightly lower than fine food establishments. “We absolutely refuse to call ourselves ‘fine dining’,” says Valero. “We lower our margins so that more people can enjoy our food.”
At Coquo, located in the trendy food quarters of Solaris Dutamas in Mont Kiara, what you get is an exploration of fusion food that incorporates local flavours using fine dining and progressive cuisine methods such as the use of liquid nitrogen. It is not a tapas bar, but they have items from their sharing menu where two to three people can sample a few dishes together. Valero is pushing this concept of dining because he wants patrons to try a few dishes in a single seating instead of having only one main course for the night. “It’s like having dim sum to share, for example,” he explains.
Just as in Spain, where restaurants use the freshest local produce to create the best food, Valero, too, tries to incorporate the best Malaysian produce as much as possible into his dishes. At Coquo, you will find tantalising dishes featuring seafood from the islands of Pulau Ketam and Pulau Pangkor or the seaside town of Mersing, while the star dish of Duck Confit is cooked with local Malaysian ferns or pucuk paku from the town of Semenyih.
Valero raves about the quality of vegetables found here, especially from Cameron Highlands, calling them “amazing”. He works closely with his suppliers to get the freshest produce in order to bring out the best flavours of the local ingredients. “If an ingredient is not good enough, we are not going to use it,” says Valero, “And if the best is not available, then we are not offering that dish on that day.” There is no room for sub-standard food in Valero’s kitchen.
However, for Valero, cheap ingredients do not necessarily mean they are “not nice”. For example, he takes the humble sardine, which was originally offered by his supplier as food for his staff, and exploits its flavour and freshness to create a dish that is truly satisfying. Valero believes that with time and technique, any ingredient can be turned into an outstanding dish. With the sardines, using cherry tomatoes charcoal-grilled in the specialty Josper oven brought from Spain, preserved lime and vinegar can transform the simple fish into a gourmet dish.
“I like to challenge myself,” Valero admits. One of his most interesting dishes to marry Malaysian ingredients with European fine-dining fare is the Prawn Carpaccio – the same ingredients used to make the gravy for Sarawak Laksa is made into black caviar-like balls using a spherification technique, then served with prawn carpaccio peppered with oil from the Sarawak Laksa gravy on prawn-flavoured rice crackers, which take the place of the rice noodles or vermicelli.
Along with the Sarawak Laksa, Valero’s other favourite Malaysian food include Bak Kut Teh (a Chinese pork soup dish), Chicken Curry and Beef Rendang (beef curry), which he has kept to its classic, traditional recipe. The difference is he serves the rendang gravy and Rubia Gallega beef from Galicia in Spain separately.
When a dish calls for it or there is a need to keep standards high, Valero uses imported ingredients. The Rubia Gallega beef, for example, is said to be very sweet and tender but the meat cannot be sourced from a farm in Malaysia. The beef is also uncommon in this part of the world, unlike the familiar Wagyu and Angus beef. Another import is the Mediterranean octopus, coming from cold waters and growing up to seven kilogrammes in weight, making for a very nice texture in Valero’s dish. And, Valero’s favourite since he was a child spending summers in the south of Spain, the Iberico Pork, was present in his must-try dishes from his days at Ohla, and is now available in his Iberico Tartare dish from the ‘To Share’ menu at Coquo.
Valero wants to keep Coquo exciting. He is in the midst of creating his version of another favourite Malaysian dish, the char kuay teow. The mission may seem like a tall order because the noodle dish is beloved as street food, with Valero acknowledging that the recipe is “challenging and complicated”. But whatever the outcome, fans of Coquo will be looking forward to it.