Kwen Liew: First Malaysian Woman To Win A Michelin Star

With Pertinence, Kwen Liew's star is rising high

Published: 23 July 2018, Text by: Tan Lee Kuen, Photos: Tan Lee Kuen

(left) Liew and Naito
(left) Liew and Naito

It was a grey spring Monday in Paris, the sky overcast and threatening rain when I arrived at Restaurant Pertinence on rue de l’Exposition, a quiet street within striking distance of the Eiffel Tower, devoid of tourists.

Inside, owner Ryunosuke Naito was in the kitchen scrubbing down the stove while his partner and co-owner, Kwen Liew, was busy setting the tables. The intimate fine-dining restaurant, able to seat only 14 at any one time, has a contemporary decor with bespoke wood features and Christofle Mood cutlery eggs. Sundays and Mondays are its off days but since the manager left a week ago, they've had to pick up the slack. "It's just the two of us now so I'll be in the kitchen while Ryu looks after the front-of-house," said Liew. "It's not the first time we've had our manager quit on us, but we'll manage."

Opened only a year ago in March 2017, Pertinence shot to gastronomic fame when it won one Michelin star this year. When Michelin president Jean-Dominique Senard surprised them with a visit, cameraman in tow, to welcome them to the Michelin family, the couple looked stunned by the news. Ryu, overwhelmed, teared up. Liew looked surprised but calm.

"We were shocked. Of course, it's our dream but we never searched for stars," she said.

The guide hails Pertinence, which serves French food with Asian techniques, as fresh and innovative – “(Naito) carefully and expertly transforms market-fresh ingredients into succulent classical French dishes, brushing away the cobwebs of tradition along the way”.

Winning the award is a double honour for Liew. Out of the 57 newly starred establishments in France on the 2018 list, she is one of only two women to win a spot in this male-dominated industry. Although Ryu was singled out as the driver of the restaurant's food, they have an equal partnership and share the duties evenly. "We call ourselves the four-armed chef or quartre-mains in French," said Liew. "We do everything together."

Ryu concurred while acknowledging his partner's flair for taste, "Liew has a special palate as she has tasted a variety of different food and knows what to bring to the dishes." This is partly thanks to her upbringing in Malaysia, a melting pot of culinary influences such as Malay, Chinese and Indian.

Although always interested in food, Liew never had childhood ambitions of being a chef. One of her earliest memories of cooking was as an eight-year-old stir-frying choy sum (leafy vegetables) under the guidance of her mother. Intrigued by the act of making food and not merely consuming it, she started perusing cookbooks and magazines for new recipes, but it was all just for fun.

After high school, she tried her hand at design and makeup but none of the ventures resonated. It was a chance introduction to Le Cordon Bleu in Australia by a friend that led her on the path to the professional culinary world. "I love cooking and I love to eat, so why not try it out?" she thought. Turns out that Liew has a natural affinity for the kitchen.

Pertinence won one Michelin star in less than a year of opening
Pertinence won one Michelin star in less than a year of opening

She did two semesters with the school in Sydney before transferring to its branch in Bangkok. On the recommendation of another chef, she went on to study pastry at Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie in France. The young chef showed remarkable foresight and ambition: "I thought I should do a pastry course as I wanted to have my own restaurant someday."

In 2011, Liew met Ryu when she interned at Antoine in Paris for six months. Ryu, the restaurant's sous chef and her senior, had already cut his teeth in the kitchens of Michelin-starred establishments such as Taillevent and Le Meurice. They worked together but there was no romance. After her internship, Liew moved to Singapore where she spent the next three years working at Le Saint Julien.

This was to be her school of hard knocks and where she faced her toughest times as a female chef. "The male chefs would go, look who's this young girl giving us orders in the kitchen," related Liew. In one instance, a commis chef threw in his towel half-way through service and left the kitchen despite her protests. But with steely resolve and grit, Liew stuck it out and worked twice as hard to prove herself.

Sweetbread pie with marrow in sherry juice. Photo: Pertinence
Sweetbread pie with marrow in sherry juice. Photo: Pertinence

A couple of years later, she returned to Paris for a short course and reconnected with Ryu. This time, sparks flew, leading to a long-distance relationship that lasted for a year before Ryu proposed that she joined him in Paris. "I had to think really long and hard about it because it would have meant uprooting myself all over again," Liew remembered.

She took the plunge and the couple worked on the Bistrot Alexander III, a boat restaurant serving tapas and sharing plates on the Seine. Situated near the touristic Pont Alexandre III bridge, they were catering to hundreds of customers a day but were not happy with simply churning out food. With their training in classical French cuisine, they wanted to make revelatory food. They left to concentrate on setting up a more intimate, upscale restaurant that would allow them to do just that.

Thus was born Pertinence, with its subtle but elegant decor and changing seasonal menu. It was the start of spring when I visited, a time of razor clams and asparagus, which were on the menu. Last season, they served scallops with tender bits of chicken oyster and garlic scapes, drizzled with serrano ham cream. It is this interplay of flavours that earned Pertinence a Michelin star and fans. "We both love textures and savoury tastes. We make sure that everything on your plate – the different textures and flavours – go together really well," said Liew.

Even desserts are a subtle showcase of flavours. Photo: Pertinence
Even desserts are a subtle showcase of flavours. Photo: Pertinence

All is not roses, however. Along with the bouquets of being a Michelin-starred restaurant are the brickbats and demands. People expect more, a lot more, but generally, said Liew, the customers have been satisfied, leaving with smiles on their faces after a fine meal.

At the end of the day, star or no star, the duo continue to do what they do best, making great food while maintaining a business. "Not everyone understands that Michelin can give you the star and they can also take it away," said Liew. So how do they handle the pressure? She smiled. "We just roll with it. We've been through tougher times."

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