On Food Criticism With Darren Teoh Of Dewakan
Updated: Apr 20
Fair warning, this is going to be longer than my average article
The need to critique whatever we consume or experience is a byproduct of 21st-century capitalism. We used to leave criticism in the hands of subject experts, but the internet and our smartphones have given us all voices to say what we want and disseminate information. And not all information is created equal, just look at how difficult it is for many to distinguish fake news from real work done by real journalists.
Our desire to share, often without limits that expose the minutiae of everyday life, has significantly grown with the rise of social media. I would argue that the subject of food is one of the premier battlegrounds of internet popularity. Food appeals to us on just more than a biological need, it speaks to us on a cultural level, satisfies us with the innate desire to belong to a community both local and global, and connects people from all walks of life. It's no wonder the hashtag #food clocks in over 415 million posts on Instagram alone.
Malaysians' love of food is so apparent that we like to wear it as a badge of honour. But do we really love food, or do we love the act of consumption?
Many of us, myself included, take to the internet to let others know of our impressions and assessments of anything we find post-worthy. While that's all fine and good, what happens when someone starts to call themself a food critic/reviewer? Are people supposed to take their word for it?
For most people, it boils down to a mix of a) do I like what this person/organisation has to say? And b) what are this person's credentials? For me, however, I like to examine how fair a person is first by taking a look at how the critique is presented, the topic he/she is covering, if it echoes with my own thoughts, and if credibility does indeed help bolster their argument.
Food critics come in all shapes and sizes – journalists, bloggers, writers, chefs, restaurateurs, content creators, friends, our kids, and even our parents. We're all food critics to a certain extent, some of us just want our voices to be heard a little louder than the rest.
In my case, I was born into a family who loves food – talking, cooking, adventuring, you name it. My family is huge, and I lived in my grandparents' house (with more than 10 people) from birth until I was five. This gave me access to a wide variety of Chinese foods daily, whipping my palate into shape before I even entered primary school. My grandmothers and parents fed me well, as did all of my family members really. I was severely spoilt, and I ate almost everything at a young age – chicken feet, petai (bitter bean), vinegar pork trotters. I still do enjoy a wide range of foods, except for certain vegetables! *cough, yam and pumpkin, cough*
My father, God bless his soul, played a major role in shaping my love of consumption into appreciation at an early age. He would often take me on adventures to eat something new, or something he loved, every Sunday, despite how far or hot it was. He taught me that good food was worth paying for, worth travelling for, has certain traditions, can be created at home, and most importantly enjoyed in various ways with all kinds of people.
Because of dad's encouragement, I was fortunate to find my calling in life at the age of 18. I chose to study journalism, as it was the most professional form of writing that I could think of during that pre-university stage of my life. This time in my life helped to hone my critical thinking skills and gave me the foundation needed to ask the important questions, seek knowledge, and to adopt a multi-dimensional stance to uncover the truth. Upon my return to Malaysia after a four-year studying stint in Australia, I entered the magazine world, and I immediately knew I wanted to cover food.
When I joined Tatler Malaysia, which fortunately gave me the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I needed to establish my voice in the food community, my articles certainly didn't have the flair that I now possess. Oh no. In fact, I would argue that the young and naive writer that I was probably oversold and waxed lyrical about many a thing because I was just so ecstatic to be covering something which I viewed as a significant part of my life. It was a dream come true for me.
Only with time and experience did I manage to hone my voice, but I always understood that the intention of my articles was to educate, even if that sometimes clashed with the editorial and advertorial duality of the publication. With that being said, I am a rather optimistic person by nature, so I tackled most problems by looking on the bright side of things and trying to do my personal best.
As a writer with a journalistic foundation, I believe that the purpose of food criticism isn't meant to glorify or shame, it's supposed to spark discourse and hopefully, leave the reader better off and armed with the necessary knowledge to better appreciate. With education comes appreciation, a crucial lesson I learned during my formative years speaking to incredibly talented leaders across numerous fields both local and global. Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am not guilty of having overly praised or lambasted something before, I am still human after all. I will admit that I have written trite. Nevertheless, I do hope that my compositions on the subject of food have at least contributed to the growing body of knowledge in a local sense.
Which brings me to my discussion with Darren Teoh of Dewakan. Two months ago, Darren and I were chatting via text about the nature of food criticism on social media and it was a rather insightful conversation. The kind I wished I had with a glass of whisky in hand. I thought that it would be great if I could record our discussion on how we both perceived what was happening with food content in this country. I asked him if we could take the conversation further, he said yes, and I met up with him shortly after to have some face time with the acclaimed chef.
Coming from a seven-year stint in the media and subsequently going independent with my own website, I've had my fair share of experience and observational insight into the inner workings of the local publishing industry. Now, I can't speak for all publications, print and digital, but can only draw off what I've personally experienced or heard from peers.
When it comes to sponsored vs. unsponsored reviews, I will go on record to say that I'm not against the former, if the intention for the writer/reviewer is to genuinely critique and to help the reader learn or make an informed decision. While I would love to ideally pay for my own reviews, I will admit that affordability is a factor. And even though I accept sponsored reviews, I make it clear that acceptance comes with the fact that I can speak my mind in my writings.
What you're going to read next is from one food writer to one of the country's most accomplished chefs. A two-hour conversation condensed and distilled; a peek into a frank conversation that I found stimulating, just like all my meals at Dewakan.
On The Food Scene
TC: How do you perceive the current landscape of food criticism in the country?
DT: What is the outlet for food literature/writing that's available? Every outlet out there currently has a hidden agenda, having to line themselves up with some sort of marketing agenda as they can't afford to lose brand equity and etc. If the writing is influenced or biased then is that writing is no longer legitimate?
Suppose a particular media outlet requires advertisements to earn revenue and they see food reviews as an opportunity to discuss the potential for an advertisement. In that case, there's definitely a conflict of interest.
TC: Yes, most definitely.
DT: The food literature/writing is supposed to do its journalistic duty, and on the other hand, the administration of the outlet hijacks this intention so that they can also leverage some form of revenue. Because of that, there's a tension between both duties and something has to give.
TC: Do you think there's a form of unconscious bias within the reviewer to give a place a positive review if their superiors inform them that the organisation would potentially work with said outlet?
DT: The unconscious aspect is hard to say. I think, more importantly, is the conscious aspect of it. I would admittedly say I don't know how most of these things work, but you do hear rumours that advertisers have the upper hand to say what is and what isn't. And like you were saying earlier, the writing becomes more of a pamphlet and less of an editorial piece when that happens.
TC: I agree. These are things that I have experienced.
DT: This then stifles two things – the lifestyle writing industry and restaurants. If you know that the path of least resistance to getting covered by the media is by hosting and advertising, isn't this what you would do?
TC: Sponsored reviews are the status quo. It's a longtime established method of how things work between most media outlets and restaurants here. Would you say it's better to then eat, pay, and go?
DT: In an ideal world, the organisation would pay for their meal. It shouldn't be borne by the restaurant. The second thing is, what qualifies you to write or review? I feel that just like other journalistic works, it should to be unopinionated and you should call it for what it is. The reviewer should have a commendable body of knowledge. If you have no in-depth knowledge, you forfeit any credibility. It's important to have to pay for yourself and to have that experience. There are too many pseudo-writers running around.
TC: Oh, there's a lot. One of my telltale signs for spotting people who I think may not be credible is when they openly ask for sponsored collaborations. People sure like to have their say online.
DT: Why do you think that happens? It's because there's a vacuum for good food writing, and because there's a vacuum, there's no hierarchy in terms of quality. In Malaysia, we don't have this.
TC: Some have adopted a persona where they enjoy ranting about something and their audience finds it amusing.
DT: We're not a knowledge-hungry society. Just like what you said about how many people don't read anymore and things like that. And that means that WhatsApp and Facebook conspiracy theories are bound to take hold. If we're not fact finders, we're also not questioners.
DT: There's this atmosphere where people lobby to get followers with gimmicks to widen their influence, instead of becoming proficient and then having people follow you.
TC: Of this particular group of people you refer to, have they ever approached you or your kitchen to ask for interviews and learn Dewakan's cooking processes?
DT: Ah, to be fair I'm not really the most approachable person so that's a caveat that should be said. There have been plenty who have not agreed with what we have served but have sought to find out why we served it that way. You might disagree with the flavours we present, but you can't deny that in terms of execution our kitchen does it really well.
TC: Yes, I agree. It could be a personal preference, like if you don't like garlic or whatever.
DT: Yeah, it could be as simple as that, or it could be as complicated as me trying to throw you off in the first place with flavours you don't expect. That's always a gamble because some people may like it and some people may not.
TC: Of course, no risk, no reward.
DT: Right, fortune favours the bold.
DT: In many ways, the culture of dining has changed. Restaurants and TV has influenced and changed the way a restaurant operates. Even celebrity chefs have made the industry a lot more appealing than it was 20 to 30 years ago when it was intimidating for people to step into a steakhouse like The Ship, Victoria Station or Jake's Charbroil Steaks. It was an event, people would dress up for that stuff.
TC: They'd put on their Sunday best!
DT: Yeah, now you go to Jake's, and I mean, even I'm embarrassed at how I've been to Jake's before.
DT: I don't think this change is a good or bad thing. But with this change, there's an expectation of what a dining experience is going to be like, and diners want to make sure they get the full experience for what they're paying. This may not necessarily the way we operate. People pay us not because they want us to follow their every whim, people pay us to have an experience that we have constructed.
TC: Yeah, if not, that would be like hiring your own private home chef. I'd like to ask, how do you tell if a reporter/critic/writer is genuine and is worth paying attention to?
DT: I do it a little bit differently. If we have made an appointment to speak to each other, you deserve my attention, and I come prepared to say things. When people correspond with us, we have two rules where we don't do written interviews and questionnaires. If you're going to write about us, we almost demand that you come and you see me, or if it's not physically possible, we do a phone call. And when that happens, I am able to express my answer in the way that I want. When you talk to the ones who are earnest about telling your story, they will spur the conversation. And the ones who are not so sincere, who you can tell just want to get the hell out of there, I give them a hard time. What I really appreciate are writers who know how to handle that kind of situation because they're experienced or intelligent enough to turn that into a pot of gold.
TC: That's definitely a developed skill, the art of interviewing.
DT: We've done quite a lot of interviews – regionally and internationally. I think we're pretty good at handling them.
TC: Do you enjoy them?
DT: Yes, when the conversation is good and when the person knows how to express themselves, then it's enjoyable.
TC: Oh, it's definitely a two-way conversation.
DT: It has to be. Especially when people can find a pathway that leads to an interesting thought process. For example, there are tiny nuggets of exciting things happening with my cooking (in the kitchen) that aren't necessarily obvious. Through these conversations and the nature of investigative writing, they've put me in a situation where I have to articulate what I'm saying, and these nuggets are uncovered. It makes me think, "oh yeah that's interesting".
TC: I think people who self-reflect have a higher capacity for critical thinking.
DT: Maybe not even self-reflect, maybe just self-condemnation.
DT: The reason I'm cooking the way I am now, or the past few years, is because I've been cooking this way for the past decade, just not at the level that I'm doing it now. It's been constant questioning and self-reflection, both on my personal life and my every activity that I take, which includes cooking. I feel like this path has allowed me to express myself in continuity better; it wasn't a liberation, it was a paradigm shift, that has allowed me to see things in a slightly different light.
TC: I agree, referring to your ten years analogy, I would probably say I was...
DT: A dumbass right?
TC: Hahaha yeah I would say so.
TC: I mean I look at my writing ten years ago and I'm like "what the hell is this?". It's embarrassing.
TC: Earlier on WhatsApp, we were talking about the cost of food critiquing, especially for an independent writer like myself. As you are aware, our average spending power isn't that high, and we're at a disadvantage because of our economic climate as compared to our neighbours in Singapore, who can pay for a degustation meal at a really nice restaurant for $150. How can local reviewers/diners go about expanding their palate and knowledge when there's that affordability factor looming over?
DT: There isn't an equivalent bracket here in KL to places like Meta, Nouri, or Cloudstreet over in Singapore. Some of the most exciting restaurants are in shop lots with none of that fancy stuff like table cloths. You only have places that are priced slightly above, like my place, DC, Nadodi, Cilantro, Enfin, and the in-hotel restaurants like Sabayon.
But this situation helps because you prioritise what you want to eat when you dine out. You're definitely not going to be able to eat at one of these places every month, even I can't do so.
There's a slew of other restaurants beyond what I just mentioned that do deserve good writing – a fair analysis, not a review, of what they're doing and what can be done better. That's the type of writing this city needs.
Try Dewakan's fantastic burgers/sandwiches with their new Casual Takeaways menu
WhatsApp message +6012-789-6720 for the full menu and instructions on how to place an order.
Dewakan is also selling a range of take-home flavor enhancers and a very decadent pint of salted egg kaya ice-cream.
An engaging read by Darren:
My past work with Darren on Tatler Malaysia:
All photographs of Darren are by Ming Thein