“Discover Beh Gaik Lean: Michelin-Starred Chef from Penang, Malaysia”
- Beh Gaik Lean launched a homestyle Peranakan restaurant in 2013.
- Today, she’s one of just four Michelin-starred chefs in Malaysia.
- She credits her work ethic for her success: “Sheer hard work, you work until your ass falls off.”
Beh Gaik Lean isn’t your typical Michelin-starred chef.
I first met Beh at her restaurant in Penang, a coastal state in Malaysia, in February. Her restaurant has a vintage allure to it — housed in a former jewelry shop, it’s decorated with Peranakan memorabilia and simple wooden furnishings. When I arrived, I expected to find her in a white chef’s jacket like the other Michelin-starred chefs I’ve met. Instead, she was dressed in a plaid shirt and a black apron, accessorized with red lipstick and stacks of yellow gold jewelry.
She approached me halfway through my meal. She was charming and animated, joking that the biking shorts I was wearing were “sexy” and asking if she could send over a few desserts on the house.
The 69-year-old chef and owner of Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery is one of just four chefs to be awarded one star in Malaysia’s inaugural Michelin Guide for 2023, a distinction awarded to restaurants with “high quality cooking.”
Beh, who’s affectionately called “auntie” by her longtime diners — a colloquial term for older women in Malaysia — specializes in Peranakan cuisine, a crossover between Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian cooking styles. Her restaurant is one of two Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurants in the world.
She cooks “very old fashioned recipes” — a concept that stands out in the sea of fine dining restaurants on the Michelin Guide. And her eatery is popular: It takes two weeks to secure a reservation. In December, weeks after being awarded the Michelin star, the restaurant received more than 1,000 calls for a table at the restaurant.
Auntie Lean Gaik is an eclectic character who’s fiery and full of personality.
‘You work until your ass falls off’
Beh is known for cooking some of the region’s best sambal brinjal, or eggplant smothered in a spicy sauce, and curry kapitan — yellow curry with chicken.
I tried both dishes on my trip. I’ve lived in Singapore for 20 years and eat Peranakan food frequently, but even so, I was blown away by how fresh and flavorful her dishes were. I ended up ordering six dishes and three drinks for some of the cheapest prices in the world among Michelin-starred restaurants — the entire meal cost just 187.55 Malaysia ringgit, or $41.80, including tax.
Beh told me that before she was thrust into the Michelin-star limelight, she spent most of her time in the kitchen, making all the dishes by hand. She chalks her success up to the “no nonsense” attitude that she inherited from her father, who served in the British army.
In a creole of English and Malay, she added that her restaurant is built on “sheer hard work, you work until your ass falls off.”
Her longtime diners include several of Malaysia’s royals, including Cik Puan Besar Kalsom, the Sultanah of Pahang state.
The Michelin Guide is full of praise for Beh, describing her as a chef who has guarded “her secret recipes for decades” and “makes no compromises in terms of food quality.”
From Motorola factory to Michelin star
The majority of the world’s Michelin-starred restaurants are led by men. A 2022 study by food magazine Chef’s Pencil found that 94% of the world’s 2,286 Michelin-starred restaurants are headed by male chefs. Most of these chefs are white and have years of experience in fine dining.
Beh, on the other hand, never worked in a fine dining restaurant. She never attended culinary school.
She started honing her trade when she was 21 years old by cooking for a Motorola factory. She opened her restaurant in 2013 and today, her son, Adrian, takes care of the business side of things.
In a December interview with the Michelin Guide, Adrian, 50, said they used to be “very very poor,” but that he always believed Beh’s food was good enough to be served in a top restaurant.
Auntie Lean Gaik’s hands helped her cooked her way to one of my Malaysia’s first Michelin-starred food.
Beh said Michelin inspectors tailed her for a year before revealing that she’d been shortlisted for the award. It came as a complete surprise, as Beh didn’t know much about the Michelin Guide. Michelin stars were once traditionally reserved for haute cuisine, but in recent years has had more of an influence in street food and Asian cuisines.
“I knew about Michelin but I’m not well versed. So when I got it, slowly I Googled them, then I read up,” Beh said.
‘Diet is not in my vocabulary’
A typical day for Beh starts before 6 a.m. — she gets up early to cook for the local temple. Before lunch service, she goes to the market with Adrian to source fresh ingredients. Her schedule ends late into the night, after serving the dinner crowd — and it’s a routine that she does six days a week.
And what exactly sustains Beh? Food, she said — she eats between five and seven meals a day.
“I will teach you how to eat without dieting, because I love food. Diet is not in my vocabulary,” she said, describing herself as “a bit plump.”
Beh’s warmth and candid personality surprised me. My previous encounters with Michelin-starred chefs were formal — once, I was told to delete photographs I took inside a kitchen because it was “messy and might affect their image.” Beh, on the other hand, joked that she could set me up with one of her high-profile diners, but added that he was “too old for me.”
Auntie Gaik Lean in Singapore with Chef Leon.
Courtesy of PARKROYAL COLLECTION Marina Bay
I met Beh for a second time at a media preview in Singapore, around two weeks after my trip to Penang. She was in town for a collaboration with Peppermint restaurant at Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay.
This time, Beh was dressed in the iconic Michelin-starred chef’s jacket. At the five-star hotel’s restaurant, Beh was a star: Cameras flashed around her, and several diners asked for photos with her. When we met towards the end of the event, there was a flash of recognition on her face — she greeted me warmly and told me I looked beautiful that night.
“Did you really like my food?” she asked, referring to my review of her restaurant. I nodded — it was a feast I’d happily fly to Penang for.
I asked her what her goals were now that she’s achieved one of the highest accolades in the food world. Her answer surprised me.
“Die happy,” she said.
“The restaurant takes up most of my time,” she added. “I’m quite spiritual and I have eight grand children — so that’s enough for me.”
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