Open as of October 2019, Oitom is the first restaurant of its kind to wash up on Sabahan shores. We sought out chef-owner Raphael Jay Peter Lee and executive chef Juan Padua after experiencing an excellent 9-course meal costing no more than MYR200 / USD50

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Did you meet each other in the industry or by virtue of being born in Sabah?

Juan Carlos Padua: Raphael and I met at Asian Tourism International College—a specialist in Culinary, Hospitality and Tourism studies in Sabah—way back in 2010 and have been mates since; but we split ways right after graduation.
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: We become closer 4 years later after I rang him up asking for advice on moving to Melbourne. Prior to this we had never worked together, although we did answer to the same head chef, albeit in different venues.

After attending ATI College, where did you build your culinary chops?

Raphael Jay Peter Lee: I was given the chance to pursue an international internship in 2011. Singapore was my first choice as it’s closer to home. I didn’t return to Kota Kinabalu in those 4.5 years.
Kilo Kitchen totally changed the way I cook, especially thanks to executive chef Manel Valero. I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, Noma or René Redzepi, who holds the throne by upholding locally sourced ingredients—it all blew my mind.
Juan Carlos Padua: I’ve worked at Marble 8 in addition to a few other restaurants and 5-star hotels. Each taught me something different, but most of my cooking skills were accrued in Melbourne.

How do your skills complement one another’s?
Juan Carlos Padua: I’m the more classically trained chef in that I relied heavily on herbs, jus, olive oil, cream and butter. While such ingredients are super tasty, returning to Sabah has made me realise that there’s so much in our own land that I know so little about.
Raphael, on the other hand, has a much more contemporary mindset. He is like an open book; he finds ingredients, puts them together, and makes a dish work. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from him, it’s to keep an open mind. Mushrooms in a dessert? Yes, it is possible.
Whose choice was it to baptise the restaurant as ‘Oitom’?
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: I am part Kadazan, so one day I asked my mother how to say ‘black’ in the Kadazan language.

Our restaurant acts as a black canvas—a stark contrast to the beautiful food on the pass.

While your ingredients are largely local, your flavours hark back to your training overseas. The pâte brisée, for instance, would rival that of any French pâtissier’s. Not to be blunt, but is this because Malaysians prefer Western flavours in fine dining?
Juan Carlos Padua: I believe that at the end of the day, it simply comes down to pairing the right culinary techniques with local ingredients in the most interesting way possible.
All of the local ingredients we’ve stumbled upon at local markets and farms, and during hikes, drives and boat rides are very new to us here at Oitom.

Local produce excites us even when we have no point of reference.

Raphael Jay Peter Lee: We want to use mostly local ingredients—100% if possible—using techniques we have learnt to elevate Sabah’s native ingredients.
What does Oitom’s food say about Kota Kinabalu? Or, zooming out two levels, about Sabah and Malaysia?
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: Our food speaks for our local producers and farmers. For instance, we want people to know that the corn they’re having from Kota Belud in North Sabah is very sweet—so sweet that when grilled along with its husk, no seasoning is necessary to enhance its flavour.
Juan Carlos Padua: Our current 9-course tasting menu consists of ingredients sourced from the north, west, central and north-eastern regions of Sabah; each of these is unique to its own region. We are shedding light on overshadowed produce and want people who come through our doors to learn that these ingredients exist and are just as good as what’s overseas.

Because we brought our own that night, I didn’t peruse your wine menu. Which bottle would you recommend for our next visit? Preferably something that pairs well with everything, from appetisers to dessert.
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: Gérard Betrand’s 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve, a mid-range red, has a light acidity that complements  seafood while cutting through the richness of our creamy dishes. Its aroma of berries also makes it a good accompaniment for the A1 local steak and Grade A Ramsar prawns.
What sparked Oitom’s patronage of Bonaterra Chocolate, Borneo’s first bean-to-bar chocolatier?
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: Decades ago, Sabah used to be among the world’s top cocoa producers and exporters. As the industry grew, so too did the palm oil industry, which eventually took over cocoa. 10 years ago, Eddie Kim first visited Sabah from South Korea to seek out Sabahan cacao. He moved to Tawau two years later to start his cocoa business, which exports cacao powder to Korean hypermarkets. The chocolatier preserved through dark times (business wasn’t lucrative at first), pursuing his passion for chocolate, educating cacao farmers on growing better beans, and presently rewarding us with some of the best chocolate in the world. It is the chocolate that Oitom supports and serves.

While it’s tough for restaurants with seasonal menus to declare a signature dish, some creations may make comebacks due to customer demand. Is there anything like that at Oitom?
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: Yes, depending on our guests’ demands, some dishes might be revived, provided that the ingredients are in season.
To have a signature dish that fully represents Oitom is no light matter. As we are just turning three months old in February 2020, it will take time for us to determine our direction, to fully explore our available ingredients and techniques, and then to pour our hearts into a plate(s) that defines us. I’m hopeful that we will have a breakthrough.
It’s funny how they say ‘taste is subjective’ when more often than not, my friends and I will favourite the same dish. At Oitom, the smoked fresh cheese and beetroot was the star of the evening. Care to tell us how this was crafted?
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: It all started with a glass of milk from a local dairy farm, Eco Yap. It was sweet, full-bodied and nicely coated the tongue—signs that the milk was very good. So good that it needed to be the primary ingredient in a dish.
Juan Carlos Padua: The kind of food we’ve making can be very lofty and might not be relatable. A cheese platter with crackers, on the other hand, are a classic in any restaurant. We wanted it to look significantly Sabahan, hence the Rafflesia motif in the plating. The whole idea of the dish is to bring you back to when you were a child, when spoons and forks were irrelevant, and eating was fun and messy.
Raphael Jay Peter Lee: In addition to sour, sweet, fresh and crispy elements, we gave the dish a Sabahan quality: ‘sinalau’ means ‘smoked.’ The smoked cheese coupled with beetroot mimics the Rafflesia, Sabah’s treasured flower.

Oitom | Unit J-1-1, 1st Floor, Block J, Lorong Pusat Komersil 88/1, 88 Market Place, Kota Kinabalu | 088-218 551 | | Every Monday through Saturday & every third Sunday of the month, 6-10pm | Reservations

  • PhotographyRuth Iris Kan Visuals