As the first Banyan Tree property to open in Malaysia and having stayed at Banyan Tree Phuket some time ago, it was with great anticipation when I arranged to have lunch at the Horizon Grill in the new Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur which opened in July with Lim Wei-Ling, the doyenne of contemporary art in Malaysia.
Centrally located opposite the Pavilion Shopping Mall, this urban resort occupies the top seven floors of the Banyan Tree Hotel & Residences with its serenely understated lobby located on the 53rd floor. A high-speed elevator whisks me up to the 58th floor where the Horizon Grill is located and this light-filled and appetite-inducing restaurant lures anyone who loves a good chow down – be it comfort food or fine dining – into its lair.
When Wei-Ling arrives at our appointed time, she’s all va-va-voom in a striking emerald green silk brocade made-to-measure cheongsam, towering sling back stilettoes with a strand of pearls adorning her neck. With her long, jet-black hair and porcelain complexion, she’s a feast for the eyes and is picture, or should I say portrait-perfect. She elegantly removes her sunglasses while planting two air kisses on my cheeks.
“So lovely to see you,” she purrs. “I’m soooo looking forward to our lunch!”
Inching herself along the banquette to get to her place at our table, I wonder how much she’s going to eat for lunch as her hourglass figure, clearly evident from her outfit-of-the-day might prevent her for indulging. This must be the best table in the house because from where we are sitting, the Petronas Twin Towers looms large over us uninterrupted while the outdoor terrace is just a few steps away.
Prakash, the restaurant manager comes over with the menu. It is by no means extensive – Horizon Grill is touted as a contemporary seafood and grill restaurant after all – but what it lacks in quantity, it certainly makes up for in quality. Well curated and carefully selected, every dish on offer looks like it’s been thoughtfully considered.
Just as I was pondering between the Blue Swimmer Crab Meat or the Steak Tartare for my appetizer, Chef Daniel Wong pops out from the kitchen to meet and greet us. We learn that he’s got an impressive track record heating up the kitchens and satiating gourmands at the Joël Robuchon Restaurant in Singapore as well as Zuma in Hong Kong, the three Michelin star 8½ Otto E Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong as Opera Bombana in Beijing. Raising her artfully plucked eyebrows, Wei-Ling looks suitably impressed with his cooking credentials.
“What I want to offer diners at Horizon Grill is modern and contemporary cuisine, a deviation from the classic steak houses,” says the KL-born Chef De Cuisine. “My style of cooking is about the heart…the people I work with play as big a part in the kitchen as me.” Wong continues humbly: “I also adapt to the local environment and incorporate local ingredients as much as possible.”
Having selected our dishes and with our orders taken, my attention was now firmly fixed on Wei-Ling. I find out she had a previous life as a jewellery designer, which explains her tastefully accessorised outfit as well as a stockbroker at Zalik Securities (now known as Hong Leong Investment Bank), a place where she honed her financial wizardry. She started what she terms a studio back in 2002 at the urging of her husband Yohan Rajan.
As our appetiser arrives, Warm Asparagus Salad with Grilled with Yuzu Butter, Smoked with Hickory Chips, Soft Boiled Eggs, Freshly Shaved Parmesan, Vegetable Jus for Wei-Ling and Tempura Boutique Crab Cake with Spicy Cilantro Dip, Oven Dried Tomatoes, Mango Mayonnaise for me, Wei-Ling tells me she felt burnt-out after eight years toiling the stock market. “The market was languishing and I had enough so I decided to take a year off to paint,” she says. “It was a form of escapism for me, just putting paint on canvas and it one of the most idyllic times in my life!”
I find out that her father, Professor Dr. Jimmy CS Lim is an architect while her mother Winnie Cheah-Lim is a violinist, which explains her artistic leanings. It’s probably the delicious Grenache Syrah “Belle Vigne” red wine from Southern Rhone in France but Wei-Ling is now vibrant and chatty and she’s completely relaxed. She’s been married for 20 years and has three kid of the fur variety. “My husband asked me what I was going to do with all these paintings I had done… I had no idea and so we rented a townhouse in Bukit Bandaraya to store all my paintings.”
And just on a whim, Wei-Ling decided to invite all her friends and family for an exhibition cum party and much to her surprise, all her paintings were sold out. “I was really touched. There was no plan on my part to go into the art business or start a gallery at all. Everything in my life and career has been organic…. something happens which opens a door and leads me to a path which I follow.” Her asparagus might not be as organic as her career trajectory but she remarks how juicy and flavourful they are.
My crab cakes on the other hand are done to perfection, light and crispy on the outside and oozing with succulent crab meat on the inside.
The tangy Cilantro Dip and Mango Mayonnaise provides just the right piquancy to make this first course an appetite stimulant.
After her sold out exhibition which obviously spread by word of mouth, Wei-Ling was approached by various artists to represent them.
Among them was Anthony Chong and Chin Kong Yee, the former having stopped painting while the latter is still represented by her. “That was 16 years ago!” she exclaims, her voice tinged with nostalgia and dropping down to an alto. “We are just mounting Chin Kong Yee’s eighth solo exhibition with us.”
Wei-Ling begins to tell me about her philosophy on collecting art when our main course arrives. It’s a Seared Atlantic Cod with Garlic Foam, Espuma of Idaho Potatoes, Citrus Herb Purée, Pickled Shallots, Sautéed Spinach for Wei-Ling. She devours her main course whole-heartedly remarking on the subtle flavours and how well cooked it is. As a pescatarian, this dish must be her ideal meal. If she had any qualms about watching her figure, they clearly were thrown out the panoramic floor to ceiling glass windows.
“As a gallery owner, I really wanted to make sure that whatever I showed, I believed in and that I would collect myself. I would never show an artist whose work I wouldn’t hang in my own home,” she says emphatically. “Also I knew I had to represent artists who had some residual value so at the end of the day if a collector wanted to resell the painting, they would at least be able to get back what they paid for it.”
Having selected from a velvet-lined box the knife I was offered to use for my Wagyu Fillet Mignon from Kyushu in Japan which was 100% full blood grain and corn-fed, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Soft, tender and juicy, this steak had a melt-in-your-mouth quality which surpassed anything I have eaten before. Accompanied by a Bordeaux Wine Merchant Sauce and Wild Mushrooms, Pearl Onions and Grilled Market Vegetables, this was a meal and a half, sublime and satisfying simultaneously.
Today Wei-Ling has two eponymously named galleries, one in Brickfields which formerly was her father’s office and a larger one in The Gardens Mall where she holds more monumental installations and experimental projects.
“When I look back now, it appears the gallery has taken on a life of its own. It has become its own entity. The gallery guides me and I just follow. It’s no longer about me just showing the artists I personally like… Apart from showing contemporary Malaysian artists, we have also brought in international artist such as Kurdish-born, Berlin-based artist Ahmet Ogut, American artist Roger Ballen and Dadang Christanto from Indonesia to Malaysia.”
She’s clearly relishing her Cod because there’s a lull in our conversation while my fillet mignon takes me higher than the 58th floor. And from here on, our conversations centres solely on art and she’s a wealth of information and a trove of opinions. She believes that a gallery shouldn’t interfere with the creativity of an artist and that an artist shouldn’t repeat his past works, no matter how successful it was but continue to evolve and grow by creating new works. “An artist has to move forward with the natural progression of things. We live, we grow and we develop. The older you get, the stronger your art should be and the more confident you should be in your work.”
I ask how important a role art plays in society and she replies by quoting American artist Robert Rauschenberg: “It’s my favourite quote,” she says. “‘The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.’ It hits the nail on head because it explains why artists do what they do.” She also gives an alternate view of looking at art. “When you look at an artwork, ask yourself, how relevant is it to what’s happening in the world today? How honest is an artist to his time? Is he or she just making something to sell?”
But what about artists like contemporary artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who are unashamedly commercial and self-promoting?
“Works by these artists are seen as asset classes and people spend millions collecting them because their work has an investment prospect.
They may be seen as commercial now but they didn’t get to their level purely by being commercial. You can be sure they were doing cutting edge, experimental, ground-breaking and challenging work in their earlier years. That’s how they made a name for themselves.” Having justified the astronomical prices these leaders of contemporary art charge for their works, she adds: “Ultimately as long as an artist is true to themselves and there is honesty in their work, the soul of their art will be there. It is important for them to retain that and maintain the integrity of who they are.”
She believes that not all art is created equally and that is reflected in the price tag. “There is good reason why some art is priced higher than others in the contemporary sphere. An artist who has working for 20 years should command a higher premium than an up-and-coming artist.” She ventures further and says that looking at one painting or a series done by an artist is just getting a small glimpse into the artist’s life. “It’s like just reading a page or a chapter of a novel…you don’t know the whole story from that page or chapter. An artist’s career is just like that.”
Our 64 million calories-laden dessert arrives just in time for my 64-million-dollar question. The S’mores Chocolate Bombe served with Yogurt Ice Cream and the Aqua Cheesecake served with Blueberry Lime Ice Cream is a work of art in their own right and looks pretty enough to be framed. Playing devil’s advocate, I ask Wei-Ling whether the gallery representing the artist is the best model for selling art. She pauses thoughtfully before replying: “It has worked so far because there hasn’t been a better alternative. There’s no way you can sell yourself if you are busy painting or creating art. I remember when I was painting, I was so absorbed doing it, I didn’t have the time or energy to represent myself.”
When all is said and done, Wei-Ling believes that it’s all about relationships. “For me it’s about my relationship with my artists…. their trust in me and my belief in them. It’s our support for each other which keeps us going.” She moans in ecstasy at a nibble of the chocolate bombe and with that she was off to meet a big time collector-client, but not before apologising profusely for her early departure.
Horizon Grill is located on Level 58, Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur, No.2 Jalan Conlay, 50450 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: +603-2113 1888