Sunday, December 26, 2010

DEAF METAL

One of my brothers and I were casually flipping through Appetite's recent A-List on the airplane (Appetite's chosen 12 professionals- sommeliers, chefs, GMs who have made an impact on 2010 or whom we expect to make a big splash in 2011), and I was telling him about each of the personalities.


We came across the page with Chef Daniel Texter and I started summarizing the text, telling him the irony of his sunny personality and pretty dessert pieces in contrast to his death metal music interest.  I told him about a music festival for death metal, and my brother responded with a very strange expression, "Uh yeah... that is kind of weird and unexpected."  So we continue the conversation and he's still really weirded out until finally he realizes, "Oh, DEATH, not DEAF.  I thought he went to annual DEAF Music Festivals."

Totally politically incorrect, but we couldn't help but crack up for a good long time, wondering how the hell deaf music concerts worked for the non-deaf.

FOODSCAPES: You've never seen food photography like this


Look closely.
What do you see?

Jackfruit, dragonfruit, broccoli, pineapples, breadcrumbs....

Stare at the images in wonderment about which parts of the landscape are digital, which are real and what types of food are used to create it.  Carl Warner produces fantastic landscapes, made entirely of actual food products...  Cliffs are made of sour dough bread, forests made of celery, oceans made of salmon, houses made of garlic.

I featured one of his pieces in the December/January holiday issue of Appetite magazine, but due to text limits, I couldn't do much but let the piece speak for itself (yet a beautiful last page of the December issue, I might add).


Here on Gastronommy though, I'd like to include a short Q+A with the creator, Carl Warner and show you some of his dazzling work.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Pleasant Deception

I spy cabbage skies...




Calling his work, "the pleasant deception," Carl Warner is a photographic artists who creates projects entirely out of food.


What inspired you to start working with food?
It’s the fact that it is an organic material that has such amazing similarities to the larger aspects of the natural world. Also it is something that people relate to easily and have a natural affinity with. I am also a big foodie, I love to eat well and dine out. Food is something we can all afford to be passionate about.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using food as art material?

The advantage is that there is such an incredible choice of ingredients in terms of shape, texture and colours. My palette is a three dimensional one which I can choose from around the globe.

The disadvantage is that it perishes and so we have to work very quickly, especially when creating a large scene and under hot studio lights. Certainly things like fresh herbs are a nightmare as they wilt and dry out before your eyes.



How do you come up with your landscape concepts?

I have sketchbooks full of ideas and drawings of details or wider scenes.  Inspiration can come from visiting a place or it in a film, on the web or in a magazine.  My inspiration can come from wandering around the supermarket or farmers market, or even in a restaurant.  I don't mind where they come from, so long as they come.

Once inspired, I pin it down on paper like Peter Pan's shadow being nailed down.  The drawing then becomes the blueprint for the shot which I show to my team, who then help me create the scene.



What is the average food budget?
Around a few hundred pounds (sterling), but this can vary depending on the size of the scene and how exotic the ingredients are.  Lobsters are going to cost a lot more than one scene made of cabbage.  There is also a lot more polystyrene in the scenes than food, and I have learned to build more with that in order to use less food.

How large are these landscapes?
They vary based on the scene.  I have a triangular table top which is about 12ft across the back, 9 ft deep.  The point nearest the camera is cut off so my foreground is only a couple feet across.  The table top is perfectly married up to the viewing angle of my wide angled lens.

Which was the most difficult image to create?

The most difficult is also my favorite, the Fishscape scene.  We had to get it all done in one day because of the smell.  Certain things I thought would work just didn't.  For example, the wake of the fishing boats didn't work with using small fish like sprats like I thought they would.  My food stylist saved the day by cutting sides of salmon and overlaying them onto the herring to form the wave patterns.  It's this kind of team effort with my food stylist and model maker that often pushes the work to a level that I hadn't expected.  It's exciting and rewarding.




What can we find in your new book?
The book is a culmination of the Foodscapes I have created over the last ten years together with several new scenes created especially for the book. It shows ‘behind the scenes’ shots of me and my team at work creating them, and I write about how they were inspired and conceived, showing the early sketches and the list of ingredients used in each image. I wanted the book to be more than just a coffee table book of ‘food pornography’ but a real insight into the processes of involved from initial idea to completed work.


He has also released a book recently, a compilation of all his food photography work over the past 10 years.  Just in time for Christmas.  Add that to my wishlist: Carl Warner Foodscapes

Friday, December 17, 2010

Restaurant critiquing: "It's good.... for Singapore"

Today in conversation, my editor asked me if it was difficult coming from New York to not be openly critical when writing my reviews.  Familiar with the unforgiving culinary journalism scene in Manhattan, she was wondering how I felt about writing in Singapore, where most food critics are only neutral at worst.

In addition to the relatively conservative culture here, it's a small town with a tiny industry network in Singapore.  Very few are brave enough to step on some toes (there are of course, the overly obnoxious sorts, who go beyond plain honesty and enter the realm of being diva-levels of disrespectful).  Answering her question, I feel my biggest dilemma is deciding how to scale the critiques--do I base my experience according to world standards like New York, Paris, Tokyo?  Or do I keep it on a local scale: "Yes, it's good... for Singapore."

Over dinner the other day with fellow New Yorker, Notabilia, she pointed out with amusement, "I notice everyone who has lived abroad at some point says that.  'It's not bad... by Singapore standards'."  She moved to Singapore just 6 weeks ago. 

Singapore is rapidly changing.  It's an exciting time.  Within just one year, countless chefs of international acclaim are opening up their doors here- Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Tetsuya Wakuda, Guy Savoy, Susur Lee, Santi Santamaria, just to name a few.  And while there are still only a small handful of talented homegrown chefs who can keep up with the big boys, programs like the Culinary Institute of America are coming in and the culinary scene here will only continue to get better.  Thus, I can only be inclined to compare Singapore restaurants according to world standards.  I have great expectations of this mini island country.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Making Macarons: French vs. Italian Method [guest contributor]

Macarons. The 2 Methods of Making
by Jack LEE (part of a macaron series on Jack's blog)


When it comes to macarons, there are two methods of making them: the French method and the Italian method. Some chefs will tell you, they swear by the French method, and another will not hear of anything than the other. And knowing how chefs or pastry chefs are, once they have their mind set on their own philosophy, it is then a one way street. Personally, I don't have much of a preference, however if I were to choose to make macarons, I would most likely choose the Italian method over the French. *Only because you have less of a chance to over mix your batter.

In this post, I will explain the differences between the two methods.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Because Sharing is Caring (Free Ice-Cream for you!)

I can only eat so much ice-cream in a month, so I'll be giving away this Ben & Jerry's voucher for 2 Free Scoops of any flavor!


All you have to do is click this link and tell me what your favorite flavor of ice-cream is!  Winner will be randomly selected from the comments.  You have 5 days, starting... now!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gastronommy TV: Mastering tea at Sanctuary T (NYC) [teaser video]


This video is long overdue.  Shot back in July in Soho, New York, "Tea Dude" East Grace Lee teaches us about the origins of tea, how to appreciate tea, how to steep the perfect cup and he gives us a recipe for one of his favorite tea cocktails.


Cameras: Patrick Lew and Matthew Won.  

In the meantime, 
Gastronommy readers get a 15% discount on any tea at Sanctuary T's online shop.  Use coupon code NOMMYTEA at the checkout.

Sanctuary T Restaurant
337B West Broadway
New York, NY
Tel: +1 (212) 941-7832

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The difference between High Tea and Afternoon Tea.

[photo by Gastronommy, at Arteastiq]

Do you really know what high tea is?  I frequently hear and see the misuse of the term "high tea" by friends and even on menus offered by five star establishments.  Let’s clarify that today.

High tea
is confusingly used as the label for an elegant mid-afternoon tea (typically known to be enjoyed by society’s tai-tais and proper English ladies). On the contrary, the true origins of high tea was labeled by the UK’s working class as their early evening meal (5pm-7pm), in lieu of dinner.  The name high tea was created because of the “high” table it was eaten on, and the foods usually consisted of heartier dishes such as pot pies, sliced meats, custards and hot or cold tea.

The term most people are really looking for is “Afternoon Tea” or "Low Tea."  Daintier in form and with its own rules of etiquette, afternoon tea is rumored to have been created by one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting.

To make the long story short, this lady-in-waiting, the Duchess of Bedford had a growling stomach and wanted to nibble and have good mid-afternoon gossip.  Inviting her lady friends to Belvoir Castle and encouraging them to leave their corsets at home for a relatively comfortable afternoon snack-a-thon, she began a new trend among the socialites of Britain. Their typical afternoon tea is still similar today with assorted light sandwiches, sweets, cakes and of course, tea.

Today, the term “high tea” has been completely misused especially in the United States and Asia… though they do carry the same essence and purpose at the end of the day.


How does one OM NOM NOM NOM NOM?

An instructional video by the master himself:



Thank you Cookie Monster.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Disgruntled Chef (Singapore)


Daniel Sia, chef-owner of The Disgruntled Chef is anything but cranky. The name is not so much about the chef’s disposition as it is about making a statement. The classically French-trained chef seeks to get away from convention—get rid of the stuffiness and expectations that meals should be a set three course. At The Disgruntled Chef, every portion is a la carte and comes in “small bites” or “big plates” to be shared and in no particular order. It's a great venue for a casual gathering with friends.


The casual-chic venue comes with a straight forward menu that displays classic modern European favourites without the pretention. Some highlights include crackling suckling pig with honey and cloves ($16); chicken liver parfait with onion marmalade ($14); marinated Japanese cucumbers with miso beans ($8)—a refreshing bite between the other plates; and the chef’s personal favourite, the baked bone marrow with persillade to be spread over sourdough toast ($14). There is even Macaroni & Cheese on the menu, for those who want a gourmet Crayfish spin on the indulgent dish.


Similarly, dessert stays in the realm of familiar comfort with options of sticky toffee pudding ($12), panna cotta ($12) and a rich chocolate fondant with peanut butter and banana brulee ($14). The blue cheese aficionado also get their fill with fig crisps, layered with a light roquefort parfait and port reduction ($14).


The Disgruntled Chef

26B Dempsey Road, Singapore 247693
Tel: +65 6476-5305



[review can found in Appetite Magazine, November 2010]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finding snow in Singapore (a sample of Noma)

*edit Nov 22: I should clarify, that while this dessert was created by the ex-head pastry chef of Noma, the desserts by Chef Daniel Texter are unique to Les Amis only. Not even Noma gets a bite of this (anymore). :)

The ex-pastry chef of Restaurant Vendome in Germany and Noma in Copenhagen (San Pellegrino's World's number 1 best restaurant 2010) has recently relocated to Singapore to join Les Amis. There, I got to sample some of his work to come... none of which I'm going to post here today except for his final dish.

As if he read my mind about my recent yearnings for cold weather and a snowy holiday, pastry chef Daniel Texter presents me with the "snowball."


How did you make it, I ask.  He looks at me mischievously and says, "How else?  Like this!" as he makes the motion of packing a snowball. Guess no secrets will be revealed today.


Sitting next to me, Executive chef Armin Leitgeb of Les Amis observed my fascination with the dish and laughs, "There are two places you will find snow in Singapore.  Here... and in front of Tanglin Mall."
 

(On the topic of Noma, I was thoroughly awed by the stunning styling and photography in their new book.)

Paradise Dynasty (Singapore)


In the narrow entrance and behind the glass of an open kitchen, dozens of white-powered hands work at round cuts of dumpling skin while others are slapping hand-pulled noodles into form. The small hallway soon takes a sharp turn and opens up into an expansive room of dark timber panels, a tasteful gold centrepiece, and royal purple curtains to shade the dining area from the unforgiving Singapore sun. Further in, there is even an alfresco that overlooks high over Orchard Road. The restaurant looks typically upscale Chinese—elegant, dark and cosy.


The bamboo basket of xiao long bao however, are not so typical. A striking combination of colours usually only reserved for a packet of Skittles, the xiao long bao circled inside the basket in a savoury rainbow. Much like a tasting selection of cheese, Chef Fung Chi Keung recommends the first time eater to sample them in a particular order: the original (white), ginseng (green), foie gras (brown), black truffle (black), cheese (yellow), crab roe (orange), garlic (grey) and Szechuan (pink). While the experiment is a brave one, some flavours prove to pale in comparison to Paradise Dynasty’s unbeatable original xiao long bao. Encapsulated in the heat of the dumpling, the crab roe loses its delicacy while a distinct pungency of the black truffles overwhelm the pork broth in the black versions. There are still innovative winners among the batch though, such as the light herbal ginseng and the numbing spices of the peppercorns in the Szechuan xiao long bao.


But beyond the array of colourful dumplings lie the real highlights. The piping hot Radish Pastry—a sweet radish, soft but firm to the bite, feather-wrapped in airy flakes stays true to its traditional preparation. The la mian with sliced pork also holds a delight within its silken threads of noodles and signature pork bone soup.

Paradise Dynasty
#04-12A, ION Orchard
2 Orchard Turn
Singapore
www.paradisegroup.com.sg

[Shorter version of this review is in Appetite Magazine, November 2010]

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Endless New York

And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well. 
 - except from My Endless New York, by Tony Judt


It will be a short and fleeting visit, but I can't wait to see home again.  New York City, New Years Eve, here I come!

Photography by Andrew Hom.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Culinary F words

"Fusion," I often find Chef Samia Ahad saying, "is the culinary 'F' word."  She says it with such fantastic condescension.  It's times like these that I'm glad for the existence of this blog, where I can keep track of such memorable moments.  You'll be hard pressed to find a chef these days who won't recoil in defense at the mere suggestion of the word.  Tom Aikens (youngest chef to earn a Michelin star kitchen) calls it, "Fusion-confusion."  Sometimes, I want to toss the, "So, is your cuisine fusion?" question on the Q+A list, just to see how much of a reaction I can get. (To date, Chef Hal Yamashita from Tokyo is the only culinary professional I've met who embraces the term with open arms.  But this might be due to the fact that he doesn't speak English)  If you want to catch her live, Chef Samia will be doing a joint culinary demo with Aussie heartthrob Curtis Stone during the Singapore Sun Festival.  She also teaches cooking classes at her Clarke Quay restaurant, The Coriander Leaf.  Check out November's issue of Appetite Magazine for my feature on her.

Other culinary 'F' words I can think of?  How about "Foodie."  I can't think of a term more execrable. The term is so used and abused, it screams wannabe.  Oh how it offends me.  Unfortunately, there are few, if any alternatives to the term.

Tell me your culinary F words.


[photo from http://www.zazzle.com/foodie_tshirt-235308006882680803]

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A few minutes with Chef Alexandre M. Fargas


Found some back logged stuff in my drafts!  In March, I included contemporary Spanish restaurant, FoFo by el Willy in my Hong Kong Noms Series.  Following up is a Q+A and FoFo Hong Kong's chef.  Chef Alex is warm and welcoming with his big smile and twinkling brown eyes.  He also has a romantic Spanish accent to boot.





 

Where were you previously?
I did all my culinary training in Barcelona at the Hoffmann school (the only school in Europe with a Michelin star). Later, I worked in few Michelin star restaurants in Spain; one of them was La Alqueria, in El Bulli Hotel, a 2 Michelin star restaurant doing the old menus of El Bulli.  After this I went to join the Team in Marenosturum, a venture of a Michelin star restaurant in Beijing.

My previous job before FoFo was in Dubai. It was a very big operation, with more than 40 restaurants.  I was running the fine dinning restaurant of the operation.

How did you come across Fofo?  Was there anything that inspired you to lead the way for Fofo Hong Kong?
Back in China, I met "Willy" Guillermo Trullas Moreno; he's an amazing person and chef based in Shanghai.  He contacted me when I was in Dubai and explained all the FoFo projects.  It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the project. Just after two months, I moved to Hong Kong to join this venture.

How do you like Hong Kong so far? 
I love Hong Kong.  I moved here two months ago and I love it.  It’s a fantastic city where anything is possible.  I hope that Hong Kong will be my home for a long, long time.

What changes from Fofo Shanghai's original menu have you been making for HK?

We haven’t changed much from the original menu in Shanghai.  The recipes and techniques are the same.  At most, we changed a few dish presentations, but we maintain Willy’s philosophy: good food, good price.

All the dishes in the menu are Willy's creations, but in less than 2 months I feel like they are my creations also.

What differences have you noticed about HK people's tastes compared to Shanghai, Dubai, Spain, etc?
At the moment, we are still learning about the locals’ taste.  I can’t give a detailed answer about their tastes yet, but so far we appreciate that Hong Kong people seem to know a lot about good food.  Hong Kong people are very conscious about health, and things like salt, oil, fat are all very sensitive issues.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reporting from Shanghai, writer Elaine Chow discovers the Jackfruit

You know what they say, once you go jack, you never go back.
Elaine Chow, the witty and well-seasoned editor of Shanghaiist.com will be gracing Gastronommy with guest contributions from her post in China. -Victoria

On Jackfruit
by Elaine Chow

It always amazes me the amount of fruit I come across in Asia that I've never seen anywhere else. You'd think that for someone who's lived in China, Hong Kong and Singapore for the good part of two decades, there'd be no fruity surprises left. And yet, I was schooled this year by a new roommate, who upon arriving in Shanghai, picked up the weirdest fruits he could find at a local market, and then became promptly addicted to them. His most prevalent fruit of choice: The Jackfruit.

The Jackfruit looks like a durian the size of a prize watermelon: spiky and green and with a girth that makes you wonder how many people get killed by errant falling fruits in its native country. According to Wikipedia, its the national fruit of Bangladesh and tends to do well in tropical lowlands. I guess there's enough of a market for it here in the slightly higher regions of Shanghai, though I really don't know why.

Interestingly, while the flesh is apparently edible (when ripened), the only part my roommate ever seemed to eat were the seeds. Perhaps he didn't know. Getting to the seeds requires that you hack away the unedible skin, which then leaves a waxy residue that gets all over your kitchen and is extremely hard to wash out. Also extremely hard to wash out: the scent. While it's not as noxiously odorous as durians are, jackfruit does have a sweet but sickly smell that could permeate and flavor other foods in your fridge. So let this be a warning: keep that stuff tightly wrapped unless you want all your milk, mushrooms and bread to taste slightly of jackfruit.

Speaking of which, what does jackfruit taste like? Like a banana if you dialed down the sugar and crossed it with hints of mango... and then added the texture of barely cooked chicken. No, that's not the most appetizing description - but jackfruit's not exactly the most appetizing of fruits.

 photo by Elaine Chow 

Or maybe I just think so because after week after week of our poor kitchen reeking of something akin to rotting papaya, I couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for the fruit anymore. Research shows that when you take the pains to cook it, it can develop a nice, roasted chestnutty flavor. I don't know: we never tried, and thanks to our roommate - who's now left - we never will.

Elaine Chow is the current editor of Shanghaiist.com, an English-language website about China covering local news, events, food and entertainment. When not blogging, she spends her time studying urban sustainability and helping out charitable efforts around town. And drinking. Lots of drinking. Elaine has previously written for Gizmodo, the gadget website. She can be found on tumblr and twitter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Weird Eats: Cordyceps Fungus

Before I begin, first watch this video about the unusual parasitic fungus: The Cordyceps Fungus


Fungus eating is hardly a new idea in any part of the world.  Some, like the Alba white truffle even cost top dollar (easily USD$1,000+ per pound in season), despite that it is essentially just a delicious dirt-covered fungus found by pigs and dogs.  Cordyceps, as you've just seen in the video, are an unusual parasitic fungus that brain wash insects before growing out of their heads--I hope to never see the day where there is a human equivalent.  

These fungi are also eaten by humans.  In China (it just had to be China), a certain type of cordyceps is prized for their medicinal properties.  The Caterpillar Cordyceps (Cordyceps Sinensis), grown from the infested bodies of the moth caterpillar, was once only available to Chinese Royalty.  But these days, you and everyone else can get your own little bottle of Caterpillar Cordyceps to ingest at home!

  Photo from www.vitalpilze.de

The most prized of Caterpillar Codyceps are found wild on the Tibetan plateau and gained some international notoriety when two Chinese athletes beat three world records at a track and field competition in 1993.  One of the main herb and food supplements they took to increase their stamina was Cordyceps.  Considered an herb, Cordyceps supposedly enhances the immune system, strengthens the lungs against asthma, fortifies kidneys and increases "sexual vitality" (according to reputable Eu Yan Sang).

Cordyceps can be ingested in pill form or double-boiled in water as a drink.  Alternatively, you can create a meal out of it and double-boil Cordyceps with duck meat or chicken, Chinese wolfberries and red dates.  -- A classic Chinese soup.

Nommy.

For those who can understand Chinese and want to know more, you may find this video useful.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

All in a day's work: Do Food Writers tire of food?

Most of the time, people gush how awesome it must be to eat great food
every single day (firstly, it's not always great; secondly, it's not
every day; third, Appetite magazine nor Gastronommy are focused on
only reviewing restaurants--I try to be more 3-dimensional than that).
 But occasionally, someone will ask me, "Isn't it terrible?  Doesn't
it make eating less enjoyable because you're forced to do it as a
job?"

To answer that question...
There's something inherently wrong about calling it "terrible". We can
all think of at least a hundred worse job-requirements.  As for
eating, it doesn't make food any less appealing.  But I AM
getting sick of restaurants... then being watched expectantly, as
whoever I'm eating with waits and hopes for me to verbally pick apart
the meal.*
*edit: I should clarify that it is mostly the latter bit that I am sick of--the pretension of it all.  I suppose that's the price I have to pay when I "went to the dark side," as one chef friend put it.
And when I wrote this, I had just experienced weeks of restaurants that were mediocre at best.  I was getting jaded with Singapore's minuscule (but growing) Western dining scene.  I'm warming back up to it though.

I recently told Adrian (whom I've affectionately named my
unpretentious FoodNoob), if somehow he plans to take me out between
our impossibly busy schedules, PLEASE don't take me to a nice
restaurant in Singapore. I swear that was the biggest grin I got from him that
day--he was thrilled to hear it for a good number of reasons.

On multiple occasions, my FoodNoob has wondered aloud why I would date
him instead of some fellow food-enthusiast.  I'll tell you why: I
actually don't enjoy verbally dissecting food or one-upping each other
in who got to meet the latest greatest celebrity chef every last
minute of my day. Some self-confessed foodies drive me nuts--they're too over the top and try too hard to pick out what's not there. Multiple
hobbies are a good thing, people!

With all that said, don't get me wrong. I do discuss food and I still
and will always get excited about ongoings in the industry. And I always will love to
noms.

As a side thought, why did no one ever ask me that when I was in F&B
back in Hong Kong?  Man, was I tired of burgers and pasta for a good
two years after I started those projects.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The loneliest chili crab


I've never eaten chili crab at home before and I've certainly never eaten chili crab alone.  Tonight, I pulled out an entire chili crab left over from my Red House dinner tasting last night.  It felt strange at first--almost pitiful.  Here I was on a Friday night of Formula1 weekend with plans having fallen through, eating left over chili crab by myself.  My plentiful chili crab experiences beforehand always meant company with good friends and family, so crabs seemed like something that always ought to be shared.  But I went ahead, warmed it up and set it on the table.

Eating chili crab at home by myself ended up being the best experience I've had all week.  It was the silence of my kitchen, the unabashed use of all ten fingers, and taking the last claw absolutely guilt free... It had a remarkably calming effect.

It has been the only time in a while that I've truly had time to myself, away from people, phones and the computer.  And I was glad I could share it alone with this crab.

Oh yes... he feels warm and cozy in my belly as I type this.  nom.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edward Kwon, The Spice, and some notes on the future of cuisine in Korea [by Guest Contributor]

Entry by Zachary Hooker
See all guest posts here


Edward Kwon is, apparently, South Korea’s answer to the celebrity chef phenomenon. After working his way up at some of Seoul’s best international hotels, Kwon held high level positions at both California’s Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay and the Sheraton Tianjin, China before landing in Dubai, where he was eventually named executive chef at the Burj Al Arab Hotel, one of the world’s few “7-star” luxury hotel complexes. Kwon recently returned to Seoul, and somehow, in the midst of a flurry of press conferences, culinary ambassadorships, book signings, and TV programs, has found the time to open The Spice, as well as the more casual Eddy’s Café concept. At 40 years old, he has all the ostensible markings of a rising celeb chef – a book, TV experience, international pedigree, and a camera-ready smile that belies his age, not to mention the now-seemingly-requisite colorful tattoos that peek out from under his shirtsleeves. Seeking the quintessential Kwon experience, I reserved a dinner date at his flagship, The Spice – located near Seoul’s multi-cultural Itaewon neighborhood – as my introduction to the Kwon experience.

And after you wander up to the small, shimmering office building that houses the restaurant, yank open its unnecessarily giant first floor doors, and waltz into The Spice, it is precisely Kwon himself that you experience – larger than life, in the form of a roughly 6-foot tall portrait of the chef – hung from the ceiling, near the center of restaurant, parallel to the floor, smiling upon his patrons, arms crossed, garbed in a short-sleeved chef’s jacket. Beyond the unwieldy doors and Saint Kwon’s mammoth grin, gaudy décor continues to unfold. As if the Queen of Hearts helmed the design team, the interior palette is essentially restricted to red, white, and black. Seating is either in plush semicircular booths or on uncomfortable molded-plastic chairs at too-small tables for two. Glossy plastic chandeliers hang far above the tables, interrupted not only by Kwon’s likeness, but also framed pop art prints from artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. And woven into bar counters, shelves, support columns, and the booth design is – wait for it – neon that slowly and continually fades from a bright white to a hellish red, and back again. Exceeding a fun pop-art theme, or even sleek “Asian” design, this is just how I imagine the worst nightclubs of Manhattan’s coke-fueled Wall Street era. The house music softly thumping during my dinner only reinforced this comparison.


At the time of my dinner visit, The Spice offered four different prix fixe menus ranging from roughly USD$35-55. I opted for level three, the “Exclusive,” featuring five courses. It needs emphasized here that the pricing at Kwon’s establishments might be his greatest contribution to Seoul’s fine-dining scene, where luxury and international haute cuisine has long been associated with exorbitant prices that often obscure questionable quality. This attitude can be seen in various bios of the chef, many of which make it a point to note that a Kwon-cooked tasting menu at the Burj Al Arab might cost as much as USD $3500. It is entirely feasible that Kwon could have brought that luxury-hotel type of approach with him to Seoul, but we should be thankful that he didn’t. Instead, his track record thus far highlights the accessibility the haute cuisine. This is accomplished not only through the affordable pricing at his restaurants, but also his stated desires to “globalize” Korean cuisine, and eventually open a “kibbutz-style” culinary school with attached farm. If these ideas can take root, they will do much to reorient the promotion and perception of Korean cuisine abroad.

The menu at The Spice is more of a “the world to Korea” type exercise than the other way around, featuring many staples of haute cuisine still uncommon in Seoul, including foie gras, sous vide chicken, velouté, and wagyu beef. My opener was a sweet medley of pan-seared foie with both grape jelly and strawberry reduction. Despite the small pieces of crunchy, toasted brioche that imparted a welcomed textural contrast, the dish played too heavily on the latter side of the savory/sweet dynamic, and felt more like a dessert. The eggplant “caviar” and porcini velouté that followed did a good job of squarely bringing me back to the world of the savory, though all of the ingredients held a similar light grey hue that was decidedly less than appetizing. The porcini also dominated the dish a bit too potently.


[Photo by Z. Hooker]

Then my worst fears were realized. Preface – squiggles of mayonnaise are a ubiquitous feature of newer Korean food, particularly Korean interpretations of “Western” cuisine. They make their way into the oddest places – on pizza, over fruit, mixed with corn, or covering mixed greens. The fresh-greens salad has never really held a place in traditional Korean cuisine, and when it was introduced and adopted, it was naturally accompanied by the idea of a dressing. I don’t possess the anthropological or historical data to discuss to why, but the end result of this “localization” of the green salad was a pile of lettuce and assorted veggies smothered in mayo. It was for this reason that I eyed my third course on The Spice’s menu – a mix of mizuna, friseé, and watercress topped with soft-boiled quail eggs, pancetta, edible flowers, and creamy truffle – with both hope and skepticism. Unfortunately, when the dish arrived, my dreams of crisp, unadulterated greenery were besmeared by what turned out to be a very lightly truffled and very heavy aioli – in other words – fancy, dense mayo. The pancetta was too crisp, and the eggs more hard- than soft-boiled. I had to abandon the dish halfway through.

What followed was arguably the best dish of the meal, a delectably tender piece of wagyu short rib in a soy-based sauce, with pomme soufflé, peas, and both spring and pearl onions. My only complaint would be that it was a bit heavily salted. But the flavors were popping, the onions were marvelous, and the beef nearly dissolved in my mouth. The meal ended with a small lemon olive oil cake dotted with a tart raspberry coulis, and accompanied by too-dry, too-crunchy meringues. While the cake and coulis was good enough, I wanted my foie gras dish back to end the meal. Foie as dessert is right down my alley, I discovered.


[Photo by Z. Hooker]

Overall, I was disappointed with my meal. The clubby atmosphere and slightly pretentious plating only aggravated this feeling. But I left feeling good. Why? Because despite the numerous technical flaws and flamboyant décor, I saw Edward Kwon’s vision, a larger plan, and I liked it. This vision stands in contrast to much of the nation’s official food-related promotional doctrine, which as the ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal recently argued, seems to feel that the only way to seriously enter the culinary world is to continue to charge hundreds of dollars for standard, street-level Korean fare placed in fancy pottery. Chef Kwon instead welcomes and indeed promotes the influence of classical European techniques and international experience. It is a similar process of fusion that has produced two of America’s most recognizable food trends of the last 5 years – David Chang’s Momofuku empire and Ray Choi’s Kogi food truck. The food at Edward Kwon’s establishments may still be a work a progress, but overall the dining experience leaves you with a sense of optimism regarding not only fine dining in Korea, but also the possible futures of Korean food abroad.


Zachary Hooker is currently working on a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in NYC. When not in the library, he is a tireless home chef, avid home-brewer, and determined gourmand.

Zachary has previously written for the arts and culture quarterly Bidoun, as well as some arcane academic journals, but is just beginning to explore the world of food & drink bloggery. Keep up with him (@zhooker) on Twitter.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Happy 1-year Anniversary & the official announcement

It’s been about a month since I’ve officially moved to Singapore.  There has been some guesswork as to why:

Opening a new resto? No, not yet;
Full-time blogger? Never;
A certain live music venue investor? No, not financially invested anyway;
Got engaged? No lah!; 
Freelance writing? Close, but no.

I was poking around  when I was visiting Singapore 2-3 months ago, casually feeling out what was out there and not quite expecting to actually move to the Lion City.  But somehow, someway, fate determined I should be here for now.  I love New York with all my heart—it was no easy task getting acclimated to Singapore the first 2ish weeks, considering how often I’ve visited this city the past.  I was terribly homesick for my life and friends back in Manhattan and Strong Island.  And I still miss New York, but I’m starting to settle into Singapore.  It helps that Singapore and Hong Kong are big destinations and my fellow jet setting friends visit often.    

As for what I’m doing now, I’m on as a writer for Appetite Magazine.  I can actually distinctly remember my first experience with the magazine.  Two years ago when I was visiting Singapore, I was waiting at TCC for the ever-tardy Adrian and was presented with a selection of food magazines.  Appetite and Delicious out shined the other magazines with their beautiful covers and attractive photo spreads.  But as they say, never judge by its cover.  So I was soon pleased to find that the content held equally to the high standards of the photos and styling. I’ve recently come across the issue again while I was flipping through old copies: issue nineteen, August 2008 Appetite

I was pretty excited about the two magazines back then, even pointing them out to Adrian.  I was impressed (and admittedly surprised) to find out that Appetite was a home-grown magazine.  Two thumbs up!  From then on, I always found myself flipping through Appetite and Delicious whenever I was visiting Singapore and had time to myself.


Fast forward two years.  Never did I consider that I would be brushing off dust from the ol’ journo degree and leaving F&B to write full-time!..especially for Appetite magazine.  (Sheesh, I feel sort of like LeBron… just going on and on with a one-hour special, when I could just say what I need to say in a one-liner update.)

As for Gastronommy, earlier this week, I received an email reminder asking whether or not I want to renew this domain.  Heck yes! But wow, has it really been only a year already?  I feel like I've been doing this for much longer!  And I mean that in the best way possible.


 How appropriate that this July issue should be the first issue my articles appear in.

So Happy 1 Year to Gastronommy!  And Happy relaunch of Appetite!  Beginning September check out the new site at www.appetiteasia.com and check out the magazine’s new look on shelves soon.

On the question of conflict of interest...  I’d like to think that I have a few shreds of common sense and I try my best not to overlap anything and always put work first.  To reiterate this blog’s function, it serves as a personal journal of my food related travel, work, eat and play.  It serves a very different purpose than most publications.  The only real drawback is that I might not have as much time to regularly update for a while... but you can just grab a copy of Appetite from the shelves in the meantime!

To celebrate Gastronommy's first anniversary, here's a joke for you.
Why did Han Solo cry at the dinner table?  
Because the meat was chewie.
(http://bit.ly/cFI02a)


As a reminder, at 1,000 Likes on facebook, there will be a gift giveaway to randomly selected fans!  Of course, I'd rather you "Like" the page because you actually feel some sort of fondness for Gastronommy than just for the freebies. :)

Writing for somebody else

After almost a year of this yammering on Gastronommy, I’ve realized that I’ve forgotten that elsewhere you can’t just write about whatever suits your mood. On the other hand, as you know, professionally writing means you pitch your piece or you get assigned them.

It’s one thing to write about my journey through local Singaporean cuisine(s) for a casual blog with a majority of non-Singaporean readers, but it’s quite another when I have to hash out a piece on a particular local cuisine for local readers that I’m not necessarily well-versed in!  I’m learning a lot in the process, but there’s this undeniable nervousness I get whenever I open my Word document and stare at my notes, wondering how to weave it into an informative and inspiring read.  These articles (thankfully) aren’t about working off press releases, but with nothing to guide me with for these new topics, I dread not emphasizing the right bits of the cuisine and culture due to my relative novice experience with it.  I don’t want to end up writing only the obvious, or worse (and unlikely actually): factual errors!  Of course, my fantastic and patient editor would catch any such nonsense before it went out to print, but I’d still rather save her and everyone else that trouble.

Let's see how this September article turns out.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Beans, beans, they TASTE like fart?

As some of you know, I am now based in Singapore and have taken on a new job as a writer for a food magazine here (more on that in a later entry).
For an assignment that you will see published in the September issue, a few weeks ago I had to take on a Malay tour with one local and one expat chef.  I’m not exactly all-knowledgeable when it comes to Malay cuisine, but there’s no way anything could have surprised me.  Or so I thought.


Meet the petai bean.



To put it elegantly, they taste GNARLY.

When you first bite into them, it tastes and feels something reminiscent of a lima bean.  Then as you chew through, it begins to start emitting a certain pungency.  It's not exactly distasteful since it reminds me of raw garlic at this point.  By then, you think that's going to be all there is to it.

But no, as you come around to finish chewing through the single bean, it suddenly spikes up with a grimace-worthy level of bitterness.  And upon swallowing, it disappeared into the depths of my stomach with a grand finale: I have never known the experience of tasting fart in your mouth until now.  And it will leave a very very very long lingering aftertaste of exactly that too.

That experience, my friends, was only after a SINGLE cooked petai bean.

Yet, they're strangely addicting.  I have yet to have the courage to take sambal petai by entire spoonfuls, but I do like the initial pungency and texture.  I've discovered today through knowledgeable local food writer Christopher Tan, that petai beans supposedly have many health benefits and are found in Thai cuisine too (strange that I've never eaten it before, as I have family in Bangkok and visit often).

Beans, beans, they're good for your heart,
Beans, beans, they make you fart.

Three cheers for new discoveries and funny tasting beans!

See the story on the Malay and petai bean experience in the upcoming September issue of Appetite magazine.

*photo source unknown.  Please contact me if you are the owner of this photo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Surprise package from Cookyn with Mervyn

Amanda from Cookyn with Mervyn emailed me last week asking where she could deliver a special package for me.  The only hint she would give me is that it was something pretty.  Now, who am I to turn down anything pretty or edible? 


The package arrived with ingredients like strawberries, lemon, cream, and gelatin...

(pardon the spill on my note!)

Cookyn with Mervyn delivered a "Box of Gourmet Surprises" and suggested a Panna cotta recipe.  Seeing how I've never made panna cotta before and was short on time (panna cotta basics are pretty easy), I eagerly threw it together before heading to TAB to watch that night's performances.

I borrowed my friend's kitchen, but couldn't find a blender, so chunky strawberry coulis had to make do.  The results?

A great way to spend a half hour before heading out (and returning home to eat the finished product for a midnight dessert!), here's Mervyn's panna cotta recipe:

Cookyn with Mervyn's Strawberry panna cotta
serves 6

panna cotta
500 ml cream
500 ml full cream milk
3/4 tsp vanilla paste
zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 cup sugar
15 gm powdered gelatin

strawberry coulis
250 gm fresh strawberries, washed and quartered
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon of water

method
  1. In a pot, gently simmer ingredients for strawberry coulis.  Remove from heat immediately and blend with a hand held blender.  Set aside to cool and refrigerate.
  2. Simmer cream, milk, vanilla paste, sugar and lemon (do not let it boil).  Remove from heat.
  3. Soften the gelatin powder with a little cold water.
  4. Add the soft gelatin into the cream mixture and stir till well incorporated.
  5. Sieve the mixture into cups or ramekins.
  6. Refrigerate once cooled for at least 4 hours.
  7. Top with the strawberry coulis before serving.
Thanks Mervyn and Amanda!  Visit their site for more information on their private or group cooking classes at Cookyn Inc.

See here for previous entries about Cookyn with Mervyn.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Welcome to Seoul [by Guest Contributor]

How timely of Zach to produce his take on real Seoul food after my recent bad experience with Korean cuisine in Singapore.  Zach Hooker, fellow New Yorker and Gastronommy's first guest contributor, will be doing a short series until September about his gastronomic endeavors in South Korea.  I am nothing short of envious.  - Victoria

NOMing on the Peninsula: Welcome to Seoul
by Zach Hooker


In the middle of the city, Seoul’s Mapo district is well known for its varied culinary offerings. Unlike Korea’s regional locales, it’s not a place tied to a specific dish, such as Chuncheon’s dalk-kalbi (sliced chicken stir-fried with pepper paste, vegetable, and rice cakes) or Jeonju’s bibimbap. It simply offers alley after alley of reliable, no-frills restaurants that take visible pride in their craft. And by “visible pride” I most definitely mean that you can see things like old women hacking at beef ribs as you wander past resto after resto.

Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity when Joe McPherson (of ZenKimchi) threw out an invite to chow with him and a couple others at Mapo Jeong Daepo, a grilling spot just a few short blocks from Kongdeok Station. Mapo Jeong Daepo has all the qualities you look for in a fantastic grill joint. First, it’s perpetually busy, with all kinds of customers – families, large after-work parties, college kids, etc. Second, simplicity – concrete floor, plastic stools, restrained menu. When a member of our party asked for an ashtray, the owner simply pointed to the ground. Don’t worry though; this place successfully maintains a pleasant lack of pretension without making you second-guess the hygiene level. Third and finally, they put nice little spin on the grilling experience… but I will get to that later.

We ordered two servings of galmaegisal (samgyupsal’s less fatty cousin, a diaphragm-area cut) and another two of standard deiji-kalbi (thinly sliced marinated pork rib). A standard array of panchan (side dishes) came our way, and we cracked open two bottles of makgeolli (unfiltered rice wine). Amongst the panchan, the kimchi was particularly sour, with a crispy, spicy bite – not your beginner’s kimchi, but quite enjoyable for those who’ve been around the block with fermented foods.

As our meat cooked, Mapo Jeong Daepo introduced a wonderful little tweak to the experience that completely sold me on Joe’s recommendation: using the grill plate’s circular grease well to cook scrambled eggs in. Our waiter came by after some grease had started to collect, poured the well full of egg, and then added garlic slices, wild greens, and kimchi. The result: spicy Korean omelet slowly cooked in rendered pork fat. Brilliant! The meat, of course, was also a delight. Pairing half galmaegisal and half deiji-kalbi is a smart move; galmaegisal features distinct layers of fat and pork, without much marbling between the two, while deiji-kalbi is more thoroughly marbled, the fat much less ‘in your face.’
Mapo Jeong Daepo’s pork-fat scramble is an excellent example of one method by which Korean food establishments differentiate themselves. The Korean restaurant scene can seem very peculiar to a first-time visitor. Seeing three or four (or more) of the same type of restaurant – say grilled pork or naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) – on the same block is commonplace. You’re likely to think, “How in the world do these places stay in business?” Well, no doubt closer examination reveals a lot of fine differences between each spot – the alcohol selection, the panchan, little additions like the Mapo Jeong Daepo’s scramble, etc. And on top of that, patrons might have personal reasons – family or business connections – for choosing one noodle joint over the other next door. It’s a fun world to explore, a bit more socially complex than the (almost) purely competitive restaurant world in the United States, for example.

After being sated with pork and egg, we wandered down the street to Bongpyeong Me-Mil Makguksu, a restaurant specializing in all things me-mil (buckwheat). Accordingly ‘Round Two’ included a shared buckwheat pancake, some me-mil guksu (cold buckwheat noodle soup), and me-mil kkotsul (buckwheat flower alcohol).

I found the me-mil jeon (pancake) too dense and heavy. The dish’s standard cousin, a Korean staple, pajeon, is made with a standard white flour mix that at is much lighter, letting the onions, seafood, and other additions stand out. The buckwheat’s overwhelming chewiness erased the presence of most of the pancake’s other vegetable additions, on the levels of both texture and flavor. The me-mil guksu, however, was a delight. The broth was deliciously beefy, almost consommé in quality. Joe pointed out that the incredibly small, translucent flakes you could discern on the surface of the broth indicated it was a homemade stock, the flakes likely being remnants of beef bones stewed for countless hours. The weight of the buckwheat worked in its favor with the noodles, adding substance to noodles that in a standard naengmyeon or similar soup can sometimes be mushy.  A variety of wild greens, dried seaweed, pepper paste, and sesame seeds garnished the noodles. Atop sat the standard half of a boiled egg. The buckwheat flower liquor was also a treat. It was a lighter, smoother version of the mass-market makgeolli we had consumed at the previous restaurant. A specialty of Kangwon province, the improved flavor was no doubt imparted by the addition of buckwheat flowers.

The group disbanded after our exploration of all things buckwheat, some to head home, some to seek out one final round elsewhere. The Mapo restaurant district proved yet again a reliable bet for a fun and delicious night in Seoul. It’s perfect for both the adventurous tourist as well as the seasoned expat, and Mapo Jeong Daepo is an excellent point of departure.

All photos courtesy of Stafford Lumsden (of The Chosun Bimbo)

Zachary Hooker is currently working on a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in NYC. When not in the library, he is a tireless home chef, avid home-brewer, and determined gourmand.

Zachary has previously written for the arts and culture quarterly Bidoun, as well as some arcane academic journals, but is just beginning to explore the world of food & drink bloggery. Keep up with him (@zhooker) on Twitter.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sundubu jigae FAIL (순두부 찌개)

What sundubu should NEVER look like:



I was disappointed.  The Korean places here in Singapore are few and far between, and I have yet to find any decent place for sullung tang, naengmyun, sundubu, and even hamul pajun—even the terrible Miss Korea restaurant in NY has better stuff!  I was excited to try this place again (my first visit for jajangmyun when they opened a few months ago wasn't bad), especially since the head chef is Korean.

When it landed on the table, I looked at it cautiously and a bit defensively, knowing that this watery mess was not sundubu.  And turns out, it tastes exactly what it looks like.

Never did I think I would see the day in which I would ask for salt at a Korean restaurant.

It was nothing more than tasteless broth with chili oil.  And let’s just say that the tofu was not “silken.”  It was marginally more edible once the waitress came back with the requested salt—I wonder why she or the chefs didn’t inquire worriedly as to why someone would even ask for salt in their sundubu.

To top it off, the dish alone cost about SGD18 (USD13 | HKD102).  Don’t expect the few tiny portions of 4-6 pieces of banchan to be refilled by the way.  You have to pay for it.

I believe this is the first time I’ve made a post for the specific purpose of pointing out an atrocious meal.  My only defense for them is that the restaurant supposedly specializes in “Korean Charcoal BBQ”.  (though that hasn’t stopped other Korean BBQ restaurants from serving decent sundubu)  I’d be more accepting if the dish was still tasty, despite its lack of authenticity.  Sadly, not the case here.

The purpose of my complaint?  I honestly want them to improve.  The location is great and I’d love to have a Korean go-to spot nearby my home.  I’m not asking for much here.  I just want it to be slightly more than edible.  If not, then for pete’s sake, just take it off the menu!  I’d be ashamed as a Korean chef to be serving such indecency!

I didn’t demand a refund or had it sent back to the kitchen—not my style to be a fussy patron unless it was truly inedible.  And it clearly wasn’t a one time mistake since Adrian’s ramen was suffering a similar fate.  When the bill came, I asked the non-Korean waitress where the chefs were from, why the sundubu tasted like funk, and then proceeded to explain what sundubu is actually supposed to be like.  Her only polite defense was the chef and his sous chef were both Korean… implying that they surely know what they’re doing. 

I just hope the waitress spoke to the kitchen afterwards.

Hansang Korean Charcoal Barbeque
20 Lorong Mambong, Holland Village
Singapore

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Food Diary: Arrival in New York

Let's start catching up on the food in New York.  Back track to the past.
June 12, 2010
2:00 pm, New York
NOMSrade: Duke, Alex Choe


Warning: It is dangerous to watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations while you're stuck on an airplane heading towards New York.  Incidentally, Anthony Bourdain was doing a New York episode and he was hitting up all of my favorite spots around town.  Arriving at John F. Kennedy airport, my brother Laijhun and good pal Alex Choe so kindly picked me up and asked if I was hungry.  "2nd Avenue Deli pronto.  I need a pastrami sandwich."


My usual go-to is pastrami on rye slathered with tangy mustard:  Perfection in a sandwich.  But I was inspired by the TV episode and decided to take it to another level with the addition of chopped liver.  Turns out, I still like it simple—the chopped liver made it all so very overwhelming.  The chopped liver was distracting me from my beloved pastrami.


The bucket of refreshingly cold, crispy pickles and pickled tomatoes was casually tossed onto the table by our jovial waitress, soon to be greedily grabbed the moment it landed (the pickles that is, not the waitress).  My usual sides were included: an order of some of the best potato pancakes in New York, potato salad, and a rootbeer.


Unable to decide, Alex  went for the gold and ordered a triple decker sandwich of pastrami, bologne and coleslaw; each layer separated by a padding of rye bread.  MADNESS!  My brother ordered The Heartattack.  More madness.  Is this how King Leonidas of Sparta ate?  “Madness? THIS IS PASTRAMI!”


2nd Avenue Deli.  Still my favorite Jewish Delicatessen for pastrami in all of New York.  See here and here for previous posts about this spot.

2nd Ave Deli
162 E 33rd St
New York, NY 10016
Tel: +1 (212) 689-9000

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