It’s probably a cliche at this point – that the humblest ingredients are usually the hardest to master. Take the egg, for example, that’s used as the acid test in French culinary training. Stories abound with chefs having to prove their worth as a hire just by making a perfectly formed French-style omelette – a tidy package of finesse and delicacy with a smooth-as-silk exterior and a moist, creamy inside.
Champagne house Krug knows this all too well as one of the stewards of transforming a single type of produce – in its case, the grape – into an extraordinary product. Which is why each year, it challenges its chef ambassadors to create dishes based on just one ingredient. This year, it’s the onion’s turn.
To get up close and personal with the most commonly-grown allium in the world, Krug invited its chef ambassadors on a four- day trip to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, where there are around 50,000 onion growers. The onion is so integral to the Indian diet that its prices are occasionally a political issue in the country.
Joined by Krug cellar master Julie Cavil and deputy director Eric Lebe, formerly the brand’s cellar master, 11 chefs from nine countries travelled to Jaipur. Scottish-born Tristin Farmer, executive chef of two Michelin-starred Singapore restaurant Zen, was one of the chefs tasked with preparing an onion-based dish – either a new and original creation or an existing one in their repertoire – to go with the Krug Grande Cuvee.
It was his first time in the South Asian country and a serious eye-opener. “Even though it was everything I’d expected – the traffic and the hustle and bustle – when you’re standing in the midst of it all, it’s pretty mind-blowing.”
The trip included a hike up a mountain and participating in Holi festivities, but it was primarily a gastronomic experience for the entourage, who visited several markets and ate everything from street food to refined restaurant fare.
For Farmer, one of the highlights was visiting an onion farm run by an extended family of 90. “It was a huge estate. Parents, siblings, and cousins worked alongside each other and share massive meals that we had a chance to enjoy, too.”
While the time in Jaipur was barely enough to experience the state, the main takeaway was not new knowledge about the onion – it would be remiss for any chef to not already be intimately familiar with such an elemental ingredient – nor the awe-inspiring photo ops. Instead, it was the meeting of culinary minds, and to “draw a human connection” through food and champagne. “It was a rare chance to meet some of the best chefs from around the world and be inspired by all their stories and cooking philosophies,” shares Farmer.
Outside of awards shows and symposiums, an encounter with culinary minds such as these doesn’t happen often. Among the names were Simon Davies, executive of haute cuisine temple Alinea; Hiroyuki Kanda, chef-patron of the eponymous three Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo; and Prateek Sadhu, trailblazing chef-owner of Mumbai’s Masque restaurant.
One name that stood out in particular to Farmer was Angus McIntosh, executive chef of Farm at Bush Creek that’s located at luxury destination Bush Creek Ranch in Wyoming in the US. “It has a farm, cattle, a brewery and a distillery, and they go shooting and fishing regularly. There’s a whole ecosystem that supplies ingredients to the restaurant. It’s a real farm to table. Given the chance, I’d love to visit and cook with Angus,” says Farmer.
Besides the company of chefs, he also spent a gastronomic journey with Cavil and Lebe. At a champagne house as esteemed as Krug, the cellar master’s job is paramount. Through careful management of wine stocks and applying their highly-trained palates to blending, cellar masters ensure a consistent house style that secures the reputation of a brand. It’s a job that calls for years of training and it was no exception for Cavil. “It’s humbling in a way, that Eric had a 10- to 15-year plan for Julie to take over the reins. It takes an extraordinary amount of trust to prep someone for that long. I don’t have a notice period of 10 years, but we want the same kind of trust at Zen.”
To that end, Zen prefers to nurture talent and promote from within. An ongoing programme to further their education in hospitality and the prospect of bigger roles incentivises team members to stay. “The longer they stay, the better they become. We have had many interns turn full-time chefs and chefs become managers. It’s a matter of whether they’re ready to take on that responsibility when a position opens up.”
A layered affair
While in Jaipur, each chef presented an onion-based dish that would pair well with Krug Grande Cuvee. Farmer’s contribution was a dish he adapted from Zen’s menu: an onion soup with almond milk, liquorice cream, sliced almonds and toasted almond oil. According to Farmer, the dish works well with the Krug because “it’s a very rich, complex dish that’s also quite high in acidity”. Words that also aptly describe the Grande Cuvee.
Krug’s single-ingredient programme has been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and will resume in 2021.