This is one-eighth of Andre Chiang’s How I See the World.
[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]aught up with responsibilities, commitments, desires and distractions, we often forget what we had set out to do in the beginning – our original intention.
Finding original intention is thus about self-discovery: our personal identity, what we really need in life, and what our happiness is. It is that which keeps us going further without losing ourselves. So it becomes necessary to stop and think: What am I doing right now and why. The original intention becomes a gentle reminder for each of us, to not lose sight of our true happiness and not pursue the things that might not be that important in our lives. It is just as in cooking – sometimes, we have too many techniques, equipment and ingredients at our disposal and we are tempted to apply everything, forgetting what is absolutely necessary. It helps to step back and rethink the dish, to figure out whether it is necessary to put 10 ingredients on one plate or apply five techniques and textures in one dish.
(PEAK: Here’s a video documentary by Roarke Pearce that captures the man in action.)
(PEAK: Visit the filmmaker’s Facebook page for more similar works.)
Simplifying is not necessarily as it is understood literally. It is not about limiting the physical quantity of elements, but about distilling something to its essence. Some movies need a hundred characters, others need just 10 – it is all dependent on what the story needs for it to be told. Similarly, everything we put on the plate has a purpose. The principle of necessity is what guides me in creating dishes for PURE – the dish without seasoning.
Nowadays we use just too much seasoning and techniques to the point where we no longer know what a carrot tastes like. Every dish must have a dressing, a dip, and we forget how to appreciate the produce for what it is – whether it is salty, sweet, sour or even neutral. There is so much talk about the importance of produce, yet we hardly think about presenting the produce as it is, without any enhancement through seasoning, which to me is the best way to highlight the importance of a quality ingredient.
So, instead of thinking about seasonings and marinades, I think about how to combine different ingredients to bring new perspectives and allow a new appreciation of their natural tastes. It could be a combination like strawberry, tomato and watermelon – a medley of beautiful red hues and a good balance of sweetness, acidity and earthiness, each a natural complement without overshadowing another.
Indeed it is a simple dish and one might ask: why do I even need to go to a restaurant to eat this? Do I even need a chef to make this? I can put these three ingredients together on my own. Indeed, diners are always looking for that something extra, and we serve it to them. The tomato-strawberry-watermelon dish might be simple but it is not quite a combination that will come naturally to a home cook. How do you put three humble ingredients together to create a flavour that you’ve never had before – that is the “something extra” that we are giving our diners.
These days, making a dish special is no longer about putting in a new ingredient that the diner has never seen – because, chances are, being increasingly well-heeled, he or she would have tried it before. So, instead, we present a different dimension, a different perspective to what they think they already know. As a chef, I do not just bring cooking techniques to the table, but also an innate understanding of the ingredients and how to combine them to create a unique flavour profile – without having to turn the produce into gel or chips or anything fancy.
EXPLORING THE DEPTH OF FLAVOUR
This means I have to understand the flavour of the produce at a different level. Often, we look at a produce in terms of its horizontal profile: whether it can be fried, steamed, made into chips, so on and so forth. However we can also look at the depth of an ingredient’s flavour.
Take saltiness for example – you can put salt, seawater, seaweed, soya sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, even ham together and you can still taste the distinctly different saltiness. For me, that is the vertical flavour profile, the depth of salt. That is something that I feel very few people talk about. We often see an ingredient horizontally and see what we can do with it, but if we just have one produce and we simply pair or prepare it to showcase the depths of its flavour, that can be a pretty cool idea.
For example, I am doing a dessert of a quince and we wanted to showcase how the fruit is appreciated on the palate, on the nose, and on the teeth. It has a distinct fragrance and acidity; when you bite into it, it’s like a cross between a pear and a grapefruit, with a citrusy bitterness at the end. So we pair it with verbena, coffee and pear. The quince is quite similar to a pear in terms of its sweetness, but has an acidic edge to it and has a coarser texture, while the pear is softer to the bite – putting the two together highlights both the inherent similarities and the differences.
Then we do a brulee with a scoop of quince cooked in coffee, and its bitterness adds depth to the fruit’s taste. Another piece of quince is infused with verbena for a citrusy perfume. None of the ingredients the quince is paired with overpowers it but, instead, complements it and brings the full spectrum of its different flavours and textural properties centre stage. This is simplicity.
OF INTENTIONS AND INSTINCTS
I grew up in a chef-artist family, and cooking and art are two things that have always brought me joy. The process of creation ties the two together, and it is really the act of creating something that excites me.
I used to think that ideas are instinctive, but I realised that I need a guiding principle. Everyone has a different way of working. Maybe some chefs will think about cooking methods first. Their stream of thought might be: potatoes – steam; steam – fish. Some other chef might think about combinations first: fish – avocado – potato. For me, I always relate it to one of the eight elements in Octaphilosophy and that’s how I start to fill up the rest of the components.
If I look at the eight elements together as an ideology, the element of Pure is like an introduction of how we start – from produce. So I put Pure right at the beginning – even the bread and butter is served after this course so as not to spoil the palate for this dish. It starts the meal with a clean palate so that the diner is able to appreciate the interesting combinations of flavours and produce.
It is also a crystallisation of my ideas, the essence of my thoughts. It sets the tone of the whole meal and the whole creative process behind the meal. The simplicity of it gives you more space for imagination.