Richie Lin may be known for bringing indigenous Taiwanese produce to the forefront of fine dining at Taipei’s one Michelin-starred MUME, but the humble owner and executive chef of MUME was born in Hong Kong, raised in Toronto and cut his teeth in Australia (Quay) and Copenhagen (Noma).
Likewise, Treviso-born Luca Fantin earned his stripes in Milan, Rome and Spain before making his mark in Tokyo with Bvlgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin (#18 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants). There, the executive chef dazzles with his modern take on Italian fare, recreated with top-notch Japanese produce. September 2019 marked his 10th year anniversary at the opulent establishment in Ginza.
These celebrated chefs make up a long list of nomadic talents who’ve established a name for themselves in the high octane world of fine dining, far from their homes. Joining them are other equally-celebrated chefs: Ryohei Hieda of RyuGin Taipei, Korea-born Sun Kim of Meta in Singapore, and homegrown talent Jimmy Lim who’s showcasing his brand of mod-Sin cuisine over in Taichung, Taiwan.
Their successful culinary journeys, however, were no walks in the park. Settling into a foreign land, let alone establishing a grand career, is rife with challenges, as the chefs shared during International Chefs Summit Asia 2019.
“It’s all about non-stop learning,” shares Fantin, who added that he had to start from zero in Japan despite his lengthy resume as he had to first learn about the country’s culture and ingredients.
Hong Konger Peter Tsang recalled getting a crash course in “understanding and adapting to local staff” when he first arrived in Singapore back in 1981. “More than just the language barrier (of Cantonese), it became immediately apparent to me that their demeanors were different. In Hong Kong kitchens, chefs would be brasher, sometimes shouting vulgarities; a trait Singapore kitchens were not used to,” Tsang explains.
Fantin shared a similar experience: “Italian chefs are louder and more straightforward, while Japanese chefs follow a hierarchy. They follow the head chef absolutely.”
The key ingredients
The biggest hurdle, to no surprise, came from the food itself as each chef had to best present their cuisine with locally available ingredients.
How does one recreate hearty Italian fare in Japan, time-honoured Japanese omakase in Taipei or our beloved hawker fare in Taichung without access to the same ingredients?
Lin admits to having “had a lot of difficulties finding essential ingredients commonplace in Singaporean dishes like lemongrass”, but has found his niche marrying his heritage and belief with Taiwan’s native produce. JL Studio’s Otak Otak, for example, replaces banana leaves with grilled green manganji peppers.
Hieda, who was tasked to recreate RyuGin Tokyo’s produce-centric menu in Taipei, travelled six months ahead of the branch’s opening to source for suitable ingredients. “Even though the ingredients have the same name, they might not have the same taste or texture,” explains Hieda.
Lin describes his experience with Taiwanese fruits. “Mangoes, for example, are way too sweet in Taiwan. As a chef, I have a different definition of a mango, and I know the profile necessary for my dish. It was a huge challenge getting local producers to understand what’s needed in the kitchens are dissimilar from what normal consumers deem as good.”
But Lin believes chefs dabbling in local produce (as compared to shipping in ingredients from their home country) can have a positive impact on the agricultural and dining scene of the host country. Aside from reducing the carbon footprint, shining a spotlight on ingredients – in Lin’s case, maqaw pepper, wanli crab or white roselle – can help bolster local farmers’ businesses.
“Chefs can lend their expertise and bring a different perspective to the local agricultural scene,” he explains. To that end, Lin works closely with Taiwanese farmers to harvest at a stage of ripeness required for his dishes – effective creating a new product, and more revenue for the farmers.