Food Stylist Bangkok—Michelin Issue

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img_1234-225x300Star Struck in the China’s Culinary Landscape

Interview with Claudio Sadler

Claudio Sadler is a two starred Michelin chef from Milan who started his culinary training when he was 15 years old. He currently runs 3 restaurants and a catering service in Italy and recently closed his restaurant in Tokyo last year. He is best known for his “new cuisine” (nouva cuscina) where he adds a light new touch to traditional dishes.

How do you judge good food?

I like clean food that don’t confuse. For me, the presentation is very important. I like colours and textures. I work with colours like greens, pink, red, black—clean colours that compliment each other. You can eat with or without the sauces. In a plate, the most important is the centre piece. The subject is usually the meat. The other things on the plate are complementary elements that help to compose the whole picture. All our sauces are made with the bones of the meat, for fish, beef, pigeons etc, we use the bones to make the sauce.

Where do you get inspiration for the plating and the selection of complementary vegetables that help decorate the dish?

In a dish, there’s a complexity to the texture and tastes. I like artichokes a lot, because they taste rounded, onions are acidic and my sauces are always made with the bones of the meats. Designing a dish is like art. Before I start on a dish, I make a drawing with a pencil and then I colour them in my office. So in my mind, I have an image of the colour of the dish I am going to create and then I go into the kitchen for the next step. Certain ingredients are a perfect marriage with each other. There are certain rules for these combinations. Cooking is also a little like mathematics, you can illustrate it in a Venn diagram where certain ingredients overlap in the circle and others don’t.

Could you tell us about your decision to venture into China?

I was approached to open a restaurant here in China. Roberto, the director invited me to Beijing to have a look. I thought it was an interesting challenge, so I decided to give it a try.

How is all working out?

I’m happy. The Chinese is a very different market and from what I expected. I think we can be successful in the future and I’m working for this, to be constantly improving and evolving. It’s not easy, but I like the challenge, if it’s too easy, it’s not fun.

Would you consider opening a restaurant in South East Asia? Like Bangkok?

Definitely, if the opportunity presents itself. I am going to Singapore again for the World Gourmet Summit and will be cooking for two weeks.

Last year you attended the opening of Macdonald’s restaurant in Milano and created sandwiches for the event, what is your opinion of fast food and eating habits of today?

Yes, I was invited by the president to make some gourmet sandwiches. It is very complicated. Fast food is like a social service. Everyone has the right to eat however they want. And a lot of people don’t have time to eat well—they don’t want to spend too much time or money to eat, so fast food seems to be a good solution to not so much nourish but to feed yourself. I think Macdonald’s is a good experience if you don’t eat it often. I’ve told people that they cannot eat at a fine dining place everyday. It’s a celebration for special occasions. You have a choice of what you eat and it’s important to have a balance.

You’re known for creating nouva cucina, fusing the old and new in your cooking, what are the fundamentals of Italian cooking?

Yes that is my specialty. Pasta and pizzas are known all over the world, but Italy is country that is very rich in recipes. You can be in different parts of Italy and every region has its own specialties. Sometimes, in the same region and in different towns, there are different specialties. In the north, gnocchi is served with ragu or gorgonzola, in the south and centre, they cook it with tomatoes, pesto or black truffles. The tastes and textures are different. This is fantastic because every town has its own cuisine. It’s easy for me to make my menu. I like to take original recipes from all parts of Italy and add spices or use new methods to cook these traditional dishes. I make pictures of the colours and presentation before I start working on them. This is my method for cooking. I pay a lot of attention to the seasons and the ingredients for occasions. In Easter, Italians like to eat chocolate cakes, lamb and artichokes. We have very hot summers and cold winters, not unlike Beijing. If I decide to concentrate on one region, for example Puglia, I would take the recipes specific to the region and add little touches to it. I’ll make a yellow risotto à la Milanese, but I would add a blossom of Sichuan pepper, for the numbing spicy taste. The presentation changes a lot, but the taste doesn’t change very much. I like serving lighter food as people’s lifestyles and eating habits are changing.

As the culinary scene is constantly evolving, how can the new generation of chefs work towards achieving/maintaining a Michelin-star rating?

At the moment, the career of a chef is very appealing and interesting. Young people are interested to be a chef because it is a career path that can lead to celebrity status and these days the media pays a lot of attention to the culinary scene. Yet, to arrive at that level, it’s very difficult. Not everybody can reach that level. If you’re a really good chef, you can, but it’s not easy process. The young chef has to learn the classical cooking techniques at the start. It’s like being a musician—learning the classics first, to read notes and harmonise cords before they can experiment with creating new music. It’s exactly the same for chefs. It’s very difficult to achieve equilibrium in cooking. I started my first restaurant when I was 27 and I started cooking when I was 15.

What are the different challenges that you face in your restaurants in Tokyo and Beijing?

I had a restaurant in Tokyo for five years and we closed it last year in 2008. The rent of the new location was impossible and then the financial crisis hit, so we decided to wait for another opportunity to reopen in Tokyo. Back in Italy I have 4 restaurants, I have two in Milan where I’m personally there and cooking, a trattoria and a catering service.

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Interview with chef Daniel Boulud

Chef Daniel Boulud is best known for this eponymous restaurant, Daniel in New York. The two-star Michelin chef was raised on a farm outside Lyon and trained under the older generation of classical French chefs. Maison Boulud Beijing is his first restaurant in Asia. Housed in the grand colonial building of Ch’ienmen 23, the restaurant opened its doors in 2008, just before the Olympics.

Michelin-starred chefs are starting restaurants in Asia, but we haven’t heard any plans to start one in Bangkok, why?

Well, The Oriental Bangkok always had great chefs. They were only contracted for two to three years and then the chefs move on. One or two hotels have a programme of hiring great chefs, not solely as permanent staff, but the hotels work with guest chefs throughout the year. Raffles Hotel in Singapore for example does that often. It’s difficult as the Michelin guide has not been introduced to Asia. It is successful in Tokyo because the city has a culture of very interesting restaurants where the quality of the food is the driving force. Now, the guides are in Hong Kong and Macau, eventually they’ll come to China, Singapore and Bangkok.

What is your impression of Thai food?

I love Thai food.

If you open a restaurant in Thailand, what would your menu look like?

The French were very involved in the region historically when Indochine was a colony. I would love to open a restaurant with a l’indochine concept. Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese. Thai flavors are very strong and spicy. The most beautiful thing about Thai food is their street food. It almost defines Thai cuisine for me, more so than restaurants. I think that street food and home cooked meals are the best Thai food.

Would you open a restaurant in Thailand?

Well, maybe. I think that if a Thai restaurant would like to have a Michelin star one day, it’s very important that there’s authenticity. A simple plate with well-executed food, a keen attention to detail as well as service. The tea for example has been chosen because of its origin or location. The person who opens the restaurant has to really believe in what he’s doing. I think the personality of the person has to come through into the restaurant from the food to everything that has to do with the business.

The Michelin guide caters to a very European palate, so how can they judge a different cuisine altogether as the taste and textures of Asian food are very different?

Yes, very much so. I think it worked out in Japan because in some restaurants, there are only 8-12 seats and the chef makes excellent food daily so there’s obviously a consistency in the quality of food and service. But we’ll see what Michelin will do next year as clearly the Michelin guide wants to come to China as well. Eventually, it’s going to want to go international.

What is the criteria for judging restaurants for the guides?

They have a team of inspectors who go anonymously over a year, maybe 3-4 times at specific times, so they can see the consistency of the restaurant. Usually, the inspectors chosen have a full time job—they could be a lawyer or a banker It’s something like a mystery shopper with good knowledge and taste, also understanding how the business works. At the same time, in my restaurant, I’m the most contradictory case because they gave me two stars which is fine and I’m very happy with it and I’m certainly the best two star they ever had in America and I can certainly kick a lot of butts of two star chefs in France and I can also kick a lot of three star chefs butts. I also think it’s a combination that makes it a unique restaurant—service and a relationship with the customer. Food quality is naturally the top priority. You can have confident service, but you don’t want robotic service. I think it’s important to have a really open hearted personality at the front of house. In Europe they pay attention to that, but in Asia it is something different.

Are you very traditional? Your cooking is very modern.

Well, my cooking is light. I’m not a French man from France anymore, I’m a French from New York. Not American, there’s a slight difference. I didn’t adapt to the American palate when I opened my restaurants in new York, it was cooking the food the way I wanted and making sure that people understood and appreciated what I was doing and also in food memories, people only remember things that are more classic. People have nostalgia for food and I think with modern cuisine today, it’s very hard to have nostalgia unless you have a chef who is consistent in certain dishes and makes them forever. I always like to practice playing with traditional dishes, but with a more contemporary approach with the seasoning.

How do ensure your absolute top standards in your Boulud empire when there’s only one of you flying around the world?

First, a company is made of a restaurant group and within each restaurant, there is a General Manager and Assistant Manager. My chefs are very competent, we’ve been together for 12 years at Daniel. I have trust and confidence that they can do as well or even better than me. Yet, the business can’t exist without me, because I’m the driving force behind the restaurants.

You started professional cooking at 14, and you decided at that young age you wanted to cook professionally?

Yes full time, I could have quit two years after, but I gave my life into suffering. Yes, it’s very difficult. They beat you up in the kitchen.

What is your best childhood memory of food?

I think as a kid, there were many different things. To me, food was always marked by the seasons. Every day without fail, we’d have a soup to start the meal. I’ve always loved soup and I always have a lot of soup on my menu. It has stayed with me all my life—it’s like a little security blanket.

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Jean-Georges is a three-star Michelin chef very involved in the Asian culinary scene. His eponymous restaurant, Jean-Georges Shanghai opened 6 years ago on Three on the Bund Shanghai. He reminiscences of his first work experience in Asia, where he worked at The Oriental, Bangkok— there he experienced the flavors and spices of Thailand that changed his perspective on cooking.

Do you visit all your restaurants around the globe every time you change your menus?

Yes I’m here in Shanghai for one week to introduce the new menu for spring and summer. I will probably come back again for the fall/winter menu.

So, you work only with local ingredients?

Yes, the food is developed in New York, but when we come [to Shanghai], we work with what we have and make adjustments. Not every recipe works exactly the same way on each continent. The quality is excellent, but the same ingredients like a carrot, garlic or potato can taste very different. Like the cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley, France or Italy, these wines from three different places will taste quite different.

What is your best childhood memory with food?

Well, my bedroom was right on top of the kitchen so I woke up to wonderful smells every morning. Upon waking, I knew exactly what was cooking. Coffee and toast is one of the best smells to wake up to and I remember waking up to these distinct smells every morning.

You chose to be a professional chef at 16, what was that experience at the 3 Michelin-star restaurant Auberge de l’IIl that cemented it?

Well, after that dinner, it changed the way I looked at things. I never knew that you could make a living out of food, outside of the home. Food was always a pot on the table, good food made at home—the smells that I wake up to every morning. I never knew that people were having careers making food outside of the home. I was only exposed to good food at home with the family. Christmas was always spent with my aunts or grandmother. Growing up in the 60s, eating out wasn’t common like today. We’d go to a restaurant every two to three years when it was a treat for a special occasion.

What do you think you learnt from cooking in Asia? Are there any specific techniques that you use a lot now?

In Asia, generally you cook vegetables by blanching it or it gets steamed and you serve it super green right away. I love the freshness. When I was cooking in Hong Kong in 1982, a customer sent the fish back saying it was four days old. I didn’t understand it as I had gotten it that morning. The Chinese are so used to getting things alive from the tank before it’s served that the fish was filleted and killed a couple of days before was considered not fresh. Well, it was fresh, but by Chinese standards, it was a few days old.

So, even in your other restaurants like in New York you try to get everything as fresh as possible?

It’s difficult to get everything live in New York. I try to get all my fish from the wild as the fish farms sometimes don’t rare them properly and they taste a little muddy. A wild fish fighting for his food would taste better. I work with a lot of small boats in New York. The big boats leave on Monday and come back on Friday. Naturally, some of the fish come back a few days old. I work with small boats that leave at 6am and they are back at 12am, so you get the fish in the same night. It’s more expensive, but you’re paying for the quality. Just like Fedex has a price.

As the culinary scene is constantly evolving, how can the new generation of chefs work towards achieving/maintaining a Michelin-star rating?

Basically, the tough part is the ingredients, but it also depends largely on the customers. Nobody wants to go to fine dining as much anymore. People don’t spend 5 to 6 hours in a restaurant anymore. Eating habits are clearly changing. With the economic crisis, nobody wants to spend so much money. It is very important that you keep reinventing yourself. I travel a lot and get inspiration from visiting new places and trying new things.

Why is Jean-Georges Shanghai the only one of your other restaurant that is your namesake apart from the one in New York?

It’s very hard to run a high-end restaurant. I didn’t choose Shanghai, Shanghai chose me. The owner is one of my customers in New York and approached me if I was interested in opening a restaurant in China. I said yes, and here I am. Also, the people here are serious workers, I wouldn’t trust to do the same in Boston or Vegas.

Globally we have 3000 people, but we work with partners, like Three on the Bund in Shanghai for example. Recently, we’ve also started working with hotels consulting on concepts as chefs move on after every two to three years. The hotel restaurants have to start all over with new General Managers and F&B managers. You have to come with an open mind to open restaurants in China. I think a lot of chefs love to do what they do on a high level and they don’t want to give up their control. If you’re here in China, it’s important to be open minded.

You’ve been running Jean-Georges Shanghai for 6 years, why did you only open Nougatine recently?

Well, we decided last year, given the bar here, we could also have a bistro. The world is changing and everyone wants to dine more casually, so we came up with the concept of a bistro where people can come here share a quick bite, a burger or something simple when they come to Nougatine. We do 25-30 covers a night. We really want to offer something more accessible. The whole world needs to rethink this three-star Michelin thing. In France last year, three chefs gave back their stars, they just didn’t want it.

You were the chef de cuisine at the Oriental Bangkok for two years at the restaurant Normandie, what do you miss most about Thailand?

Everything. The people, the food and everything about the city. When I was there in 1980, there were only 3 hotels, so my memories date back to a long time ago. When you get off the plane, you can smell the durians and all the spices in those days.

While Michelin-starred chefs are opening restaurants in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Tokyo, will they be looking more at Bangkok anytime soon?

That is an interesting question. I’m sure it is very hard to incorporate Western dining into the local dining scene. I also think it’s about opportunities. It just happens that in China, there are many opportunities for chefs to start up their restaurants here. I would definitely consider Thailand if given the opportunity.

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