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Singapore's 10th World Gourmet Summit


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This is one of those things I should've finished writing up back before the summer, but you know how it goes.

Soooooo........here's Part 1

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It’s been a long time since I was last in Singapore. Fourteen years? Probably close to that. It was 1992, and our flight from Seoul had been delayed stranding us for three days at Singapore Airline’s expense. To their credit, they took care of room and board for us for the entire stretch. What they couldn’t take care of, unfortunately, were diapers for the boy. My one clear memory of that trip (besides the garlic lobster) was of trying to find Pampers on Orchard Road amidst the throng of Filipina nannies out for the Sunday.

Given my regular attendace at the World Gourmet Fest (WGF) in Bangkok, the WGS had been touted to me for a number years. I’d always been hesitant, as there’s no one location for the events. It’s overseen by the Singapore Tourism Bureau and coordinated by Peter Knipp

Holdings.

My hesitation revolved primarily around the twin concepts of hot, humid weather, and me in decent clothes.

But, I’d been down at BA using up my frequent flyer points to send Yoonhi to Italy for a walking tour, and it just struck me that there was nothing in particular stopping me from heading out to Singapore for three nights of eating.

These sort of thoughts strike me from time to time. So far, no bruises.

And here I was returned for the Tenth World Gourmet Summit (WGS). Disgorged on a quiet Thursday morning from that transient sky-borne tube, I was here to eat.

In the first of many disconcertingly short taxi rides I was whisked to my hotel where I checked in, unpacked, and washed. That done I made the phone calls I needed to make, talking to D over at Peter Knipp about the events for the day, and then calling up my old cronie Lee to arrange for lunch (with a name like Lee, I don’t have to even try to disguise it in Singapore).

Lee picked me up shortly thereafter, and we took off for some curry in Little India. Our destination was the Apollo Banana Leaf. Along the way Lee complained heartily, but with some pride, about the metro system that automatically took money out of your pocket with every block you traveled. When we arrived at the restaurant he happily showed me the prepaid parking tickets that were to be punched and displayed, and how to sneak an extra few minutes out of them.

Lunch itself was quite good. We made our choices from the cafeteria style bins at the back, giving our orders to our red dotted waiter, and then settled down to catching up on old times. As the name proclaims, the food is served out on a banana leaf, the chutney and vegetable first, and then the rice. The rice is topped off with some thin chicken curry broth, and then the dishes themselves arrived.

First up was the Sri Lankan crab, a mistake I always make. I hate getting my hands dirty when I eat, but crabs look too good to pass up. Lee didn’t make me feel any better as he deftly broke his apart with his fork and spoon while I struggled like something from Dawn of the Dead with the sauce drenched carcasses. They were okay, but obviously weren’t fresh. And my hands (and beard) were becoming something of a spectacle.

Alongside of this was a very nice little squid curry, the ink seeping out of their corpses and blackening the rice I dolloped them onto. These I could toss back all day long.

And then there was the main, a very pleasant fish head curry. Lots of meat back up behind the gills, and a pleasant aroma (to me) of low tide about the whole thing. Lee introduced me to the method for taking the eye, digging the spoon back in around and clearing out the socket, then detaching the soft tissue from the eye and taking this back. Sort of like a soft boiled egg…..or an exceptionally large hunk of mucus. Tasty.

And, in case you’re wondering, in a rare show of restraint (damned rare) I enjoyed some lime juice as opposed to the usual beer. I figured the evening could get messy enough, and I’d punished the economy class drinks trolley well enough on the flight out.

The Apollo’s a great room. It’s your typical cavernous hall, cheap tables and chairs, with a side bar packed with Hindu bits and pieces and about half a dozen staff loitering about (at least at first – we were early). One section had a couple of guys up a stepladder doing something odd in the ceiling tiles. We sat by the window with a view of the park across the street (I commented upon how it was suspiciously well-graded, and Lee told me it was one of the old airstrips) and took in the traffic as the place filled up with the lunch crowd. A lot of the passing talent liked the look of the fish head curry, and it wasn’t long before the whole place was pretty much packed out. We took our cue, paid the bill, and cleared space for the waiting clientelle. All in, about 60 Sing for the lunch (around CDN$ 42 – forty-two is always the answer).

That afternoon I went shopping. Lee dropped me off at Takashimaya up on Orchard Road, the Japanese shopping mall that my Bangkok friends had been recommending. I was looking for some odd cable, but they didn’t have the lengths I needed at Denki, so I headed out, promising to come back later. I did do a tour through the basement food floor, and lusted after the fresh mushrooms that I saw on display.

I hit up a number of spots along Orchard Road, wonderfully shaded by the trees reaching up to the fourth and fifth floors, finally finding a shop with the cable I wanted, but a price that scared the bejayzus out of me. I made the always-acceptable excuse of “I need to ask my wife” and hit the road. This demoralized me to the extent that I forgot myself and took the underground to get back home.

In Bangkok I take rapid transit because it’s just that – rapid – at least in comparison to the brain deadening creep of traffic on the street. In Singapore I walked four minutes to the station; headed down the stairs (another minute); stared in despair at the ticket machine for a few minutes before I figured out what to do; wondered why the cost was so high and then realized I had had to pay a deposit on the card; went down some more stairs; waited for a train; got off and transferred to Bugis Street; waited for another train; and then got off at Bugis Street; figured out how to get my deposit back; and climbed to the surface. All in? About half an hour. This is the longest travel time I did in Singapore. After this, it was cabs.

I strolled through the once-infamous Bugis Street, taking note of the low end teenage fashion on sale, and then, almost at my hotel, I found what I was looking for on Bencoolen.

Electronics heaven.

Lee told me it must have been Prinsips. Whatever the name, they had the cables I wanted at the prices I wanted. Plus, upstairs, they had a shop specializing in Japanese cartoons. I spent a happy hour up there shopping and discussing the relative merits of Naruto and One Piece before it was time to go.

I was in a much better mood.

Washed, dressed, and prepped, I was off to Sentosa Island for the Masterchef safari. I was a little concerned about getting there, but I had D’s directions and a map of the island to show my driver. He happily set off, questioning me as to my reasons for coming to Singapore. When I told him that I was here to eat, he didn’t quite call me a fool, but did give me a lecture on how I should go to Hong Kong instead. I thanked him politely for his advice, and let him know I would take it under consideration. But for tonight, I needed to be on Sentosa Island.

Driving through Singapore, I almost felt homesick. The city is so lush, with so many parks and green areas that it does remind me of Vancouver. Clean like Vancouver, too. My previous trips, so many years before, had been limited more to the traditional downtown zone and to Orchard Road, but driving across town gave a much better feel to things. With the overhead clouds and the effect they have on the light, you could’ve (almost) been driving through parts of Stanley Park.

As Buckaroo Banzai says in a moment of clarity “where ever you go, well, there you are”. I was at the Sky Bar on Sentosa, near the cable car looking for where I was supposed to be. In typical Bangkok fashion I had given myself loads of time to get to where I needed to be, and now found myself way in advance of everyone else. But luck was in the air as two pleasant young people showed up to open umbrellas. At first they told me that it would be a matter of some minutes, and then changed their minds and sent me into the bar to be cozied by some Piper Heidsieck champagne.

I was feeling much, much better.

It occurred to me, as I looked out in the gloaming at the container yard below me, that women are so much more sensible than men. They carry purses. They have somewhere to keep cameras. Here I was, perched above the city, with beautiful soft light, lush greens, and a view that showed the cranes of the yard as giant giraffes peaking out of the jungle.

I contented myself with a chilled (as in very cold) glass of champagne. It was far from dry, my

usual preference, having a soft, flowery side to it, rounding over the mid palate, the experience fitting that description of the milkiness of a baby’s skin that I remember so well from the WGF5 class. The bubbles were furious and undisciplined, rising in clusters and bursts. I stopped the waiter to admire the red labeled bottle, and used this as a ploy to get my glass refilled.

Nathan, Johnathan, and Matthew, all with Peter Knipp dropped by to greet me and to give me a brief on what to expect of the evening. They also dropped off a copy of the admirable Cuisine & Wine Asia, a beautifully packaged glossy, filled with what Bourdain would describe as “food porn”; lovingly posed photos of New Zealand venison, racks of lamb, and lemon grass skewered prawns. This, along with more details on the chefs taking part in the World Gourmet Summit, kept me occupied.

As a credit to Johnathan, who looks after the mag, once back in Saudi, at the pool, a number of women were stopped in their tracks by sight of the open pages, and had to tell me how good it looked. Maybe it’s just that everything looks good next to me in a bathing suit, but I think this magazine should take the kudos.

Our plan for the evening was to conduct a proper “safari”, with a mobile kitchen hopping about the island to cook for us at three different venues. This is an interesting take on the traditional approach of conducting a moveable feast through different restaurants over the course of several hours.

We moved from the Skybar soon thereafter, at just about the right moment as the champagne notched up the boisterousness of the crowd. We made our way in twos and threes (and singularities in at least my case) to the cable lift, for all the world an alpine ski bar perched atop the hill, and I headed out on the first flight, along with a group of the Norwegian delegation; a pleasant couple from the embassy, and a young fellow who was down as part of the Norwegian seafood promotion being undertaken in conjunction with the WGS.

Talking with him, Norway is very keen to expand their market share in South East Asia. This’ll be tough going, I should think, as the Australians and Kiwis have a pretty firm lock on the food industry here. Meanwhile the Americans had just had the green light to undertake beef exports again. That and the spiraling Euro wouldn’t help things very much, but you never know.

From the base of the ski lift we were shunted by tram over to the twin towers, erected on the Southernmost point of continental Asia. These are two wooden multi-level platforms connected with a walkway. Our party went to the Eastern side, and the other (when they arrived – they were definitely having fun back at the Sky Bar) took the West. This broke the group up a bit, but it afforded everyone a great view of the sunset.

We took two courses at this spot. One was a stuffed zucchini blossom, an interesting concept of flowers and seafood as a tribute to Singapore. Packed in with crab and truffle stuffing, this was really good. Not only do you get a kind of bizarre triffid-like presentation, but the texture and flavours work well together.

The next course was a very pleasant soup, with an exceptionally long finish and an interesting overtone of Chinese herbs, and a ravioli that we were advised to eat first so that we could take it at the right temperature. Later the cook advised that the soup had been the subject of some eight hours of cooking. One of the items I was missing was a session on herbal cooking being undertaken during the WGS. So many meals, so little time.

Our chefs were Kenny Yeo and Justin Quek. Ken is the executive chef for the Sentosa Group, and Justin is one of Singapore’s more famous sons, having been the head chef for ten years at Les Amis - that iconic haven of fine dining on the Island - and now in residence in Taiwan at La Petite Cuisine. Justin, in a year’s time, has taken La Petite to the top rankings for French cuisine on the “other island”. Both Kenny and Justin stopped by to talk about their food, and the things they were looking to do. As I’d mentioned, Kenny was looking to incorporate the theme of flowers and seafood as a hallmark of the island. Justin is looking for French cooking in Asia. Not fusion, but more of doing proper French cuisine with the best ingredients at hand.

Looking over the edge, I loved what I saw. There was a field kitchen in operation to match the best I’d seen in Kenya. Heck…it was better! Everyone was bent over their stations, busily working away on the plates with an attention to detail that you wouldn’t see at Little Governors. (I wish I’d brought a camera)

From there we boarded trams and were carted about the coastline and up the hill to Fort Siloso.

Okay, I’m not Singaporean, so, for me it was a nice venue, but a little touristy. But for the local crowd, this was a big hit. Everyone was buzzing about being up here for a meal. Plus, we received our drinking mugs, little tin tea cups ala military service that had the majority of the diners reminiscing about their service years (yes, we’re “well into our cups” by now).

Kenny Yeo opened up with a fish dish to get us started. A pan seared fillet of turbot, with a Jerusalem artichoke-potato puree with summer truffle and some cherry tomato confit, topped with an asparagus and red wine sauce. The wine for this was a 2000 Domaine Michel Gros, Vosne Romanee 1er Cru aux Brules. Both the wine and the fish tasted good. I liked the hint of truffle in the potato, although I think I liked the artichoke background even more.

But then we had two sensations that took my mind completely away from the fish.

Justin Quek served a grilled smoked prime rib of wagyu beef, with spring vegetables and Bordeaux sauce.

I admit, I was a virgin. I had never had wagyu before. I know, it’s a big thing, but I’d been put off by reports from a number of my friends who’d had Kobe beef and just couldn’t see what the hype was about.

This was really, really good.

When I put that first piece into my mouth, I could feel it melting on my tongue. The fat was so evenly distributed in this piece of meat, that I was awestruck (“gobsmacked” some would say).

And the 1983 Chateau Figeac was a beautiful companion to the beef. I pulled my face away from the meat for a moment, and buried my nose into Figeac.

Think of being young and holding your first love in your arms and nuzzling yourself into that tussle of hair behind her ears……

That was a hard combination to top.

You know, I worry if I risk becoming jaded at this tender age of my life. At what point will we lose this “wow” in our dining. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll continue working at it.

With an 1812ish soundtrack of cannons filling in the background, we dined and chatted. The Figeac made several rounds (but I couldn’t cadge a second helping on the wagyu, alas), and everyone was enjoying the meal quite well.

In the best of moods, we were carted up to the golf club and Il Lido. We entered the building, and had a very nice tour through the restaurant, taking in the general ambience and décor, and the lovely view. But we weren’t stopping here. We were escorted outside to find a long table set up on the tee box, crisp white linen against the green, green grass.

Pretty. Plus we get a view.

Tony Poh, the chef de cuisine for Il Lido, started us with the cheese dish, a Gorgonzola sabayon with homemade pear mostarda and balsamic cream. Nice. Smooth, and not overpowered by the Gorgonzola. Of course, by this point we were all in pretty good form, so I may be lapsing in my critique here.

I do enjoy mixing up seatings during the meals. You never know who’ll you’ll meet. I had the

chance to get some details on the Singapore Tourism Board, and I’d garnered some details on the herbal cooking business. I was up to date on the Norwegian food industry, and I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much at any point (maybe).

And, to finish, Michel Pavanello, their executive chef, rolled out a coffee and rum parfait with cocoa cream that I have fond memories of, but little in the way of notes. You’ll need to be patient with an old man like me if my memory starts to lapse. I recall enjoying the dessert, and the company, and somehow being the last man in a taxi back from Sentosa.

A good first night.

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Nice report, Peter. I look forward to the next instalment.

I got the impression that the Norwegians had the premium seafood supply pretty much locked up in Singapore, especially to large consumers such as hotel F&B outlets and Chinese restaurants for Chinese delicacies such as yee sang or hotel seafood buffets. ANZ have the red meat market, due to the ban on USA beef from the mad cow outbreak, but with the return of USA Prime Beef, which Singaporeans seem to prefer to the Australian product, that market might be under threat as well. Obviously, please correct me on either count if I am mistaken.

The Norwegians have really invested big-time in the WGS, which is plainly evident in the fact that every year in living memory (since 2003), one of the featured Masterchefs is a (current or previously) Michelin-starred Norwegian chef who specialises in cooking Norwegian seafood (Hellstrom, Stiansen, Ness). In my befuddled and noncommittal manner, I thoroughly loved the event and the hospitality, but I hate the over-commercialised aspects of it. I appreciate that you need sponsors, but does my duck breast need to come with "US Potato" matafans, or my dessert come with a "California raisin" crisp?

I can vouch for Pavanello, especially in the sweets department. WGS 2005, pannacotta of gorgonzola dolcelatte with a puree of mustard fruits. Paired with Frescobaldi's vin santo for a spicy and delicately sweet finish that cleanses your palate as thoroughly as Listerine mouthwash, but in a good way.

Now, back to the food...

Julian's Eating - Tales of Food and Drink
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Like Julian, I don't think that they need to be touting the sponsors too much, although I didn't find it too intrusive in the dinners overall. I'll get to the seafood and champagne brunch at the end, but they were pretty honest up front about the sourcing for it, so I wouldn't be too harsh there.

As another note, and a sign that my memory's going with old age, a glance through the actual menu reminds me that the cheese was accompanied by a 2001 Pagodes de Cos, and the Semifreddo had some of the Piper Heidsieck Cuvee Sublime to keep it company.

Plus, there was a shot of Macallan Sherry Oak 12 that I actually can remember now, the heft of the glass in my hand as I weaved across the grass........

Okay, now to get down to work on the cooking classes.

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I attended the WGS in Singapore in 2000 and had many of the same observations, though it sounds like the marketing aspects of it have gotten even more shallow and vapid. The nice thing, back then, was that the WGS and Singapore Food Festival were at the same time -- nice from the perspective of a traveler who's only going to endure nearly 24 hours of travel to get to Singapore maybe once per decade.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 2 weeks later...

The Tenth WGS in Singapore - part 2 - Antonin Bonnet

It’s a good thing that these food trips make me more social. If I hadn’t had a nice chat with my dinner mate at Il Lido the night before, I’d’ve been hard pressed to find the Singapore Tourism Board’s office down below Orchard Road. As was, I had enough local landmarks to allow me to talk the driver into the vicinity.

Again, I was way too early. But this gave me time to wait for them to get the Miele/Illy machine working and to get a decent cup of coffee into me. While working through the crema I admired the Wusthof knives they had out on display, and looked over some of the other goods the sponsors had put out to draw interest. On the one hand, there is a very overt commercial aspect to the set-up, especially in comparison to the very low key approach of the Four Seasons in Bangkok. But, on the other hand (I still have two) someone has to foot the bill for all of this. If I had a third hand, I’d use it to point out that commercialism is in the blood down here, as much as fun (sanuk) is for the Thai.

Anyways, after killing some time downstairs, I headed up to the auditorium and took up a cozy position, notebook in hand.

The STB has a good set-up for these things. Stadium seating gives everyone a fairly good view of what’s going on, and they run an overhead trellis for the cameras, so the screens give you good vertical shots on the counter-top action.

Antonin Bonnet – The Greenhouse, London

Artichoke Risotto with Aged Parmesan Cheese and Roasted Chicken Jus

Sea Bass Roasted with Wild Fennel

Chocolate Tart with Praline Ice Cream, Tonka Bean Bitter Sauce

This was to be a double bill for me. First up was Antonin Bonnet, with the one-starred Greenhouse in London for the last three months. Abela had moved Antonin there from his club, Morton’s, when Bjorn Van der Horst moved on. This wasn’t that big a change, as Bonnet had consulted on the reopening of the Greenhouse, having just come over from Michel Bras’ 3 Star in Aubrac.

Besides all the press on his Michelin career, I also liked that he’d started in the industry back when he was 14 at the Boneveine’s cooking school. I have a certain feeling of solidarity with people who have used up their teenage years in kitchens. You get a solid, no-nonsense sort of soccer-hooligan feel that makes for good cooking (Mick Edwards at Nobu London was the one I also liked for this…..sort of reminded me of Barry the Baptist from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels).

This attitude carries into the cooking. Simplicity in the approach, exemplified in today’s first dish, a risotto. Easy for people to do at home. Then we’d do a seabass, a nice base (sorry) upon which to build other flavours. And then he finishes with a torte.

For the risotto the primary flavour is artichoke, a vegetarian approach, but not for vegan purposes (as we’ll put a chicken jus on the side), more for the delivery of a particular flavour. He would avoid a chicken stock here, as it would condense, imparting too much intensity

He went over the trimming of the ‘chokes, one of his tests for the new kids in the kitchen.

First, prep a little bit of lemon in some water. Shave back the bottom leaves, using a diagonal rim. Roll the knife along the leaves as you turn the artichoke, working the blade outside down. Cut towards the thumb, rotating the ‘choke. Almost like a lathe, the heart with its crown will appear. Then, either scoop out the middle with a spoon, or quarter and remove. Quickly pop the artichoke into the lemon water to avoid blackening.

In a stock pot he reduced some wine with herbs, and then added the artichokes and the stock.

At this point my notes indicate that I was somewhat traumatized. What about the leaves? I have fond, fond memories of sitting about the table with my friends, bowls of lemoned butter, and fresh Egyptian artichokes, do the tear and scrape of that wonderful fleshiness you find on the leaves, liberally drenched in mammary fluids. (My last trip to Cairo saw my only tourist purchase being 20 artichokes, gregariously jammed into my suitcase….I do tend to confuse the people at customs. Luckily, I don’t live in a place that has an agricultural base to protect).

I digress.

Afterwards, I approached Antonin and asked about the trimmings. I shouldn’t have worried. Like all good (economical) chefs, nothing goes to waste. The leaves made up the basis for the stock, something that wasn’t covered in the class.

We talked a little of rice, like potatoes the main concern being the different levels and types of starch to be found.

Alongside the rice, the other important factor is oil. Lost of oil. We start off two teaspoons at the beginning in order to raise the essence out of some garlic, intensifying the depth of the flavours. Then another two teaspoons as we sweat the onions. As these break down in the oil and heat, he swirls them to distribute the heat.

Meanwhile, the artichokes are cooked in some bouillon and then set aside.

Once the onions are ready, the rice goes in bit by bit and softly coats and absorbs.

Then the wine. As always, the same you drink with the dish. But just a little. Too much and you may stop the cooking, and you may also bring out too sour a taste. The boil remains continuous. Our best friend, salt, is introduced as a touch, and then the risotto is left for a quarter of an hour, kept topped up with hot stock as it goes, binding with the starch to give that rich, gravy consistency.

With this underway, he takes the mandolin to the ‘chokes and slices them fine. Not all, some are reserved to be added raw, later, to the risotto. These are rough chopped and then hit with another bit of lemon and some oil to keep them fresh. They’ll go into the risotto about halfway so as to stay crunchy.

For the barigould, the artichokes go in, along with shallots, coriander, thyme, stock, garlic, more wine, and some vinegar. The artichokes here are sautéed at 140 C to a (just) golden appearance.

As a note: avoid risotto at large functions. Generally they’ll stop the cooking at 7 minutes and set it off on the side, then give it a quick start and a 5 minute cook to finish.

For the chicken jus, he started with dicing the wings, and then roasting them in butter to get a good caramel. Then some onion, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme along with the chicken stock. Work here with a deep, wide pan, providing lots of surface area to give a good reduction.

Now we come back to bless the risotto, cutting the heat off and dolloping a bif spon of butter in, along with 2 heaping spoonfuls of parmesan. This all gets actively beaten to emulsify the fat that’s been brought into the risotto. Rely on the bowl to keep the temperature right.

A fresh artichoke is mandolined and put in to contrast the fried artichokes; the chicken jus is doled out around the lump of risotto, and a splash of very good olive oil gets introduced.

And then it’s time for the fish.

As usual, fillet with the skin on.

Olives are roasted in the oven to dry up. Chop the dried black olives, and mix in with Muscovado sugar. Then a some anis and almond powder. Set this aside for the liquorice seasoning.

Now to the fennel broth. Cut a sweet white onion in half, then slice. He draws his blade in. As an obsessive behaviour, I find it interesting how different people cut onions. Toddiwala of the UK declares for the straight drop, while others will cut away, or towards.

He uses the baby fennel as it will cook faster. The first layer is peeled, then it’s cut into long quarters.

Then he sets up the olive oil, and puts the fennel in the bottom. Here you want a golden caramelization. A pinch of salt is added to bring out the flavours. Once the golden shade is achieved the fennel is removed and in go the lemon zest, onion, thyme, and bayleaf. After these have developed a little, in goes the fish stock, worked up from the bones of the seabass. Let this reduce a bit.

Interestingly, Antonin is not disposed against electric. He’s running around 90% gas in the Greenhouse now, but he likes the economics of electric. When you’ve got ovens blasting gas all evening long, the bills can rack up.

We sidetrack to the topic of anchovies. What could be more important in life than anchovies? Get them fresh, and clean them by hand, soaked in cold water, pulling out the spines. Then put some rocksalt and leave them in peace for a month, then settle them in some garlic and olive oil, wait three more days, and then snack on them with bread in the middle of a hungry night.

Okay, we didn’t do that here for the class, but that’s the proper approach. The anchovies had already been prepared and ready.

We return to our regularly scheduled programme….onions.

We take some new sweet onions, peeled, quartered, and then sweated in good olive oil. The golden, caramelized fennel is added, with some lemon zest and a bit of seasoning, and then lidded and cooked on low heat.

Prep a mayonnaise. An egg is boiled for 6 minutes. A tiny hole is put in the shell. After the 6 minutes is up, it’s put in ice water.

The egg yolk is extracted, and then it goes in a mixer with the dried black olives. Starting with the dried olives gives a nice simplicity to the flavour. Soft. He prefers to work with the milder flavoured Nyon olives (I thought Nicoise, but was corrected). The oil is introduced in small bits to emulsify.

The fish, having been first seasoned, is cooked in very hot oil to attain a good crisp to the skin, then turned down right away.

Going back to the fennel, he tests it with a knife, having removed the lid to avoid soupiness.

At this point we get the famous “When you work in the restaurant that’s what you work against – Time.” I bring this out only because the good Mr. Knipp, Bluetooth phone piece firmly in his Terminator-like ear, is behind me complaining about how Antonin is behind schedule, and how this is going to throw off the next class.

He cooks the fish skin side down, plateing and pressing to avoid curling, and agitating the pan at first to invade the fish with the hot oil, and then leaving it still to attain a very fine, golden finish. This works well with fragile fish, such as mullet, very much a French favourite.

“I used to be very angry at the customers. As a French person I used to think that beef must be rare, fish must be crisp. Now, if you want your beef well done, that’s your problem, not mine. I don’t have to eat it.”

Did I mention already that I liked his attitude?

Along with this are the standard comments; things will continue to cook after you take them from the heat; paper towels are your friends; and always paint you plate.

He begins the painting with the a daub of the mayo, then puts down the onions, adds the fish, details with a piece of the fennel and the fennel greens to garnish, and finalizes with a piece of anchovy. The fennel broth sauce fills in the “black space”.

Ta da!

Dessert, and the dreaded pastry dough. We start with 3 eggs, to which he takes the traditional “no fingers” approach, working and kneading, then allowing to rest. The flour is the classic combination of almond powder, and he talks a little of the boundaries of almond and hazelnut.

He hand mixes the soft butter in, looking to coat all the particles of the flour. He runs his thick hands in and then feathers the flour, butter, and almonds. Beware of fat coming out of your powders. Then he carefully works in the yolks, avoiding any burning. Again, he relies on his hands, not paddles, in order to get the proper binding. Not only does this give him a tactile measure of how he’s doing, but if there’s a lot of the ingredients on his hands when he takes them away, then the recipe isn’t accurate.

And then a rest. Ten minutes in the fridge.

He turns to the sugar. He prefers it as raw as he can get it, avoiding the blandness of refined sugar. This goes into the pot to build a nice dry caramel. Then out come the tonka beans.

These are fun. They’re also probably illegal in Singapore (as is much of everything else). I remember that Sam Mason from WD-50 in New York was having lots of fun with these in Bangkok in 2005. But they do fall into the “restricted products” list.

Mind you, so does nutmeg (I’ll talk sometime about Uncle Scrooge and his MMDA habit). Tonka doesn’t have this aspect, however. It’s been banned due to its anti-coagulant features, which can be lethal in large doses. Mind you, water in large doses can be lethal as well, so I’m not going to worry too much.

It’s interesting, in the literature, that the tonka bean makes a good alternative to vanilla. They also refer to its “hypnotic fragrance” which has aroused my interests.

The tonka beans are grated, and mixed in with the caramel to give a nice “Praline Tonka bitter sauce”.

The nuts are toasting in the oven at 140 to get an even colour and texture, while he tosses and swirls the sugar. This is kept dry for the flavour. He then takes a cloth to settle his bowl, a proper non-flat-bottomed bowl, so stabilize it. The caramel comes away from the heat feeling burnt, but just right for its purpose.

At this point Peter Knipp gives Antonin his first five minute warning.

Some brandy and water is introduced to the caramel, and then we wait for it to dissolve, and then the pollonez (toasted hazelnuts with sugar, pounded together) last. This gives us our caramelized nut sauce.

Peter then gives him a second five minute warning, five minutes having already gone by.

We take a pie plate, and set in the dough. What we have here is precooked at 160 C. You want this, as you only want the mix to cook for around 15 minutes (5 minute warning?), which wouldn’t be enough otherwise.

The ganache of cream and milk is brought to a boil, and then the eggs and sugar are beaten in, as with a sabayon. Finish with some whisking action. Add the 66% chocolate, now avoiding the whisk as you bring the cream/milk together with the chocolate. You want to avoid bubbles in the ganache, so fold in.

This all goes into the pie, and you get your short bake.

The torte is sliced, and then the tonka bitter sauce is spponed out, along with the hazelnut praline, and a dollop of the Praline “A l’ancienne ice cream” is put to the side. This ice cream was basically a standard work up of whole milk, skimmed milk powder, sugar, whipping cream, and hazelnut praline.

If Peter Knipp had hair, he would’ve been pulling it out at this point. As it was, there was little to do but grin and bear it (and he’s been in Asia long enough to have mastered this art to a “t”). We were behind schedule, but the point of these things is to have fun, and so we headed downstairs (after a brief chat with the chef on the issue of the artichoke leaves) to taste the products.

Whereas the STB auditorium is a great venue for “hands-off” cooking classes, as a dining hall it’s cramped and hard to run. Sorry, but I don’t expect a lot of people go there to eat, anyways, so it’s not much of a fault. I took the dishes any order I could get them, starting with the torte, and then having the fish. Both worked very well, the liquorice on top of the seabass being something I’m going to go back and have fun with. I gave up on waiting for the risotto, as I had to get back upstairs for the next class. As Antonin said, “avoid risotto at large functions”. Here, not because it was partially cooked, but because it wasn’t, each load of rice being done up on the moment, with fifteen minute waits between batches.]

Next, the laboratory of Paco Rancero.

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  • 2 weeks later...

In the Lab with Paco Roncero

I’m not even going to try and be coherent about this, but rather fall back upon my notes and the images that still sit in my mind. And even at that, my notes are a shambles.

Consider the mix. A brilliant, award-winning Spanish chef, considered Ferran Adria’s leading disciple, who’s English is limited; five pages of recipes; a local commentator who doesn’t speak Spanish; and a clock that’s already a half hour behind.

Fun, eh?

Let’s look at the resume. Coming from a cooking family, he graduated from the Madrid school of Tourism and Hospitality at the age of 18, then in 1990 was at the Zalacain, and then the Ritz. From there he moved to the Casino de Madrid, where he was made chef of banquets in 1994. Then 2nd place in the Competition for Young Chefs in Madrid, and 3rd place in the Spanish national competition. Then, in 1998, Ferran Adria came to the Casino as the gastronomic consultant, and in one year turned everthing upside down. This led to Paco spending three years training with Ferran Adria at El Bulli. In 2004 he, Ferran, and Juan Marie Arzak were the chefs for the Spanish Crown Prince’s wedding.

I was keen on this class. First, I’d loved Sam Mason’s (WD-50 in NYC) class in 2005 in Bangkok, where he’d talked about the things they’d been inspired to from the molecular chemistry movement. Plus, I was all set for Santi Santamaria’s dinner the next night, and was looking for the contrast of the molecular gastronomy of El Bulli against the traditionalism, the sense of terroir of Can Fabes (hmmm, what’s the Spanish for terroir?).

Paco’s a very nice man; very polite. His photos show him in the strident, serious pose taken up by all young men with a manifesto to espouse. But when he comes out he’s very likeable, a big man with the voice of a youngster was what struck me immediately.

He’s assisted by Fernando Lopez, who’s come from the Casino to assist him.

Our commentator touched a bit upon his tasting menu from the other night, and I kick myself for not having given myself more time in Singapore to catch the chefs in their host kitchens. The meal was “full of surprises”. Perhaps that’s an understatement, as we shall see.

He loves olive oil, and it forms the foundation for the class. We would investigate what can be done with this beloved of the Spanish, working, as he says with the three required concepts of his cuisine “technology, creativity, and olive oil”.

“We can do everything with olive oil.” For instance, cocoa butter taken to 40C and mixed with the olive oil in a measure of 30 gm to 100 ml of oil will give us an olive oil butter

Textures are one of the major concerns, working with temperature differentials, new products, and technology to make things that aren’t what they might seem. Products in this case, are things like pectins and xanthan gums that will bully things around their phase diagrams, changing their natural states; and others, more traditional, such as citric acids that will cleanse the mouth as needed.

We started off with an olive oil wine gum, a simple thing, but last item on the menu, which had me scrambling to figure out where we were. This used isomalt for the syrup; an artificial sugar targeted for diabetics. Some glucose powder, gelatin to hold things, and vanilla scraped out of the pods for flavour. Just a few minutes to set, and we were already heading somewhere else.

Somewhere else was a big clear bowl of ice water. Olive oil spaghetti. He does caution that this needs a cold room. We’re cool in here, but it’s hardly meat locker temperature. The oil, some xanthan gum, and garrofin gum (with the romantic name of E-410) is mixed together, while agar is introduced to water. Here he’s going with agar, as he feels it works better in the tropics than gelatin. The mix of xanthan and garrofin gives you a jelly you can heat. The oil and agar is mixed hot, and whisked to emulsify. Then a syringe you’d use to sedate King Kong is filled with the mix and tapped to remove the air.

I can still see him there, brandishing the syringe by his head, with an angelic look on his face as he approaches the ice bath. This is a service to be done at the table in the Casino, the act as important as the food.

A bit of pressure, and the noodle is drawn out in the water, one long even press, making me think of Orson Welle’s famous opening shot in Touch of Evil.

Then, to the plate, coiled in a wheel and dressed with some herbal flowers, balsamic, and parmesan. One lucky audience member is coaxed up, and instructed to take it all in one suck, taking it like a hose from a spindle. She described it as the taste of olives, with no friction to hold it in your mouth.

And then an olive oil ravioli with a cauliflower puree and trout roe. This started off with xanthan gum introduced into the oil at 60c, and then emulsified with some water, and then agar. This is then sandwiched between two sheets of parchment paper and pressed down with the flat of a knife. Then it goes into the fridge for an hour.

But, as we don’t have an hour, the prepped version is brought out. This is then cooked up, or, as Paco says “now I’m going to hot it”. This is what blowtorches are for.

I’d like to give you details on the puree, but Fernando was taking care of that, and all eyes were on Paco. Let’s just say that the ravioli was nicely topped and served out on a spoon.

Next we were reconstructing an olive. This was nowhere on the recipes, so I just gave in and kept on taking notes wherever.

Consider olive oil as the essence of the oil. How can you put that back together? We took oil and stabilized it with xanthan gum and calcium, and prepped some water with agar. Then we mixed it up, and then dropped a dollop into the ice bath.

The result, which I tried, was a thick skinned olive, with a perfect green olive flavour, but wet on the inside, like an olive dreaming of being a grape.

Another off the menu was an olive oil dumpling, served with oysters and “truffles”. The “little truffles” were made from green tea, a stabilizer, and white and black sesame seeds. A siphon is used to dimple out yogurt to roll into the tea and sesame. Meanwhile, oysters are liquefied, and the fat is shot into the broth. Two dumplings are set out with a pair of oysters, a couple of the “truffles”, and then garnished with the oyster broth.

“Everything on the plate must be eaten”. That shouldn’t be a problem.

And then, something fun.

“Some times you must eat to be fed. Other times you eat for the experience. There is no nutrition to this”.

Dragon oil.

First he works up the air. “Foam and air are not the same”. This is an emulsion of a vinaigrette worked up with balsamic soy lecithin mixed with the oil to give a very foamy result.

I have got to get some liquid nitrogen for the kitchen. Paco and Fernando manhandle a big canister into the work zone, and then crack it open with a screw driver. Paco is grinning over the liquid nitrogen now, like an old friend has just shown up for a drink.

“At –196 C you should respect this. Don’t fear, but respect.” However, we next hear “normally when you work with nitrogen you must wear gloves. Me, no.”

And then it goes into a chilled metal bowl, tendrils of vapour creeping over the countertop like Morticia Adams’ skirt trails. It’s a fantastic table for a Halloween.

The “air” goes into the cloud, and comes out looking for all the world like a marshmellow. Our victim from the audience, cautioned to take it all in one go, can’t do it, and opens her mouth. Everything is vapour everywhere. The second volunteer does better, and the effect is one of a dragon blowing smoke down from its nose. The entire thing evaporates as soon as it hits the inside of your mouth, leaving a taste of olive oil, but exiting so quickly through your nose that you’re left amazed.

Cool. I gotta get me some nitrogen. I think the F1 fans in Bahrain might be able to help me out with this.

And we’re still not done. Water and methyl (or methil?) powder had been mixed together the day before to give reverse gelling with the oil. This is used to create a chocolate centered dumpling that can be steamed. This way the heat will set it, and the chocolate will erupt out as lava when it’s pierced.

If you are cooking with nitro, be sure to chill your containers beforehand. We go back for a quick sorbet of orange juice, olive oil, syrup, and vodka, whisked up in the nitro bath. A little more syrup goes in for texture, and this is served out in spoons.

And finally we end up with olive oil candy, made with caramelized isomalt and edible bronze, garnished with a bit of rock salt.

My reaction to all of this? I was exhausted. And I had little hope of ever recreating any of these things (although I’ll try). There are some fun ideas there, and as he said, “You mustn’t copy, but you can pay attendance”.

And as I look at my class notes, I have to smile at his little note above his signature;

“Cook is passion!!”

Edited by Peter Green (log)
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Small Beer

It was early afternoon, I’d just finished two cooking classes, hadn’t really had much to eat, and I was happy to find out that my evening meal was for 8 p.m., rather than 7. This gave me a little time off to investigate the city.

I had two leads to follow up from the Safari. Both concerned beer. I had detailed directions to two places doing their own brewing.

My first stop on Millenium Walk ended up being Paulaner, that ubiquitous chain of Germanic brew pubs that keep showing up. The place is typical Paulaner. Clean lines, tall ceilings, tiled floors (easier to mop up), not the most comfortable seating, and no customers. Okay, it was 2 p.m. or so, which isn’t exactly peak time for bars, but still…….

Their traditional dark is more of an amber. It’s a typical Paulaner/Munich dark, running at 4.8% by alcohol, with a creamy head and a thick taste on the tongue, staying mainly on the mid palate, with a bit to the front. The wort behind this is a 12.4%. At 14.50 Singapore dollars, this is an expensive half pint.

As I work down the half, I ruminate upon things.

Singapore and Bangkok. Now there’s a contrast. Singapore seems like Asia progressing on Canadian rules. Clean, green, orderly. A certain restrained, very proper joy running through the air. Bangkok, alternately, is the chaos of Blade Runner, given over to a certain immediate wanton ecstasy.

Both have their attractions. What I can say about Singapore is that I can walk on the sidewalks. Heck, the fact that they even have sidewalks to walk on puts them miles above Houston. Like Bangkok, the people I’m eating with love their food, and are well educated on what to look for in a good meal.

I finished the dark, and ordered a lager, thinking that it might be a better fit for the climate. It has good bubbles, but is generally lifeless in the mouth. It’s a little too rounded, not crisp enough for where we are. The climate here cries out for contrast, and this is trying to compromise too much.

From Millenium Walk, I went over to Clark Quay. This part of town has been heavily tarted up in the last few years, with a plan for it to be developed as an entertainment area. The overall impression is a little too touristy, but this is made up for by a significant lack of tourists. Another upside is the presence of a very large Kinukuniya bookshop in one of the malls.

So, with a good bundle of new books, I approach Brewerkz.

This is good.

First off, the menu lists a number of Belgians (served in their proper glasses), and several of the Canadian Belgian styles (including the sublime Mordite). And they do a tasting menu for their beers, of which there are a dozen.

So, I order some beer steamed clams and a tray of beers.

gallery_22892_3828_44890.jpg

The first round of seven takes front and center. I start with the Golden Ale, advertising a low bitterness and a floral hop. 4.5%. The colour is an off-urine, it’s got a great head, poor bubbles, and light hops for my taste. Crispness is a little on the softer side. While I’d happily drink this in any airport anywhere, would I remember this? The answer, alas, is no (but I like it much better than the Paulaner).

Beside it is a German-style Kolsch Ale – “medium body and bitterness with a fine hop nose” at 5%. This is more memorable, growing on the back of the palate and showing more character. Good head, great bubbles, more hops, but not quite there for crispness.

The clams are properly grit free, and give a neutral backdrop for the beers.

Moving, on a Czech style Pils, with Saaz hops. “Subtle malt, nicely bitter, good hop, clear finish. 5%”. The beer has a nice champagne colour, very good head, almost no bubbles though, and although not hopped enough for me, is much crisper than the preceding two.

The German Alt Bier is a “Dusseldorf style – with amber colour and strong American hops” 5%. This is very bubbly, is properly amber in colour, crisp, but light on the hops. It compares very well against the Paulaner from earlier on, but at half the price.

Then there’s the Irish Red Ale – “smooth, malty, light on hops with a medium body”. 5.5% “No bitter taste”. That last comment should’ve twigged me. The head isn’t great, and the bubbles are comatose. Hops and crispness are weak. It smells oddly of a urinal. Not something I’d order again.

The IPA is pleasant. “Very popular. Shows strong malt and hop flavours” 6%. I find it tangy on the epiglotus (try saying that quickly five times after a few beers). A strong bronze colour, the head was good (but not great), bubbles were weak, but the flavour of hops and the crispness were all there to make for a very satisfying beer.

Last on this tray was a Belgian style cherry fruitbrewz, their current seasonal – “not too sweet” 4.5% A nice coppery tone to it, but somewhat insipid in comparison to the framboise and others I’ve had.

My waiter isn’t as up on the material as he could be. I do gather that all of the materials are being sourced from the UK. He promises to send the manager my way when he has time.

I now look to the second tray.

First up is the Hopback. “Real ale, dry hopped, cask conditioned.” “Lots of hops, better bitter” is the tagline. Hand pumped and coming in at 4.5 % This is a good beer, still, with depth in the flavour indicating a well crafted ale. Quite drinkable, but not appropriate for the weather (I’m sitting outside along the water, trying to stay out of the sun).

Then there’s the XTRA IPA. “Majorly malty, hugely hoppy” “Can you take it?” 7.2% This is a winner, and it shows it. Gold medal in the 2004 World Brew Cup. Very good hops, excellent bitterness. The head and bubbles aren’t there, but who cares. Perfect for this climate, I could drink this until I start bouncing off the walls.

The Moh Gwai comes next – a Singapore Olde Ale. “Strong malt character made with a special Belgian yeast” 7.7% Good head, good bubbles, soft hoppiness, and not very crisp. This is an incredibly complex beer, making its statement with the wrapping tones of the malts as opposed to the XTRA’s banging on the hops. (As a note on the name, remember the little critters from Gremlins?)

I finish on the Oatmeal Stout. “Oats give this rich and very dark beer a silky mouth-feel”. It’s a nice enough stout, as they claim, it’s smooth. Very good head, reasonable bubbles for a stout, hops are there, and there’s still a nice crispness to it.

Having worked through 12 mini-tastings of the beers, I now had to make a decision on what to drink. There was no real choice. I ordered an XTRA IPA, with my plan to chase this with a Moh Gwai.

It’s about time to check out the interior of the bar (for obvious reasons). It’s quite extensive, stretching a long way back. The place opened in 1997 (I read the sign). And, as I know any beer review has to cover the facilities, the porcelain was clean and well kept. Also, with every automated flush, there’s a refrain of “where the sky is blue and clear, clear water….”

The manager came by, and entertained a few questions from me.

Q: how did you get started, and where are the owners from?

A: The original owner is from the US. Basically, he couldn’t get a good beer in town, so he decided to do something about it. The brewmaster is a Toronto boy.

Q: the XTRA IPA was an award winner, but what about the Moh Gwai?

A: We haven’t entered the Moh Gwai. It’s seen as an Asian beer, so we don’t think it’ll do very well in the competitions.

Q: Where do you source from?

A: Germany, Australia, East Kent, Herefordshire, Toronto, Czechoslovakia. Whereever the material is good.

Q: Is there a future for microbrewing here in Singapore, or is it more of a niche market?

A: It’s about 50-50. It started out as an expat hangout, but it’s been catching on with the local crowd.

XTRA IPA and Moh Gwai are both available for off-sales in bottles. The first draft selection was 10.49 Singapore for 7 beers, and the BrewMasters Reserve sample set is also 10.49 Sing, but for only 5 samples. Until 6 p.m. the pints (and 375 ml glasses of the premium brews) are 6.99, after that they go up to 8.49 until 8p.m., and then close out the night at 9.99 Sing.

www.brewerkz.com

My new line to explain why I’m asking them these questions: “I drink a lot and….well….umm….I drink a lot”.

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Man, I got it wrong.

I'm out from behind the fire walls and the odds and ends to protect me against such things as beer and wine (which would, of course, undermine all of humanity).

The Brewerkz brewmaster is not a Toronto lad.

Here's the blurb from the site:

"Scott Robertson, our Brewmaster, is from Regina, Saskatchewan, where it's really chilly in winter. He's spent 7 years perfecting his craft at Bushwakker Brewing Company and is responsible for the best beers at Brewerkz. Scott's also had Brew gigs in Japan and was a certified Beer Judge. Way to go Scott. And here's something Scott wouldn't tell you — he has a BSc (Hon) in Physics and a MSc in Medical Physics. So who says it doesn't take a rocket scientist to make terrific beer!"

I stand (or a close approximate to standing) corrected.

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  • 4 months later...

Follow-up time!

Asiacuisine had details in this issue on Brewerkz at the Australian International Beer Awards in Melbourne. Scott Robertson (Saskatchewan, not Toronto....man, I'm in trouble over that) and his team took home a gold, two silvers and a bronze award.

They took the gold for their Hopback the traditional English with a secondary ferment. This must've done better in the Melbourne climes, as I wasn't as impressed in the Singaporean sauna that I had it in.

I was very pleased to see that they took silvers for the IPA and the XIPA. The XIPA in particular I thought was a stunning (in several senses) brew, and it's probably one of the main reasons (along with the Moh Gwai) for me looking forward to a return to Singapore.

The bronze award went to the oatmeal stout entry, which is a reasonable placing.

Now, let's put that in context. This was out of 938 beers entered in the competition, from 130 different brewers.

Not bad, guys!

Edited by Peter Green (log)
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[...]

My new line to explain why I’m asking them these questions:  “I drink a lot and….well….umm….I drink a lot”.

Just found this topic, Peter, and am still getting caught up.

Great writeup, so far. Fascinating stuff.

Ahem, anyway, I've fallen back on a similar line myself, when talking to those in the various drink related industries. I'm an "enthusiast". System Administrator by day, Cocktail Enthusiast by night.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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[...]

My new line to explain why I’m asking them these questions:  “I drink a lot and….well….umm….I drink a lot”.

Just found this topic, Peter, and am still getting caught up.

Great writeup, so far. Fascinating stuff.

Ahem, anyway, I've fallen back on a similar line myself, when talking to those in the various drink related industries. I'm an "enthusiast". System Administrator by day, Cocktail Enthusiast by night.

Thanks, Eje!

The final dinner was Santi Santamaria's. I've got it in a separate thread.

Cheers,

Peter

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