Pulling the “Con”
When I appeared on Cooks vs. Cons, I had to fool everyone into thinking that I was a real, bonafide chef and not a fashion designer/performance artist/ self-taught home cook. It was exciting and daunting at the same time. How does a professional chef behave in a professional kitchen? ( I had never set foot in a professional kitchen in my life.) Would I be able to reach all the utensils and ingredients? (I’m short. I’m close to 5 feet tall on a good day, so watching me navigate a vast industrial kitchen is probably its own form of entertainment.) I had to make sure they didn't pay too much attention to my "improvisational" knife skills. I learned knife technique when I was four years old by sitting on the floor cutting up 5 lbs of green beans with a very dull knife and a slab of wood for a cutting board. (All my digits are still intact. What didn't kill me really did make me stronger.) Mise en place has never been in my vocabulary, as witnessed by the trail of mayhem and destruction I leave in the kitchen.
What should "professional looking" food look like? Wooden bowls or white plates with artfully brushed sauces, dots of various gelees and gastriques? Food piled so painfully high it defies gravity? Would I have to train myself to use tweezers to assemble the various micro-greens and edible flowers? The more I scoured the internet, the more I fell into the Pinterest abyss, and discovered how much I didn't know about cooking or food. How was I going to pull this off?
During the nerve wracking months I waited to find out if I was selected for the show, I was determined to give myself a series of cooking challenges. I read up on unfamiliar cooking terms and techniques, and brushed-up on old repertoires. I wanted to learn about new concepts in cooking, what was trending in the restaurant world and what set haute cuisine apart from home cooking. Needless to say, I had a lot to cover in a very short time. I am accustomed to learning organically and informally. Making mistakes is always part of the process. In my opinion, it’s how you become a better cook. There would be no room for mistakes or experimenting on the show. My culinary sense has always been grounded and well rooted in Indonesian tradition. It has taken me 30 years to develop my skills. How would that stand up against professionals that had learned how to cook "properly" using all the western techniques at a culinary school?.
I had no choice but to rise to the occasion when such a challenge presented itself. As I pressed forward, I still had so many questions. Do I go the pretentious route or do I stick with what I know? I didn’t know what choice to make. I tried both approaches. I experimented with modernist cuisine using Sodium Citrate to create smooth and silky melted cheese for my Modernist Mac 'n' Cheese recipe , and I tried recreating a traditional Indonesian dish with an interpretation that would appeal to western sensibilities that is Tamarind Fried Quail.
Both had its challenges. Adopting and then adapting the newest concept in the culinary industry without being an insider is a risky undertaking. It’s difficult to grasp what is tested and true and what needs innovating. Conversely, being multicultural means you are walking the line of presenting something that’s authentic, but constantly adjusting it to cater to unfamiliar palates so it seems familiar enough, that they are not alienated by it. I think these recipes I developed by experimenting all turned out well. Whether or not they will be too exotic,too unfamiliar or too pretentious remains to be seen. It’s all about individual taste.
What did I take away from my experimentation? Be yourself. Be imaginative. Don't be afraid to push boundaries. You need to make sure you understand the fundamentals before you jump into the trends. When it comes to food, pretension can only serve you so far. It’s easy to get lost on relying using fancy ingredients and ostentatious presentation to impress the crowd without taking into account the dish’s harmony and balance. Remember to always taste your food before you serve it, and in the end good food will win every time.