Culture Kitchen

Originally published in hellobali magazine, July 2011

With Sarong’s cuisine culture campaign taking full flight, chef Will Meyrick brings in culinary mavens from around the world to share their expertise and entice our taste buds.

Asia has arguably one of the richest varieties of cuisine in the world, and as tradition has it, the best-tasting picks are the authentic grub found on the side of the road, sold straight from a rickety cart by an old street hawker who has been cooking the same brand of cap cay for the past ten years and, even better yet, has a secret recipe for it that has been passed down from generations past. A tad overly romanticised, yes, but very true in a way – old favourites are an Asian specialty, without offering too many frills and thrills in their traditional cuisine, but still managing to capture one’s fancy through good, honest food.

It takes a maverick to take a bite out of life, literally speaking, and to be able to twist these traditional recipes just so, so as to give them a brand new taste without belting out the whole “avant-garde fusion cuisine” song and dance. This maverick is named Will Meyrick, former leading chef at Jimmy Liks and Longrain in Australia, and creator of Husk at Sofitel Bali and LOTUS in Hong Kong. Will is known for exploring Asia’s culinary playground, tasting his way through the street stalls while coming up with new ideas for cooking some old favourites in South-East Asian cuisine.

As the chef’s latest hat trick, Sarong’s kitchen is where he applies these ideas. The fine dining restaurant recently launched a programme titled ‘Cuisine Culture’ – the foodie version of a student exchange programme – which brings in guest chefs from around Asia to come cook at Sarong for a limited time. Before that, though, Will scours the kitchens of South-East Asia and studies with these guest chefs in their respective kitchens and cooks for their patrons as well.

Sarong’s warm ambience would be nothing if not for the masters behind the cooking counters, and the latest guest chef to join Will Meyrick in his “laboratory” in Seminyak is Chairman Wang of the Black Sesame Kitchen, a cooking school and private dining venue in Beijing, China, which was founded by Jen Lin- Liu, author of ‘Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China‘. Black Sesame Kitchen is an organic institution, located in a cosy corner in central Beijing and comprised of an open kitchen and dining room – modest, down- to-earth, authentic, and simply delicious; the four pillars that make home cooking what it is.

The star of the night, Chairman Wang, is a Beijing native, and has been a cooking teacher for 12 years, previously of the famous Hualian Cooking School. The ever-smiling and stoic 60-year-old woman does not speak a word of English and her young translator from New York, Candice Lee – also a chef at the Black Sesame Kitchen – is always by her side to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.

“Chairman Wang has never left Beijing, let alone the country, in her whole life, this is her first time abroad,” Candice explains, after which Chairman Wang adds a short remark, said in a soft and unfaltering tone. “She says she is very nervous to be here,” Candice translates, although I could not sense even an iota of nervousness coming from the Mandarin-speaking chef – she is the proverbial master I used to watch in old kung fu films, the one that harbours the secrets of life but chooses to divulge them slowly over time to the worthy few.

There is a sly glint in Chairman Wang’s eyes that is both humble and wise at the same time; through Candice, Chairman Wang says, “I have been cooking since I was six years old, first because of necessity – in traditional China, it is essential to be able to cook – and before China opened up to the outside world, we had to make do with limited ingredients, mostly flour and cabbage, so cooking became a form of discipline and creativity.”

While we are on the topic, I can’t help but ask about the communist regime and the affect it had on her cooking techniques and style. “Nothing has changed except for access to ingredients; nowadays, it is easier to obtain certain ingredients, whereas before, everything was rationed and controlled. But as for my cooking, nothing has changed.”

Chairman Wang is an embodiment of placidity – I do not spot one fidget throughout our whole conversation – a polar opposite to Will Meyrick, who is sitting at the table with us. Will is fiery and dynamic, passionate and restless, excitable and full of life and things to say.

“I was very impressed with Will when he spent time to study under us. He is not Chinese but he is so eager to learn the cuisine; such a good student, so open-minded, so detailed, so enthusiastic. I am very happy to share a kitchen with him,” Chairman Wang speaks in Mandarin, pointing to the grinning chef of Sarong, to which he adds, “You know, it’s amazing how the small differences in cooking technique can completely change the flavours of a dish. I know how to cook Chinese food, mostly from the southern regions [Chairman Wang specialises in north Chinese cooking], but to observe the cooking technique of someone who has been doing it her whole life, so much so that it has become a natural part of her person, you absorb random tidbits of information that…like I said, it can change a dish completely!”

I am lucky to have Chairman Wang and Will Meyrick prepare a collaborative masterpiece of a meal for me that night, in which the menu consists mainly of dumplings and noodles – both are Wang’s specialties – but I could taste Will Meyrick in each dish as well; innovation coupled with tradition; this is not mere fusion, this is a diffusion of culinary revolution. Poetic, no?

It seems this ‘Cuisine Culture’ thing is working out tremendously, having recently hosted a guest chef from Cambodia for Sarong’s last event. I am curious of who else I will be expecting in Sarong’s kitchen in the future.

“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Will enthuses. “Get ready for guest chefs from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and of course, all over Indonesia. Watch this space.” •