Tuesday 27 November 2018

Our version of Christmas

It’s hard to believe, but yes indeed, it’s that time of the year again. With Christmas just around the corner, Bali is getting ready to explode with people flooding-in to enjoy the untraditional sunny version of the festive season. Sunshine and sand will replace, for many, a cold wet winter, and it is Cuca’s job to then replace the infamous turkey. For those who claim it just isn’t Christmas without the dry overcooked bird, lovingly burnt sweet potatoes, canned cranberry glue, mom’s latest version of how to make Brussels sprouts not suck and a vomiting uncle, well… we beg to differ.

Each year we try to create our version of what Christmas is and each year we learn something new from what “went wrong” the year before. With that said, get ready boys and girls for our latest greatest edition of Cuca’s Christmas, which promises to be the best version yet.

Looking back at all we have done well and all we haven’t, there is one lesson we will never forget. Let me explain our very first Christmas, which to be honest, was a total delicious disaster:

Without snow, it was easy to overcompensate. We didn’t go as far as to dress our team as elves, but we did and always do have Santa who, by the way, was not the problem. The problem was our decorations were not kid-friendly but very kid-accessible and ended up very kid-broken; our festive Christmas music quickly became nauseating; our ornamental fireplace made from red bricks and filled with logs became a death trap for those who decided to sit on top for selfies, with people until today still bearing the scars. Our red fuzzy hats had our team sweating, overheating and damn near passing out during dinner service. Our special drink was not well articulated with its alcoholic content and rapidly had unassuming guests drunk and far too celebratory. Even our Christmas menu, which took months and was our version of the classics, was unwelcomed as no one wanted it. People came to eat the food of Cuca, the dishes their friends recommended, the items they waited all year to have again, and rather than happy, jolly, cheerful guests, we had angry, annoyed, and aggressive ones.

So, if we don’t do easily accessible glass balls, repetitive annoying music, a widow-making fireplace, insulating sauna hats, easily accessible booze or a set menu, what do we do? Come and see for yourself from Dec 20th until Jan 2nd. A Christmas you will not forget. 

Saturday 27 October 2018

I love, you hate

First of all, let’s start off with saying I love food. Traveling anywhere in the world and eating everything traditional is my way of discovering cultural heritage and my biggest source of inspiration. But not everyone is willing to try anything, and most people can be pretty set in their ways with food. Everyone is different when it comes to taste and the farther you travel, the more different the food can get. What is weird and unthinkable to some, is delicious classic comfort food for others, and these individual preferences are hard to let go, being engrained since birth by every single meal.

To generalize an entire planet of people based on each country’s preferences would be unfair but, more often than not, tends to be in many ways true. Not every country grows up eating a diverse selection of ethnic foods like Australians and Canadians, who naturally have a more open-minded approach to flavor developed from being a migrant country and total lack of almost any traditional food of their own. European countries like France, Italy and Spain, with a strong proud culinary heritage, are easily crippled and physically pained with spicy foods, whereas the people of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia barely notice the heat. Most of Indonesia, for example, hates foods that are sour and the use of vinegars and citrus is minimal, while in the Philippines the opposite is true, where pure white vinegar is literally used as a dipping sauce and adored. Western countries consume large amounts of dairy items like milk, yoghurt and cheese, yet China looks at dairy as the enemy and cheese with absolute disgust. Asians, in general, find western food boring and tasteless, heavy on salt and often too creamy and rich, while westerners often find South East Asian food too sweet and overwhelmed by spices, losing the true flavor of ingredients. In Western food, chicken tastes like chicken and a lot of effort is put into making that happen like with a good roast chicken, while in Indonesia you would never even know it is chicken as the use of numerous vegetables and spices smashes the food with flavors. 

So, with that being said, what do you cook when you are trying to feed people from all over the world their best meal yet? This is the unique challenge we face in Cuca. Yesterday, for example, we had people from Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, Japan, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, the United Kingdom and Korea. So, how do we do it? What is good for everyone? How to make everyone happy when a dish can’t be too spicy, too salty, too sour, too sweet, too common, too unusual, too much of anything while still being totally packed with flavor yet remaining balanced and delicious? That, my friend, is the secret of Cuca.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Our secret to delicious food

Southeast Asian food is unquestionably exciting! From the spices and depth of Indonesia to the sour vibrant character of the Philippines; from the clean crunchy freshness of Vietnam to the diverse hearty comfort of Malaysia and the spicy aromatic perfume of Thailand. If you have ever had an authentic meal at a great Thai restaurant, you know it is more thrilling and potentially dangerous than white water rafting. Its unexpected sourness, the confusion of sweetness, the earthiness of grilled meats and toasted nuts, the shock of slow-burning fiery hot chilis and the memories brought by fragrant fresh herbs. Yup, coming from Canada, the mystery of Southeast Asian cooking and a genuine curiosity for its food has been a source of inspiration for years.

Western-style cooking traditionally focuses on individual ingredients with complimentary sauces and garnishes used only to support the main items. Every ingredient is still very much appreciated and obvious in the end result. In Southeast Asian cooking, however, it is totally different: ingredients are blended, mixed, braised or smashed together giving the dish an entirely new flavor where each ingredient acts like musical notes to form a song. Think grilled chicken with lemon potatoes and parsley vs. chicken curry. Western food is delicate while Southeast Asian food smashes your face with flavor. As a classically trained chef, the use of sugar in savory food is unheard of in European cooking, while very common in Asia. The use of sugar opens the door for the juice of fresh lime for balance, fish sauce and soy sauce replace salt bringing with it salty fermentation and umami. This new “sweet, salty sourness” pushes flavors forward and makes dishes zing. These are the secrets of complex flavors and the difference between bold and boring.

Of course we had to incorporate these reflections in Cuca. Instead of taking traditional western dishes and merely substitute ingredients, we needed to do more. We could also not simply combine all ingredients together like in Southeast Asia, as dishes would lose their identity. What we did then was to create components of flavor and assemble those components into a dish. Let me explain: rather than a curry where everything is cooked together and every delicious mouthful is the same, we break down the components and serve these elements of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and aromatic individually so no two mouthfuls are identical, causing the guest to eagerly continue to attack a plate of food searching for discovery. Our food, by design, takes the western approach to showcasing unique ingredients while still delivering a powerful punch of flavor. Nothing soft, subtle or delicate about what we do.

Buckle up and hold on to enjoy a new brand of taste we call Cuca!

Friday 24 August 2018

The triathlon of cooking

The quit rate of a career in cooking is high. It has a unique combination of hard physical work, overwhelming pressure and mental focus that causes many to give it up just as fast as an episode of Masterchef begins. Cooking is in many ways like a triathlon: to win you must be good at all three events. You can’t be great in the swim, suck on the bike and crush the run if you expect a good result. I break cooking down to three similarly grueling events:

First event: Preparation
Highly repetitive tasks that rather than just get done must be done perfectly and as fast as possible. Speed and perfection never go hand in hand but they must. Any error in this critical stage and everything else after will never be as good as it should. Many people drown in the preparation and struggle to complete the mountains of blanching, chopping, roasting, braising, portioning and the many small details that should set them up for Service success. The time quickly slips away and too long spent on anything will have you rushing frantically with everything. Great cooks know the importance of preparation and develop systems to ensure success.

Second event: Service
This is normally where you see people leave for the toilet and never return.
Service is the grim reaper of events and will break the toughest of inmates. No two days are alike and no two moments the same. The speed of orders being called requires split-second reactions to remove items from your chiller and begin any number of challenging cooking tasks from delicately steaming, aggressively BBQ’ing, pan searing until 24-carat golden brown or just warming a few seconds in the salamander. The difference between hero and villain is small, a minute too long and the garbage, not the plate, becomes the outcome.

Third event: Functions
Functions lack the action-packed chaos of Service and rely more on meticulous structure and organization. Every detail must be planned to the second and each dish served to a guest must be broken down into little bitty steps. These are then assigned to each staff, who will assemble a plate like a child builds Lego. Each cook will place one single item on the plate and slide it to the next cook. By the time the plate reaches the end, it will have received 8-10 components resulting in the finished dish. Sounds easy but when you are serving a hundred plates, all the food must be piping hot and each item is being cooked freshly by a team just out of sight, it becomes a ballet. No panic, no screaming, but a delicate intricate dance of cooking and assemble. The challenge is any single mistake causes a traffic jam of dishes that result in waiting, hungry, “I want a discount” customers.

So, if you’re thinking that the chef looks a little stressed when he should be picking flowers and smiling like on a children’s show, you may want to remember that the determination to finish the race and have you eating the very best is not as easy as you think. If the team cooking looks to be having fun and genuinely enjoying the ride, it is because they have made it to the finish line of the triathlon. But keep an eye out for the new ones, they are easy to spot, they are still on the swim and sucking in water fast!

_By Chef-Athlete Kevin Cherkas

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Five years ago this week...

... we had just finished construction, unpacked customized tables and chairs still smelling of freshly cut polished wood, opened boxes of beautiful handmade ceramics, washed new uniforms just in time to wrap around our team, worked for days to make the kitchen sparkle and complete the mountains of food preparation… And after months of panic, dread and fear, we finally opened our doors to guests and began serving our first meals.

Our anniversary celebration every year is a bit like remembering a battle that you won victoriously but where many were wounded and lost on that fateful day. Some survived and lead the way while others wilted under the pressure of battle and struggled to continue the fight. We look back at that moment and thank God we lacked the full understanding of what we were about to do by opening a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, down a road with no lights, in the sleepy quiet fishing village of Jimbaran, Bali.

With new restaurants popping up every single day and their level of food always on the rise, we are now more determined than ever to make Cuca the very best. It’s what our guests expect and what we strive to deliver.

We celebrate this 5th anniversary as a team who have gone through it all together and who will continue doing so for as long as you continue choosing us.

Cheers to 5 years!

Cuca Team

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Celebrities in Cuca

Everybody eats and having a restaurant in Bali (a worldwide top destination) you never really know who will come through the door. From young to old, rich to poor, big to small, it really doesn’t matter to us. We are here to give you our very best and that has always been our promise. We have since day one treated every single guest as a VIP and been genuinely happy they keep on finding us tucked away in our secluded coconut grove.

Having said that, every now and then our dining room fills up with whispers and murmurs. Guests jump from their seats and our team loses their focus. For a second or two, our cooks stop cooking and our hostess lets the phone ring. A new guest has walked in and although it may be their first time in Cuca, we recognize them as a person we love, admire, respect, idolize or cheer for.

Here are just a few of the celebrity visits that have got the most shots, likes and wows.

See any favorites?

Sunday 27 May 2018

What chefs eat… (by Chef Kevin)

I started cooking because I absolutely love food. Since little, I have been obsessed with eating. My holidays are planned around breakfast, lunch and dinner and they would suck without great food. The success or failure of any trip has everything to do with delicious.

Having said that, the truth is that when it comes to what chefs eat day to day, you may be surprised. Given our profession, the assumption is that we eat better than anyone on earth, mouthful after mouthful of the most magical bites of goodness… but ironically, this is just not reality.

Chefs cooking at the highest level tend to be skinny, tasting often but eating rarely. Sitting down for a proper meal is almost unheard of and most meals are taken in seconds, not minutes, by packing as much as possible into your mouth in the shortest amount of time. You can always spot a chef at a dinner when he has finished before everyone else has picked up their fork. We chefs are always behind in our work, always facing new problems sprouting up like mushrooms in our pursuit to be ready for “dinner service”. The best things to eat are logically set aside for guests so trimmings, leftovers and scraps are our fuel. Food is our obsession but the actual consumption of it has its challenges, as most chefs just don’t have the time, the money or the appetite.

So, what do chefs eat then? It is after work that the true caveman comes out. After midnight, like a vampire, we feast giving our malnourished bodies the nutrition to keep us alive for the next day of battle. We are looking for the most fulfilling comfort food possible, nothing challenging, no experimentation, honest old school classics that never disappoint: macaroni and cheese, meatballs, roast chicken, scalloped potatoes… anything that grandma would make and the food that makes you feel loved; the dishes that hold your hand before bed and put you to sleep.

So, the next time you ask a chef for his recommendations on what to eat, keep in mind it may be like asking a four year old what he wants for his birthday.

However, if now you want to find out Where Chefs Eat… don’t miss this great little book. And yes, you guessed it, Cuca is on their list!

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Swig & Nibble™: a food event like no other

Food in restaurants has come a long way. Nowadays every city on the planet has access to all sorts of deliciousness. It is now taken for granted but I assure you that growing up things were very different and it would have been unthinkable to get a lunch of authentic dim sum, Korean BBQ, Indian Tandoori or a killer Turkish Kebab.

So indeed food has come a long way but there is one style of food event that is deeply rooted in tradition, unable to move forward, good but not great and in need of repair. Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about the dreaded Cocktail & Canape Reception! You may remember the last time you attended one of these beauties as people hung around for hours in uncomfortable yet elegant clothes looking happier than they should, sipping on room temperature champagne and eating small food from silver trays that is easily spat into napkins. We at Cuca are here to help.

We present to you the next gen of canape feasts, a fairy-tale food and wine experience:  Swig & Nibble™, Cuca’s uniqua-licious gastro tour!

This is how it goes: guests arrive at a unique space set up specifically for the event, locations are never repeated and guests are never the same. Three action-packed hours of 20 magically crafted savory and sweet canapes are presented on oversized trays brimming with humor and intrigue and served in a non-stop, predetermined sequence. All this, snappily orchestrated with meticulously paired wines and funky techno swing sounds.

Curious? We will let you know where we pop up next but until then, I guess it’s back to the violin and smoked the salmon.

Fish n Chips: one of our 20 tasty morsels 

Friday 23 March 2018

Happy people, more fish

Those simple words were the opening statement for the most recent sustainable seafood roundtable held in Bali. The goal was simple: to educate fishermen to fish responsibly Indonesia’s bounty of seafood ensuring a future for the oceans and providing better lives for those fishermen.

Local communities are carrying out multiple programs to teach old and new generations of fishermen and suppliers this very important lesson: less volume, better quality, more money.

Cuca was invited by MDPI (a non-profit organization operating regionally to promote sustainable fisheries and improve fisherman livelihood in Indonesia) to attend and shed light on the challenges we restaurateurs face currently working with local fishermen and suppliers. Our commitment to our customers is to ensure that the time from ocean to kitchen is as short as possible and all the steps along the way are icy cold. We need the seafood to reflect the magical pristine environment it came from and be a perfect example of the hard work that goes into making a dish the best someone ever had. No chef can revive a 5-day old fish but even a four year old can make that fish just caught, undoubtedly delicious.

Now "What can I do about all this?", you may ask. Well, lesser known fish are no less delicious so try and eat the things that are abundant. If you have no idea what you should or should not be eating the best way is to check the WWF fish guide for your county. It will probably have you shocked at what you should be avoiding and excited at what is best to devour. Wild fish taste better and are better for you so hopefully, we don’t become dependent on the manufactured chickens of the sea. Sea-food for thought!

Friday 23 February 2018

All about taste

When we tell people that we live in Bali their reaction is always one of jealousy. They instantly assume a tranquil life of surfing, sunsets and total utter relaxation. Well, unfortunately, the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth as we don’t surf, the last sunset we saw was almost a year ago and we are constantly running around stressed. The reason is simple: since we moved to Bali six years ago we were determined to add FOOD to the list of reasons people come to visit this beautiful island paradise.

Food here 10 years ago was either simple inexpensive local “warungs” serving deliciously traditional cooking or huge luxury hotels with extravagant cliff top fine dinings boasting the best of the world’s imported ingredients. The entire mid-level casual dining market did not exist and that’s exactly how we saw ourselves fitting in. We would simply take all the attention to detail, passion and precise cooking of those expensive fine dining joints but use the fabulous local ingredients available in traditional markets. The result is something different with big exotic flavors and affordable pricing providing a new style of casual dining called "Cuca".

Being too relaxed for the tuxedo-wearing glamorous socialites and too gourmet for the thrifty island surfer, Cuca found its market with the obsessed food driven gourmet traveler. The people that plan their days not only based on where to go and what to see but what delicious things they want to eat.  If you find yourself among the few who plan a trip around finding those wonderful places serving food made with love and eating mouthfuls of culture and magic, you may want to consider a trip our way.

Cuca's classic Crispy Fried Chicken: all about taste.

Thursday 25 January 2018

New year, new travels, new ideas

Changing a menu in a restaurant may sound simple but I assure you it is not. First, in Cuca we must identify which items to remove from the current menu that will hopefully avoid anger and frustration when that die-hard foodie returns for his favorite dish and it is no longer there. Second, we need to find new amazing products from all over Indonesia that actually arrive when we order them. Third, the new food must be our best attempt at giving a customer the best dish he has ever eaten, otherwise what’s the point of putting it on the menu?

If all those things actually get done, we are then only left with updating and printing the menus, changing the website, creating the costing and buttons for the sales system, taking the new dish photos, re-printing the waiter order taking cards, updating kitchen recipes, training the entire kitchen and dining room team, sending the press releases, redoing all the food allergy information to ensure no one ever eats something they can’t and finally timing all of this to come together and be ready on the very same day.

You can then understand that once those new items hit the menu we feel just as proud parents delivering them to the world and totally exhausted. The truth is we don’t change the menu often in Cuca mainly because it’s tough to make the best thing anyone has ever eaten.

Delicious takes time but let me tell you what made the cut for our next menu change in Cuca. All available from February 1. 

Hot Potatoes: onion fudge, charred scallions, spiced keluak gravy
We are proud to deliver the religious experience of biting into the molten creamy delicious happiness of a classic Spanish croquette. Our filling instead is inspired by the timeless cooking of Indonesia as we recently discovered in a market in Toraja. The dish becomes mysterious by our use of the local fruit “keluak”, one of the most unique ingredients we have ever tasted with its earthy hints reminiscent of dark chocolate, toasted almond and olives. A flavor like no other.

Hawaiian Cracker: double smoked ham, melting cheese, clove spiced pineapple
Inspired by the legendary Hawaiian pizza, our version is flavored with both thin slices of lightly salted, deeply smoked, cured ham and gently poached ribbons of pineapple scented with clove. These succulent morsels are left standing on a wafer-thin multi-seed cracker that shatters like glass when broken apart. It’s not really pizza, it is one hell of a cracker!

Ricotta Gnocchi: cheese dumplings, roasted watermelon, sun-dried tomato pesto
3 months of recipe testing finally came to an end with these soft pillowy mouthfuls of tender silky fresh cheese. Inspired by the humble Italian classic “Gnocchi Pomodoro”, we use roasted watermelon to mimic the sweetness of delicate braised tomatoes and add the tomatoes instead to a sauce that brings the dish to a brighter level. We’re not Italian but we think we won this one hands down.

Bali Soft Taco: homemade brown rice tortillas, braised mushrooms, chili salsa 
After 21 days in Mexico, we now understand Tacos. We ate many and even when bad they are actually still pretty good. So, determined to serve tacos in Cuca, we decided to make the most delicious taco entirely vegan and have no one know that those charred strings of moist tender meat are actually slow braised onions and mushrooms. We crafted a super unique tortilla from organic local brown rice and created a crunchy topping of grilled fresh coconuts. Bali now has Tacos!