Thursday 24 November 2016

Eat Italy

After a seriously busy season in Cuca we decided to take a much needed break to charge our batteries. November is a quiet month for Bali and a great chance to travel, learn more about food and find new ways to make Cuca better. And as you can guess, the single most important criterion that determines our chosen location is that it must deliver ultra-delicious food. The world is a big place and some places are just tastier than others so the key is to find one of the very few that stand alone as pure magic; a place where menus read like foodie fairy tales and every bite leaves you feeling happy and accomplished, like you just saved a kitten from a tree. My friends… welcome to Tuscany!

The decision was made and off we went to travel through the enchanting labyrinth of towns, villages and streets filled with unspeakable perfect classic cooking made by people who hate innovation and despise trends. We knew very little of traditional Italian cooking as my foundation is mainly French food and all its glory. The Italian cooking I encountered up to now was simple food made to eat as opposed to French food which is meticulous, labor intensive, meant to be celebrated and praised and full of the expensive ingredients. Cheap French food never existed in my world where $1 pizza slices and stodgy overcooked factory fabricated pasta was plentiful and a big part of my student life growing up. Until now Italian food never jumped out as a culinary wonder to be explored but more like Europe’s version of fast food. However, I have come to realize once again as in numerous times during my 8 years of marriage, that I was wrong.

What I thought I knew about Italian food I now find embarrassing after shockingly discovering the huge enchanting regional world of slow cooked traditional dishes made with love. The most important lesson we have both learned is that none of the produce we found in Italy was new or imported; the Italians just choose ingredients that grow well in their backyard, respect how to farm them, when to pick them and how to prepare them. We are talking about only a handful of ingredients to make a dish and the result is full of flavor not from adding more things but from using the best available locally.  The tomatoes explode with rich sweetness from ripening in the sun, the olive oil is like green aromatic tree nectar sucked from mineral filled soil and even the use of garlic brings a new spice and excitement to a simple sauce. The secret is that there is no secret! People have gardens and use them, people buy and support farmers growing things following the old school rules of agriculture and people don’t take shortcuts when cooking. Homemade is the only way and the hard way is the right way. If you don’t have the time, don’t make it. I only need to evoke recent memories of the porcini lasagna with layers of velvety pasta and creamy woody mushrooms; the soft fresh lightly sweetened pillowy whipped mascarpone with shaved aromatic black truffle; the squid risotto that was oceanic and soulful; the wild boar ragu that filled your mouth with meaty goodness; the cheeses that left you arguing over the last piece and the cured meats that were sliced laser-thin and melted on the tongue with a salty, fatty, rich deliciousness that made you consider a permanent apartment next door. And please god let’s just not even begin with the wine as it all just becomes too much, too good, too short.

I am so sorry to Italy for my total lack of understanding and thank you Tuscany for rewarding my stupidity with your deliciousness. We learned a lot and as always what we learned we will use every day in what we do. Get ready friends as new ideas are currently being braised, cured, tossed and catalogued for when we hit Bali.

Monday 24 October 2016

Time out with Kevin

1. What is Virginia’s favourite meal that you cook for her?
Virginia loves simple Spanish food, so anything well executed and traditional always makes her happy. One of her absolute favourites is braised oxtail.

2. Who is the boss, you or Virginia? 
Easy question. Virginia is the director of Cuca. I am the chef. I play a role as all the staff do in the big movie of Cuca, but Virginia's job is to direct and make sure everything gets done and done well. You cannot compare the two jobs. Virginia is very good at conducting the orchestra and I happen to play an instrument well.

3. Favourite curse word in the kitchen?
"Hostia". The first word I learned in Spain when the chef of Arzak dropped his helmet on his foot. It hurt and he said "Hostia". We use it in Cuca's kitchen because no one understands it and we love our team and would never say anything to offend them.

4. Secret ingredient you love to work with?
Chilli. In large amounts it creates heat but in small quantities it gently warms the mouth and makes food exciting. Playing with spices like chilli is our weapon of choice.

5. Who influenced your cooking style the most?
Daniel Boulud. His food is delicious. Delicious food is the most important aspect of cooking. Everything else is wallpaper but taste matters the most.

6. A Chef whose cooking style you really admire and why
Christian Puglisi. He uses only a few ingredients to create a dish. I respect that, it shows maturity, confidence and respect for ingredients. It’s not easy to make very little, very good.

7. Worst kitchen nightmare?
Oh, where to begin. Today, this week, last month, or when? It must be when I forgot and overcooked a sole fish in Arzak. It was my birthday and Chef Pello put me in charge of cooking for a journalist table. I just tried to do too much and totally forgot about the fish in the oven. He spent the entire day yelling at me, literally a whole day. Just when it was time to go home he said “I bet you will never forget this birthday” he was right. Thanks Pello!

8. Favourite midnight snack?
Cereal. I love cereal. How not to enjoy the texture and excitement of it.

9. One culinary trend you wish would die already
Decoration without purpose.

10. Modern kitchen gadget you couldn’t live without
Blender. We love to puree things in a blender. Couldn’t live without it. If you took it away I wouldn’t even leave my house.

11. What do you do to relax?
Sleep. It’s a luxury now and has always been. Plus it’s free.

12. Future plans for Cuca (expansion into other locations/cookbook etc)
We will have another project next year in Asia. The location and details are coming soon….

13. Why Bali? 
Because it has magic and we as everyone else were just totally drawn to it. Plus Indonesia has a huge bounty of amazing ingredients to play with.

14. What do you love most about the island?
The people. They have such a balance in life and are genuinely happy. Very rare to see. Lots you can learn from Indonesian people about how to see problems and solutions.

15. A secret skill no one would believe you had
I used to rap. Like open mike freestyle rapping with my buddy. He actually ended up doing pretty well with it. For me now it’s just shower acoustics.

Whisky or wine?   Wine
Sugar or Spice?  Spice
Peanut Butter or Jelly?  Peanut butter, love bitter flavors.
Surf or Swim?  Swim, surfing requires time and skill, both of which are clearly lacking.
Apple or Android?  $15 Nokia, takes a beating and never dies

Wednesday 28 September 2016

What is it like to work in paradise?

We get asked this all the time. Guests come to Cuca on their honeymoon, celebrating their friend’s wedding or for their annual holidays and they look at us without even trying to hide their envy. Or we are leaving a hotel somewhere in Europe and during checkout the concierge asks “Where is home for you?” and our answer leaves him day dreaming.

Believe me or not, to live in Bali is a little bit of torture: we get the feeling every day that we are the only ones working on the entire island. Imagine your everyday life being the only one who has to work while everyone else is off...

Guests come in a great mood, drink cocktail after cocktail, tell you about the amazing massage they just had, are in no hurry for anything… It is only natural that they believe this is a paradise! And it is in many ways. It is true that the beaches are stunning, every single sunset is breathtaking, the weather is always warm and the people never run out of the most beautiful smiles ever seen.

But… this is a tropical island where by nature and tradition, you are not supposed to be in a hurry. This island is not compatible with deadlines and punctuality. “Tomorrow” means merely “not today”, if it is raining you may not get that delivery of tomatoes and a full moon takes priority over anything pending. Kevin and I spend our long days running and looking for immediate solutions to the non-stop crisis that arise while the rest of the island looks in awe (and actually in pity) at us, not understanding why we have chosen to be stressed in paradise.

And they are right! It seems somehow contra natura to go against the magical flow of the island and we must admit that we struggle between the temptation to succumb to Bali’s natural rhythm and our commitment to deliver a top quality experience to our guests because, although most of you are on holidays, you still expect us to deliver that truly great meal you came for.

Others working in Bali for longer than us do it much better as this island eventually teaches you, no matter how stubborn you are, to slow down, smile more and believe in the natural course of things. Live like there is no tomorrow and work like there will always be.