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