Tuesday 29 October 2019

A culinary fairytale

I arrived in Spain in June of 2003, I was 25 years old.

The plan was very simple, I was to “stage” (or better known as “work for free”) an entire year at what promised to be one of the best food temples on the planet. Restaurant Arzak, which sits on top of San Sebastian’s gastronomic hill of restaurants, bars, markets, and international food events, was to be my pilgrimage. With San Sebastian boasting more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer than anywhere else on earth, the food served in any one of them is brilliant. Local meats, cheeses, seafood, and vegetables come from a majestic landscape of turbulent aggressive coastal waters and vertical green mountain forests dripping with nutrition. The result is strong powerful ingredients that have personality and demand respect, and my job was to learn how to cook them with both one hand focused on tradition, and the other on evolution. It was to be an education in deliciousness.

During that year I spent at Arzak, the culinary circus came to town as it does every year in October. They call it “Gastronomika” and it is considered the most prestigious and important food event on the planet, with more than 1,5oo foodies, journalists, culinary groupies and students all showing up to see the ideas that set the trends for the year and direction for the future. The big attraction for Gastronomika is the individual acts performed by 20 chosen chefs spanning the globe that demonstrate what makes them and their restaurants stand out in today’s culinary landscape. Each of their 30-minute presentations must capture the soul of the massive audience who sit eagerly listening to the ideas, techniques, ingredients, and dishes they create. At 25 years old, I never had the time away from work, the financial means to afford the ticket or the skills to be able to grasp any of what was being taught, but later on I have wished, wanted and prayed for the chance to go back to this coastal town of culinary magic to see the circus of Gastronomika… one day.

That day came this month, when after 16 years I finally made it back to San Sebastian where it all began but this time not as a student, not as a spectator, but ironical as one of the 20 chefs chosen to tell their story. The rules are simple: 30 minutes, up to you, make a minimum of 2 dishes and during the presentation, you must serve 350 tasting portions of one of those dishes… Simple, right?

Day 1: October 6th
Pack everything you can possibly think of for the event from equipment, spices, fruits, vegetable, garnishes, stuff, lots of stuff! and fly Bali – Singapore – Amsterdam – Bilbao. First step: customs. Not good, everything searched and almost lost all the veg and fruit. That would have been a catastrophe but with bad Spanish, my answer of 150 sounded like 5 and my mistake was my salvation. From airport to Kursaal Trade and Convention Center to check the space, put everything in the fridges, eat and sleep. Day 1 done!

Team Cuca at the entrance of San Sebastian Gastronomika 

Day 2: October 7th
With Chef Pedro Subijana
9am – 8pm of preparation. Big hill to climb with 11 hours of cooking and putting things in place. Today was a big day with big chefs and big presentations. All the giants came out: Eneko Atxa, Arzak, the boys from Disfrutar restaurant in Barcelona, Dani Garcia with his last presentation for any conference and his retirement from “fine dining” with the closure of his 3 Michelin star restaurant and Martin Berasategui. I mean serious, serious, heavy-duty, proper chefs. An unbelievable day with all prep, for now, finished. Dinner started at 9pm but fished at 2am, an unavoidable late night as it was a collaboration of 6 chefs with each holding 3 Michelin stars. It was, in the world of food, a very rare meal that went very late. Bed.

Day 3: October 8th
Our day. A very good day! Very little sleep but ready. Morning prep and finish everything, not much appetite (with our presentation looming at 4:35pm) to do much more than stay close to all our food prep like a chicken would protect her eggs. Unnecessary, but very much critical to not making bad excuses for mistakes later on. With huge legendary chefs presenting again like Pedro Subijana, Joan Roca and Angel Leon, big, big names and huge stories to tell. Hours ripped by like minutes and before we had barely finished and organized ourselves, we were next, next in line. The kitchen lit up with action as our things all got moved into place like cars parking in a lot. It went from 30… to 20… to a quick pep talk with the boys we brought from Bali to crank out the four dishes we decided… 10… mike on… 2... go!
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the media, distinguished guests” my talk started “I know what you are thinking… Who the –u-k is this guy? My name is Kevin…” and it continued for 30 minutes. Telling of Indonesia’s most humble market ingredients, their fascinating properties, why we love them and what we create from them. Simple, powerful, clear. It went well. Celebrate. Late to bed as expected.

On stage

Day 4: October 9th  
No prep. Very happy. Our first day to see and watch and be students without the pressure of the presentation looming ahead. With many chefs still to go, the day was spent in the auditorium really listening and understanding the different ways great cooks make things taste better. Wonderful flavorful content that makes passionate professionals become great chefs, ideas that one person can only share one or two as each of them involves years of knowledge and deep understanding. Great day. The boys flew home and Virginia and I walked with friends, both exhausted from the rush of the week. “Nice to meet you again” I always tell her at the end of each pressure-cooking life experience, and we carry on.

As the San Sebastian Gastronomika 2019 comes to its end, it’s hard not to think about how 16 years ago I arrived here with the dream of a cook and how now today I leave with the reality of getting the most I could out of this remarkable foodie town.

Not back to Bali just yet! With 2 weeks needed to decompress and allow life to catch up, we are off to eat dishes we may have missed throughout the north of Spain. Wait and see how Cuca’s next menu gets influenced by what just might get eaten tomorrow.


Thursday 26 September 2019

Chef Kevin for "Hello Bali" magazine

In our post today we would like to share with all you a recent interview by the magazine Hello Bali to Chef Kevin Cherkas. Check it out if you are curious to know more about Cuca and our co-founder.

Hi Chef, what could you tell us about yourself? I was born in Canada and at a young age became obsessed with food, eating, and discovering all and any delicious dishes I could find. This has taken me all over the world to work and continue pursuing my passion for both cooking and consuming.

As an owner and a head-chef at Cuca, how would you perfectly describe Cuca for anybody who hasn’t been there? Cuca is a family business run by my wife Virginia as the Business Director and myself who takes care of the kitchen. We get inspired by the world’s classic comfort food dishes and re-create those memories for our guests. We serve Tapas, Cocktails and Desserts crafted exclusively from Indonesian ingredients. So, to summarize, expect a casual experience that is totally focused on food.

As someone who is not from Indonesia, why did you choose Bali to open Cuca? Oh wow, where should I start? A huge bounty of amazing produce, beautiful warm friendly people, intriguing culture, and international clientele are just to name a few reasons why.

Cuca is one of the best restaurants in Asia according to TripAdvisor. In your own opinion, what is the secret to run such a successful restaurant? Hard work. Nothing can substitute for always giving 100% to do something special. Customers see the difference immediately when a restaurant has a heart.

Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking? I don’t think so. The only job I ever wanted was to cook and staying close to food just seemed to make sense as I love to eat.

How would your team describe you as a chef and as their boss? Hard but fair, pushing everyone to give their very best to become better. In Cuca, we lead by example, not with a pointed finger.

Do you have a signature dish? Or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking? All of our dishes are signature. We create each of them; we don’t have any tapas, cocktails, or desserts taken from anywhere else. Among our customers’ favorites are our BBQ octopus or our Bali Breakfast dessert. People come just to eat these dishes. They will always be a part of our menu and a part of our success.

Which talent you would most like to have that you don’t possess? Patience. I am very passionate about everything I do, so patience is not a quality I possess, it is one that admires a lot in others.

Is there a childhood comfort food that you think about? Shepherd’s Pie. The kind of old school cooking that really fills your stomach and makes you sleepy. In winter, when you are cold and tired, eating an entire meal with a big spoon is always a comfort.

Do you think there are advantages of having a restaurant in Bali or Indonesia? Every place will have its advantages and disadvantages. In Bali, for example, is a place where everyone is on a holiday, so the customers tend to be in a great mood as opposed to a busy city like Jakarta where everyone is in a hurry and want a quick business lunch.

What kinds of ethnic food do you think are underrated right now? I would say Indonesian food is the world’s most underrated food. Every city in the world has a Thai restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Korean BBQ place, etc. Very rarely you see Indonesian restaurant. The people of Indonesia see their food as normal and nothing special but imported foods like caviar, truffles and foie gras are seen as exotic and amazing. What is very important to understand is the papaya or coconut in the local market in Canada is exotic.

Has there ever been an ingredient that you weren’t able to master and have given up on? Until we opened Cuca, it was Octopus. Octopus had defeated me for my entire culinary career. We decided to go to war with the 8-legged terrible tough Mollusk and can gladly proclaim we finally won.

What is the most interesting or fun experience from your time working in restaurants? The people. Normal people do not work in restaurants. It is like the place where the weird and wonderful end up. The staff of a restaurant makes up a unique demographic of the human population. Thank God for restaurants we now have a home where we belong.

What is your most memorable meal so far? There is a Japanese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur with a master Japanese chef that if you sit at his bar counter will make and serve you sushi that you eat from the palm of his hand. The experience is unforgettable, and the sushi is the best I have ever had. What restaurant do you ask? I worry the more popular it gets the less handheld sushi I get so you will have to take a guess.

Where is your go-to restaurant, aside from Cuca, for a perfect date night with the wife? To be totally honest, we really don’t go out often and it is never the same place. Date night is always at home with peace and quiet and the food is always good.

Lastly, what would be your “last request” dish? Easy, "chipirones en su tinta". It means ‘Squid in Its Ink’, or slow-cooked tender squids in a tomato-based white wine and onion gravy. The dish is from Northern Spain and is absolutely brilliant.

See the original interview here

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Our picks: Vancouver

As we mentioned a few months ago, we are always sharing our favorite restaurants from every city we know with the hundreds of customers we meet in Cuca every week in search of the tastiest food around the world. People seem to trust chefs’ favorites when choosing food and since everyone asks our humble opinion, we decided some time ago to start a proper “Our Picks” section where we give you our recommendations on where and what to eat.

We have covered Bali, Madrid and Singapore already and today’s blog entry is about Vancouver.
Vancouver is a very pretty city and those lucky enough to spend a few days always leave with the desire to go back. Western food is good but being Canada a multicultural country, the star options are the ethnic choices on offer. Take time to walk around the sea wall and Stanley Park area to understand why Vancouver is often voted as the best place to live on earth.

Bao Bei
This place serves very good Chinese fusion food. Think clever little dumplings and twists on the classics everyone loves. It gets busy so either book ahead or go off-peak hours.
Price: ***
What to order: Dumplings

Fanny Bay Oyster Bar
This place serves perfect seafood. With their own oyster farm on Vancouver Island, the freshness is unbeatable. Go from 3pm-6pm for happy hour and eat unbelievable freshly shucked oysters for $1.50 each.
Price: ***
What to order: Oysters

St Lawrence
The current star of the Vancouver food scene, this place is basically a brilliant French bistro. A small menu showcases seasonal products at their best. The best meal we had in the city, hands down. Book well ahead.
Price: *****
What to order: The appetizer section is very good. Do order an appetizer followed by a main.

Serving in the minds of many the best Indian food in Canada, Vijs is a pilgrimage for deeply delicious comfort food. Only women cook in the kitchen and their love is evident in the result.
Price: ****
What to order: Any curry. Don’t order naan bread as it comes on its own.

Every year this place wins best Thai restaurant and it is well deserved. You would be pressed to find better Thai food anywhere on the planet as the cooking is authentic and the ingredients are premium and local, making for one hell of a meal.
Price: ***
What to order: Anything in Penang curry.

Meat & Bread
It’s simple they make sandwiches. Very good ingredients in very good bread is what to expect in an informal way. Go early or late for lunch to avoid the cue and long wait.
Price: *
What to order: The Porchetta is the star.

Think all the flavors you love about Japanese food splashed on a hot dog and shoved in a bun. Carts are scattered around town but seem hard to come by so we recommend the small café on Robson street to make sure you succeed or their latest branch at the airport.
Price: *
What to order: Korubuta Terimayo Dog is our top pick.

Beaucoup Bakery
For a perfect idea of what breakfast should be of fresh juice, croissants, and great coffee. The vibe is busy and caféesque with everything on offer hard to fault. Perfect place to people-watch and to grab an early feed before going to Granville Island market.
Price: *
What to order: Classic Croissant

This is where we eat breakfast every single day. Really! The Liege waffles are the best you will ever have. It is a cross between a waffle, a cookie and a cake. It is worth traveling from anywhere to eat. A must!
Price: *
What to order: Apple cinnamon Liege waffle.

Granville Island Market
The city’s most touristic location for all the right reasons. It is a market, a food court and a shopping Mecca where artisans make beautiful things. Wandering around the entire area will take up most of your afternoon and will be a highlight of your trip.
Price: **
What to order: Our tip is to take the water taxi’s over to the market and back making it a really nice way to begin and end the journey.