COOKING UP WINNERS
'IT'S not what we want,' says Reto Torriani of the relationship between kitchen and customer, 'it's what you want that counts.' Well, I can tell the food and beverage chief of the Hotel Furama that his second floor Rotisserie restaurant may be well advised to add to its menu pigeon breast with truffled gooseliver, panfried polenta and spring vegetables.
This outstanding creation helped chef Mak Tung-ming walk away with the gold medal at the recent Salon Culinaire '94, the culinary equivalent of the Olympic Games that took place recently in Singapore. And the extraordinary thing is that Mr Mak is of an age almost as tender as the pigeon: he's 23.
Mr Mak has worked in the hotel's Western banquet kitchen for four years, after receiving his basic training at the Technical Institute and later with the Hong Kong Jockey Club. He was first drawn to cooking by looking at cookbooks and magazines, and would probably have gone into a Chinese kitchen were it not for the fact he had been afflicted since childhood with a common enough complaint: myopia. 'There's too much steam involved in Chinese cooking, my glasses would have misted up all the time,' he says. 'On top of that, Chinese dim sum is much more fiddly.' For him real Western food, as opposed to the global junk put out by the likes of McDonald's, Wendy's and Colonel Sanders, was a revelation that came while he was at the institute. 'Colour and presentation are very important in the Western culinary art. I believe a chef has a lot in common with the painter, both of them embellish the realm of our senses.' 'First of all we eat with our eyes, then with our palate,' Mr Torriani says, confounding those biological purists who say that fundamentally the eating of food is a chemical activity which mobilises the chemical senses: taste and smell. Food, at least in modern middle-class societies, has to be window-dressed.
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the spooky and the tense, once served a banquet for his friends in which everything right down to the bread rolls, was coloured blue. It was his mischievous comment on the fact that, apart from the occasional berry, humans never eat anything that's blue. This extends even to food packaging: take a look at any aisle of supermarket shelves; the foods tend towards the reds and yellow while blues (and, strangely, greens) are reserved for cleaners and such. Needless to say most of Hitchcock's guests went home hungry.
Mr Mak says he draws inspiration from the most lavish of cookbooks around today: The Cutting Edge, published last year. It features splendidly photographed dishes by Winfried Brugger, Gerard Dubois and Franz Kranzfelder, three chefs with long associations with the Hilton over the road from the Furama.
The plug for the opposition raises an eyebrow from Furama executive chef Bruno von Siebenthal, Mr Mak's mentor, but he lets it pass. 'We sat down and talked about what he should do and there were several months of preparation, but basically they were his own creations that won the medal. He is a very knowledgeable young chef.' It turns out there is no eternal standard for winning medals. Like hemlines and hairstyles, fashion plays its part. 'The dishes must be up to the standards of today,' Mr von Siebenthal says, 'and that really means they have to be more practical than a few years ago. In fact we laugh now when we look back on what we were creating 10 or even five years ago.' It is also more honest. There was a time, they say, when a little cheating was forgiven, a little structural reinforcement here perhaps, a little colouring there. Now the judges must be able to eat everything. And all that fancy carving of tomatoes to look like roses is no longer in. 'Again, we have to be practical,' Mr von Siebenthal says. 'It has to look right on the plate, but it's no use if it's taken an hour to get it there.' Mr Torriani chips in: 'Let's face it, take most of Europe: the food is great. You can go to a little restaurant in a remote part of Italy, they put the lights on for you, there's no menu, but the food is fabulous. When you have a good pasta, why do you need 50 basil leaves decorating the edges of the plate?' Mr Mak normally cooks on a grand scale. 'It's not easy cooking for 500,' Mr von Siebenthal says, 'but his department is the best there is in terms of productivity, presentation and taste. Twenty years ago a chef was a chef, he supervised the kitchen, that's all. Now he has to be a businessman, a creative artist, a designer, an accountant, a teacher. These young chefs have to know a lot of things.' Mr Mak took what he knew to Singapore along with boxes of utensils ('You must use your own, no one else's'), plus ingredients and he cooked through the night for judging early the next morning. There was braised lobster with crispy lotus root and crab roe sauce; grilled baby squid stuffed with seafood saffron rice; braised salmon with mushroom and beetroot gnocchi; lamb loin in potato crust with rosemary jus and vegetables; three fillet in a leek coat with stewed beans and crisp potatoes; and the plump tender pigeon we started out with.
Another night, he stayed up and put together a five-course banquet. For that he was awarded a bronze medal.
The young chef's family - his parents, six sisters and a younger brother - do not take much interest in his career. There is a common perception a chef is little more than a kitchen worker, certainly not creative artist, and besides, mother always does the cooking at home.
'I've never cooked for them before but now I've won these medals, they want to see what I can do,' he said, smiling.