Nur's Nurdin Topham and mentor Raymond Blanc still share same dining philosophy
It's been years since chef Nurdin Topham has worked for Raymond Blanc, but the two still share the same passion for healthy, flavourful dishes
Raymond Blanc has a very croaky voice - the revered chef contracted asthma six months ago.
"I guarantee that within six months, with the right exercise and diet, it will be gone," he wheezes, downing a glass of lemon grass and ginger tea.
The chef has been interested in the health benefits of proper nutrition for more than 30 years, and much of that interest has rubbed off on his former employee, Nurdin Topham, who worked with Blanc at his famed Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in England for 10 years.
Topham's Central restaurant Nur, recognised by Michelin after being opened for just nine months, and recently listed as one of Hong Kong's best by The New York Times, offers healthy gastronomy. Judging by the menu, that means the taste of fine dining without much of the usual butter, cream, sugar and other belt-loosening ingredients usually implied.
Blanc is in Hong Kong on what he defines as a holiday. His trips abroad might include visiting some top restaurants - when Blanc visited the Mandarin Grill he didn't just eat there, but spent seven hours in the kitchen learning how to make Peking duck - but he's also happy to spend part of his trip talking, or at least rasping, to the press about the values he shares with Topham, which revolve around contemporary-sounding ideas about seasonal, local and organic food.
Blanc says many trendy ideas about food are far older than they seem - he started looking into molecular gastronomy in the early 1980s, when it was called "food science" or "the science of nutrition".
Although he didn't take the experimentation as far as later practitioners such as Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià, when Blanc approached his publisher about writing a book on the subject, he "wondered what the hell was going on".
Blanc's flirtation with molecular gastronomy lasted only two years as he felt that focusing on only one aspect of a cuisine deprived his customers of a full fine dining experience. He did, however, retain an interest in science and nutrition, including a fascination with yeast and bread-making.
"Take a look at sourdough bread, it's a whole world of fermentation, with a Maillard reaction," Blanc says, referring to the browning that occurs when sugars in food are cooked, a process much beloved of the molecular gastronomy school.
"For bread you only need water, salt, flour, yeast or dough starter. Put yeast in warm water and it multiplies. That multiplication means fermentation. That creates alcohol, which turns into carbon dioxide, that creates flavour and texture," he says.
Blanc claims that bread is more nutritious than any shake or protein drink, and with more complexity and taste to boot. The problem with modern bread, he says, is that it is made with flour from intensively farmed wheat that produces 40 per cent gluten in the finished bread. Flour used to produce only 11 per cent gluten and Blanc blames the difference for the rise in allergies seen in many developed countries.
Topham shares Blanc's interest, both in yeast and ingredients that don't come from intensive production. While some of Nur's produce comes from local farms, some comes from the restaurant balcony and the flour comes from a mill in England that Blanc has been using for three decades.
Topham is experimenting with producing his own kvass, a low-alcohol fermented bread drink of Slavic origins. The kvass is yeastier than examples we've tried in Kiev and not as sweet, but we were offered Nur's first batch with the caveat that Topham wants to improve his version of the drink.
While Blanc has spent much of the past few years working with Kew Gardens in London on a new book and TV show that explores 250 types of fruits and vegetables, Topham has been working with local farms to grow seasonal produce for his menu.
The chef, son of guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham of British '60s rockers The Yardbirds, also worked at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, famous for its emphasis on local and foraged menu items.
New dishes at Nur include canapes such as nasturtium flowers with almond purée, wild apple and fennel blossoms and cucumber marinated in jasmine kombucha, with melon, roselle and ginger mint. While the nasturtium and stuffing are delicious, avoid eating the stalk, which is, well, stalky.
Topham's tomato consommé is a take on a dish created by Blanc in 1997, which the latter calls "an emotional dish" that reminds him of his mother, a big influence in his kitchen, especially in the many preserving methods she used to keep produce for the winter.
He wanted to recreate the essence of tomatoes, a simple tomato salad, with its clean, fresh and tart flavours. Blanc was trying to "capture the heart, the experience of dipping bread into the bottom of the bowl and soaking up the concentrated acidic juices".
Top priority for getting the recipe right is the provenance of the tomatoes and having the best available.
"The dish is all about tastes, flavours and textures," says Topham
In Blanc's version, the tomatoes are lightly pulsed, marinated with a pinch of salt and black pepper and fresh basil, then wrapped in muslin and hung so the juice can drip through for 12 hours.
"I've tasted a lot of dishes, the simplest are the best. If there are too many things on the plate it hurts my eyes," says Blanc, who has trained 34 Michelin-ranked chefs.
At Nur, the tomatoes are heirloom local organic ones, dressed with purple basil, Genovese basil, Thai basil, Thai basil blossoms, coriander blossoms and pickled shallot and Thai basil oil from the restaurant's own garden.
Local produce also features prominently in dishes such as the squid noodles with brassicas and smoked cultured butter and the Guangdong pigeon that's been dry-aged for five days before poaching, and is served with barbecued nashi pear, radicchio, toasted barley bechamel and puffed barley.
Surprisingly, despite the long, overly-comprehensive menu descriptions, the actual dishes don't look fussy and are not at risk of adding eyestrain to Blanc's asthma.