Friday, February 09, 2007

My Playground

Cote D Azur

While the whole world looks to Monaco and its glitz for its annual Formula One event, Red Cross Charity Ball, Fireworks festival, Casinos and its harbour full of Superyachts belonging to the rich and famous, I arrived there one early spring morning in April 1998 to work as a crew cook onboard one of those Superyachts. It was my first job outside Singapore and I was physically exhausted from having assisted our National Team in Food Hotel Asia’s Salon Culinare in the last four days till the night I was to leave. Mentally I had battle scars from the loss of job as a result of the Asian Financial Crisis just months ago. Monaco offered me the window to resurrect my career and an opportunity to see the real world of cooking with different angles.

This tiny principality has always been considered as a second home in the progression of my chef’s career, having spent five and half years based on two prominent yachts Lady Moura and Izanami that are docked there in every spring and summer.

Those were the most formative years of my cooking profession as I developed from a “frog-in-the-well” mentality of Singaporean style Western Cuisines to the real world of Western gastronomic insights, learning from local French chefs and playing with ingredients produced from all over France. I revised all of my knowledge of French cuisine picked up in SHATEC and through exposure working under French and Swiss Expatriate Chefs in Singapore. I cooked French onion soup like I have never done it before with ingredients grown on French soil and Emmental Cheese topped croutons. I prepared Croque Monsieur in French spirit instead of treating it as another Grilled Ham and Cheese Sandwich. I cooked Coq Au Vin using Bresse Chickens and Rhone Valley Reds and not steroid injected ones from some commercial farms in Johor, Malaysia.

I learned to discern the difference of taste in good quality seafood from the pristine waters of the Mediterranean compared to our sunny tropical waters, appreciating their flavours in the most natural way possible and sometimes utilizing my knowledge of South East Asian Cuisines to bring out new dimensions in them and wow the guests we served onboard the yachts. Most important, I acquired knowledge on utilizing produce from four different seasons and understanding when they are at their best of taste and flavours. I was forced to mature in a culinary environment where nobody speaks my language and I had colleagues who took their opportunity to work in Europe as just only a job. How sad!

Every trip to the Carrefour Supermarket in Monaco was a chance for me to learn all about French, Italian and surrounding Provencal produce that I had read from the books. Suddenly I was transferred from the sights of kalian, chye sim, spices like galangal and lemon grass to that of courgettes and vine riped tomatoes, cheese, hams and sausages. I was staring at bottles of wine and fruit vinegars, jars of mustards and mayonnaise and oyster sauce was an exotic ingredient. Day in day out, I experimented with many new ingredients often drawing knowledge references from the books that I had read. I was so often riding a scooter to and fro between the port and Carrefour through the streets of Monaco with bags of groceries that even the policeman at the port junction recognizes me due to my Asian heritage and chef’s uniform.

By the time I was appointed as the Executive Sous Chef on Lady Moura, the shopping trips were to Metro in north of Nice instead of Carrefour. Metro which is a French version of wholesale hypermarkets with all culinary related products made me understand the routine of a good French chef that is often describe in their biographies. Like the French Chefs, we go to Metro at 4am in the morning to see what are the best ingredients available for our guest menus in the days ahead. We shopped not with trolleys but drove three trucks there to load up. I had to feed besides the sixteen VIP guests, another 80 multi national crew working round the clock five meals in an every 24 hours cycle. Every time we leave the port and cut through town in the wee early hours of the morning, I saw the French bakers and pastry chefs working in their kitchens to churn out fresh breads and pastries by 6am in the morning where their first customers would walk in for a coffee and a quick bite before their daily routine begins. It was hard work, but it made me see the light of what it takes to be a good chef in having the passion to cook, coordinate and organized the kitchens onboard one of the worlds largest privately owned yachts.

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