the food whisperer

 

self-taught chef chris bauer is known for his imaginative european dishes with plenty of twists but he is just as at home cooking malaysian food. on a tour of his favourite wet market, he reveals a penchant for petai and tempoyak.

knobbly and pinkish, gnarly and covered in earth, orange stubs that resemble fat grubs – the array of ginger that spreads out across the stall is impressive. “that’s lengkuas, galangal...and this is kencur, which is used for cooking bebek betutu (indonesian crispy duck),” chris bauer clues me in as he breaks off a small piece to inhale its spicy aroma.

chris is the chef and co-owner of troika sky dining, one of kuala lumpur’s most respected gourmet haunts and his second culinary venture after the success that was frangipani in changkat bukit bintang. at his restaurants, chris masterminds dishes that are european by origins, contemporised by surprising pairings that push the culinary envelope. contrastingly, when he cooks for himself, chris keeps things simple, often dishing up local delights that he’s developed a palate for after 25 years in malaysia.

we are at his favourite market in chow kit, the city’s largest open-air wet market for nearly six decades now and until last year, a never-ending labyrinth of stalls parked under large, rainbow-hued umbrellas. as part of its on-going rm200 million facelift, some stalls have relocated under zinc roofs and the market is now segmented into pockets. chris is my guide as we navigate the dry goods and vegetable aisles, pointing out the pucuk paku (fiddle fern) and tempoyak (fermented durian) as among his favourites.

“i love these,” he says as we stop at a basket of buah keluak, typically cooked with chicken for a classic nyonya dish. crack open the shells and if the flesh is white, it’s gone bad and must be binned. we find strands of petai (stinky beans), also one of his must-haves, hanging like half curtains across a stall. “feel the space between each pod; the bigger the gaps, the older the beans are.” a cluster of pretty-in-pink ginger torch buds catches his eye. a key nyonya cooking ingredient, it’s also used in the making of assam laksa, the first malaysian dish that chris tried his hand at. “i had this cookbook by one mrs beh that i followed faithfully because let me tell you, her recipes are fail proof,” chris emphasises, recalling the time he was at this very market shopping for ingredients for said dish. “a lady told me i had bought too much lemongrass for assam laksa. i double checked the recipe and it was correct. the laksa turned out perfect. i wish i could go back to that day and tell the lady that she’s wrong – mrs beh is always right!”

i had this cookbook by one mrs beh that i followed faithfully because let me tell you, her recipes are fail proof

yet sticking to the conventional isn’t quite chris’ style, although he believes in following a recipe to a t on the first attempt as a means to grasp the basics before tweaking it on subsequent tries. “it’s important to understand how something is made, even if you then go and buy it from a supplier!” he says with a chuckle, naming tripe as one example as we step past the butcher’s, where the pre-cleaned offal look no different from dusty rags. “it’s a lot of work to get them clean. my guys did it once and said, never again! but at least they know how to do it.”

some things, though, must be done in-house and the menu at his restaurant, cantaloupe, showcases just how much – every plate is art and delivers surprises in every mouthful. however well you may think you know food, chris is determined to make you wonder, question and ultimately, embrace new experiences. “fine dining is about making memorable food. if you’re not serving dishes that people would drive across town to eat, you have failed.” a delectable case in point is their house-cured duck bacon, which combines the salty, savoury pleasure of regular bacon with the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the finest iberican ham. the traditional satay is turned on its skewers, with cubes of foie gras held together by fried spaghetti sticks and served with a generous dollop of chunky peanut sauce. it’s the kind of dishes that startle the taste buds as much as they excite the mind, imparting a gratification that you will remember for a long time.

of course, gorgeous plating plays a role in their enjoyment but does not distract nor disguise the integrity of the food itself – the first rule in chris’ book. “if a dish is called grilled chicken, you should be able to see the grill marks on the meat,” he explains before elaborating on another pet peeve. “i don’t like when a dish shows off how clever it is. molecular gastronomy, to me, is often a toy that’s wrongly employed when it should be a tool that can be put to good use.”

like spherification to turn sauces into liquid-filled balls, for example, a popular application of molecular science but the question chris asks is, does it enhance the food? used pragmatically, it can be a very good thing. “if you’re serving oysters as canapés, it makes sense to make lemon juice spheres so that as the tray is passed around the room, the juice is kept fresh in those little orbs until someone picks one up.”

it’s such thought process that chris embarks on whenever he conceptualises new menus for his restaurants, a procedure that’s surprisingly more paperwork than cooking. “when i was still running frangipani, i would be parked at the bar half the time, scribbling down recipes for special menus that we would test just one day before they were introduced to customers. cooking is always the last part.” his inspirations are culled from everywhere and often, the dishes are visually driven – the shape and size of a plate could spark off ideas – or an ingredient he just discovered and is obsessed with.

food talks to me, i’m a food whisperer

preceding all that, however, is an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the food itself. yet, chris has never as much as stepped inside a culinary institution. instead, his instincts were honed at home since he was a young lad of 14 and ventured into the kitchen out of necessity. “my mother wasn’t a very good cook,” he rues. “she could do a few dishes well but whatever else i wanted to eat, i had to make it myself.” he started with a black forest cake, which is surely an ambitious choice for a first timer? “here’s a secret: it’s a cake that’s easy to salvage if you mess up, so it’s ideal for beginners to practise with.”

from necessity to passion and in the last two decades, a restaurateur with five top-rated food and beverage outlets to his name – how did this self-taught chef come so far? “food talks to me, i’m a food whisperer,” he says with a smile. “sometimes, it says ‘a little bit more’, other time it tells me to ‘put more acidity’. and sometimes, it says ‘you screwed up!’”