Chef Toni Valero speaks up on the state of modern cuisine in Asia
03 November 2016
Having trained under some of the industry’s most admired names including El Celler de Can Roca and Mugaritz, which ranked second and seventh place on the San Pellegrino’s 2016 world’s best restaurants list respectively, Chef Toni Valero comes across as blunt, but approachable, passionate yet honest about his work.
Co-owner and head chef at Coquo, Chef Toni may look familiar to some as he has been in the limelight for his dishes at the former Ohla Tapas restaurant at The Intermark Kuala Lumpur and has been raved about by respected food critics in the publishing scene.
As we are seated on the leather chairs by the entrance of Coquo, tucked away on the upper floor of Publika, one of KL’s fastest growing F&B locations, we talk about Malaysia’s fine dining scene and what it needs to do to catch up with its neighbours and why.
Modern cuisine is . . . Well, if you ask 50 different chefs, they will say 50 different things. But in general, modern cuisine is combining new and old techniques while trying to discover 100 percent of the possibilities of a specific produce.
I used to work with El Celler de Can Roca, No. 2 in the San Pellegrino list . . . My background is fine dining. Of course what I am trying to do here is not on the same level as them because that would take years but I am trying to apply some of the techniques and recipes. What we need to do is to work with the farmers to get the best produce and then apply the best technique possible to get the flavours from the produce.
Some people are using this slow concept of farm to table . . . You can say everything is from the farm; but farm to table – sure, it sounds cool but what kind of produce are you using? If you keep bringing in your goat meat from Australia, tomatoes from Italy, oranges from USA, you’re not going to do anything for the local produce industry. Sure, farm to table, but the farm is in the US, Australia, or somewhere else.
Modern cuisine is about applying new techniques to the culinary scene.
Right now the use of local produce in Coquo . . . I would say is about 10 percent. For example, the clams are from Pulau Ketam. The duck is from here, so is the suckling pig. I get our goat milk from this Chinese uncle, who is 45 minutes away from here. He has about 42 goats and you have to go to his place with your own cartons to fill up your own milk – it’s so rudimentary. But when I ask him about delivery, he was like, “Delivery? What is that?”
These are the kind of small things chefs can’t control . . . It’s a slow process. Right now, it’s only me who wants the goat milk. But if he can supply to a few more people, he could buy seven or 10 more goats, and he’ll be able to supply to a few more places.
I am working with the suppliers to let them know what we need . . . For example a specific tomato in a specific condition, simply because when we want to make that specific dish and have that specific consistency. But that’s something you cannot change in one day. For Singapore it took years, for Bangkok it’s also taking years — even though they are there already. For Bali, even this year, they got into the 50 Best List.
When you talk about the old school chefs . . . they try to hide the recipe. But elBulli was completely opposite. He’ll say, “Okay, here’s the recipe and that’s for you; try to do it. And if you can do it better, let me know because I’m always trying to improve.”
What Gaggan is doing . . . is exactly what elBulli was doing 10 years ago. Everyone is using the techniques created by elBulli like spherification. It’s a mix of seaweed and some powder to create a skin around some liquid, and when you put it in your mouth it will explode; they’re using this technique in modern Indian cuisine. I think what everyone is trying to do here, in Southeast Asia, is to bring local flavours to another level.
That’s why the food standard is now going up so quickly . . . In Asia, it’s the same. There are a few people who started this kind movement – probably say Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand – these are the three places where you are more likely to find modern cuisine in Asia. Also, it helps that restaurants like Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire have come here to Asia.
As for the rest of Asia, it will take some time . . . It’s not only about one guy, or one chef who wants to open a restaurant. It’s about what we were talking about before – it’s about the produce.
Some comments like . . . “Why do we need Michelin stars in Malaysia if we have the best street food?” Okay, street food is nice, you have a base and so does everyone else in Southeast Asia. But bring it to another level. It will help you to get the tourists coming in,
For hawker food in Singapore to get a Michelin star, it’s totally fine . . . because the first star is about the food and not the looks. But I’m sure the Michelin Guide will bring millions of people to Singapore.
In Malaysia, people associate fine dining with paying a lot . . . which is not true. People pay RM800 to 900 for a meal with a terrible bottle of wine that is not even the same vintage that you saw in the wine list, yet people are happy because they have a nice view. Sure, they have a nice picture for Instagram – but that is not fine dining.
When I go to a fine dining restaurant, I don’t really care about the price . . . as long as it’s worth what you pay for. Fine dining is about the whole restaurant. If I want a nice view, I can just go to Broga Hill.
What we need to do is to work with the farmers to get the best produce and then apply the best technique possible to get the flavours from the produce.
Sometimes I think we need to appreciate more what we have here . . . and not try to find it in other places. I think it’s a shame because I have a lot of friends who come from overseas and they ask me, “Hey, where shall we eat? I heard about Cilantro, Cantaloupe,” but they’ve never heard about Dewakan, who is the only restaurant doing modern cuisine with local produce. That’s a shame because that’s exactly what Malaysia is. Malaysia tastes like Dewakan. Malaysia doesn’t taste like Cilantro, or Cantaloupe, or any other hotel restaurants.
In terms of produce, we are not ready . . . But also in terms of the population, do you think the people here are ready to pay RM600 for a tasting menu? I highly doubt it. People are not really ready to pay say, RM250 to RM300 for Dewakan, but they are willing to pay for a French restaurant.
I think local people need to support these kind of chefs . . . Darren (Dewakan), he’s worked as a chef at Noma. He’s not someone who just appeared after university and tried to open something. He’s someone who works seriously for what Malaysia has — he even goes into the jungles of Sarawak to find produce. That’s exactly what it’s about and what we need.