Sunday, April 8, 2018

Follow the Chef Project Taiwan: Jeek Pan, walking his own path

Last year, I stumbled upon a video demonstration like I've never seen before. It was a quite shocking depiction of how to cook Taiwanese braised pork, portraying every step like a kind of Kung Fu move, combining the power of cooking, music, calligraphy and video production that left a huge impression, so much so I made the dish myself, even if there was no clear recipe given.




After that, I began following Jeek Pan, the young man behind this video and came to understand that over the last couple years he has been churning food-related productions of all sorts, be it videos, photos, articles, collaborations and even random pop-ups. During this trip to Taipei, I couldn't miss the chance to make this new friend.

This picture shows everything about Jeek--flamboyance and hospitality.

Turns out that Jeek is a 27 year-old chef who grew up in a family which ran a mass-market buffet restaurant, and used to be part of Chef Andre Chiang's team at Robin's Grill-- Regent Hotel. What he does now, though, is a little more abstract.

With his proficiency in photography, video production and social media, he has decided not to 'trap' himself in a restaurant, even if that might be the most tried-and-tested way to showcase one's culinary talent. He feels that doing creative customized food collaborations and inventive random events might be more value-adding for him towards his goal, for the near future at least.

Another common sight of him-- his signature cap and camera.
To most, that is a daring proposition, for a chef to take on the world using online marketing and social media. For me though, being in social media for the past few years, I feel that he has the character and unique image to do well. He knows what he's good at. Moving forward, it's how he can continue to improve and seek breakthrough in both his cookery and production quality.

If his ultimate goal is to play a big part in influencing the public to portray the chef's profession in a new light, to encourage appreciation of cooks as artists/craftsmen rather than a path chosen by ones with no 'better opportunity', Jeek's unique method-of-choice seems like the most efficient way to garner eyeballs.

Stranger in Bangkok X Jeek's Foodmaze

So, for all who are interested, do follow his website, or if you cannot read chinese, his IG account, where he often shares in English, to give him a pat on his back as he arrows ahead in the direction he created for himself, on a road less traveled.

PS. 号外. During our brunch meet-up, Jeek suddenly popped a peculiar question.

Jeek to us, "So, which school were you from in Singapore?" Photo credit: Jeek's Foodmaze

There was an awkward silence from us. Why did he ask? Would he know even if we told him?

"华侨中学 (The Chinese High School aka HCI as it's known now)," Junxiong answered.

"I am also from the same school!" Jeek replied.

!!!!!wtf???????

Life is a tricky little thing. Everyone takes a different road, meeting different people in the process.

Somehow, nothing happens by chance, the Universe will find its way to link the right people together. Never suppress the little hints life drops you along the way, or you might miss out on the biggest prizes.



Saturday, April 7, 2018

From 13 to 37: First trip together (to Taipei) after 24 years! #cobrosintaiwan

24 years.

2 full zodiac cycle runs.

288 months.

105,120 days.

6 million 3 hundred thousand 7 thousand and 2 hundred minutes.

My favourite picture of the entire trip. Sunset, brotherhood, sights at 九份.
You would think we would have traveled the world multiple times in these 2.5 decades.

No.

Aside of a visit by them 6 years ago, the closest we had to traveling as a group was nearly 20 years ago to Beijing performing for our secondary school's chinese orchestra (which didn't feel THAT long ago).

Apparently, during the occasional supper/breakfast gatherings the group conducted in my absence (in Singapore), they decided to simply go ahead to plan this trip. This "do-it-or-it-will-never-happen" is the spirit I have grown to love. Eventually, only 3 of us made it, but we made it!


We sacrificed sleep, took red-eye flights from 2 different cities to meet up in Taipei as early as possible and set off on our food journey, luggage and all, immediately.

Our first stop, with luggages and all.

We walked and walked, ate and ate, from daybreak till almost daybreak the following day. Every night, I walked, zombified with them, filled to the brim with whatever Taipei had to offer, thinking we were heading back to our room, only for them to shockingly turn into another shop, for one more meal.

Pretty lady aside, I realised my friends have the skill of eating while sleeping.

Yet, it was during these most physically-draining hours that we poured our hearts out (over mineral water and Ume Plum Juice) and shared the most intimate details of our lives.

It was not all food though, we also managed to catch "Ready Player One".

Of course, we made sure not to miss out the best parts from our respective previous trips to Taipei (while skipping the bad parts), experiencing each other's best memories of the city.



Here, I would like to first, thank Youchun and Junxiong, for being such great company. For a trip like this, cliche as it may sound, I cannot ask for better companions. I am not the best travel partner, I am not easy to please, so thank you, for being such a good sport navigating everyday to find the best dining spots, accompanying me to RAW and spending a precious day with my friends. I hope you guys had fun along the way.

Over-exposed pic of us at RAW, glad to get seats, glad for the company!

Thanks to all my foodie pals for your pointers and recommendations, time and hospitality. Our food trip wouldn't be half as fruitful without your divine interventions and input.


The biggest thanks MUST go to Regine and Li Li, our better halves who blessed us on this trip, weathering everything at home with the little ones, making sure we can have as much fun as possible.

Trust me, we were good boys, we either ate, listened to singing performances, or chilled at 24-hr bookstores when we decided it was not time to sleep yet. Really!!


Lastly, using a special song, let's remember this trip fondly, and know it in our hearts that no matter where our lives' journey take us, our brotherhood shall not waver.

Cheers to more milestones together.

這麼多年的兄弟
有誰比我更瞭解你
太多太多不容易
磨平了歲月和脾氣
時間轉眼就過去
這身後不散的筵席
只因為我們還在
心留在原地





Sunday, March 25, 2018

Freebird Bangkok: The Definition of Casual Fine Dining

What? Eddie is writing about Freebird again?

Yes.

And even though I have been there maybe 10 times over the past year, and written about both its head chef and the food multiple times over various channels, no, Freebird hasn't been reviewed on this blog before.

It's not easy to put a finger to why I love this place so much.

Have I eaten better food than at Freebird? Yes.

Have I been to a more well-decorated restaurant with better service? This is a close call, but yes.

What's Modern Australian Cuisine anyway? That's quite a blur for me too. But after frequenting Freebird and totally enjoying my meal at Cheek by Jowl in Singapore, I sort of understand it as a produce-oriented cuisine, blending European cooking techniques with Asian flavours (since Australia is such a melting pot in terms of culture as it's a relatively-new immigrant-based country). It's a kind of cooking that allows the chef to totally express himself without having his hands tied behind his back by stiff rules of cuisine authenticity.

So, why Freebird?

Because Freebird is an extravagantly-eclectic space, executed perfectly, has a grassy backyard with rabbits on the roam. It's a restaurant that wouldn't look out of place if you decide to bring your most important corporate guest for an important discussion, nor will you feel embarrassed turning up in shorts and flip flops pushing a stroller (or two) to have a slow, casual meal with the family. I've done both, many times.

And the food, yes, it's borderline fine dining, and you know the kitchen is capable of more. They are just holding back, simplifying the dishes to keep them approachable and comforting.

A couple of days ago, I went in on the first day of their menu overhaul (first in a year since Chef Top took over) and I am pleased to report that the newly-crowned Best Young Chef 2018 seems to have upped his game, challenging bigger ingredients.

Spiced Cashews.

Grilled Ciabatta with House Dips.

I'm actually kinda glad they chose to keep the start of the meal the same, because a meal at Freebird will feel a little different otherwise.

Soft Shell Crab with Sweet Pepper Dip and Burnt Lime.

One of the new dishes, and a show that Top's deep-frying skills has improved tremendously since a year ago. A safe start for the wife who doesn't fancy raw stuff.

Tea-cured Sea Bream  with Mango Salsa, Herb Dressing and Pickled Daikon.
This was a necessary refreshing starter, combining freshness of the bream with tangy mango (in season now), to prepare us for the full blast coming ahead.

Potato Gnocchi with hazelnut oil, lettuce, Parma Ham and aged Parmesan.
This gnocchi dish has come on leaps and bounds since I tried another iteration of it a few months ago. Gnocchi and Parma Ham fans will love this.

Pan-seared Scallops, spiced butternut, pomegranate, and guanciale
One of the winners of the new menu. I love how Top frequently places a thinly-sliced cured ham atop burning-hot seafood to achieve a salty, oily transparent sheet that lifts the whole dish.

Grilled wild tiger prawns with Masala butter and lemon curd.
When I saw this posted on Freebird's IG feed, I wondered whether a dish as simple as this would work as a main at Freebird, and how wrong I was. This was unanimously our favourite dish of the night. How the masala butter gave the dish its X-factor was completely unexpected. It will be challenging to find a prawn cooked better than this.

Oh, such decadence.
King crab Ravioli with seafood broth, Chardonnay gel and basil oil.
I didn't fancy this dish quite as much as the rest, but I still dedicate 2 pictures to it because this is THE dish in the menu that I see the most potential in. Who doesn't love a HUGE ravioli stuffed full of King Crab drenched in lobster bisque? It's luxury personified. With a few tweaks here and there I am sure this will become a crowd favourite.

Local Jerusalem Artichoke soup with parsley emulsion, paired with celeriac bread and gorgonzola cheese.
This warm soup reminded me of the pea and ham chowder I had in Amsterdam years ago in the middle of a bitterly-cold, rainy winter afternoon. A suitable course to welcome what's coming.

Pan-seared Cod, Broccoli two ways, lemon gel, chicken consomme.
I most look forward to Top's fish dishes, which are always excellent. He replaced my favorite Hake on the old menu (!!) and replaced it with this. It was a generous serving of cod with burnt broccoli so good you can eat a whole plate of it on its own, in the most wonderfully-light but flavorful chicken consomme. An eye for an eye I suppose, can't complain.

Pork collar with yellow pepper emulsion and watercress.
It's the chef's interpretation of sweet and sour pork. I can see customers loving this dish, it's just a bit safe for me.

48hr short rib, miso eggplant, potato mille feuille.
This was a perfect ending to the savouries, immaculately-executed elements that we couldn't get enough of.

The typical pre-dessert, passion fruit, white chocolate and meringue sprinkled with chilli flakes.

Chef's rendition of banana cake.

Chef Top shared with me that he will take over the desserts from now on. It's interesting, because I always had a feeling that desserts were his 'weakness', if he had any. Taking over the desserts at Freebird would give him the perfect platform to experiment and improve. If this banana cake dessert is any indication, he is on the right track.

Freebird is a restaurant that started with a bang but fell with a thud. The head chef who started it all off didn't deliver what's promised. I had numerous foodie friends who went in when Freebird was newly open and told me, "oh it's a nice place but the food was not very good." Even though things have taken a complete turn after Chef Top took over, it's still a long hard road winning back hearts that have already been lost.

I love the current Freebird for what it is.

It is Bangkok's definition of casual fine dining.




Thursday, March 15, 2018

TheKawayiis' Inaugural Adventure on the Songthaew in Bangkok

For the past year, Noah had been bugging me about sitting in a Songthaew, one of Thailand's most creative ways of providing public transport for a population which absolutely detests walking under the sweltering Thailand heat. I kept telling him to wait for the cool season, and I will take the Songthaew with him to Seacon Square. Now that winter's come and gone without any Songthaew ride to boast of, it's time to fulfill a father's promise.

Finally! 
We were on our way to the BBQ Feast Mashup at Viva Thong Lor last Sunday and faced a long queue at the taxi stand outside Emquartier. A small truck parked in front of us and the security guards started asking whether anyone wanted to take it instead. It was a variation of the Songthaew, called the Sii Lor (literally translated as 4 wheels). It's a smaller vehicle, albeit also with two short rows of seats facing each other. Unlike the Songthaew, which in most cases have a fixed route, this smaller variation takes you to wherever you want in the vicinity, charging according to distance. My wife indicated her willingness to take this alternative form of transport, and off we went.

The girls were excited too!
It was quite a ride from Emquartier to Viva Thong Lor, weaving through countless tiny alleys, most of which I might not have passed by in my 8 years here, twisting and turning, bouncing up and down. It felt generally safe, but on occasions we had to hold on to the railings real tight to keep our balance.

Towards the end of the trip, I turned over to ask Noah if he enjoyed himself and whether he wanted to take the Songthaew again.

He smiled gleefully and nodded (oh crap).

Then I asked Ellie.

Ellie!

Ellie?



Fast asleep already!



PS. The trip cost us 60THB, comparable to a taxi journey (with metre). We did not haggle.



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

RC怡香园 (Yi Xiang Yuan): Authentic Southern Chinese Cuisine in Pattanakan

I have been looking for a restaurant like this since the day I set foot in Bangkok. Proper authentic Chinese flavours are surprisingly not common in this metropolitan city, unless you either consider the high-class Chinese restaurants in 5* hotels (mostly Cantonese cuisine, and pricey), or Thai-Teochew Chinese restaurants, which are more common, but serve dishes that exhibit a fusion of locally-inspired flavours.

The unassuming shopfront of RC怡香园, which looks like a normal roast duck stall, but is more than meets the eye.
Sitting down with co-owner 大象 (literally translated as Elephant), he struggled to tell me exactly what cuisine his food represented. He came from Fujian, China, and his co-owner (who's in charge of the kitchen) spent much of his life in Hong Kong, and a few of his dishes are essentially Thai, like stir-fried basil roast duck and Tom Yum grouper head. Walking into the eatery, you will be forgiven for assuming it to be a typical roast duck stall. Don't be confused by its inaccurate packaging, look deeper into the menu and be daring when you order. If you love authentic Southern chinese cuisine, RC怡香园 will prove to be a precious hidden gem.

Their one and only double-boiled soup - cordyceps militaris with pork ribs

If you are a fan of double-boiled soups (老火汤) in Hong Kong, you will absolutely adore this cordyceps militaris soup. I can confidently say that it is the only place in Bangkok that I have tasted soup as good as this. They just don't do soup like this in Thailand.

Seafood/chicken porridge

Their porridge is another star. Unlike the usual gooey congee or boiled rice you find in Thailand, their porridge is somewhere in the middle, with a smooth consistency given by the Japanese rice that they use, and a flavorful punch contributed by their excellent soup base.

Flawless steamed pomfret.

One thing that strikes me about this place is their insistence to serve only the freshest fish. Whether it's their giant grouper fillets or pomfret, they either serve the best, or tell you they have none that day. Every dish is steamed to perfection, we've never had any fish that's overcooked. If you love fresh steamed fish, chinese-style, this place is perfect.

Claypot aubergines, warm and satisfying with steamed rice.

To balance off your meal, they have an assortment of other simple dishes, like vegetable stir-fries and hearty claypot dishes. You can also order some decent roast duck/pork from their counter, even though I don't think it's their strongest suit. For lamb lovers, don't miss their herbal lamb stew.



They have ample seating, both open-air and air-conditioned.

I think their only 'problem' would be their location, deep inside Pattanakan, beyond Pattanakan Soi 78, right opposite the bright red ATIKER building, towards the new flyover that leads to Onnut and Chaloem Phrakiat.

Their map in Thai.

They open everyday, only closing during the last Wednesday of every month. If you have been looking for such flavours in Thailand for a while, please make the journey, trust me that it will be a fruitful one.

There's only one thing left to do now.



Wah Lau Eh!

PS. RC 怡香园 was formerly known as 格香,and is currently going through its name change. Many of the large signages still bear its old name so hopefully they will be changed soon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ter'ra X Kin: One Night Only in Kuching

Our perfect location.

5.30pm, 13th February 2018:

I arrived at Kin, half-expecting a frenzy. Michelle was tying up loose ends outside, sorting plates, cutlery, briefing the service staff. She exuded ice-cold calmness, something uncommon for a 23-year old. This was her show(she's from Kuching) - it was probably the only time her extended family could enjoy her talents in one place, and it was not fazing her at all.

Michelle giving her final instructions.

Top was nowhere to be seen. He's definitely sweating it out in the kitchen, out of my sight. The flash-frozen groupers, 'dying' clams, his high temperature. He must have found a solution for everything, or so I hope.

The selection of wine for the event.

6.30pm, 13th February 2018:

Finally, a glimpse of Top. Everything seemed under control. Adrenaline had taken over. He looked in perfect shape.

The #sexythaiboy displaying his usual antics.

Come, one nice shot before hell freezes over, oh, I mean before Ter'ra X Kin takes over.

7pm, 13th February 2018:

After turning a couple of walk-ins away, guests seemed to be finally arriving. It was also the time when Kin, the restaurant itself, transformed from the bright homey eatery in the day, into a classy dining insitution at night. The ambience was spot-on, especially the long wooden platform in front of the kitchen that allowed our chefs to finish off every dish in the clear view of all 40 guests. What a perfect place for the event.

Soon, a healthy elderly man strutted in.

"Are you a guest for the event?" I asked, trying to be as polite as possible.

"Michelle is my grand-daughter!" he bellowed back in pride.

I was taken aback, how was I to know? He proceeded to move forward to take pictures of his granddaughter with his mobile phone.

I looked at Justin and Sze-lyn, my fellow organisers for this event. Sh*t's really happening, here in Kuching, and to think that this was only the 3rd time we met since our 'accidental' meet-up in Bangkok at the end of December. By now, Michelle's entire clan was showering her with embrace and adoration. It was quite a sight, and even before a single dish was served, I knew the effort was worth it.

(From the corner of my eye, I caught Top playing with the wok in the kitchen, and I remembered him saying he had little to no experience with it.)

2 chefs based in Bangkok, 1 with high fever, taking over a kitchen in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

100% local ingredients. Unfamiliar kitchen. Unfamiliar equipment. Unfamiliar restaurant team.

1.5 days of prep. 6 dishes. 40 guests. 1 night (aka 1 chance) only.

Let's do this.

Coriander Crackers| Crab| Rose Apple, an appetising starter to kick the night off.

Soft Seed| Bovril| Honey Butter, the absolute crowd pleaser, I don't think anyone expected the bread dish to be this spectacular. I believe most customers had at least 2, if not 3 of these soft rolls. This was a clear testament to Michelle's talent as a pastry chef.

Mango Sorbet| Fish Floss, back in Bangkok, this was a gamble. Customers either loved or hated Top's frozen mango + fish sauce combination. It was a winner here in Kuching. Everyone finished their lot, even my 7-year-old niece.

Black Rice| Pork Belly| Prawns, a congee dish that tasted more Asian than anything I had ever eaten from Top. It was a little salty at first, but every spoonful gave a different experience, especially after breaking the cured egg yolk hidden under the rolled pork belly charsiu. Many well-cooked elements put into 1 hearty bowl. I could eat this every other day.

Rock Grouper| Clams| Turmeric| Cabbage, I am not going to mince my words, I didn't enjoy this dish as much as I liked to. The dish had potential, but somehow I felt that with a bigger, fresher fish (which proved to be impossible during the Chinese New Year season in Kuching), served warmer, this dish would have been much much better.

Limau Kasturi| Tuak| Coconut, a play on uniquely-Kuching ingredients, but turned out to be possibly the most forgettable dish of the night. Mainly because we were all stuffed by then, and also that the Tuak (a wine commonly drank by Sarawak natives) and coconut didn't really come out.


And so, we pulled it off. There were hits and misses, but we pulled it off!

Such events, and food, are rare in Kuching, and it felt immensely satisfying to have finally made a small difference to this little city that I call home.

I hope everyone who has followed us in this journey will be inspired, even in a little way, by what a few passionate people have managed to achieve. Be creative, be brave. Share your ideas with your best friends, but ideas don't become things if no action's taken. If you find the right people in the right places and join the right dots together, anything is possible.

So thank you Justin, Sze-Lyn, Aaron, Top, Michelle, Jerome, everyone at Kin and all the diners that night. You made a dream come true.



PS. Read all about Ter'ra X Kin: The Making Of.... and follow #terraxkin on IG and Facebook to see all the precious pictures taken of the event.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Ter'ra X Kin: The Making Of...

21st December 2017:

The sparks between 2 total strangers started off with an Instagram post.


Someone actually took my instatories seriously? Anyway, it's definitely a relief he/she liked my recommendation.

Crying Thaiger was closing in a couple of days, so was #findthelockerroom (which has just re-opened at an equally-confidential location). Alone, unwell and a little freezing in the cold Bangkok winter, I made a lonely tour that night to say goodbye to a couple of places close to my heart.

I took a deep breath before sliding open the lockers at #findthelockerroom one final time, expecting a rowdy horde, aiming to find a vacant space to quietly show my support. Then someone raised his hand, as if he already knew me, and confirmed if I was @strangerinbangkok. It was Mr @fooddaytoyou, Justin! Even more incredibly, he's also from Kuching. What were the chances?!



22nd January 2018:

"Do you think he (Top) might want to do a simple tasting menu at a wine shop when he is around?"

This was a WhatsApp message sent to me by Justin out of the blue. Chef Top (Pongcharn Russell) from Freebird (Justin enjoyed the food there during his Bangkok trip in December) was visiting Kuching during the Chinese New Year period as his girlfriend Michelle Goh (pastry chef from Suhring) would be visiting back home (she's from Kuching too). An idea sprouted out of nowhere, and I was determined to make it work.

By the end of that very day, the chefs had given me a "yes" and the ball was back in Justin's court to find the right restaurant with all the equipment requested for the kitchen takeover.


23rd January 2018:

"We are on for 13Feb dinner," Justin.

"Yaaaaay," me.

"Venue will be at Kin. They have a full working kitchen and equipment."

Incredible.


24th January 2018:

A rough draft of the 6-course menu has been sent by Michelle. Being local, she selected only ingredients that can already be found easily in Kuching.

"There's no point going to Kuching to serve farmed salmon or Australian beef," Top added.

26th January 2018:

We received a market list of 48 items from the chefs. 48 items for 6 dishes!


2nd February 2018:

"Hey Top regarding the snapper, cannot guarantee supply. Boats are all docked. Both consumers and restaurant owners are already stocking up. The supplier we contacted is a major supplier of many restaurants in Kuching. Flash frozen fish." Message from Aaron, the owner of Kin, the restaurant hosting the event. He's been working out of his skin to source for the required ingredients.

Having the event during Chinese New Year was a blessing yet a curse. It was the only window everyone was available in Kuching, yet it was also the only time that Kuching's strength in wild-caught seafood becomes its weakness, when the bad weather and festive rush threatened to deprive us of our most important ingredients.


The final menu, beautifully put together by Sze Lyn, Mrs @fooddaytoyou.


11th February:

"The clams are starting to smell." Aaron.

Our clams were dying?


12th February:

"Good morning. Top is at Borneo Medical Centre now with fever," Michelle.

It was a day before the event, a few hours before our final briefing. The 2 chefs only had 1.5 days to prepare from touch-down till serving our first dish.

Top was burning with high fever.

What?





To be continued........


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