A Behind the Scenes Look at Bangkok's 15th Annual World Gourmet Festival
September 5, 2014
This year’s world-class chefs say they like it simple, but surely they don’t mean the cooking. By Monsicha Hoonsuwan.
Published on Sep 5, 2014
It does sound simple: lobster and watermelon in tomato juice. Or Tomato Méli Mélo (a muddle) it’s called, for the star of this humble dish isn’t the slightly singed-alive lobster, its meat half-raw, sitting next to juicy cubes of red watermelon. No. In fact, their existence is nearly eclipsed by thick slices of green and red tomatoes as well as delicate little petals—plucked freshly off the stem—on an otherwise barren plate.
Then the star ingredient arrives—ochazuke-style—in a glass teapot, its infuser holding a think, long chunk of tomato that lends a bit of taste to the surrounding juice. The clear orange broth flows slowly off the teapot, down onto the lobster like a sweet golden waterfall. It floods the empty space and even sneaks into the watermelon. Whoever thought of this could be Japanese, having been inspired by the simple dish that involves pouring green tea over cooked rice.
Tomato Méli Mélo
Though “whoever” turns out to be a French-born, two-Michelin-starred chef Akrame Benallal, one of seven talented culinary masters joining this year’s World Gourmet Festival at the Four Seasons Bangkok. The esteemed guide categorizes Benallal’s cuisine as “creative”, perhaps because life—his inspiration—isn’t a category. Life only evolves, so as the dishes he serves at both his Paris and Hong Kong restaurants; they are the product of his daring nature, his genius instinct, and his determination to innovate, blending flavors with no regard for fashionability (the only things in-season are his ingredients) or rules. Except this one: “The most important thing is you need to keep the flavors,” says Benallal. “Respect the ingredients.”
Chef Akrame Benallal
Aligning with this principle, Benallal’s unpretentious muddle of tomatoes had to travel through a meticulous process, from its stall at Paris’ Rungis Market to the glass teapot and porcelain plate in Bangkok. The giant French tomatoes had been pureed, heated, strained, chilled and heated again, to ensure the juice is pulp-free yet as sweet and tasty as a French heirloom tomato should be.
“I like pure and simple. But simple isn’t easy to do.” says Benallal.
The same mantra goes for Japanese chef Hideaki Sato, the mastermind behind less-than-50-seat RyuGin restaurants in Tokyo and Hong Kong. He insists on working only with seasonal produce delivered just a few hours before dinner is served, and using as few ingredients as possible. Sato’s specialty Peach Candy, a summer dessert made of whole seeded Japanese peach, sugar, arrowroot kuzu starch, and lemon juice, look deceptively like mere peach topped with peach jam. But first bite and the secret’s out. “Break open the peach and you’ll find liquid nitrogen ice cream inside, which is perfectly melted due to the hot peach jam,” Sato explains.
In respect of his grandmother’s heartwarming, home-cooked meals, chef Thierry Dufroux of Bistrot Belhara has brought along to Bangkok a splash of Basque flavors best represented by 80 domestic pigeons, wholly put to delicious use. The breasts are roasted; the legs are slow-cooked for at least six hours until tender; and the rest is extracted for juice. They are carefully presented along with confit garlic in cocotte, French-style green pea puree, homemade duck liver confit in ravioli, and an inviting piece of crispy bacon. All that work for the main course, and Dufroux is satisfied with what he calls a cook’s dessert—something so straightforward like his chocolate tart with soft mascarpone cream and coffee. But again, the appearance deceives. The tart has to be baked a little longer than usual so it’s flawlessly crisp, while the chocolate filling, made of imported 66-percent-dark Alpaco, remains moist and smooth.
Roasted Squab Breast with Confit Garlic in Cocotte, French-Style Garden Green Peas, Duck Liver Confit in Ravioli
Then there’s oyster in dashi, green lemon and ginger by Thai-born chef James Syhabout, which is inspired by the flavor of oysters that have just been taken from the sea. “Some things are so simple they are very hard to figure out,” Syhabout told The New York Times in 2009.
Chef James Syhabout
No wonder the guests keep coming back—for the past 15 years. Partly for charity, of course, but there’s no denying their curiosity, yearning to learn of the next culinary innovation. The chefs have already uncovered so many creative methods to blend flavors, even on this premise of simplicity, and there are still so many unknown alleys, so many more ways to explore. Evolving with these culinary talents is the World Gourmet Festival. It will continue to surprise, simply, next year and the years after. Because simple, actually, isn’t easy to do.