Art has been part of my life for longer than I care to think of. My decision to pursue fashion design studies in London after completing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Management was just the continuation of my childhood calling to draw and paint. As a kid, I won several art competitions—and one of my drawings was put in the school’s calendar. Obviously, this was nothing momentous— but I still remember the fierce pride and joy I felt winning these things at the time.
And so, for me, London was the perfect choice to fulfill my passion for art and culture. Just like its architecture, London is hugely eclectic and has a massive amount of art to offer. As a student, I spent most of my money going from one performance to another, from classical music at the Barbican Hall, to jazz on the South Bank, pop bands at Earl’s Court, musicals like Les Miserables on the West End, opera at Covent Garden (where one can get the best ginger ice cream ever during the interval!) Even just walking around the city, you can see that London has so much history and culture, with almost ever house in Zone 1, it seems, telling you which great artist, poet, or other “name” used to live there. On one street, you’ll find that Jimmy Hendrix lived there in the 1960s, and Handel lived there in the early 1700s! No wonder people say, if a man is tired of London, then a man is tired of life.
As an art student, London was THE place to be inspired, with its great museums, like the British Museum, the National History Museum, and most of all, my favourite, the Victoria and Albert. It’s not just that the V & A has great collections (and a wonderful outdoor cafeteria at the back where I can get my coffee while enjoying sunny lazy London in the summer), but also there is a certain romanticism that I always associate with this part of London.
Yes! I do use my heart more than my head, and I love to eat, and this is why I transfer so much of my feelings to my food. I am sure we cannot separate our heart from our cooking, and one of the key ways I express myself is through my food. This is what Chef Sean Macdougall, executive chef at Ritz Carlton, Pacific Place does, too. This was demonstrated during one of the Chaine des Rottisseurs dinner that I attended a couple of months ago, at the appropriately named Museum Macan (Modern and Contemporary Art Nusantara). Sean cooked beautiful, colourful dishes, like purple terong (eggplant) and beef tartar, and red beetroot puree with wagyu rib steak.
The night was special, not just for Sean’s delicious artistry, but also because we were able to get a private tour of the museum, led by Aaron Seeto, the museum’s director. The museum had on display 130 works by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Being in the museum, with its layout and lighting made me feel like I was in another city that night.
But Sean’s great work didn’t just stop at the eggplant and wagyu. He also gave us his prawn crudo; sweet potato causa, devilled egg and avocado emulsions. For these he used splashes of green, from avocado, and purple, made out of dragon fruit, with the juice of the fruit being sprayed in a fan shape and dried in a heating cabinet. He also made great prawn tempura, using Indonesian prawns and black sesame batter, accompanied by mango fennel seed pickles, pumpkin gnocchi, and cherry tomatoes. For the batter, he made his own black sesame tahini with the thermomix and folded the tahini into a tempura batter with black lime, coriander and charred bamboo as a decorative sauce (he dried our own local limes and ground them into a sauce. Given how little juice the things have, this was an inspired way of using them!). Sean’s ability to adapt his work to locally source ingredients elevates him to the next level as a chef.
Sean’s work reminds me also of the well known chef, Yann Bernard Lejard, from the Ritz Carlton Bahrain, who came to visit, and cooked with Sean last year. Yann uses his plate as his canvas, and his knowledge of taste, colour and textures to create his paintings. Some people, like my husband (who’s still raving about his mother’s canned corned beef and potato hash) may thinks it is “messy”, but for me, it is a piece of modern art on your plate that, even better than most abstract painting, you can enjoy in your mouth. It doesn’t just tickle your palate, but also your mind, when you see food this creative. Like Sean, the colours Yann uses are not just soft ones, but also bright pinks and purples, black, blue – Yann believe that “chefs need to paint”.
It’s fascinating to see how the culinary world is craving something more than food. Nowadays the demand is not just for the taste, but also “the look”. Earlier this year, I spent time learning how French pastry chefs decorate their beautiful cakes. One of the famous ones, Johan Martin from Bellouet Conseil, is well known for the perfect red glaze, the shine, on his cakes, éclairs, and croissants (although they look better than they taste). But still, people love his creations, and if you want to go crazy over the aesthetics of your framboise éclair, well, I guess, that’s just another way to enjoy what you eat, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Another great patissier, Cedric Grolet, has started making cakes like Rubik’s cubes, with parts that can even spin. Honestly, the tools and techniques, and the sheer creativity these chefs bring, is just unbelievable.
But it’s not just the French who are exhibiting ever more dazzling artistry; buttercream flowers, painted cookies, “character” cakes made out of molted fondant icing have become the trend in Indonesia. And I’m delighted. There’s more choice in the market, and more creativity, then ever before.
From modern cooking to French pastries, I also love the food at Li Feng, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Jakarta. This place is great! The food, which tastes exquisite, is also beautifully presented. Li Feng doesn’t just serve traditional Cantonese cuisine, but provides a modern twist to old classics, like their deep-fried, golden, sun-dried orange, beef. The fact that Li Feng always puts extra effort into presenting their food — like the smoky dry ice with red rose petals for their deep fried swan dumplings with black pepper duck meat, elevates this restaurant into one of the best in Jakarta. I always want to go back! The use of edible flowers throughout most of their dishes makes me feel as if I’ve ruminated my way through most of Kew Gardens; I know for some it is not necessary but for me it just gives an extra thrill to the food. I love to see things that look as beautiful as they taste.
My four books are reflections of my life. They portray my beliefs, thoughts, and philosophy in life. They are the way I express my feelings and transform them into my culinary journey. I am in a different world when I am cooking or baking. Apart from my prayer times, cooking is the place I go where I can “escape” from all the worries and trouble in my head. Cooking gives me a chance to explore myself deeper, and liberates me from social conformity. In this, cooking is like making art. And it tastes better too!