I’ve always wondered exactly what an expatriate chef de cuisine does in his kitchen. Does he himself cook? Really? Every order? And here we are talking about 200 orders per day, so is it humanly possible? Or does he stand languidly by, rapping the occasional knuckle, while his beleagured team sweats it out at the range? If the latter, how does he justify his (usually generous) emoluments, while keeping standards consistent?
Chef Raymond Sim spills the (soya) beans. He has been working with Noida’s MBD Radisson ever since its launch years ago. Chef Sim had, previous to his present stint, never worked without at least one other Singaporean/Chinese assistant. So when he arrived at the kitchen at MBD Radisson, he scarcely knew whether to train a key team, execute orders himself, go out to meet guests and figure out that all-important secret: the local taste or make a mad dash for the airport and call it quits! Needless to say, each option was mutually exclusive.
What is the big deal about meeting guests personally? According to Sim, it is three-fold. An expatriate face in the restaurant holds the tacit promise that the food is authentic. All customers want to visit an authentic restaurant, never mind that they may want the cuisine dumbed down for them! The second aspect is knowing local tastes: if 90 percent of guests seek seafood, the chef would be well-served not making red meat-centric menus. And the third is to market his new dishes. There is a sprinkling of Singapore-inspired dishes on Sim’s menu that are featured nowhere else in the city. His challenge is to get guests to try them out at least once. He knows with certainty that a single taste will have them hooked on firmly!
However, guests have to be motivated to try out something that they’ve never even heard of, for example duck soup with five spice powder, and it is only Sim himself who can push new dishes so that there is something creative happening in the restaurant constantly. The other vital criterion for him is to build as strong a link as possible with the service team: in any hotel, the kitchen and service teams enjoy a saas-bahu battle. Yet, it is the service guys who can make or mar the best, most innovative menu by either recommending that the guest tries out something new every time or sticks with the tried and tested route (that usually results in a tip).
Training kitchen staff has not been easy. Indian nationals have never had to deal with a roaring fire, nor have handled a wok that is red with heat where cooking times are counted in fractions of seconds. Our other article of faith goes against the grain of authentic Chinese food: when it doubt, pile on the oil and the seasoning. It is why he makes all the sauces himself, even three years into his job: for that all-important factor – consistency.
Chinese people from the mainland curl their lip at Singaporean food, but there’s no doubt that it has more resonance in India than, say, Cantonese food does.