Saturday, 30 August 2014

The story of the humble cook, Jeffrey Tan

Culinary innovation: Putting the final touches before dinner is served at Datuk Dr Khoo's residence.

Culinary innovation: Putting the final touches before dinner is served at Datuk Dr Khoo's residence.

He doesn’t need his own TV show or chain of restaurants to be famous. Jeffrey Tan is already well-known for his good heart, great appetite and humongous talent.

Whatever you do, never ever label Jeffrey Tan a chef. Doing so will only earn you a swift rebuttal from the man.

“Don’t call me that. I am just a humble cook,” he would say every time.

“A humble cook” may seem like a misnomer given that Tan – a Malaysian who’s now based in Melbourne – doesn’t just cook, but does it very well and for notable figures like the Indonesian President and members of the Malaysian royal family. The rich are also willing to fork out formidable sums of money – up to five figures, he proclaims proudly – for him to cook at their mansions for one evening.

Not surprisingly, he’s achieved a quasi celebrity status among his esteemed peers at Les Torque Blanche, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary institutions, as well as the Australian food industry. Despite his countless accomplishments however, he’s in Malaysia to do what he loves most: cooking for charity.

Mark Normoyle (middle) and Florent Gerardin (right) are two of the four executive chefs who have flown in from Australia to participate in Cooking for Charity with Tan. (Inset) Tan, who is hailed as an innovator among his peers, uses simple cooking techniques and limited ingredients to transform this quail into a luscious main course for dinner.
Mark Normoyle (middle) and Florent Gerardin (right) are two of the four executive chefs who have flown in from Australia to participate in Cooking for Charity with Tan.

After spending close to a week in Penang, where he spearheaded a fine dining charity dinner aimed to raise funds for the Penang Rotary Charity Foundation, Tan and his team of four gregarious executive chefs Pierrick Boyer, Mark Normoyle, Florent Gerardin and Ikuei Arakane are now in Datuk Dr Khoo Boo Khean’s sprawling residence in Gasing Heights, KL for a similar purpose.

There was a flurry of activity in Khoo’s household kitchen, which was big enough to accommodate all five of the chefs as they bustled about preparing dinner. On tonight’s programme: a five-course meal for seventy guests – 14 of whom are major donors – from all over the world. A beaming and bespectacled Tan lumbered out to the living room, undaunted by the day’s work. In his white chef duds, he looked simultaneously authoritative, approachable and – despite his formidable stature – far more sprightly than any 64 year old.

“We’re having quail from Australia as the main course,” he chirps. “If I had a choice of what goes into the dish, I’d use the best produce available out there like caviar and truffles. However, we’ve got to work with the budget we’re given, which is none.”

The first thing he did upon arriving at Dr Khoo’s was to raid the kitchen for new sauces and ingredients. After oohing and aahing over the discovery of a few spices (“It’s so different from the ones in Australia!”), the ever-so-inventive Tan has come up with another (less costly and equally delicious) version of quail. Marinate the bird in salt and pepper, then pan fry it with mushroom and sea cucumber and garnish with lemon and edible flowers. “It’s very simple and Chinese influenced.”

Tan is as big a foodie and an oenophile as he is a cook.
Tan is as big a foodie and an oenophile as he is a cook.

His Zen-like composure – especially when faced with financial and technical limitations posed by a non-commercial kitchen – was admirable. But then again, Tan has done this enough times to know what works and what doesn’t. He started his Cooking For Charity Initiative some nine years ago, not so much for fundraising, but as an additional avenue for fellowship among Rotarians. “Otherwise, the meetings can be so boring.”

But he had an epiphany while working on one of these efforts. In a previous interview with The Star, he related the time he visited the Spastic Children’s Care Centre of Malaysia: “We wanted to have a better understanding of the purpose of hosting the charity dinner for them. The visit made four tough Aussie chefs teary-eyed.”

Humbled by this experience, Tan began fundraising in earnest. His efforts paid off: he managed to raise close to two million Australian dollars for various causes including Prostate Cancer of Victoria, Variety Club of Victoria, and Tibetan Disaster Relief Fund and Alzheimer Australia, among others.

His foray into the culinary industry, however, was less of an accident. Growing up in Muar, Johor, where food was constantly on everyone’s minds has shaped him to be who he is today. “I think it’s a Malaysian thing. People talk about what to have for dinner as they are eating lunch!” he says, laughing.

But Tan was the biggest foodie of all. “I love to eat so much that my wife complains that I was deprived of food as a young child,” says Tan, who migrated with her to Australia back in the Eighties to pursue a new life.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that, in 1992, Tan – who initially worked as a chartered accountant (“a very exciting profession!” he jokes) – founded International Premier Foods, a company in Australia that supplies fine foods to leading hotels, restaurants and delicatessens. As a result of his new career, he was granted special access to some of the region’s best kitchens, where he was able to learn from the finest chefs and hone his cooking skills. It also occurred to him that, unless he knows his craft well, he would never be taken seriously by people in the industry.

And so Tan began to get down and dirty in the kitchen. His food has been described as “a blend of new and not-so-new traditional cooking techniques, fresh Australian produce, and simplicity in its creation and presentation.” While some might consider the resulting creations more French than Asian, Tan – who wears his identity on his sleeves, literally, by keeping a pair of chopsticks in the little pocket hewn into the sleeves of his shirt – likes to take culinary cues from his ancestors.

“Chinese cuisine is subtle and refined. It’s focused on one or two particular tastes,” he says, adding that Asian cuisine is experiencing a renaissance in Australia. “Can you believe one of the most popular restaurants in Melbourne is Chin Chin? They serve hawker food!”

Nothing arouses his suspicion more than foods that claim to be fusion. “It’s a concept that has been grossly overused by people in the industry,” he says. “I’m sure the chefs had good intentions but the combination of tastes and textures sometimes just doesn’t work.”

Tan is hailed as an innovator among his peers. Using simple cooking techniques and limited ingredients, he transformed this quail into a luscious main course for dinner.
Tan, who is hailed as an innovator among his peers, uses simple cooking techniques and limited ingredients to transform this quail into a luscious main course for dinner.

“Passion” meanwhile is one word that crops up very often in a conversation with Tan. “It’s important to be passionate in order to be good at something, to advance to the next stage. Still, it can be quite a dangerous word in business. You have to tread carefully, with a certain amount of conviction and commitment – otherwise, passion can drag you down,” he says.

Indeed, it’s this very same philosophy that earned him a spot in Les Torque Blanche, an institution whose membership was traditionally reserved for professionals. However, says his longtime compadre and LTB member Boyer: “Initially, there was a bit of a disagreement as to whether Jeffrey should be admitted as a member. But he’s a lot more passionate than most of the qualified chefs, so they bent the rules a little. He’s the type of person you can trust to give his heart and soul.”

It’s getting late and the chefs are putting final touches to their dishes before emerging from their stations to seek Tan’s opinion – and approval. “How do you like it?” asks Gerardin, as Tan takes a bite of his duck. “I don’t like it …I love it!” he responds much to the delight of the younger chef.

Within a few hours, guests would start arriving and be bowled over – if not by the food, then by Tan’s buoyant nature. And this humble cook would congratulate himself on another job well done.

Asked what he’d like to have as soon as he gets home, Tan answers: “There’s nothing as delicious as a single egg that’s topped with caviar and cooked to perfection.”

Tags / Keywords: Jeffrey Tan , Cooking for Charity


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