Street talk

At the World Gourmet Summit 2011 in Singapore, the talk was all about street food.

THEY may have chopped, drizzled and sautéed at the swankiest establishments, and whipped up gourmet creations using some of the most luxurious ingredients available – but what really inspires many of the highly-regarded chefs in the world seems to be humble street food.

Over and over at the World Gourmet Summit (WGS) 2011 held in Singapore recently, two- and three-Michelin-starred chefs talked about street food-inspired dishes as the next big trend in dining, inspired no doubt by the thriving, diverse food culture on the hosting island itself.

For two weeks beginning the end of April, the gourmet scene in Singapore glittered a little brighter than usual as stars of the international cooking scene descended upon the island for the annual epicurean festival.

Staged to showcase the intricate craftmanship of prestigious chefs, the WGS not only encompassed gala dinners and tasting events, but also experiences such as cooking demonstrations and workshops.

Complemented by the presence of internationally-acclaimed vintners, the event was crafted for discerning individuals who not only appreciate great wines and fine cuisines, but also the effort and thought that go into their creation.

The WGS – organised by Peter Knipp Holdings Pte Ltd and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board – celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, and showed no sign of losing steam.

This time around, the summit featured the formidable talents of 22 chefs from around the world, who boasted a whopping 17 Michelin stars among them.

This included three-Michelin-starred chefs Bruno Menard of L’osier in Tokyo, and Luisa Valazza of Al Sorriso in Piedmont, Italy, as well as Ramon Freixa from Spain, Kevin Thornton from Ireland and Norbert Niederkofler from Italy, all of whom have received two Michelin stars each.

Adding even more shine to the event was the presence of celebrity chefs like Andrew Turner from the classically British Wiltons restaurant in London, Edward Kwon from Seoul’s contemporary European bistro Gastronomy, Michael Ginor of the fresh and eclectic LOLA in New York, and TV culinary personality Rachel Allen.

Despite the lavishness of the event, however, WGS actually proved more than ever how borders are increasingly dissolving in the culinary world, with so-called street food and humble delicacies being appropriated and re-invented by many chefs in their efforts to come up with new creations.

From the familiar dim sum favourite – the siu mai – being reincarnated as a French-Japanese starter replete with crabmeat, salmon roe and daikon (Japanese radish), to a Thai-style hot and sour pineapple salad accompanying an elegant wagyu short rib and marron lobster dish, the influences were everywhere.

Chef Ginor, for one, was quick to admit that street food is where his heart (and stomach, of course!) lies.

“Although I’m trained in cooking high-end food, I’d rather sit in a hawker centre once than 10 times in a posh restaurant,” said the outspoken chef who has dabbled in many different aspects of the culinary world.

Chef Ginor added that it was his love for global street food that inspired many of his gourmet creations.

“That typifies my style. Take a street food element, like fried dried squid, which is extremely common in most South-East Asian countries. Now, you take a fairly classical approach to (cooking) octopus or squid, and then garnish the dish with (the dried squid). It’s an amazing idea, and when we do it, we’re labelled geniuses. But I’m not really, it’s just curiosity and a passion for learning about (street food),” he explained.

Chef Ginor went on to say he thinks certain types of street food are about to take the rest of the world by storm, such as okonomiyaki (a Japanese savoury pancake with a variety of toppings, also known as Japanese pizza) and chaat (Indian snacks that combine a variety of ingredients with sweet, spicy and sour flavours). “(These foods) have got all the elements that people like,” he said.

Melbourne-based Paul Wilson, hailed as one of Australia’s most exciting chefs, readily admitted his attraction to street food, saying his cuisine is already heavily influenced by global flavours.

“More and more, customers don’t want to eat a three-course meal. They want smaller plates and more variety.

“I definitely think global street food is the future,” explained the Briton, who pioneered the Mr Wilson Restaurant Concepts in Australia.

Chef Wilson’s menu for Epicurean Delights, presented at The Prime Society restaurant, definitely showed his experimentation with international flavours. The starter, for example, was a velvety poached egg with Australian truffle and reggiano, served on a bed of polenta.

Another starter offered a completely different taste palette; the carpaccio of hiramasa kingfish and oyster panna cotta with lime and caviar dressing had a light, Japanese-inspired feel.

The best of both worlds

It was also Wilson who gave a surf-and-turf inspired dish an extra kick by pairing it with a Thai-style hot and sour pineapple salad.

Chef Menard too, is a fan of street food, saying that its potential for flavours and variety excites him.

“The street food in Singapore, for example, is amazing! The details in the flavour and the balance in the taste are what I aim for. I want to bring all of these different flavours and elements together on a table,” said the Frenchman, who is credited with bringing “neo-classical French food” to Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district.

Chef Menard is, of course, no stranger to the concept of blending culinary styles.

His menu at L’osier, where he was awarded his three Michelin stars, stands testament to his wide-ranging influences.

As part of WGS’s Epicurean Delights initiative, several of the chefs attending the WGS partnered with a Singaporean restaurant to showcase their signature cuisine, and we were treated to a lunch specially prepared by Chef Menard at the Jaan restaurant in Swissôtel The Stamford.

Like the aforementioned siu mai-inspired dish, the Japanese influence in Chef Menard’s creations were obvious, from the minimalist presentation to the use of distinctive ingredients like yuzu (in a divine sweet onion soup with black truffle and yuzu custard) and buckwheat (dessert was an apple tart served with an unusual roasted buckwheat ice-cream).

Yet, the presence of classically French elements like truffles and creamy sauces mark his origins. The best way to describe his culinary style, perhaps, is to say it is the best of both worlds: the clean, fresh and light aesthetic of Japanese cuisine married with the flavourful sensibility of the French.

“I’ve been living in Japan for about 12 years, definitely this has influenced me in a positive way,” explained Chef Menard. “I improve my techniques and try to learn something new wherever I go.”

As such, it is apparent that events like the WGS serve not just to give foodies an opportunity to indulge their gastronomic whims, but also as an important site for ideas and innovations on cuisine to mingle and take new form.

Food has always been one of the best indicators of a particular time and culture, and one can’t help but wonder what new representation of our times will pop up on the table next.

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