Hello, everyone! Welcome to the first post of ASLI FOOD PROJECT ft. Indonesia.
Join me as I dig deep into what can best be described as a passion project. I’ll pore over dusty old books and scientific research papers, and then trek through the jungles, rivers and villages of Indonesia. All in the name of plants.
Why am I so interested in plants? I have no idea. I think it’s because I’m curious.
From the very start of my culinary career, I’ve been curious. I attended the French Pastry School because I wanted to know “why.” Why does does dark chocolate need to be tempered to 29ºC? Why does adding inverted sugar to ice cream bases produce a creamier texture? Why does adding sorbitol to ganache fillings extend a bon bon’s shelf life? This school and its chefs fed me all the answers I was looking for.
During the same period, I had the best luck to be mentored by Pastry Chef Dana Cree, who gave me advice I will always remember: “Put everything in your mouth.” After hearing all the sexual innuendos the kitchen staff could think of, the more PC version arose: “Taste everything.”
And I did. Very soon, it went beyond just mise en place in the kitchen—the extension to plants was a natural connection.
When I worked at Restaurant Daniel in New York City, I met our forager, Tama Matsuoka Wong, who supplied us with wild flowers, plants and fruits from the New England area. If it was important for cooks to learn the hows and whys of cooking, learning about what we were cooking seemed just as essential.
On my days off and eager to smell fresh air, I rented a car and joined Tama on her foraging expeditions throughout New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. This is when I really started to taste everything—straight from the soil and into my mouth. I realized cooking starts from here. Not the kitchen, but where the food grows.
When I arrived in Indonesia, I thought I would be grazing like a cow on a pasture with the abundance of flora and fauna that existed across the country at my feet. I was a fool. Indigenous plants were not just around the corner and at every pasar like I imagined. Systemic infrastructure deficiencies at every level made sourcing notoriously difficult in Indonesia (more on that topic in a future post), and what I wanted was not easy to obtain. What was a chef to do in search of true Indonesian produce?
My responsibility as a chef stretches far beyond what I do in the kitchen. Knowing there was a full scope of ingredients I should be working with, but unable to find, made this project an easy concept. But concept is easy; execution is the challenge. In the next year, I see the challenges clearly—buried under pages of research, technological difficulties, language barriers and infrastructure hurdles—but I feel compelled to serve the greater good of education for my field and to be an example of how curiosity inspires chefs.
Cooking starts from where the food grows, so that’s where I have to go.