Friday, July 09, 2010


"Chefs are like artists but not everyone can be Salvador Dali."

That was the candid opinion of two Michelin starred chef John Burton Race who was one of the guest chefs for Starhill's Midsummer Night's Feasts this year.

In a upclose but nothing personal session with the media (both mainstream and online) at Shook!, Race came across as a really down-to-earth guy who readily admits that he wanted to become a chef when he was 7-8 years old.

"I used to help our family cook out a lot and remember this great big guy in his white chef's uniform at the hotel where we stayed on one of our holidays," says Race. "I was so impressed by him that I made up my mind there and then that he was who I wanted to be when I grow up."

Born in Singapore, Race reveals he was no stranger to the Asian continent.

"My step-father was with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) so we've lived in Johor Bahru, Jakarta, Bandung, Melaka, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Singapore. I didn't have a typical childhood like most Caucasian kids; I spent my days playing in the great outdoors, tagging along with villagers to the paddy fields, spearing fish there, making giant kites and flying them, and playing kite-fighting."

When he was in his teens, Race was sent to boarding school in the United Kingdom. He subsequently moved to France to work as a chef upon completing his professional trainng.

"I love the French way of living - they don't work too much, drink a lot and enjoy long lunches!" enthuses Race. "It was a great life but not for an English guy like me as they reckon Englishmen can't cook so I was forced to start right at the bottom in the kitchen."

Still he admires the French philosophy towards food and eating, admitting that he learned to appreciate food sources, how whole process of how produce is grown and animals are raised, and seasonality affects the food that people eat while he was in France.

"Fifty percent of good cooking is attributed to the ingredients that are used; having an understanding of ingredients is really paramount to a chef."

That is one of the reasons why the celebrated chef prefers to cook with local ingredients where ever he goes.

"It doesn't make sense to use seabass that was flown from thousands of miles away. For my stint here, I'd be replacing the seabass in my recipe with the local tilapia which is fresher. That's the most common mistake many European chefs make when they come to Asia. They want to leave their mark but they have to realise that the best flavours come from using regional and indigenious products while the cooking techniques can still be French or European.

"I don't have a blinkered view in this aspect. Also I'm fortunate that I'm familiar with Asian herbs and spices so I won't hesitate to use them in my cooking."

When asked on his view on molecular gastronomy, Race says he admires Ferran Adria for his inventive approach.

"I've nothing against molecular gastronomy but I'm kind of old-school when it comes to cooking. El Bulli can be quite an experience - the food's artistically done, the flavours are very intense but I do miss the different textures of real food."

He stressed that chefs must remember who they are cooking for; they must respect their customers and culture. "Very few people 'get it' and the ones who do have the possibility of being an artist. You can't stop learning and the world doesn't have time for insular chefs."

What is his favourite food? "Oh the world's too big for me to have just one favourite dish. I love the richness and sweetness of durians, those of mangosteens and rambutans."

When pressed on what would he choose to eat as his last meal on earth, Race gleefully reeled off "25 items" that include nasi goreng Indonesia, champagne, freshwater prawn noodles, French wines, chocolates, breads, and "choke to death on some good shellfish!"

The celebrity chef who has hosted several cooking shows on TV also is also a published author. His Flavour First cookbook is written to inspire people to cook but has absolutely no idea how to go about it.

"It's very basic and hopefully they'll gain more confidence as they go along."

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