Bubbly, vivacious and with a penchant for whipping up great eats, this celebrity chef is a one-woman ambassador for Indonesian cuisine. The petite host of the Asian Food Channel’s Ala Chef and The Big Break, dishes on her passion for good food and recent collaboration with AirAsia as an in-flight meal ambassador.
Compiled by: Chitra S.
Have you always wanted to be a chef?
Even as a child, I was interested in cooking but it wasn’t until I was in college that I heard the words ‘pastry chef’. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be. After graduating with a degree in finance, I decided to pursue my passion and enrolled in pastry school and the rest, as they say,is history.
You have worked with renowned chefs including master confectioner Ewald Notter early on in your career. What is the most valuable lesson you learned while training with them?
It was very inspiring to learn and watch Notter, who is an award-winning confectioner, at work. I took courses at his pastry school in Orlando, Florida and one of the skills I learned was to construct elaborate showpieces with sugar. I also learnt to pay attention to detail and use my imagination and creativity. There wasn’t a single most valuable lesson but the sum of all the lessons I picked up from a professional chef like Notter serves me well till today and truly gave me an understanding of the art of cooking.
What’s your favourite guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
It has to be durian. I grew up in Sumatra and the durians there are the best. I lived in the US for 13 years and when I first moved back to Indonesia four years ago, I used to go crazy whenever I came across durian. I never miss an opportunity to eat durian and even my American husband who used to dislike the fruit is now a convert!
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
Butter, because butter makes everything taste better. I work with pastry a lot and butter is definitely an essential ingredient, especially in cakes and cookies. It improves the flavour and texture of baked goods and as long as you use it in moderation, I think it’s perfectly fine.
Which famous person would you like to cook for and what would you serve?
I’m a fan of US president Barack Obama. I’d make him fish dabudabu, which is grilled fish served with a sambal that consists of green tomatoes, chillies, shallots and lime juice. The dish originates from Makassar, Indonesia and is fresh, healthy and tropical. The flavour combination is just wonderful, something I’m certain President Obama would appreciate, considering his Indonesian connection.
What has been the most challenging meal you’ve prepared so far?
Food is only as challenging as you make it. If you have the right equipment and the necessary knowledge, no one dish is particularly challenging. There have been occasions where I was requested to create elaborate pastries. Such work requires careful attention to detail and can be time-consuming, and somewhat challenging but it is still manageable. Even when I was part of the team that cooked for heads of state at a G8 Summit, it was manageable.
Your good looks and on-screen persona have earned you the moniker ‘the sexy chef’. Are you comfortable with that title?
I think I would be more uncomfortable when they stop calling me that. I never intentionally try to be sexy. I take care of myself and pay attention to my appearance. I work out every morning if I can and I eat healthy to stay in good shape. I’m on TV and appearance does matter. It takes hard work to stay in shape and I certainly do not mind when people appreciate that.
You are an advocate of getting children into the kitchen. Why are you passionate about teaching kids to cook?
My world changed completely when I had my son. As a mother, I know how important good food and nutrition are for children. I’m passionate about teaching kids to cook because it’s important for them to learn about what they are putting into their bodies. By learning to cook, kids will understand what goes into their food and what is good for them. If we want to create a healthier nation, we have to start them young.
Your show Ala Chef explores the different flavours of Indonesian cuisine. What would you recommend to someone who has not tried Indonesian food before?
The first thing you have to try is nasi goreng or fried rice. Indonesians loves nasi goreng; it’s a simple dish and is a great introduction to our cuisine. Also, you must try gado-gado – a vegetable salad with peanut sauce dressing.
In your opinion, what is the quintessential Indonesian dish?
For me, it has to be beef rendang. It’s a spicy and delicious dish that is made with coconut milk, chillies and different spices, and loved all over Indonesia. You can get it everywhere in Indonesia – from Jakarta to Papua.
What is the most expensive item you’ve ever put in your mouth?
That’s a toss-up between white truffles and caviar. I enjoy both and they cost roughly the same, about USD3,600 for one pound. It’s definitely an indulgence but well worth the price.
Tell us about your recent tie-up with AirAsia and what you hope to achieve from this collaboration.
I’m a huge fan of AirAsia. It’s a cool, young, hip and fun airline. When they approached me with the idea of working together for the creation of inflight meals, I was truly excited. This is an opportunity for me to come up with dishes that celebrate my style of cooking and showcase the best of Indonesian cuisine. There will be a total of four different dishes, which will be served over the course of a year on all AirAsia Indonesia flights. To start off, I’ve picked Nasi Minyak Palembang, a dish that is usually served during special occasions in south Sumatra where I grew up. It’s a personal favourite and something I hope all our guests on AirAsia Indonesia will enjoy.