Lesson from Gastronomy’s History

Through JW Marriott Jakarta, Mega Kuningan’s event, East Meets West which was held during Ramadhan, we met Heri Purnama, The Executive Sous Chef who was in charge for the food of the event. He served various Indonesian dishes, combined with other international menu with “liwetan” style. Even though we never met the chef personally before, we assume he has wide knowledge acquired through years of working abroad, also high passion for local food. To confirm it, we decided to meet Heri Purnama for an exclusive interview to discuss about his background, his experience of working in England for 10 years, to his passion of his hometown’s dishes, Sumbawa.

I heard you spent years working abroad?

Yes. Before working for JW Marriott, I joined Sana Sini Restaurant (Pullman Hotel, Thamrin). I began my career in The Regent Jakarta in 1995, after that I moved to Singapore, back to Jakarta, and then to Maldives, America, but spent the longest time in England, at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel London and Langham Hotel to be specific.

What’s your specialization?

Of course Indonesian food because I’m an Indonesian, but from my experience of working in various countries, I love to combine Indonesian dishes with western cooking techniques.

Did your previous workplace ask for Indonesian food?

Yes. Back then when I was cooking for the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II in 2004, that was one of the best moments in my career. At the time I was responsible to make canapé: Opor Ayam Samosa and Beef Rendang Satay, actually it was rendang beef served as satay, canapé style. For ingredients availability, it was actually very easy to get ingredients from Indonesia, but of course, it was expensive. Not only Indonesian food, our Executive Chef, John Williams, also served Thai and French dishes. From England, I returned to Indonesia to join Novotel Hotel, Lombok, and then to Pullman Hotel, Thamrin, and I finally landed here in JW Marriott Hotel, Jakarta.

Why did you return here?

That’s the thing, it’s a good question. Look, everyone has his own principle of life. I thought Indonesia has better career chances, it was 2008-2010, the Indonesia’s economy was at its golden moment.

So, what’s the most valuable lesson you got abroad?

Working in England was the best experience. I deliberately chose England because there are many history written there by the most prominent chefs, let say Auguste Escoffier, the father of all chefs, who worked in The Ritz-Carlton London. From the beginning of my career, I always dreamed of working there. Then I also work for Langham Hotel, London which also has its own history, in fact, it was the first hotel in the world to have elevator.

I learned to know and use the best ingredients, how to cook them, why they chose specific cooking techniques, and I learned it from the great chefs. All of the chefs working there has worked with famous chefs, like  Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, before moving to The Ritz-Carlton London, so, indirectly, I worked with Gordon Ramsay. From the working attitude, discipline, and cooking techniques, they were the best things I learned in London.

From customer’s perspective, are they more demanding and detailed?

Very, very detailed! We didn’t use premade ingredients, except for ingredients like stock, but for meat, we use the freshest one that even still has blood in it. We also prefer to use live fish, such as scallop from Scotland. Every day we have to open 300 scallops from their shells to know whether they’re alive or dead. If they were dead, we rejected them.

Sometimes we invited the guests to come to the kitchen to touch the scallops, to check the freshness of our products. In addition, there is no frozen food at all, except for staffs. All of the ingredients we got in the morning, used them for lunch and dinner at the same day, that’s how we maintain quality.

Is it possible to do that in Indonesia?

It’s very difficult to find such scallops, if the suppliers had them, it would be in low quantity, also very expensive.

How do you adapt the working approach in England to Indonesia?

That’s the challenge, sometimes I still got carried with England’s work rhythm and discipline. For the ingredients’ preparation, we always do presentation to ensure that every staff knows them, it’s the time to ask if someone’s hasn’t fully understand, because at service time, we focus on it. The other challenge is to educate the staffs, that’s why we hire trainees from universities, so we can really push those who are willing to learn, it’s a very valuable lesson for them. It happens also in all restaurants, whether it’s Gordon Ramsay’s or Marco Pierre White’s, they would pick staffs who are dreaming to work for Michelin star chefs.

People see Executive Chefs as fierce and very disciplined.

Because we’re dealing with high expectation from the guests. They are willing to pay  that much, of course we have to deliver the promise through the best service, no room for error.

What’s your actual passion in cooking?

Now I tend to focus on local food, because there’s always history behind each dish. From there, I can make the fusion version using different techniques from abroad. For example, in this Nasi Gecok, I applied sous vide technique, marination and presentation technique from abroad. Why local food? Because the demand for local food is high, in addition, local food doesn’t use too many exotic ingredients…

…So restaurants can get bigger margin.

Exactly. Local food is also more about cooking from the heart, as they were heritage recipes. It’s never easy to cook Indonesian food, on the contrary, cooking western food is very easy. Therefore, I always encourage my team, before working as Japanese chef or western chef, you have to know Indonesian food, from there, you can modify them using various techniques.

Now,  European chefs started to use our local ingredients in their cooking, like chilly, ginger, and tempe, you can’t find these approaches before. In England, they started to incorporate lemongrass, lime leaf, and ginger for their Butter Poach Lobster, because these spices give good balance for seafood. Indonesia has wide range of culinary heritage, each region, from Bali, Java, Sunda, Sumatera, Molucca, has its own distinctive taste.

Where did you come from?

I was born in Sumbawa, but raised in Jakarta. I don’t want to lose my identity, so I adopt it in this Nasi Gecok. It’s a very local Sumbawan dish, not too many people know it, but it’s always served in Ied celebration in Sumbawa. The way I see it, Nasi Gecok uses lot of chilly, black sesame, lemongrass, lime leaf, and other condiments, so it already got vegetables in it, you don’t need anything  else.

Nasi Gecok is consumed all the time, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I serve it with rice, but the gecok can also be served as canapé, salad, or fillings for slider or burger. I got the inspiration from a restaurant in Brick Lane, London which serves Duck Confit Burger. If they can serve duck confit with burger, we can do the same with gecok or rendang, just add the burger bun, chilly sauce and some mayonnaise, that’s it!

Aside from Nasi Gecok, do you have other Sumbawan dish that we haven’t know about?

There’s a dish called Sepat, people assume it was the small fish “sepat” (Trichogaster fish), but actually you can use any fish, we commonly use saltwater fish. Actually, it’s a healthy dish because almost all of the ingredients are roasted, we don’t use any oils, and it was served with stock. Sepat is also commonly known as “Forget the In-law Soup”, because of it’s great taste, people will ask for more and make them to forget their father or mother in law. Most Sumbawan dish has acidity, saltiness, and spicy flavor. As opposed to dishes from Yogyakarta or other regions in Java, we use very little sweetness, perhaps just to balance the overall flavor.

Jl DR Ide Anak Agung Gde Agung Kav E.1.2 No 1&2, Kawasan Mega Kuningan, Jakarta 12950,
Phone: +6221 5798 8888, www.marriott.com