They might be collaborating with some other chefs, but Djoko Sarwono and Deni Sugiarto sticks to each other like peanut butter and jelly when they create modern Indonesian dishes.

The Dynamic Duo

After attending Tasty Synergy several times, a dinner event by Vin+ which presented various modern local dishes with wine pairing, we believe we’ll have more chefs serving similar style of cuisine in the future. Of course, we’ll have people who doubt the concept, especially about the pairing of Indonesian food and the wine, therefore, the chefs should work extra hard to modify the flavor’s intensity to make balanced pairing with wine. We decided to discuss with Chef Djoko Sarwono (Vin+ Arcadia) and Chef Deni Sugiarto (Vin+ Kemang) about their persepective, challenges, to their exploration in creating modern Indonesian dishes.

Now we have many places serving modern Indonesian dishes, when did it start?

Djoko: Perhaps in the past 5 years, after it was introduced by William Wongso. When I first joined Vin+, my owner used to take me to dine to William Wongso’s place. Actually, the pairing of Indonesian dishes and wine is very good, perhaps we still lack the exposure, but we have more and more senior chefs to do similar concept.

Deni: I agree, it was around 5-6 years ago When I was working in Teatro Gastroteque (Bali), we’ve started to create local fine dining dishes from some regions, such as Padang, Makassar, Java. Actually Teatro’s concept is more to the French fine dining, but began experimenting to sell Indonesian set menu dishes at the time.

Why do we have this trend? Is it because the difficulties in imported ingredients?

Djoko: Of course, they are related. But apart from other matter, I still prioritize imported goods as main ingredients, like beef, because the meat is more tender. From the storage, how the livestocks are raised, and hygiene, we have to admit that imported products are still better in quality. However, it’s a different story when it comes to spices, Indonesia is in a class of its own. We have so many spices, meanwhile western cuisine can be served with salt and pepper, because they have good meat. Indonesian dishes require longer cooking time to tenderize the meat, as a result, the spices will dominate the flavor.

Deni: Import is very crucial in culinary world, because Indonesia is not ready yet to produce premium ingredients. Although, I have to admit we started to produce our own wagyu in Lampung, or artisan cheese in Bali.

Aside from Indonesian chefs, we have more expatriate chefs who own their own Indonesian food restaurant. Do you think we’re steps behind?

Djoko: I don’t think so. Of course, expatriate chefs have their own innovations, presentation and characteristics, but Indonesian fine dining concept has been around for some times. One of them is a restaurant in Bogor, where we can pick our own fish and vegetable from its garden to be served to the dining table. I visited the place back in 2003. Perhaps the class is different from the expatriate chefs’, but these kind of things have been conducted by Indonesians, but they still haven’t got the exposure they deserve.

Deni: I worked quite a while in Bali. 2008-2012 was a booming of fine dining scene ini Bali. People started to create fine dining dishes using Indonesian food, we can even got premium seafood from the east region, like Lombok and Moluccas. To me they were premium because they were fresh and the fish were pure.

What’s the biggest challenge in exploring modern Indonesian dishes?

Djoko: Based on my experience of working with Chef Deni, it would be more about how to pair local dishes with wine. How to modify the taste of gado-gado, rendang, and torch ginger and make it a balanced pair with the wines. First, we learn about the characteristic of the wines, then we think about what sort of dishes we should make, and how we modify the flavor.

Deni: To me, the biggest challenge would be to maintain the original flavor of the dishes so it would not get lost. Most of what we’ve done is turning the presentation into modern style but the flavor should stay the same. To achieve that, we have to try lots of local dishes in the regions where they came from. But of course, we can’t present the flavor as intense as the original because we have to pair it with the wines. It’s quite challenging, because Indonesian dishes are not designed to paired with wines. In the beginning, people created wine to pair it with the food, not the other way around.

Aside from the famous Rendang and Nasi Goreng which have became Indonesian icons, which traditional dishes that you think deserve more exposure?

Djoko: I was a mix of Betawi and Java. Once, Chef Deni made Asinan Betawi which received very good response from our guests. If traditionally fruits are used in Asinan Betawi, this time we use seafood such as shrimp and scallop, served with salad and wine, actually the result was very satisfying. I made my own rawon from Java with thicker broth, because I designed as sauce for the ravioli which was stuffed with oxtail. I used the ravioli concept just as presentation, meanwhile the taste was still authentic Javanese.

Deni: Actually, there are many, but my family really love Gulai Kambing. In Iron Chef, I served lamb rack, gulai kambing sauce served with botok rice, coconut and Chinese stinky bean that raised the enthusiasm of the judges

According to you, what’s the most interesting Indonesian cooking technique?

Djoko: I learn from my mom who runs a catering business, she’s very good in Indonesian cuisine. She no longer need scale for any number of orders. I don’t know, but since I was a child until now, I never see her using scale, but the end result is always fantastic! Yesterday we had order of 200 rendang, sayur ketupat, and opor, they were all cooked without any recipes. I discover that cooking is also about instinct, you don’t have stick on recipes, but on the other hand, we need to know the timing to put the garic, coconut milk and the shrimp paste. Of course, the problem with this “feeling” method is when we teach other people, but for me, the most important thing is knowing the steps in cooking, because if they were wrong, the result would be different. For example, when we cook rendang, I usually use the more tender imported beef, as a result the cooking process is shorter.

Deni: Smoking. Actually, Indonesians are pretty good in smoking. For example, the smoked skipjack tuna, it has very distinct character. After the fish was steamed, it was hung in a room, and then we smoke it by burning wood chips or coconut shells all day until it became dry and caramelized. We can apply this technique in restaurant; we even had the modern smoking machine to prevent the smoke from going anywhere. Some Katsuobushi (Japanese’s shredded smoked skipjack) are mostly sourced from Indonesia, we smoked it here and then export it to Japan. That’s why it’s hard to find the smoked skipjack nowadays as it was allocated for export to Japan.

The last one, is this modern Indonesia will be temporary trend like molecular gastronomy, or is it here to stay?

Djoko: It will stay, but it depends on the chefs’ innovation. For the molecular gastronomy trend, the restaurant is having difficulties because it required sophisticated equipments, longer cooking time, and as a result the costing will be much higher. Many guests don’t see it, they only want to come and eat good food. Foam, terrine, etc are quite difficult to be applied in Indonesian dishes. Basically, our traditional foods have very home style presentation, even though they have modern presentation now, the taste should remain the same.

Deni: Yes, flavor is king. We can make any local fine dining dishes, but you shouldn’t alter the taste. I’d say the trend is here to stay, because in the end, we’re Indonesians who are used to eat local food. Sometimes we might want to try Japanese food, but for daily consumption, most of us will opt for the local dishes. And then I thought, why don’t we raise the dignity of our local food, we’ll prove that Indonesian food can be as sophisticated as other cuisines.

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