There are few more beautiful spots in South East Asia for a chef to show off his knowledge of the region’s cuisine than at The Datai, a resort on Malaysia’s Langkawi island that somehow blends into the surrounding 10 million–year–old rainforest.
The British chef Will Meyrick, whose signature restaurant Sarong in Bali made the 2014 list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is following in the footsteps of the legendary Michel Roux as a guest chef at the property. Prior to a pop–up dinner featuring Malaysian and Indian flavours in a beautiful succession of dishes at the resort’s Gulai House, he talked about his journey and why food from his main home of Indonesia has not got the acclaim or audience it deserves.
Meyrick’s career has truly taken him around the world, from London to Sydney before finally to South East Asia where he fell in love with the intense flavours, spices and textures that make the region’s food so unique. His approach has been different since the outset: to learn and observe the art of street food cooking by getting to know ‘real’ chefs in the roadside stalls, humble shacks and kitchens of modest local Indonesian eateries known as warungs.
He has spent years learning their craft and documenting original recipes handed down over generations, before then taking these classic dishes and deconstructing the flavours, textures and ingredients in his unique signature style. Meyrick takes no prisoners when it comes to flavours: they are full-on and vibrant in a reassuringly honest way, not diluted for ‘sensitive’ palates.
In love with Indonesia
He fell for Indonesia in more ways than one: “I fell in love with an Indonesian – but then the country. It has a rawness and edge, which Vietnam and Cambodia have lost. Indonesians are both easy-going and flexible in both culture and flavours”. As to why the stunning variety of Indonesian food hasn’t truly reached a global audience: “Everyone thought Indonesian food was kept at home – you’d have your maids cook it, you wouldn’t go out for Indonesian food in Indonesia.”
Things are changing however, as he explains: “Indonesia has really taken on the food element of farm-to-plate, or forest-to-plate here, given our setting! So people are using Indonesian ingredients and doing them in maybe a Western format. I was just in Bangkok judging the South East Asia final for S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition and what was interesting was that two of the chefs were from Bali. So in the last two to three years, Indonesian chefs, produce and thinking have really come to the forefront.”
From street food to professional kitchens
Perhaps one of the most consistent challenges is how to translate street food into professional kitchens – and how to keep it authentic? He smiles as he explains, "One lady told me, ‘even if you copy me, it will not be the same. Every hand is different, so whatever you take here, even if you follow the same recipe, the flavours will not be the same.’ I travel, take the recipes, come back and work out the recipes with my guys – we all get involved and cook the dishes together.”
Teamwork, bold flavours, local produce and age-old recipes clearly make for a winning combination, as his dinner showed following our talk. The standout? An exceptional version of beef rendang, the slow-cooked classic featuring ginger, lemongrass, coconut, tamarind, galangal – and this being South East Asia, much more besides.