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7 Prolific, Underrated Chefs

While not as well-known, unjustifiably, as some of their more famous counterparts, these under-the-radar chefs are doing as much - if not more - for the industry than they have been given credit for. We celebrate seven of these talents.

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This is one-eighth of Andre Chiang’s How I See the World.


01: Christian Puglisi

The Quiet One

Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen fine-dining brasserie Relae has worked at the likes of Taillevent and El Bulli, and is also a Noma alumnus. The 32-year-old Italian is, however, his own person, and Relae is a special place in that it offers a fine-dining experience, without the exclusivity or constraints of fine-dining establishments. His cooking is pure and precise, each dish comprising just three to four components and, while he is privy to the technology and techniques of the modern kitchen, he never lets the method outshine the product, but instead focuses on presenting dishes that are natural, personal, yet intriguingly new.

“It’s my favourite restaurant in the world,” shares Chiang. “Christian is very deep. I would describe his food as a poem or a haiku – there are only a few words and you kind of understand it, but only upon repeated reading do you understand the true meaning. In a good piece of poetry, every word has a precise purpose, and that is the same with his dishes.”

02: James Syhabout

The Melting Pot

Chiang was led to James Syhabout of Oakland bistro Commis (and also now of Thai casual dining place Hawker Fare and Southern-inspired eating house Box and Bells) by a photograph. “I saw a picture in a magazine one day of an oyster dish with a lot of pebbles. It was so beautiful that I wanted to find out where this picture came from, and who made the dish. It was from that picture that I decided I wanted to go try Syhabout’s food. It’s a gut feeling.” Born to a Chinese father and Thai mother who cooked at a Thai restaurant in Oakland, the 35-year-old American California Culinary Academy graduate applies his mixed cultural influences to his food. Having worked at the likes of The Fat Duck, Mugaritz and El Bulli further fine-tuned his cuisine.

Says Chiang: “I think perfecting the simplest things is the hardest part of being a chef – we’re learning too many techniques, we have too many ingredients, too many choices, and we forget to perfect just that one thing and make that right. Commis is a place where I feel that everything is so simple yet so well done.”

03: Alexandre Gauthier

A New Force

La Grenouillere in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil is not quite your run-of-the-mill dining establishment. Its 35-year-old proprietor, Alexandre Gauthier, is obstinate when it comes to having things done his way, and upon taking over the space from his father in 2003, turned it into an industrialluxe space complete with Hermes-designed tables and chairs. But it is his food that sets him apart. There is a lot more to the seeming simplicity of the abstractly beautiful plates he presents – behind each unexpected ingredient combination is an intriguing spontaneity, behind each juxtaposition of contrasting elements is his genius. Andre Chiang also respects his relentless pursuit of perfection.

“When we first met about five years ago, he was in the middle of producing his book. He got someone to write it, he picked his own photographer, took some pictures of his own, designed the entire book the way he wanted and went knocking on the doors of publishers,” recalls Chiang. “That’s how much of a perfectionist he is – he doesn’t do things just for the sake of it.”

04: Yu Bo

The Importance of Being Earnest

Yu Bo of Yu’s Family Kitchen in Sichuan, China, had his five minutes of fame, thanks to the patronage of food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, but he remains very much the downto- earth self-taught chef with a fierce focus on details. “He is totally self-taught and has his own interpretation of Sichuan cuisine. He isn’t boxed in by history, and (while he is well-familiar with the molecular food trend and has even dined at El Bulli) his food is not trendy – it is just his food,” observes Chiang who met Yu at the 2009 Sydney Food Festival.

But it isn’t just his culinary prowess that makes Yu stand out, but his character. While the likes of Michel Bras and Mark Best prepared three dishes each to showcase during a 45-minute demonstration at the food festival, Yu Bo pushed himself to make a whopping 25 – cut from 45 because he felt some of the ingredients did not meet his standards. And, while dining at Spice Temple, he got Chiang to tell Neil Perry quite plainly that his chilli oil is “not good”, and headed into the kitchen to show the biggest name in the Australian food scene how to do it right.

05: Sven Chartier

A Different Orbit

“French bistronomy started with Le Chateaubriand and it is still my favourite. My second is Saturne,” professes Chiang. He has been following chef and co-owner Sven Chartier (of the latter) since he was at Racines and has been visiting Saturne since 2010. “I go to Saturne whenever I’m in Paris. Once I went there upon arrival and I sat at the bar with my luggage – and he came to my seat, took a bowl and started to grind a veal tenderloin into the bowl. Then he shucked an oyster and put it on top of the veal, with three pieces of almonds and a pinch of salt. And that wowed me because the idea is very bold,” recounts Chiang.

The 28-year-old L’Arpege alumnus uses rigorously sourced artisanal ingredients and applies minimal treatment to the produce to create unexpected combinations that seem effortless yet fiercely intelligent. “It is familiar, yet totally new,” Chiang comments. “By doing so, he has changed the daily food for Parisians. It could be a potato salad with a twist or a hot chocolate with an iced nougat. His food is not complicated but through them, he has updated traditional French flavours.”

06: Yang Yong Long

Not Playing By The Rules

Sushi chef Yang Yong Long does not serve up your typical sushi meal at his Taipei restaurant Sasa Sushi. The Taiwanese is outstanding not just for his precise technique when it comes to treating delicate seafood, but also the way he designs his meal. The space might be traditionallooking, but there is a lot more than meets the eye.

“He has his own way,” proclaims Chiang, who has been visiting Sasa since it opened in 2010. “He is like a boxer. With his meal, he isn’t just sending out straight punches, but he will jab and hook and pull back and go forward. He might serve one or two pieces of sushi and then present you with a little skewer of vegetable, and then another two or three pieces of sushi followed by a kushiyaki item. He plays with temperature. He plays with a contrast of flavours and textures so that each course hits different areas of the palate. A meal here is not something you get at a traditional Japanese restaurant, and I will say that the best sushi I’ve had – counting those tasted in Japan – is by him.”

07: Eelke Plasmeijer

Nature Boy

Eelke Plasmeijer might be from Holland, but his heart is in Bali. He is passionate about the underrated produce of the land and, with Restaurant Locavore, which he opened in late 2013 with Sumatran co-chef and business partner Ray Adriansyah, he makes it his mission to celebrate the diversity of Balinese ingredients. He buys his meats in the form of whole carcasses – from free-range chicken and rabbit to goats – and does his own butchering so as to be able to make use of every single part of the animal.

“I chanced upon his restaurant in Ubud one day and saw a whole pig being carried into the restaurant by local people. Then – through a window – I saw him carve it on the workstation. That was when I decided that this must be the real deal,” recounts Chiang. And, while the ingredients are all local, the cuisine style is “very Scandinavian, and very up to date”, according to Chiang. “This is how I expect South-east Asian cuisine to evolve. We have so many great produce and we should have someone like that to give it a new interpretation.”

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