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SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Reinventing classic Asian dishes is a daunting task, but for Singaporean chef Muhammad Haikal Johari, it was a matter of tweaking the ingredients.
Johari, 32, this month won "The Perfect Meal," a TV cooking competition show sponsored by global appliance maker Miele in which 6 top-rated chefs were judged on their ability to make staples Singaporean foods their own.
Singapore's cuisine is unique, reflecting the island's diverse history and ethnicities and combining Indian, Malay, Chinese and European, influences. The city-state also hosts one of the world's biggest global gourmet food and wine festivals.
Johari, who describes himself as a "kampung," or countryside, boy, has been cooking for the past decade.
He graduated from a prestigious hospitality school, training at the famous colonial Raffles Hotel and then going on to working at a variety of popular high-end eateries. He has also worked with world chefs such as Joel Robuchon, Todd English and Laurent Gras.
Johari, head chef at Bangkok restaurant Ember, spoke to Reuters about cooking European with Asian touches and how much he loves butter:
Q: What prompted you to enter the cooking contest?
A: "I've been in the restaurant business for a while now, so I thought this would be fun. It was a nice chance to play around, get off the routine. And I like to experiment in the kitchen."
Q: Reinventing a classic must be hard. How did you do it?
A: "With the classics, if you make a change, it has to be one that is accepted. You have to keep the original flavors, 70 to 80 percent, the same but you can alter the cooking technique and the quality of the ingredients. For example, I used French techniques cooking some dishes. But if you're too adventurous, you lose the original flavors that define the dish."
Q: What was the winning dish? What inspired you to make it?
A: "I made beef with sweet soya sauce, one of my favorite childhood dishes. My mother would make it often for us, but instead of using a cheap cut of beef as is the norm, I used top-quality beef and paired it with different garnishes, so that the dish was essentially the same, but better. When I won, I immediately thought of my father, who passed away recently and who was very supportive of me and my career."
Q: What's your favorite ingredient in the kitchen?
A: "Butter! I love good, quality French butter. You can do so much with it. We do a lot of contemporary European dishes with Asian touches at Ember."
Q: What about cooking techniques? Any preferences?
a: "If you start out with very good produce, you don't have to do much to it. The flavors speak for themselves. These day, I like to cook fish and meat at very low temperatures but without overcooking them. I am trying to retain their textures."
Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Robert Birsel