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Farm-to-table dining in Taipei
THEY'RE NOT TRYING to sell ice to the eskimos, but serving locally grown ingredients to Taiwanese diners proved harder than they thought when they were starting out, say chefs Richie Lin, Jimmy Lim and Ryohei Hieda, who are now considered the pioneers of the sustainable dining movement in their host country.
"It was difficult in the beginning because the perception that Taiwanese diners had of local produce was that it was inferior and imported food was better," says the Hong Kong-born Chef Lin of the one Michelin-starred Mume restaurant. "It was hard to persuade them to appreciate local ingredients, and to pay more for them - because it's more expensive and people don't realise that."
Chef Lin was speaking on the sidelines of the recent International Chefs Summit Asia (ICSA) which held its inaugural Singapore event earlier this month. The theme revolved around ‘sourcing locally', and the chef had been discussing how Mume evolved to become the 100 per cent locavore restaurant it is today. He now has over 100 farmers in his database and has a sous chef who works full time just sourcing and managing the farmers.
Chef Lin, who worked in Australia, Copenhagen and Hong Kong before striking out on his own in Taipei in 2015, says that he made the move because he wanted to be close to agriculture, which Hong Kong had little of.
When he arrived, what he found were farmers with the potential to grow the kind of quality produce he was looking for, but weren't because there was no market for it. "In the market, everything is locally produced, but it was not up to the standard we wanted or our specifications."
Thus began the long journey to identify and persuade farmers to grow more unique produce for Mume. "For example, with fruits they tend to grow them until they're very ripe and sweet, but we want it a little less ripe for the acidity; or we want them when they are still flowering. The farmers had never done it this way before because nobody would buy it. So in the process, we created a new market for them."
Of course, it would have been a lot easier to just work with what's already available in the market "but that would be too common," says Chef Lin.
He works mainly with small artisanal farmers who concentrate on just one or two crops, for example, carrots. "They focus only on one product but they do it very well. Big farmers can grow 100 ingredients but of average quality. We want the best, and these small farmers are willing to try new things because they have the same mentality – to take the carrot and make it the best in the market."
Besides himself, Chef Lin cites the example of Ryohei Hieda, who arrived in Taipei five years ago to open Shoun RyuGin, at the behest of his mentor/boss Seiji Yamamoto, founder-chef of the original Nihonryori RyuGin – the three Michelin-starred flagship in Tokyo. For a chef so used to the surfeit of quality produce he could summon with a snap of his fingers back home, the inconsistent quality and variety of Taiwanese ingredients proved to be painful culture shock.
As the original RyuGin's DNA is built entirely on the spirit of Japan and its terroir, Chef Hieda's brief was to do the same in Taiwan.
"Even though I am making Japanese cuisine, the concept of Shoun RyuGin is to express the diversity of where we are."
Before he set up the restaurant, he spent six months "building up relationships with local farmers and fishermen" to learn more about the produce and create his dishes around them. "Japanese cuisine doesn't combine a lot of ingredients. It's quite minimalist. That's why understanding nature, and the ingredients is very important."
He adds that three years ago, Taiwanese fisherman also began to practise shinkejime - a uniquely Japanese method of killing fish without pain. Combined with the increasingly high quality of ingredients across the board, Chef Hieda confidently pronounces Taiwanese ingredients to be as good as Japan's. The proof is in the pudding too, because Shoun Ryugin holds two Michelin stars.
SINGAPOREAN IN TAIWAN
Even if he wanted to, Singaporean-born chef Jimmy Lim wouldn't be able to come home to replicate the cuisine that he serves in Taichung, simply because he won't have all the ingredients he needs.
"I do Singaporean cuisine but 90 per cent of my ingredients are from Taichung so I can't do it anywhere else," says the chef who has lived in Taiwan for 12 years and opened his own restaurant, JL Studio, two years ago.
In the process, he snagged the Miele One To Watch award by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. "Chefs like Richie (Lin) paved the way for chefs like myself (by building up) the movement for local ingredients," says Chef Lim. "The whole dining scene needs a community (of similar-minded chefs) in order for people to understand what we do. For me, I do Singaporean cuisine but I make it special by using local ingredients."
For him, it's a two way exchange where both local ingredients and Singapore cuisine share the same spotlight. As a classicallytrained Western chef, he felt that the one way to chart his own path was to go back to his roots. But having worked in Taiwan for so long, "I feel like the country has accepted me as a chef", which is why he sees his future there. But having said that, he wants to do his bit to share Singapore's culture and food heritage with his diners."
And the prognosis looks good. Where once diners would ask for lobster or foie gras, Taiwanese diners now appreciate what they're doing, says Chef Lin. "This is what will drive Taiwanese cuisine to be more unique, and make us stand out even against restaurants from other cities."