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Restaurants' in-house experts raise the fine dining game
WINE SOMMELIERS ARE a given in any fine dining restaurant, but how about an in-house cheese or caviar master, tea expert, pasta maker or a sommelier who matches your entire meal with nonalcoholic beverages?
In a competitive industry where differentiation is key, more upscale restaurants look in-house rather than to external expertise - to raise the dining experience to another level.
MASTERS OF CHEESE AND CAVIAR
That’s what led the three Michelin-starred restaurant Les Amis to invest in its own cheese and caviar masters who can curate and explain the intricacies of caviar, truffles and cheese beyond just a cursory explanation of provenance, pasteurised or unpasteurized, stinky or not.
Says Sebastien Lepinoy, director of culinary and operations, “At Les Amis, we serve pure French haute cuisine - truffles, caviar and cheese are all essential elements associated with French fine dining, which is why we focus on them in our restaurant.”
The restaurant, which was recently awarded the fifth star in the Forbes Travel Guide, now claims the coveted Three Pillars in gastronomy which covers the top awards in three prestigious guides - Food (Michelin stars); Service (the Forbes award) and Wine (Grand Award by Wine Spectator).
If there were to be an award for cheese, Les Amis’ massive cheese trolley (customised in France) holds more varieties than you can possibly cover in one sitting.
And in-house expert Manoj Sharma won’t just be able to curate a tasting for you based on textbook information but from first-hand experience gleaned from training with Mons Fromager Affineur in France.
“I spent 10 days with the team, learning about the different breeds of cows, sheep and goats and how their grazing patterns affect the type of cheese produced across the seasons,” says Mr Sharma. “It was a priceless experience milking cows and working in the tunnels where the cheese is aged. It lets me share bite-sized information with my guests as I introduce the 18 to 20 different types of cheese on our trolley.”
It’s no small investment to send staff for overseas training, adds Chef Lepinoy, but it’s worth it. “In France, my team forms a personal connection with the product. It’s like when you are courting someone.
You want to find out everything about that person. They do research and become better acquainted with the nuances of the product. When they return, they’re able to tell personal stories about how the caviar is harvested or how the cheese is aged. The stories are all based on their own experience, not something they read on the internet.”
As for Patrick Esteves, Maître d’hôtel (Caviar Master) who was sent to work with Kaviari Caviar in Paris to study Les Amis’ Kristal Caviar, “It’s one thing to read about the different types of caviar and sturgeon, but it’s a whole different ball game to witness the entire production process and how the roe is harvested.”
It’s for this reason that Chef Lepinoy adds, “We are also currently working on a caviar trolley, so that our guest can enjoy tasting various types of caviar.”
With diners being so well-travelled, “the challenge for us is, how do create that ‘something special’ for them? This is where the in-house experts come in, to provide a more memorable experience.”
As the head sommelier of Rishi Naleendra’s restaurant Cloudstreet, Vinodhan Veloo has already crafted one of the more innovative wine programmes at the popular eatery, but he’s also part of the team that’s driving a non-alcohol pairing programme that’s just as extensive as his booze offerings.
“The concept is relatively simple – to create an extension of the course in a beverage,” says Mr Veloo. “The philosophy on the other hand is to use ingredients that are, to some extent, indigenous or native to Asia and presented as a flavour in a drink.”
Cloudstreet is one of the rare restaurants in Singapore to offer non-alcohol pairings (NAP), which is already fairly common overseas. But Mr Veloo sees a growing interest as “there’s a substantial local population who prefers not to drink alcohol, so having a NAP option does less to discriminate against non-drinkers”.
As for what goes into a NAP, “Fruits, vegetables, teas and food by-products (whey) are all some of the ingredients that we commonly use. The rule of pairing is simple - balance. Fat in the food is balanced with acidity in the drink. Sweetness is balanced with sweetness. Bitterness is balanced with salt and umami. We also look for complementing flavors in different food ingredients on the plate with what we can offer in a drink. We’re also using more local fruits like chiku or rose apple which are amazing in shrubs and teas.”
While the task doesn’t just fall on him - there’s input from Chef Naleendra and GM Gareth Burnett and his assistant sommelier Wolfhart - it’s part of a specialised service that, “like having one of the best wine programmes locally, we look to say the same eventually of our NAP programme.”
PASTA AND TEA PAIRINGS
While not many restaurants have the luxury of inhouse specialists, restaurants like Beppe De Vito’s Art and Braci or Ivan Brehm’s Nouri offer signature touches that are unique to them.
For Chef De Vito, it’s the inhouse pasta that’s central to his cuisine. “We use organic semolina milled from Khorasan flour (also known as kamut) that I import from my hometown of Puglia and I believe we’re the only ones in Singapore to have this. We also use it for our breads.” An ancient grain, it’s said to be rich in nutrients and high in protein but for the pasta lover, it’s turned into taglioni, tagliatelle and ravioli in all shapes and sizes and presented in dishes such as pumpkin tortelli with chanterelles and Toritto almonds; wheat tagliolini with sea urchin; and his latest morels and wild garlic raviolini.
And what may not be as well known about Nouri’s Ivan Brehm is that he once worked at a tea company called Jing Tea in London before he came to Singapore, where he “essentially created the research and development department”. His job was “to infuse, catalogue and tweak their recipes for their portfolio of teas, develop new tearelated products and troubleshoot for their main clients which were big London hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants”. That makes him the unofficial in-house tea expert at Nouri which used to offer tea pairings with its crossroads cuisine but now offers it upon request because of manpower issues.
But with diners’ expectations constantly rising, we may be seeing a lot more than just wine sommeliers soon.