Chef Jeffrey Tan has a fusion recipe
for success and charity, writes Samantha Joseph
“MY secret to looking young is to eat a lot of sambal belacan,” Chef Jeffrey Tan says with a laugh.
His advice should be heeded, for at 64, he looks like he’s in his 40s, with his jovial, face and skin that even Miranda Kerr would envy. Tan was recently in Malaysia for a fine dining charity night, presented by the Rotary Club in Penang, with four other Australia-based chefs.
Charitable endeavours with a culinary note are no strangers to him — for the past nine years, he has been the main driving force behind collaborative charity dinners with the Rotary Club, for an array of causes including funds for the elderly, for Alzheimer’s care and for the disabled.
Tan usually has a band of fellow chefs, some whom have been participating in these charity events since inception. Mark Normoyle, executive chef at the exclusive RACV Club in Melbourne, credits Tan for bringing them together.
“He’s a great guy,” Normoyle says in his broad Australian accent. “Without him, we wouldn’t have had the chance to do this.”
In Penang, Tan and Normoyle are joined by chefs Ikuei Arakane, Pierrick Boyer and Florent Gerardin, all of whom echo Normoyle’s sentiments. I tell them that it isn’t necessary to be nice simply because Tan is there. They laugh heartily and insist that he’s a wonderful person and a great friend.
“I’d like to thank him for the opportunity to be here,” says doe-eyed Gerardin, head chef at Melbourne’s Pei Modern and a first-timer with Cooking for Charity.
Tan, it seems, is a driving force in making things happen. Originally, the dinners started out as a way for Rotarians to enjoy better wine and food than the usual fare. Later they became a charitable concern that has raised an impressive AU$2.3 million (RM6.62 million) so far.
“I suppose it started with the way I was brought up,” he muses, before adding: “I remember my father said to me, if someone didn’t have enough, you can always share.”
EARNING THE HAT
Surprisingly, Tan did not start out as a chef, in spite of how natural he seems in a chef’s coat and hat. Originally a chartered accountant in Muar, Johor, he founded a distribution company in Australia after following his wife over in 1981. The company, IPF Culinary Consultancy, unsurprisingly specialises in supplying “fine wine and foods that are mainly Australian-sourced, from the best MicroGreen edible flower salad mixes to wagyu beef and premium seafood”, to classy corporate clients.
“When I started this business, I told myself that unless I learnt to cook, I will never be accepted into the industry,” Tan says, explaining his motivations to get down and dirty with cooking. So he proceeded to procure the instruments needed to master the trade and went straight to the source for his knowledge - the other chefs.
Revealing his modus operandi, he says: “Once a month, I entertained chefs at my home and cooked for them. And I got myself invited to various chef’s kitchen to spend time with some of the top chefs in town and learn how to cook.”
His hard work paid off. Not only is he a celebrated chef now but he is also one of the very few non-professionally trained chefs to be admitted to the ranks of Les Toques Blanches.
This prestigious body that aims to serve the culinary industry not only accepted him into the fold but it also gave him a role in their central committee and rather aptly, it is the position of vice president of social events.
“What I do is a passion for me,” Tan says with a smile. “A lot of people think: ‘I want to do something’ but they don’t take the initiative to do it. Just do it. Be positive.”
There is a video of Tan from two years ago on Vimeo. In it, he is making crispy duck and the entire process has a delicious simplicity to it. The duck is cooked in a pan and then placed in an oven so that its skin turns crispy. When taken out, Tan gently cuts into the succulent meat and plates it with a crispy fried wanton skin. Although it would seem like fusion food, Tan explains that he is quite averse to the word.
“Fusion doesn’t have the best reputation,” he says. What he is doing, Tan continues, is to bring out the best in food. “My cooking is about the simple things in life. Just get the best ingredients and provide what is the best interpretation to your guests. I believe even fine food is about simplicity in what we do.”
This is evidenced when Tan talks about what he would call his signature dish. “Find a newly laid organic egg from a farm and steam the egg yolk to perfection. Add a bit of foie gras, a touch of duck or goose stock and garnish with slices of the best Tasmanian truffle.
Adding, he confides: “I would probably open a bottle of Pinot Noir, find a little quiet corner of the room and selfishly indulge.”
With a smile of satisfaction befitting of someone who knows he has told a tantalising tale, Tan concludes our chat.
Chef Jeffrey Tan shares more about his trade below.
If you had to use durian as an ingredient, what dish would you make?
At the recent Fine Food Australia expo, I challenged myself to introduce Musang King durian in my creations. Served frozen with yoghurt and black sesame seeds, when cut the right way it appears like a dragon fruit. The smell was minimal because it was served frozen and it was well accepted.
If you could change the colour of the chef’s uniform, what would you change it to and why?
Please do not call me a chef, I am just a humble cook. The more we develop ourselves in the culinary world, the more humbled I become and therefore, the chef uniform or the colour does not mean much to me as long as it is presentable, clean and respectable.
What is more important: The right wine glasses or the correct cutlery?
Both are important. I always have a dozen (half a dozen red, half a dozen white) Riedel wine crystals in my car just in case I go to a restaurant which provides substandard wine glasses for my fine wine. Cutlery is as important. Not just using the right one but the quality is also a must. Any culinary creation without quality china and cutlery to serve it is not in my vocab. At each of my private charity dinners, I must have my own china and cutlery to serve in. Wine crystals are a prerequisite.