In 2005 he released his first book Exploring Taste and Flavour, which details the secrets of his exotic cooking style — the combination of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Having just picked up the World Gourmand Award for Best First Cookbook in Britain, 2005, he took time out to speak to our international correspondent, Kate Seamark, about food, his passions and his amazing journey through the “anthropology of food”.
Q:What are your favourite appliances/utensils in your restaurant and home kitchens? And why?
A: I think an essential thing for any restaurant is a pasta roller. I love making pasta. It’s very therapeutic because you really have to concentrate and you can lose yourself in it for half an hour — it’s such a change from what it’s usually like in the restaurant kitchen, when you’re doing 30 things at once! The other thing I love is my stone pestle and mortar. I have a small one, which I never go anywhere without — even though it means lugging this huge piece of stone around. Pestle and mortars are incredibly versatile and you can use them to create food from Morocco to the gulf of Siam, from Spain to India. Lots of different cultures use them. Mine is from Thailand and I use it to grind nuts, peppercorns, pastes and curries — everything. And when you’re finished you can just wipe it out and start again. It’s also very nice because you get a course in aromatherapy at the same time.
Q: What is your favourite dish to cook for family and friends?
A: Something delicious. Probably fish or seafood. I really go to town, making my own pasta or cooking something amazing as opposed to eating humus on toast, which I tend to do if I’m on my own.
Q:Where did you get your passion for food and cooking?
A: My mum is a very, very good cook and her mother was a very, very good cook. She gave her love to people through her cooking. My mum would say, “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked you a cake”. She made bread every day and always made her own jam. I’ve always been surrounded by food. I probably learnt by osmosis — just always being around it.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration for creating new recipes?
A: I get it from travelling and meeting people. My new book is all about street food. I’m particularly interested in the anthropology of food and seeing how food and culture are combined. In Vietnam or Thailand, there are lots of greetings that are to do with food. You say, “Hello, are you hungry?” and that’s how you greet someone. Marrakech is like you’ve gone back a 100 years – the people sell mobile phones next to more traditional products like sandals — but the way of eating is very traditional. You can have amazing food in a very, very simple sense.
Q:What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps as a professional chef?
A: In terms of advice, I’d say you’ve got to really want to do it. People say I’m really lucky to be travelling all over the world. But, I started work at the age of 19 and have worked 12-16 hours a day, six to seven days a week since. Chefs seem like they’ve achieved so much by a young age, but from 19 to 31 I’ve done about 15 to 16 years of hard work. Working nine to five is like a half day for me.
You have to have a lot of dedication and I think it really shows up. For me, if I’m feeling down or not really interested, it will show up in my food. You have to give a lot of yourself to people through your food. I want to be an inspiration to people and inspire them through my food. I love giving people a completely different experience through food. You have to have a lot of passion and dedication. And, you have to be prepared to work long hours doing pretty repetitive jobs — and from that you have to create something amazing for someone else.
You can then build on this by travelling and exploring different cultures and cuisines, and then passing on what you have discovered.
Lacquered Duck with Cinnamon, Star Anise, Orange Zest and Honey
4 duck breasts
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
100ml light soy sauce
3 tablespoons fish sauce
juice and zest of 2 oranges
2 cinnamon sticks
4 star anise
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ red chilli (medium hot), deseeded
Crush the coriander and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar. Place with all the lacquer ingredients in a pan, bring to a simmer and reduce by half.
Meanwhile, place the duck breasts skin side down in a cold pan. This is one of the only times in cooking that you start something off in a cold pan. You do this to render the fat from the duck before sealing the skin to make it crispy. If the pan is too hot, you will seal the skin too quickly, trapping the fat inside.
Turn on a low-medium heat under the pan. As the fat melts from underneath the skin, tip off the excess liquid so that they are not boiling in fat. When the duck breasts have been rendered (about 10-12 minutes), all the fat will drain from under the skin and the skin will be crisp. Place the duck breasts skin-side up on a rack in a roasting tray.
When the lacquer is reduced, pour it over the sealed duck breasts. Pour any excess lacquer back into the pan. Continue to reduce for a few minutes and then spoon over a second layer. Repeat this 6-10 times. This will take up to 1 hour. You are building up layers of the ever-thickening lacquer.
If you run out of lacquer or if it starts to catch or burn, pour 200ml water and 1 tablespoon sugar into the pan and continue to reduce. You are making more caramel with the strong aromatic ingredients that are present in the pan.
Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius/425 degrees Fahrenheit.
When ready to cook, place the duck in the hot oven and roast quickly until medium rare (about 10-12 minutes). By cooking them very quickly, the breasts stay pink and moist while the outside is coated in the intense spicy caramel.