Some chefs favor local ingredients
Although many chefs in Bali insist on using imported ingredients, a few now make a point of focusing on locally sourced ingredients to create international-standard cuisine.
Locavorism, the concept of using only local ingredients, is now a hot topic. TIME magazine’s March 26 issue featured Danish chef Rene Redzepi and his philosophy of serving only Nordic cuisine using locally sourced foods. His restaurant, Noma, was named the world’s top eatery by Restaurants magazine in 2010, and his tables are booked three months in advance. The international restaurant scene has begun to take a more serious look at what’s growing outside the kitchen door.
Chef Eelke Plasmeijer, executive chef of Alila Ubud Resort, is committed to using mostly Indonesian ingredients to create both Balinese and Western food in the hotel’s Plantation restaurant. His transition began in Jakarta five years ago. The restaurant he worked in imported everything it served. “I was used to working with turbot, foie gras, all the usual European ingredients, and never thought much about it,” he said. “Then one day, a big, fresh barramundi was delivered and I realized that what we were doing was crazy. Why import everything? It doesn’t make sense to bring food in frozen, it can’t be as good as fresh food at the source. Also, the carbon footprint is huge.” After moving to Bali, he began to work with the Plantation menu to reflect Indonesia’s bounty. Now the food coming out of Plantation’s kitchen is about 85 percent local.
Earlier this year Plasmeijer began sourcing pigs in a village near Ubud and now buys one or two pigs a month that have been fed the traditional diet of banana stalks, rice bran and greens, instead of growth hormone-laced commercial food. Each pig is turned into hams, bacon (cured in palm sugar and sea salt), salami, chorizo and fresh sausage, roasts, chops, lard and paté. In partnership with Slow Food Bali, Plasmeijer now offers workshops at the hotel where participants learn how to make these charcuterie items from local pork.
It’s a long, slow journey to educate local farmers and producers to provide high quality, sustainably produced and competitively priced foods that will inspire Bali’s chefs to use them. Ideally, there would be some synergy between the many restaurants in Bali and the farmers scratching a living right next door. But it’s not easy building mutually beneficial relationships between chefs and producers to enhance local content and encourage chemical-free production of vegetables and meat animals.
“I hope chefs will be influenced by [this] new wave, but we’re a conservative profession. Many are content with the way things are. Most chefs are not known for environmental awareness. It’s about education, mindset and the willingness to do it, and also the time it takes to source things. Every email I get from suppliers is about imported stuff, which makes it very easy to stay in the box. It’s not easy to source locally, there’s a lot of frustration involved. When I find a beautiful product sample I get excited, but then a month later it’s not available anymore.”
It’s frustrating for the farmers, too. Climate change has brought much more rain to Bali than usual, and vegetables need lots of sun. Some farmers invest in plastic sheeting to keep the rain off the plants, but high winds can destroy these makeshift greenhouses. And local farmers are not used to the concept of planting smaller amounts continually so there will always be vegetables available for harvest and sale.
Most of Bali’s farmers live hand to mouth. If a farmer does manage to grow some chemical-free produce like lettuce, he has to belong to a cooperative that will help him distribute it that same day. If he happens to have a relationship with a restaurant chef and delivers it directly to the kitchen door, he may have to wait weeks or months to be paid. That system doesn’t work for Bali’s farmers, who are very small producers and need drip-feed income on a daily basis.
Running a restaurant is a business like any other, so price is important. The huge demand for imported foods in Bali keeps the prices competitive, and sometimes it’s actually cheaper to buy imported items.
Sydney-trained chef Mara Dowling of Ubud’s popular new Warung Schnitzel offers a menu that’s about 95 percent Indonesian-sourced. “Why use imported ingredients? Local sourcing not only keeps costs down for the diners, but ensures that everything is absolutely fresh. Freshness and quality are the most important elements of good food and I can get everything I need right here.”