A Classy Chef
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Fri, 04/29/2011 10:35 AM |
Indonesia’s Theodora Hurustiati is living her culinary dreams on the other side of the world.
Theodora Hurustiati came within a pasta strand of winning it all in La Scuola – Cucina di Classe (The School: Classy Cooking), a popular cooking contest TV show in Italy. In the two-chef finale broadcast last week, she finished just five points behind winner Matteo Tassi, a 36-year-old financial broker from Modena.
Although Theodora admits feeling “bummed” about missing the chance host her own cooking show, she also knows she has ample reason to be proud as the runner-up among the 16 contestants in the second season of the highly rated show.
“I had a 9 for my final dish from the guest chef, Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef,” says the 34-year-old, who cooked a Balinese-inspired clear fish soup.
“Another great episode for me was when chef Anthony Genovese, who also has two Michelin stars, gave me an 8 for my fusion version of soto [Indonesian aromatic soup]. Off air, he told me that it was a helluva soup! I did the best I could and I thought I did really well in the final, but it looks like it wasn’t enough.”
Taking part in the TV show, broadcast on Italy’s most prestigious culinary channel Gambero Rosso, is an important step in both her culinary and her life journey. Born and raised in Jakarta, Theodora moved to the northeastern Italian city of Udine eight years ago with her husband, Fulvio Floreani. In following her heart, the move also allowed her to explore her other great love for food and cooking.
That passion was kindled as a child growing up in a typically polyglot Indonesian family: Her paternal name is the Sundanese Poeradisastra (her father, who also was part Betawi, died when she and her younger sister were small), and she has Bangka Chinese descent from her mother.
She was always curious about food and cooking, enjoying the delicious Sunday lunches made by her grandmother and the camaraderie of the women gathered in the kitchen.
But she was shooed away from the hot stove for her own safety, until one day at the age of nine when she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“My mum was at work, and I fried my first dead red fish! My nanny tried to stop me but I was too stubborn to listen. I didn’t eat it though. I just wanted to try to cook, to master the stove and produce something.”
Her grandmother’s talent for cooking had not been passed down to her mother, Theodora quips.
“In the end, I became the official family cook around high school. My mom said it herself that, for our sake, since we all wanted to eat better, it was wise to leave the kitchen to me. So you could say I first started cooking as a means of survival.”
Cooking was put on the back burner for her academic studies. She studied social welfare at the University of Indonesia’s School of Social and Political Sciences, and after marrying Floreani, a 35-year-old theater PR manager and sports journalist, she took her Master’s in communications at the University of Trieste.
The latter was in keeping with the tradition of writers in her family, and her own desire to be a journalist. But when she was finishing her thesis more than three years ago, she began to wonder what she really wanted to do with her life. She realized that food continued to be the field that excited her and one that she could use to communicate with others.
“I watched only cooking programs, mainly on Gambero Rosso Channel, bought cooking books and looked for good restaurants and markets when I traveled,” she says.
“Right after I finished my Master’s, I enrolled in a culinary school and earned my diploma as a cook too. I thought I needed to know more and also learn the right techniques in order to be more than just a home cook.”
She finished top of her class, earning an internship in one of Udine’s top restaurants. She also interned at a PR agency that organized a series of seminars on creative writing, including food writing.
“So there was no turning back, I was more sure than ever that I would love to continue to cook, to write and to share what I know to others. As a start, and also to practice my written Italian, I opened a food blog, Pura Cucina.”
During the past few years, she worked as a freelance production assistant in a theater, and on the side took part in a cultural club featuring different cooks with different themes.
That was until the opportunity arose last year to take part in La Scuola. Like the hugely popular UK Master Chef and its spinoffs in the US and other countries, the show gives contestants the opportunity to pursue their dream of becoming a professional chef. However, in the Italian version, set in a culinary school, renowned chefs give lessons to the contestants, who are graded on their culinary efforts.
From the more than 600 applicants, 200 were selected to audition for the show; Theodora then made it to the top 24 contestants. In the first episode, it was whittled down to the final 16, divided equally between the sexes, with Theodora among them.
“I wanted to take part to prove to myself my capabilities and my knowledge. Until you put yourself through a test, through an exam, you never really know what you can do. Our ‘professors’ were actually the best chefs from all over Italy and at least half of them are owners of Michelin stars. So, having my plate judged and appreciated by them was really important. If you managed to have good marks from them, it would mean the world.”
The contestants were a diverse group, including a banker, an architect, a designer, a zoology professor, a radio DJ and several housewives. “Some of us were more extroverts, more competitive or needed the spotlight more than others, but luckily we managed to keep sane competition as a group of friends who shared the same passion.”
Theodora was not the only non-Italian on the show – there was also a Venezuelan woman – but being the only Asian contestant among the Italian faces was to her advantage initially, she admits.
“I suppose having different traits, television wise, was a plus,” she says. “But then when they got to know how I cook and how I work, I guess yes, they were impressed. The jury often complimented me on my techniques and my precision, and this made me tremendously happy. Especially since they came from Allan Bay, Italy’s well-known food critic, and Francesca Riganati, the director of Gambero Rosso’s schools.”
Each episode was based on a theme – such as pasta, fish, meat, rice or vegetables – with the challenge to produce two dishes per episode using the key ingredient. The first was an obligatory dish, copying exactly that created by the contest’s main teacher, Chef Igles Corelli.
The second task was for contestants to create a plate of their own using the same ingredient. This was an opportunity for Theodora, who says she is immensely proud to represent Indonesia and often wore wayang-motif earrings in recognition of her homeland.
“I tried to do some modernized Indonesian cooking in the competition, but with the ingredients I had I couldn’t really do the authentic ones. In my cooking I always try to insert Asian ingredients and spices into the European or Italian cuisine,” she says.
She says she enjoys the “la dolce vita” of life in Italy, and also the better public services and quality of life compared with her hometown. But she also misses her family, whom she tries to visit once a year.
Of course, she also yearns for the tastes of home.
“I try to make the dishes myself when I crave Indonesian cuisine, but when you don’t have all the ingredients you can never really get the taste right. No matter how hard I try there’s nothing like Bakmi GM, or nasi goreng kambing, gado-gado, martabak manis or sate ayam from the food stalls across the street.”
Although she finished a close second, she is glad she gave her dream a shot.
“Well, of course I was aiming for the prize. A TV show of my own has always been a dream of mine along with writing cookbooks. So, regardless of the result, I thought this program was a good showcase. This way, hopefully, my chances in making these wishes come true are bigger and, who knows, they may come sooner. I will not give up and will continue trying.”