Maggie Tiojakin, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 10:36 AM |
Juna Rorimpandey is known as the sharp-tongued judge on MasterChef Indonesia. But is he really the TV king of “mean cuisine” Indonesian style?
Juna Rorimpandey, now a familiar face on TV, he says he is unfazed by his newfound celebrity, although he admits fame can sometimes be a drag.
But that’s what happens when you take a gig as judge on a TV reality show about cooking – a world away from his day job as the executive chef at trendy JackRabbit restaurant in Kuningan, South Jakarta.
Of the three judges on the show, Juna has been branded the “mean” one, in the villainous tradition of Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay. His attitude might seem like a reality TV gimmick to go with his spiky hair and elaborately tattooed arms, but Juna emphasizes that there is nothing staged in the high-pressure and unforgiving world of the restaurant business. If a chef cannot stand the heat, whether a customer’s demands or a supervisor’s criticism, then he or she needs to get out of the kitchen.
That’s something he has learned from his professional career, and his life.
What it Takes
The best chefs are artists, and, like all artists, tend to be rather cocky and uncompromising when it comes to their work. Juna, a 35-year-old from Maluku emphasizes again and again that he comes from a middle-class family. He also spent 14 years in the USA, years he says were difficult because his parents were not paying his way, unlike most of his compatriots studying abroad.
He had gone to the US to study aviation in 1997; a year later, coincidentally as Asia was gripped by a devastating economic crisis, the school in Brownsville, Texas, also went bankrupt. Juna was left with the choice of staying on as an illegal alien or coming home empty-handed.
“I chose to stay for obvious reasons. I was determined to succeed, although at the time I didn’t yet know what I was going to succeed in,” Juna says.
“I got to where I am today because I worked really hard for it. There were moments when I could have given up, but I didn’t. I am a survivor.”
Juna spent the next 10 years or so bussing tables and rattling pots and pans in various kitchens across the USA – including sushi bars, bistros and fine-dining restaurants – until he proved to himself that he had what it takes to succeed. Although he never set out to be a chef, and has repeatedly stated publicly that he “fell into the business”, he seems to have been born to cook. Every dish he creates is a piece of art and he has an impeccable sense of flavor and texture that gives him the freedom to try different things.
“I think being a good chef has a lot to do with the willingness to learn something new,” says Juna. “Never assume you know it all, because chances are you don’t. Keep your eyes and ears open. You’ll be surprised by what life has in store for you.”
Perseverance brought opportunities to learn from some of the best, such as Thomas Keller of French Laundry in Napa Valley and Michael Symon of Lola Bistro in Cleveland, Ohio.
The rewards are sweeter because they came after dealing with the knocks life dealt him, he says. He does lower his voice to a conspiratorial tone when he reveals the tough times, of staying one step ahead of immigration officers at work, sharing a tiny living space with seven others, collecting pennies from trash to get a cheap meal at McDonald’s. He also talks about run-ins with the law and a drug overdose.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” he says, reflecting on his past experience. “But if I hadn’t gone through what I had gone through – again, I probably would not have gotten to where I am today. Life is a process.”
Two years ago, he returned to Indonesia for a vacation and realized that the country he left all those years ago is now culinary hub worth buzzing about. He met with a few people who immediately offered him the opportunity to run a new restaurant.
“I went back to the US after the vacation,” explains Juna. “A little while later, the same people flew all the way to the US, came to see me and told me to go back to Jakarta and cook for JackRabbit’s shareholders.”
For nine days straight, that was what he did.
“They were happy with my cooking and now here I am,” says Juna. “I think what we’re trying to do is to create a bridge between Indonesians and dishes from all around the world.”
The restaurant has a mix of European, American and Asian food, a “little bit of everything”, he says. He tries things that may be new to some Indonesian diners, such as using vodka in pasta sauce.
“Indonesians are not used to that,” says Juna. “In the US, we use vodka, wine and other alcoholic beverages as ingredients. So I try to bring that kind of flavor here and, surprisingly enough, pasta with the vodka sauce is probably the most popular menu item here.”
He is quick to add that it’s not random experimentation.
“I take classic recipes and modify them just a little to make them different on some levels, but still authentic on other levels,” says Juna. “So it’s not like I change things around without knowing where I’m going with each menu.”
He says he does not like pretentiousness; on his Facebook page, his political views are defined as, “Sorry, not into BS”, and his favorite quotation is “Put me in the box, I’ll jump right out!!”
So what is his true take on this show, with the frequent crying over spilled milk and cracked egos of contestants, from the little office boy who could (maybe) cook to battling housewives and office workers?
“Like I said, it’s a reality show. There’s a lot of tears and sad stories. I complained about it to the producers, as well – I want to know where’s the cooking? So they sat me down and explained to me how it works. As we move toward the elimination process, there will be more cooking. For now, some of the drama is generating the ratings,” he says.
“The contestants on the show have various agendas, I am aware of that. I think that’s OK. But it is also important to remember that if you want the title that bad, you have to work extra hard for it. So, there’s no room for anyone in it just for a five-second close-up.”
He is often the catalyst for drama, whether because he offers cutting comments or spits out a contestant’s offering. Does he rule his own kitchen with such an iron fist?
“I disagree with the term ‘iron fist’,” says Juna. “It’s not like I’m torturing the people who work in my kitchen. I’m very fair in my kitchen. I want everyone to give their best and work with passion – which is also what I’m trying to convey on MasterChef Indonesia. There is no place for self-doubt in my kitchen. You have to have confidence and respect for the place, for each other, for the guests. If you work hard, you’ll achieve what you set out to do.”
He does not mind being the bad guy alongside the other judges, veteran hotel chef Vindex Valentino Tengker and Rinrin Marinka. Love to hate him, or hate to love him, it’s a matter of taste. He is just calling it like he sees it.
“I’m not personifying anybody but myself,” he says. “It’s just me, Juna. This is how I roll.”