The Jakarta Post
Accompanying Gordon Ramsay (right) as he cooked was Indonesia's own legendary chef and TV personality, 73-year-old William Wongso, who serves as his mentor in learning the traditional dishes of West Sumatra. (Courtesy of National Geographic/File)
First-timers to the popular open-air Taruko Caferesto that conveniently sits within Ngarai Sianok valley in the city of Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, would immediately be in awe of the scenic Tabiang Takuruang cliff, rocky river and greeneries that make up its surroundings.
My attention, however, was distracted at the time by the urge to see in person one very famous British chef who has finally decided to step foot in my country.
It was a rainy day in late January, a time when we were still very much carefree and all we had to worry about was which local restaurant to try next or what souvenirs to bring home.
The foreign and local crew members were at work when we arrived after lunchtime. And there he was, busily cooking Indonesian dishes in the rain using traditional clay stoves set on a long wooden table strategically installed right beside the river, with the striking cliff as background.
Accompanying Gordon Ramsay as he cooked was Indonesia's own legendary chef and TV personality, 73-year-old William Wongso, who served as his mentor in learning the traditional dishes of West Sumatra.
Among the dishes the 52-year-old multi-Michelin starred chef attempted to make — and later serve to the West Sumatra governor and his family members at the location — were the region's signature beef rendang (slow-cooked meat in coconut milk and spices), eggplant balado (eggplant cooked with spicy chili sauce), fried fish with rendang sauce and ampiang dadiah (buffalo milk yogurt).
"Indonesian cuisine sometimes gets a little bit lost in translation, and they get sort of swallowed up into that sort of amazing backdrop. But until you come here, you don't understand how individual it is — understand that there are over 200 variations of rendang [...] — and how everything is localized. We don't have dishes like that in the UK. We have Lancashire hotpot up north but then we don't have 20 versions of it," Ramsay shared.
"And the nice thing about the essence of food here is in the preservation. The locals are buying produce fresh daily. The last time I experienced something as exciting as this was when I was in Vietnam."
His presence in Bukittinggi was part of the second season of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, which premiered earlier this month on National Geographic.
If the first season saw the Ironman athlete embark on various adventurous culinary journeys, the second boasts even more thrilling off-grid and off-recipe food escapades, this time in Indonesia, Tasmania, South Africa, Louisiana, Norway, India and Guyana.
Among his experiences during his five-day trip in West Sumatra, aired on Monday, were milking a buffalo — which then decided to defecate on his face — and participating in pacu jawi (traditional bull race) in a remote rice paddy field, working as a deckhand in the open ocean and exploring a bat-infested cave system in search of giant prawns.
"What an amazing week here, incredible. A little bit dangerous — trying to ride those bulls was hard. Milking the buffalo this morning for my yogurt was hard as well. Also going out with the locals and fishing with those incredible nets; I think the boat was actually older than me, built in the 1940s," Ramsay said, chuckling.
As a first-timer to Indonesia, he described the country as "amazing" and "really beautiful", however found the roads to be "a bit crazy."
"I still find it hard when I drive past a motorbike and there are four people on it and not one of them got a helmet. [However, Indonesia has] incredible culture, very self-sufficient, very unmanufactured [...] Everyone understands it's a working nation and nothing has been overcommercialize — that's a nice thing," he said, boasting that he had tried all the local snacks, from bika (coconut-based cake) to durian, and was particularly impressed with the former.
"Have you seen the way they cooked [bika]? In a clay pot? So [they're] less smokey and the flavors [are] there."
He enjoyed going to a traditional market as well.
"Have you been to the local market here? [It's] incredible; hustling and bustling. And the way they preserve the vegetables for market sale; it's the kind of ingredients that any [chef] would dream of."
Regarding the show itself, Ramsay described Uncharted as "coming off the glamour side of the tourist attraction and going into the real heartbeat of what this country stands for. Going back to learning because I get stripped of everything I got."
"So, I knew I was going to get my ass kicked by William Wongso, I knew that. He's 73 years of age, he's been cooking for six decades. He knows 200 versions of rendang. He got me turmeric leaves this morning, rolled them up, tied them in a bow and told me to put it in my rendang. I said, why? He said, trust me. So, two hours later it made it a little bit more fragrant. I'm very lucky to become a student under someone like William."
William, who is featured in the episode alongside rendang master Katuju who took Ramsay to the local market, and food writer Ade Putri Paramadita who introduced him to some cattle farmers, shared a similar sentiment, particularly how the two immediately became friends after their first meeting in West Sumatra's capital city of Padang.
"He's very spontaneous, lovable, very interested to learn because I think this is the first time a Western chef learned the right way of cooking the West Sumatran-style of rendang, as [there are] many Western chefs who’ve never been to Indonesia claiming they [can] cook rendang, without [knowing] the legacy," William said at the filming location.
According to William, red meat is among the key ingredients in rendang, as well as locally obtained 24-percent fat-content coconut cream and curly chili.
"Rendang in West Sumatra is a legacy, has its own character and so many varieties, easily more than 200. One thing in common, rendang is West Sumatran caramelized beef curry, and Gordon did a great job. He learned to understand and he tasted from different places around this area," William said. "Rendang that is cooked using one recipe but with a different cooking method or cooking time will have different a taste. [The color will change from a] yellow curry, and then become brown curry, and if you further cook it and make it is darker, then it becomes rendang.
"[Gordon's version of rendang] was what you call the stage between kalio and rendang. I advised him to stop at this stage; he can keep it in the freezer and later just take it out and cook it again if he wants to make rendang. Because once it already becomes rendang, you cannot go back to this more creamy, soft and tender stage of kalio.
“[The locals usually cook the beef] drier as a way to preserve it.”
William was the one who suggested that the show’s producers focus on West Sumatra when they could not figure out which destination to explore among the country's over 17,000 islands.
"I had no second thought. I immediately told [them to explore] West Sumatra because the complexity of the culture is very unique; the food culture is known all over Indonesia. I [advised] them to open with makan bajamba [Minangkabau tradition of dining together while sitting on the floor], so spectacular."
West Sumatra Governor Irwan Prayitno told journalists invited to the shooting location that he was hopeful that the program could help promote the region's cuisines and culture to the world.
"The show is a good opportunity for us [as it can help promote] not only the iconic rendang, but also [other dishes such as] ikan balado [grilled mackerel with chili sauce] and tourist activities like pacu jawi, fishing and jungle trekking," he said.
Separately, showrunner John Kroll praised the local administration for being so welcoming.
"They made it clear that ‘we want you here, we will do things to help you’. When we get that kind of welcome from a place, it's very difficult to say no. And I can tell you, now that I've done 10 episodes of the show — six in the last years and four so far this year — we have never got a warmer welcome than we have here in Indonesia."
Kroll added that the crew’s experience of shooting in the province had been an "absolute fest" in terms of help, support and love from the local people.
"And the people that we have encountered, from the farmer by the side of the road to the people who [prepare] our lunches, have just been the kindest, warmest people we've met anywhere in the world."
The verdict of Ramsay's Sumatran dishes from the governor and his family can now be watched on the show. But during the January interview, the restaurateur only said that they all seemed happy.
"Forget Michelin stars, Good Food Guides and glamorous restaurants. I stand there naked and afraid. The Zulu chief warrior in South Africa told me straight: I would eat that in my house and the governor today said that he enjoyed the rendang, which I started cooking last night at 8 o'clock. It's not the kind of food I grew up with, so I try to get up to speed by [learning] every day, go gather my ingredients, go back, practice and study [again]."
Ramsay has had his share of negative responses for opening an Asian restaurant because he is not from Asia.
"So, you're saying that every country you know, you need to be from that country if you need to learn that food; that's total rubbish. I'm not an Indonesian chef but I'll certainly use beef rendang when I get back to my restaurant in London without a doubt because I know I've been to the heart and [understand] the essence.
"The number one seller at our restaurant at Terminal 5 [of Heathrow Airport in] London is butter chicken, which [I learned to make and understood when] I went to India, the birthplace of butter chicken. So, I can't wait to put beef rendang [on the menu]; I can’t wait to do that."
The Jakarta Post was invited for a press visit to Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, by National Geographic on Jan. 21 to 23.
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