Ready, Get Set – Koh!
In the spirit of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next, members of Escoffier chapters around the world selected chefs under the age of 25 to be part of Disciples Escoffier Young Chefs Challenge. Last May, the Singapore chapter, headed by Chef Emmanuel Stroobant, selected six young chefs, who were to interpret a given recipe within the confines of a rule book and ingredients. The young chef who came out top in that selection was Koh Han Jie, chef de partie at Les Amis. To help Koh prepare for the Asian selection, where candidates from Macau, Hong Kong, China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore competed over two days last September, Chef Laurent Brouard of Bistro du Vin would try his dish during practise sessions. On a few occasions, the 43-year-old Parisian, who formerly headed the Hong Kong chapter of Escoffier, stayed up with Koh until three or four in the morning, to check on his timings, and to see the completed dish.
“We can coach him, and give him our advice, but the point is, who’s cooking? It’s him, not us. So all the credit should go to him, because he worked hard on it.” From the Asian selection, Koh came out top, too. This meant he was to represent Asia in the finals in Zurich, held in March this year. About six weeks before, the rule book was released to the final six candidates from Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain, and Singapore. Essentially, each candidate would be given two whole chickens to work with, and needed to present a dish with three garnishes, one of which had to be a potato fondant from Escoffier cookbook. “I tried to utilise every single part of the chicken, and incorporate several cooking methods.” For the ballotine, chicken breast is used for a mousseline with tarragon and chive, and wrapped in leg meat and parma ham. In the complementary component, the drumstick and the thigh are blended into a farce, and mixed with chopped mushrooms and walnuts. This is then stuffed under the skin of the chicken breast, and roasted. The bones and trimmings are used for a sauce. The tenderness, texture, and flavour floor me.
“Applying the farce to the breast helps to retain moisture, when it’s roasting in the oven,” Koh explains. For the finals, each candidate was to commence at 15-minute intervals, and as the competition was three-hour long, this means ultimately all six candidates would be cooking in the kitchen. “At one point, all the judges left the other five candidates behind, and stood around him to see his technique,” says Chef Brouard, who had accompanied him to Zurich. Underneath that calm appearance, though, Koh in fact had to keep reminding himself to pull his pots, because all along, he had been practising on open-fire and induction stoves, whereas during the finals, the stoves used infrared. (Unlike open-fire and induction stoves, with infrared, even if you switch it off, heat still remains.)
The other challenge was the language barrier, since the judges and competitors mostly spoke German or French only. “I think what I’ve gained most is, I’ve learned how to manage my time,” says Koh. “This also applies to my daily work in the kitchen – I am better able to determine what needs to come first, in order to be most efficient.” According to Chef Brouard, the judges had marvelled at how clean Koh had kept his station, and when his dish was completed, and presented as the required eight equal portions on a large platter, even a judge who had attained the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France award exclaimed, “Wow. This is something.” His creation beat out the other five finalists. We wish Koh, who has recently turned 25, a bright and shining path ahead as he continues this culinary adventure.
Adapted from the May Jun 18
issue of Cuisine & Wine Asia.