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Tue 27 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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The art of the matter

In a competitive market, F&B must be increasingly daring and creative to impress customers - but Middle East chefs and suppliers are rising to the challenge.

The art of the matter
The art of the matter
Radisson’s Cagayat creates a pastillage showpiece.
The art of the matter
Radisson’s Acala does some ‘cool’ carving.
The art of the matter
Radisson’s Cagayat sketches out some designs.
The art of the matter
A creation made from yam by Radisson’s Cagayat.
The art of the matter
A pastillage sugar showpiece by Radisson’s Cagayat.

In a competitive market, F&B must be increasingly daring and creative to impress customers - but Middle East chefs and suppliers are rising to the challenge.

The Middle East F&B industry has grown significantly over the past few years, to the point where the market - particularly in the main tourism cities - is crammed with diverse outlet concepts, jostling for business.

As such, chefs know they have to go more than the extra mile to stand out: they must truly dazzle guests.

This is where gastro-art comes in.

From sugar statuettes to ice statues and from vegetable showpieces to carved chocolate creations, art is where it's at when it comes to edible dining décor.

What was previously a rare specialism is increasingly coming into play in restaurants around the region, as talented young kitchen artists are sourced by operators to add pizzazz to their outlets.

Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) kitchen artist Lifeng Dong - winner of the Best Kitchen Artist title at Salon Culinaire 2010 - has created a range of carvings during his time with DWTC, from mythical dragons to dolphins, eagles, buildings and people.

This creativity not only impresses guests,  but also gives operators an edge in culinary competitions, as Rovart Cagayat, the senior kitchen artist at Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek, has consistently demonstrated.

"At Salon Culinaire 2010, I achieved one gold, three silver and two bronze medals in the ice, vegetable and fruit showpiece carving categories," he confirms.

The Radisson Blu creative team is further bolstered by kitchen artist Rodel Acala, who was also responsible for the property's Salon Culinaire 2010 gold medal in ice carving.

At Beach Rotana, executive sous chef Raghu Pillai has tried his hand at many aspects of food art during the course of his career, but insists the area of edible art that intrigues him most is "serving tasty food as a work of art on the plate".

"For me, every plate that you present in a top-end restaurant and in competitions must be a work of art; nowadays its not only what you serve but also how you serve a dish," he observes.

Renaissance Dubai Hotel pastry chef Achala Weerasinghe agrees: "Food art does not necessarily stop at showpieces; every cake or dessert that I create at the hotel holds a bit of artistic value."

Of course, this artistic approach to food does not come overnight.

Kitchen artists must build up a solid skill base before they advance to detailed work, as Beach Rotana's Pillai notes.
"First and foremost was my hotel management degree, which has given me an insight into a vast repertoire of cooking techniques, both modern and traditional.

"Since then I have undergone many training sessions related to jelly work, molecular gastronomy, pastry presentation - and then, of course, hours and hours of practice. No training in the world works without practice," he emphasises.

Once a chef has mastered the basics of food art, there are a number of areas in which they can specialise - and in these fields, there is training right down to the most minute detail.

DWTC's Dong agrees: "I recently completed a special sugar artwork training course in France, during which I practiced a range of techniques for personalising modern and realistic sugar subjects, so they appear graceful and lively.

"The topics addressed included furry or feathered animals, and scenes of people and animals in artistic settings."

According to Four Seasons Doha pastry chef Laurent Allereau, pastry is "one of the areas in the culinary world which gives you a real opportunity to imagine and create".

"You can make dreams come true with sugar or chocolate," he says.

"I believe that things are only difficult to make true because you do not try; as long as you are willing to put in the effort to make it happen, to make the idea a reality, then it becomes easy."

Aside from the obvious talent, creativity, determination and dedication, what additional tools does a kitchen artist require to be successful?

DWTC's Dong explains that each field of food art has its own set of specialised equipment.

"For example, with ice carving you need a small saw and various sized ice picks, while for fruit and vegetable carvings, tiny and delicate cutting tools are required," he notes.

"For sugar carvings, the right temperature and controlled humidity is required, so you need professionally set-up heat lamps to ensure the longevity of the piece."

Such tools, like an artist's brushes, are often exceedingly precious to their owners.

Radisson's Cagayat comments: "Most of my tools I inherited from my mentor in the Philippines. They are specially designed to work on specific models - for example, there is a special knife and peeler I have for fruits and vegetables, and a wood carver, and the most special tool to me is a traditional ice carver, which is not readily available in Dubai."

However Renaissance's Weerasinghe notes that today, many of the tools on the market are "expensive and only serve a single purpose".

"During my early years in the industry, I taught myself to use what was naturally found around me, like tubes, bottles, stationery blades and so on, along with the specialised tools I could get my hands on from time to time," he says.
"It may not sound professional, but using things which can be found in everyday life makes my showpieces more natural and environmental, and also brings about interesting shapes that many chefs find it hard to render."

Four Seasons' Allereau confesses that he also likes to "think out of the box" when it comes to tools.

"If I do not have one of the professional tools, nevermind: I look around and try to use whatever I can find," he reveals.

"I like to spend some time, while I am in Europe, visiting hardware stores and believe it or not, I have found a lot of tools which are usually used for the gardening, or painting, or other DIY jobs, which are very practical and incredibly effective in carving chocolate."

The final item is also of vital importance: the product the chef is working with.

Whether the end result must sit on a buffet for several hours, or hold together whilst being transported to a competition, the material used must be of exactly the right temperature, consistency and sturdiness.

DWTC's Dong explains: "When using the medium of chocolate, a carving can last four or five months in controlled temperatures.

"Sugar is much more sensitive to humidity and, unless packaged in an airtight glass enclosure, will only last two or three months.

"And ice will obviously melt in warm temperatures, but will last approximately two hours - depending on the size and design - if on display at room temperature."

In the creation of certain varieties of food art, a helping hand can be given with fixers such as gelatine or edible varnish.

Beach Rotana's Pillai notes: "Many variations of gelatin are available in the market, which give different textures to food and also help achieve a better keeping quality. But it is very important to use them in the right quantity and in the right way, to achieve the desired effect."

Four Seasons' Allereau expands: "A few professional suppliers such Patisfrance, Decorelief and PCB provide very good products to maintain a shiny appearance on chocolate, and even varnish for sugar work to protect against humidity."

But not all food art requires additional support, as Radisson's Cagayat explains.

"There are special ingredients which are used widely, but I do not use any of those. I simply spray water on the vegetable carving, so that it remains fresh until the event is finished."

Like all artists, chefs have their preferred methods, tools and disciplines - and it is thanks to the growing diversity of this field that gastro-art is advancing in leaps and bounds across the Middle East.

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