• Tien Chew

Vox Gastronomy

This feature originally appeared in The Peak September 2022


In the realms of gastronomy, items the likes of caviar, truffles and wagyu commonly grace the tables of many fine dining establishments. But what defines a luxury ingredient? Is it price and scarcity? Do nostalgia and personal connection play a part in shaping what constitutes a luxury ingredient?


I speak to five renowned chefs in a vox pop-style discussion to better understand how luxury ingredients play a significant role in high-level cooking and why they cost a considerable amount. Their answers are an intriguing examination of memories, sentiments and culinary mastery that reveal insights into the inner workings of a chef’s mind.


James Won

Photo: Shin’Labo

James Won continues to push the boundaries of gastronomy with his latest signature restaurant, Shin’Labo. At his new yōshoku ‘laboratory’, he and his talented team focus on celebrating indigenous Malaysian ingredients through James’ signature blend of Japanese and French culinary know-how.


My review of Shin‘Labo – New Beginnings


TC: What makes an ingredient luxurious to you? Define the term ‘luxury ingredient’ in your own words.


JW: Luxury ingredients have to satisfy two criteria for me. First, its scarcity. Not just scarcity related to how much is being produced, but also who is given access to that ingredient. Secondly, the emotion and story behind the ingredient. Emotions attached to any ingredient are essential, how it makes you feel and what feelings it evokes when you see a particular ingredient. For example, desserts were such a big deal back in the day because sugar was considered the ultimate luxury.


TC: What are three luxury ingredients that you love? Either for your own enjoyment or to incorporate into your dishes.


JW:The number one most luxurious ingredient for me is my personal experience. My passion and my love are exemplified and amplified on the plate. It doesn’t matter what I cook as a chef, I’m not determined by the product in front of me, but the intent, the thought process and the emotions that drive me to create that particular dish.


Number two would be how a particular ingredient can allow me to not do anything to it, and it would still be perfect. You can’t even think about manipulating it because you feel unworthy to touch it. A perfect example would be seafood. People misunderstand sashimi because it’s so good in its original state that you don’t need to do anything.


Lastly, fat. Be it goose, duck and pork fat, or even butter! Fat makes everything tastes good. An example would be guanciale – tell me that isn’t luxurious. But it’s not just animal fat; I also consider plant fat like cocoa nibs (chocolate).


TC: What is a luxury ingredient to you that people may not necessarily agree with?


JW: For me, it’s water. Good water makes everything different. It makes tea different and it’s used in the best spirits and alcohol, hence why it’s called eau de vie – water of life. Quality water gives you flavour, texture... everything.


Jun Wong

Jun Wong returns to the culinary arena as chef de cuisine of Yellow Fin Horse at the just opened ELSE Hotel Retreats. The new restaurant focuses on shared plates emphasising quality ingredients and seafood cooked over an open fire. This talented and passionate cook formerly helmed progressive Japanese restaurant Kikubari and cut her teeth at an impressive array of some of the best restaurants on the international stage – Robuchon au Dôme in Macau, Narisawa in Tokyo and Sixpenny in Sydney.


TC: What makes an ingredient luxurious to you? Define the term ‘luxury ingredient’ in your own words.


JW: A ‘luxury ingredient’, for me, would be any produce, be it plant, animal or

seafood, that’s grown or raised with care in a healthy ecosystem. Especially if there’s an investment made towards the future well-being of the ingredient, such as conservation efforts, soil health and fishing bans during breeding periods. For example, I would consider maize grown from seeds carrying Aztec-Mayan heritage carefully passed down from one generation to the next a luxury ingredient.


TC: What are three luxury ingredients that you love? Either for your own enjoyment or to incorporate into your dishes.


JW: Kochi fruit tomato. Although this goes against my preference for naturally grown ingredients, Japanese farmers’ discipline to ensure that each tomato that grows from that vine contains intense flavours and nutrients is amazing. Mind-blowing, even.


Next would be fowl ‘Sot L’y Laisse, better known as ‘oyster meat’. All poultry contains only two pieces of this meat on their backs. This is something that money can’t buy. Even the humblest chicken oyster meat is succulent and flavourful if done correctly.


Finally, Heirloom rice; I love rice! ‘Rice is life’ for me. And the textures and flavours that heirloom rice carries are unique. And let’s not forget that growing rice is hard work, as we take the ‘not so humble’ rice for granted too often.


TC: What is a luxury ingredient to you that people may not necessarily agree with?


JW: I think my picks above are all not considered ‘luxury ingredients’ to most people.


Masashi Horiuchi

Photos: Platform Hospitality

This Fukuoka native has spent over 20 years in Europe working alongside esteemed chefs, where he served as sous chef at two Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London for five years before returning to Asia. As Entier’s Executive Chef, Masashi reinterprets French cuisine using a combination of his own style, classic French techniques and Japanese precision.


TC: What makes an ingredient luxurious to you? Define the term ‘luxury ingredient’ in your own words.


MH: An ingredient is luxurious when it is rare and exclusive to its place of origin. It is not just about the price, although most are expensive because they are hard to come by. When I first started learning to cook in L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in France, I was exposed to its idea of luxurious ingredients, such as truffles, foie gras and caviar. I was very impressed, not just because of how expensive it is, but because these ingredients are a representation of the best produce of their earth (truffle), farm (foie gras) and sea (caviar).


TC: What are three luxury ingredients that you love? Either for your own enjoyment or to incorporate into your dishes.


MH: The rice from my father’s paddy field in Fukuoka. He plants the yumehikari variant of rice that is rich with a natural sweetness and aroma. In Japan, the most famous brand of rice is called koshihikari. I think my father’s yumehikari rice is even better than that. We cooked it in all our rice dishes growing up and it tastes great because it came from our farm by my father’s hard work.


Secondly, my mother’s house-made miso paste. Every family has their own recipe for the best miso. It is a precise science of fermentation with koji and soybeans. Her miso brings the fondest memories for me; I love the taste of her miso soup.


Lastly, agodashi – flying fish dashi. Most places make katsuo dashi, which is made from bonito or tuna fish. Agodashi is made from flying fish, which has less fat and more muscle than other types of fish. The result is a dashi that is sweeter, less fishy and better to complement with food.


TC: What is a luxury ingredient to you that people may not necessarily agree with?


MH: Sweetbread. Most people are not familiar with the idea of eating the thymus or pancreas of a young animal. In fact, these secondary cuts are considered inferior in many places, but sweetbread is tender, creamy and juicy when prepared well.


Raymond Tham

Photo: Karls group

Known for letting his passion for gastronomy speak on the plate, Raymond Tham is the affable chef-owner of modern European and modern Malaysian restaurants Skillet and Beta KL. Raymond’s flair for adapting current culinary techniques to elevate and meld local and international ingredients has seen him collaborate with numerous luxury brands. His latest culinary venture, Burnt & Co, sees him creating modern dishes built around an open flame kitchen concept with a Josper Basque grill.


TC: What makes an ingredient luxurious to you? Define the term ‘luxury ingredient’ in your own words.


RT: To me, a luxury ingredient is something unique in the sense that it’s rare to find and not so readily available. That it requires a lot of effort to get.


TC: What are three luxury ingredients that you love? Either for your own enjoyment or to incorporate into your dishes.


RT: Caviar comes to mind because the average time to raise a sturgeon fish range takes around eight to 30 years. It takes a lot of effort, money and time to produce caviar. Oh, caviar

is good for anti-ageing too! I love its creaminess and delicate umami flavours. When it comes to caviar, one should serve it on its own or with classic condiments.


I also love winter Alba white truffle, especially how pungent it is, which means that either people will love it or hate it. I love using plenty of shaved white truffles in a simple dish like the perfect sunny side up or fresh pasta with a bit of butter.


I’m also a fan of wild empurau fish, as I love the delicate texture of the fish and the nuttiness that comes from illipe nuts (engkabang). The first time I tried it was during a birthday dinner treat from my business partners. It was delightful and memorable. I was so impressed that I eventually served empurau on one of Beta’s menus.


TC: What is a luxury ingredient to you that people may not necessarily agree with?


RT: Densuke watermelon, Yubari King melon, pule cheese, and kopi luwak.


Yogesh Upandhi

Photos: Flour

Flour’s chef Yogesh Upadhyay is very much integral to the restaurant’s guiding principles in the kitchen and the whole customer experience. His title may be a chef by profession, but he thinks and creates like an artist. To dine at Flour is to submit yourself to his creative processes, and he kindly asks that you leave your previous perceptions of his food at the door to fully enjoy his vision of modern French-Indian cuisine.


My review of Flour – From Ice Comes Fire


TC: What makes an ingredient luxurious to you? Define the term ‘luxury ingredient’ in your own words.


YU: Well, delicacy is number one. Rarity is the second. And the third would be how classic the ingredient is.


TC: What are three luxury ingredients that you love? Either for your own enjoyment or to incorporate into your dishes.


YU: As a spice, saffron has always been the most luxurious ingredient to me. I use it in almost all my menus, and it has to be used delicately just to imbue its nuance and that light whiff into the dish so that it elevates it to a completely different level.


Next would Beluga caviar, specifically the Almas 60, which denotes that it’s a 60-year-old sturgeon that’s harvested. It is called Almas because the egg is beautifully golden, and the caviar’s flavour is simply outstanding.


Japanese matsutake is also extremely luxurious and rare. The flavour, the aroma – it’s just beautiful and too delicate. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to really explore matsutake because it’s probably available two months a year and you must hunt for this wild mushroom just like truffles.


TC: What is a luxury ingredient to you that people may not necessarily agree with?


YU: Good saffron can cost anywhere between USD4 to USD14 per gram. It’s the most expensive, luxurious and delicate spice in the world. Any wrong application can destroy your food because it requires a complete understanding of the ingredient. Malaysians don’t understand saffron at all, and therefore don’t understand why it’s so expensive and how luxurious it is.


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