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Culinary Debut! Snowcology x Monniker Cafe

Never thought that I would take up this culinary debut!

This has been Snowcology's biggest chapter till date since it was started in December 2014.

In early February, I received an email from Monniker Cafe. As usual, I was skeptical about collaborations especially when capital is involved. I wasn't a professional chef, nor a celebrity chef to begin with, just a passionate home cook. However, after looking at the presentation slides and financial model which they sent me, it looked pretty well done and doable!

Monniker Cafe engages home cooks, private chefs, professional chefs, and entrepreneurs-wannabe to head their kitchen during weekends. To kick start this concept, they roll out a 10 weeks line up of cooks / chefs starting 1 April.

So now, how am I gonna do this myself when the speed I churn out food is home scale?!?

2 persons immediately came to my mind to work on this.

Felix and Jonathan!

Felix was a Junior Sous Chef from a renown restaurant and Jonathan used to be from Shatec though he has been out of kitchen life for the past 12 years.

​We accepted it under the theme: Snowcology.

Menu planning, research, trial and errors, food tasting were underway. Throughout the whole process, Jonathan has been very positive, playing the devil's advocate when Felix and I were too engrossed in our food research and recipes. I could feel the stress and pressure as I do not wish to tarnish the reputation of Snowcology and at the same time, wanting to prove that the creations are as good as it looks and live up to the name of "Pretty, good food".

I set out my objective clearly.

Snowcology is all out to impress, profit is not on the menu!

It wasn't easy thinking of the starters, 2 mains to choose from, and the dessert.

Intuitively I settled on doing a salmon for starter, pork belly and pasta as mains, and a baked dessert.

And that's how we came up with the preliminary menu.

Food tasting with Monniker in March went very well indeed, with no comments on the dishes we have prepared! We are truly glad!

Food tasting at Monniker Cafe

We continued to further improve on the food recipes as we still had more than a month after the food tasting to the actual service weekend.

Now, for the actual details on how each dish was inspired, crafted and plated!

Snowy Citrus Ceviche

I remembered doing several ceviche dishes and curing and sousvide salmon has been my forte. I wanted something appetizing to the taste buds for starters. It had to be refreshing, wow, and something diners most likely have not eaten and experienced before. So salmon with something citrus would be fantastic. The type of salmon plays a part as well! I decided on using sashimi grade salmon trout as the flesh was firmer and more suitable for low temperature cooking! The color of the flesh was more vivid as well.

Felix proposed a dish "citrus minestrone". Cured sousvide salmon with citrus minestrone consisting of citrus juices. It tasted awesome, but we needed something which included more technique to it. I saw my whipping siphon. I added some stabilizer to the citrus juices, charge it up, and we have our citrus foam!! It looked pretty with the salmon too!

We fixed this and started to improve on the citrus taste. Yuzu essence (reallyyyy expensive stuff), Yuzu, orange, lime juice, moscato, peppermint herbs were some of the major ingredients, and of course, a special stabilizer which replaced the use of xanthan gum.

So now that we have a nice textured salmon, a fizzy citrus foam, we needed something crunchy or crispy! Felix proposed sago chip! It was a hit!

These chips were not easy to prepare. Sago has been cooked, dehydrated at 65°C for 24 hrs, puffed in oil, and finally seasoned with our own blend of Japanese spices.

We made a variant as well. Squid ink sago chip and this was served as one of the 3 Chef's Amuse for the 5 course dinner menu!

The final assembly consisted of salmon trout, topped with oranges, ikura (cured in shoyu, mirin and sake), fennel, frisée, microcress (to be talked about in details later), sago chip, and citrus foam garnished with herb oil.

A perfect dish in terms of visuals, colors, taste and texture!

Coco Pork Belly

Who doesn't love the traditional Hong Kong style roasted pork belly with crispy skin? But to serve this would make it no different from the others. I have made pork belly many times, from using sous vide, roasting, high pressure cooking etc, and sous vide gives it the perfect texture and consistency every single time. Then again, owning a sous vide machine doesn't make you a professional chef. The pre prep, brining solution, post sear are the most important steps to giving the best tasting pork belly. Sous vide is a kitchen tool, not a magic tool.

Traditionally roasted pork belly had the taste of 5 spices, generally on the bottom section of the meat but not evenly distributed within the meat itself. It tasted good because of the sauces and the thick layer of fats.

I wanted the pork belly to have a taste of spices and a touch of saltiness evenly distributed throughout the meat. The brine was a challenge. Heston Blumenthal has a good pork brine, but needs some modification to suit Asian taste buds. Although coriander seeds are the main spice together with cloves, star anise, juniper berries, all spice berries, I have added other spices such as white peppercorn, Sze chuan pepper, etc. Toasting these dry spices before blending them into powder to form satchets improved the flavor of these spices.

Brown sugar and molasses were added to give the pork a subtle sweetness and nicer color when seared. Citrus zest, herbs like bay leaves, rosemary and thyme were added as well.

Whilst the above seems easy, brining 25 kg of pork belly, sous vide, chill and portion is no easy feat when done at a home scale level. Brining takes 12 hrs, sous vide another 36hrs at 60°C, and final ice bath, flattening in the fridge before portioning and vacuum packing. Every piece of pork belly's rind was carefully sliced criss - cross to achieve the beautiful checkered sear.

Fridge space was a MAJOR concern, and this did not include the other ingredients and food prep demanding the same limited fridge space. I had to use my mum's fridge as well.

So how was the crispy pork skin retained? We removed the pork skin prior to brining and sous vide. Skin was separately cooked, and dehydrated at 75°C for 24 hours. The result is a leathery brittle piece of skin, which when puffed in oil, expands to about 5-6 times its size. Finally seasoned in smoked paprika, bonito and other spices before broken into shards. Serving this way, we ensured that the diners still had the crispy pork skin, but prepared by a totally different technique.

Deciding on the condiments was quite a challenge. Felix reminded me of a good point! Pork belly goes well with acidic condiments. So we came up with green apples vacuum packed in lemon purée vinaigrette, assam balsamic reduction and our secret acid purée. Remember eating hotdog buns topped with pickled cabbages? Our acid purée is made up of german sauerkraut, green apples and rendered bacon oil. You would need a good blender to purée these as it's extremely fibrous.

What about the carbs? We wanted to serve potatoes, but with an in depth flavor. So they were cooked till just tender and smoked with apple wood chips, and chilled to allow the smoke flavor to develop by diffusion.

Balsamic reduction was relatively an ease to prepare. We added assam to it for an Asian flavor. Reducing it to about one third remaining was the consistency that we were looking for. Viscous enough to reduce the spread but thin enough to be squeezed through a bottle.

The final assembly consisted of a beautifully crusted, evenly flavored and tender pork belly, green apple cubes, acid purée, smoked potatoes, assam balsamic reduction sauce, cress and crispy pork skin shards.

Coco Pasta

Traditional prawn aglio olio is tossed in olive oil, garlic broth, white wine and red chili.

We wanted something different, something more pronounced, something which could hardly be found out there.

We made our own rendered prawn oil! Lots of prawn heads and shells, spring onions, garlic and canola oil. Rendered at a low temperature for about 6 hours. The resulting oil was extremely flavorful (prawn-y if you call it), nice red and clear.

We made our own chicken stock as well, not from bullion cubes. Lots of chicken backs and necks, fennel, celeriac root, celery, yellow onions, white peppercorn, and carrots are some of the main ingredients. The stock was reduced to about half the original volume for a concentrated flavor.

Last but not least, the garlic and shallot confit. Done with a mix of espelette pepper and smoked paprika. This gave the dish a tinge but not overpowering spiciness, and the smoked taste of the paprika gave a little kick to the dish.