Each month in our newsletter, we post an excerpt from Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine to introduce you to the featured chefs. This month we’re spotlighting Toni Robertson, Executive Chef at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Singapore. Robertson graduated from the renowned Cooking ad Hospitality Institute of Chicago and became the first female chef to be inducted into the Singapore chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world’s oldest international culinary organization.
A native of Burma, Robertson had always incorporated Asian ingredients in her home cooking, but she professionally she was immersed in French cuisine while she worked at the Ritz-Carlton under the training of Chef Fernand Gutierrez, a Chicago legend. In this excerpt, Robertson describes how her cooking evolved to include her Asian roots and how she can’t live without her Japanese knives.
“When you’re working your way up, you take your direction from the chef you are working under. Fernand was a great chef, but you weren’t going to see any bean sprouts or daiko radish in his dishes. When you work the line, you have the recipe, the technique, and the plating card, which you follow to the letter if you want to stay in the good graces of the chef.
“It was only when I began working in Singapore in the mid-1990s as Executive Chef at the Pan Pacific Hotel that I really rediscovered my Asian passion and my roots and started to incorporate them into my cuisine in a fundamental way. In Singapore, I worked with a Japanese master chef who introduced me to the traditional kaiseki cuisine. I was immediately in love with it. The beautiful preparation of the dishes was like a fashion show, with one element linked to another. By the thirteenth dish, I was in love. It opened my mind. The ingredients were not new to me. I had used seaweed, salmon roe, wasabi, and soy sauce in the past. But it was the way they were used that drew me in.
“Although I had overseen a Japanese restaurant at the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui, Hawaii, it wasn’t until Singapore that I think I really began to appreciate the true artistry of Japanese cuisine. I was inspired for the first time to really rethink my style and incorporate the simplicity of ingredients and the complexity of flavors into my more global-style cuisine . . .
“Whoever first used the words ‘seasonal cuisine’ had to be thinking of me! I live by the ingredients that I have at my fingertips. Although my background and training are in classical French cuisine, I don’t do French anymore. My cuisine style is actually similar to Japanese cuisine, but I also don’t cook Japanese food. What I did was use French cooking as the foundation, and then, little by little, I started infusing my dishes with Asian ingredients. As my cuisine has evolved over the years, I find that I use a lot of the basic Japanese ingredients – soy sauce, rice, miso, wasabi, daikon, and seaweed. Like the trained Japanese masters, I always keep it simple, with elegant presentation ad an emphasis on technique. I love Japanese cooking because it is art on the plate – the confluence of textures, flavors, elegance, and presentation . . .
“My favorite kitchen tool has always been a knife. I think that is a very Asian trait. I’ve never been drawn to special tools, especially the electronic variety. I don’t need a Cuisinart. I don’t need a blender. I don’t need anything else – just give me a sharp, well-balanced, Japanese-made knife and some inspiration, and I can create good food.
“As a chef, the knife is my extension – this is who I am. I discovered Japanese knives during a promotional event in California. I’d always admired Japanese knives but thought they were too expensive. I was afraid that I would put my knife down in the kitchen, turn around, and it would be gone. However, when one of my chefs de cuisine came into the promotional event with a case of these beautifully balanced Japanese and I had the chance to use them, I said, ‘Oh, I have to have that.’ I paid $300 for my first Japanese knife, and it is still my favorite to this day. It was only after I started using it that I truly appreciated the value of a great knife.”
Read more about Toni Robertson and the other chefs in Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine.