Kaum at Potato Head has been in Hong Kong for a year. As close as Hong Kong and Indonesia are, there are, regrettably, not many authentic Indonesian restaurants in the 852. Given that Kaum presents traditional Indonesian flavours, we asked Executive Chef Antoine Audran to unveil the delicious secrets of the Spice Islands and share his thoughts on our common language: food.
Chef Audran was born and bred in France before moving to Indonesia in 1995. His palate travels everywhere he goes, absorbing flavours and sensitivities along the way.
To celebrate the first year of Kaum, you chose to highlight the cuisine of Bali’s north at the anniversary dinner, which is not much influenced by the influx of tourists. How does it differ from other Balinese culinary sub-cultures?
Cuisine in the southern part of Bali got damaged by tourists’ arrival. The northern part is still very traditional; they are still sticking to the old ways. They are very proud of their traditions. North was where all the trade happened – sea merchants from China and Cambodia came. North Balinese cuisine is a mix of everything. It is strongly influenced by Chinese culinary culture – for example, using Chinese preserved sausage. The food is more authentic.
As the restaurant is committed to reflecting Indonesia’s rich heritage by offering authentic flavours, what are your thoughts on preserving Indonesian culinary culture?
Respect the tradition, respect the national products and the way people cook. A lot of food in Bali was originally cooked for religious purposes, not for tourists. [The food is prepared for] special ceremonies, special occasions instead of commercial needs. Religious and family traditions are important in Bali. That makes it a special place. We have priests making offerings; it is part of our daily lives. Any religion and food bind people together.
How did you develop the recipes? From where do you usually draw your inspirations?
I spend my time travelling around Indonesia, finding recipes and ingredients that are lost. Nobody wrote down their recipes as mothers used to teach daughters, but now mums are working and the link is broken. So I travel to record all the recipes. Our kitchen in Jakarta basically cooks and experiments to create the original recipes, then we will take records [of them]. We have a large database. Just keep a positive mind [to rediscover the missing recipes] and keep them just the way they have been.
What do you love about Hong Kong?
I like your wet markets. I go to all of them: the one in Central, the seafood market in Aberdeen, the food that they serve at food courts. It is food from the soul. Food is a big big thing I love about Hong Kong. I like the ding ding [tram]. I rode it in the 70s with my parents. [I also love that] you can walk here. It’s harder to walk in Jakarta.
Do you think Hong Kong people understand Balinese food well or does their understanding stay on street-food level? Are they interested to know more?
Some understand, some have the wrong perceptions about Indonesian food, some went to Bali and think that they know everything [when they only got touristy food]. Some original flavours may be tricky for Hong Kong people to swallow – original Balinese food is very spicy. Hong Kong customers want to discover more exotic food, just like whatever is exotic in Europe works. The younger generation, having access to social media and travelling, want to try everything new.
As Balinese cuisine plays magic with different spices and herbs, has it been difficult to introduce authentic dishes here in Hong Kong in terms of the purchase of the raw materials? How did your team adapt to that?
It’s quite easy to get products here, but we also have a shipment every two weeks bringing special products down from Jakarta to Hong Kong. We only ship dry and sour ingredients like black nuts, leaves, shrimp paste that you cannot find in Hong Kong. I mean, we have to be flexible as we cannot ship everything. I also brought trees from Indonesia to Hong Kong for my staff, like trees that give curry leaves, tall ginger, bay leaves. Also, different soil, different altitude, different weather yield different flavours. I tried to grow one of the hottest chillies in the world in Jakarta, and it came out not as spicy [as it ought to be].
What are the most popular items on the menu and what northern Balinese dishes do you hope more Hong Kong residents will get to know?
Everything is special, depending on your mood. The most popular items are generic foods: satay, prawn curry, fish with yellow [curry] paste, Indonesian fried rice. We present the traditional flavours. Sometimes Indonesian people come here, saying that we have authentic food for a shop opening outside Indonesia.
For the anniversary dinner, we have a soup made of prawns. The sambal is made with steamed chilli and vinegar. Sambal is the life of Indonesia; every region has their own crackers and chilli. We also have a salad made with grated coconut and duck made with Balinese spices. Thirdly, we have babi guling, baby pig served with cassava leaves. The fish dish is a satay marinated in coconut milk, mixed spice and lemon leaves. For the rice, it’s cooked with sweet potato. You know, back when the rice harvest was not great, people combined rice and roots. This dish is rare, but I love it. Indonesian people have rice on a daily basis – 'no rice, no meal'.
Are the dishes available at Potato Head Hong Kong tailor-made for the local market or are they the same as those available in Bali?
They are different; only 30 per cent is shared. Clients are different. We do not sell pork in Jakarta. We focus on Balinese cuisine in Bali as it’s easier to get Balinese spices. The menu in Hong Kong is designed to be more generic, more suitable for cosmopolitan customers. You have to compromise; we can’t cook very spicy food here.
Is becoming a chef your childhood dream? Did anything stop or discourage you in the middle of the journey?
I started 40-something years ago. There was no chef in my family, so it went like a war when I told my parents about it: I must get into a culinary school in France. I got in after going through exams and interviews.
It’s different nowadays being a chef. We never had interviews or anything before. One thing I must say is the quality of food 40 years ago was better, because of the products and focus; people were more passionate. Everybody can go to restaurants now; we only went for celebrations or meetings back then.
Sometimes I see four people sitting and nobody talking. It’s a discipline – having time to switch on and sometimes to switch off. I’m not here to judge; we just have to adapt to it. Different generations have a different mentality and style. My generation is different from my father’s. We need to move forward instead of thinking that the past is better.
If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Eggplant. I like to cook it with tomato and onion like French ratatouille, then put an egg and cheese on top. I miss it so much, so I cook it at home sometimes.
I’m from south-west [France] – that’s the capital of black truffle. I like country-style food, not fancy food with flowers that empties your wallet. It's nice to invite some friends over and cook French food at home; it’s like a team exercise.
What’s the difference between typical French and Indonesian cuisines in terms of food preparation?
Indonesian food is more complicated. For example, you need to cook rendang for three days. Most Indonesian food requires much cooking time and preparation. We prepare different spice bases; Indonesia has a lot of islands and stories. It’s hard to arrange logistics when we visit different islands. One time I went to find raw cashew nuts. It took me 48 hours to reach and two weeks to come back as the sea was rough and [there was heavy] rain. But the raw cashew nuts were the best. You can play around with French cuisine while Indonesian food is more traditional. I hand-carried three kilos of Balinese salt for the anniversary dinner. It is crystallised and not very salty, very flavourful.
As Potato Head Hong is celebrating its one-year anniversary, do you and your team have some new incentives in mind to test out in the near future?
I want the three Kaums [outlets] to have more exchanges, cross-trainings. Hong Kong chefs can go to Indonesia to understand more about the food there. Indonesian chefs can think about what they can do in Hong Kong to keep the Indonesian spirit. Our chef in Bali is a priest; he respects culinary traditions. I want them to do sharing. All team members are very compatible – we share ideas like a nice family. I call my staff every day to chat – if I call my wife, I call them too. It’s true: I spend more time with them than with my family.
Read more: Restaurant Review: Brunch at Kaum
100 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2858 6066