@rebelchef: Culinary Artistry – Faizal Kamsan

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 15 minutes

“My immediate question when I see a piece of art is, without fail, ‘what is its story?”

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"My task is to simplify and go deeper, making a commitment to what remains. That's what I've been after. To care and polish what remains till it glows and comes alive from loving care. I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, I try to show this beauty in things to others.”

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 15 minutes

“My immediate question when I see a piece of art is, without fail, ‘what is its story?”

Artworkarchive

“My task is to simplify and go deeper, making a commitment to what remains. That’s what I’ve been after. To care and polish what remains till it glows and comes alive from loving care. I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, I try to show this beauty in things to others.”

– Brenda Ueland

Faizal Kaimsan, Rebel Chef

While food means life and pleasure to most of us, to Faizal Kamsan, food is also the storm that feeds yet maddens his soul; drives him on, yet exhausts through endeavour; satisfies, yet never quite quenches. It’s all about his love for creating culinary artistry in the kitchen.

Faizal in action

I met Faizal in a slightly noisy café in central New Plymouth. It’s just down the road from his previous employ, the Singaporean-cuisine restaurant, Seletar. I’d dined at Seletar a few months ago, and for the first time ever, photographed my meal to post on social media. I had chosen Nasi Lemak: fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with a side of sambal (a spicy paste), eggs and anchovies. It’s standard Malaysian fare and is considered to be the national dish. But Faizal had taken Nasi Lemak and morphed it into a sensory symphony of his own making: colour, texture, and taste.

Faizal was born in the east side Singaporean town of Tanjong Katong. He learnt how to speak English, then left school at the age of 13 before taking on dishwashing work at a local Italian restaurant a year later. In six months, he was a dishwashing pro and feeling the pull towards his love of cooking. He said to his boss: “Look, you have something that I don’t, and I have something that you don’t. You have the knowledge – give it to me – and I’ll give you: my time.” Soon he was preparing pasta, steak, and vegetables the Italian way, peeling back the layers of construction until he understood the technique (and emotion) handed down from the chef’s nonna (grandmother). It was the beginning of his culinary adventure as a travelling gypsy.

“We can discipline ourselves, training our minds and bodies to grow and be strengthened in areas where we’re weak — but we are always going to gravitate towards what truly ignites us.”

– Tony Robbins

“Uncompromising commitment to contributing world-changing value – Sounds like the very definition of an Artist or a Chef,” Faizal writes on his social media channels.

Faizal left his family home age 15 “wanting to see the beauty in all people, not just from the view of a Muslim upbringing” and spent five years learning traditional Italian and French cuisine in Singapore. He travelled the world, living in Europe and Indonesia and working in umpteen restaurants of different styles and ethnicities. He became not so much ‘passionate’ as ‘obsessed’ with food and followed globally-renowned heroes like US chef Thomas Keller, UK based Heston Blumenthal, and more recently, Monique Fiso, author of Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine.

Faizal worked his way up the ranks from cook to chef de partie, to head chef. He spent most of his waking life in the kitchen, learning what it means to be in the service of serving: the food, the dining experience, the theatre of it, the alchemy, and the pleasure.

“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”

– Chef Thomas Keller

Faizal worked without a break, constantly refining his ever-evolving definition of what depicts good cooking. He particularly examined the importance of moving with food trends whilst maintaining traditional stock techniques as anchors. Delving deep into the heart of what makes a dish tasty – and popular – is how Faizal continues to operate today. He first sees an image in his head of the finished meal, centres himself in its essence, then sets out to deconstruct it. He methodically deciphers each element and then re-enacts it as a complete whole on the plate. However, he also takes the process several steps further on from his original interpretation and creates a dish with a personal twist, imbibed with his own sense of authenticity.

Faizal says that authenticity is subjective:

“Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colours, there are only so many flavours and it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.”

China Daily

And writes: “And to be different is not, by all means, steering off the cliffs. It’s simply creating your own identity.”

Flavours of the trade

Tradition plus innovation make eating one of the most sensory experiences – visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory. We eat with our eyes first, then as all the textures and flavours explode in our mouth, it can seem like perfection. Faizal reckons there’s no such thing as the perfect dish, though. He’s constantly honing his craft, pushing his comfort zone to the limits, and finding new ways to present classic meals that create a tasting memory.

“And being a chef is like having one foot in the past and another in the present while the mind wanders into the future.” One of the insights Faizal offers his audience.

A comfort zone isn’t often on the cards for a good chef. Aside from the demands of a fussy paying audience, the food industry is tough, hierarchal, and regimental. Faizal tells me: “We lose our marbles every now and then; it’s not a pretty sight, but the public criticism and personal expectation, stress, and long hours take their toll. We are taught how to make sauces from scratch, but we’re not taught how to deal with mental stress. You know the old saying: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen’? well, it’s quite literally the case. And the sooner chefs take control of what’s going on inside their heads, the better.”

“… behind the romance, there is a great deal of misery. Drink, drugs, and depression are just as common in many kitchens as a mandoline and a whipped cream dispenser. Reading this it would be easy to think that I’m describing the worst job and environment in the world – that would be misleading. I have experienced some of my greatest highs in a kitchen and knowing that my guests adored their food is still music to my ears. The point here is that the hospitality industry is not good enough at prevention and, therefore, is not equipped to cure.”

– Anonymous

For an Asian immigrant, integration into a new society is tough too. Faizal has known discrimination wherever he’s lived but believes that people have the right to feel and think the way they do. He tries to put himself in their shoes and talk his way through issues; he has ended up good friends with those willing to listen. As a teen, Faizal made the personal choice to be blind: to race, colour, and religion: “If my blood matches yours, I will give it to you! None of us belongs here; we are just passing through. Just tell me what’s wrong and what I can do to help you,” he says.

What most immigrants simply want to do is take up the slack in a job market that locals aren’t able to fill and work hard to make a living in a country that allows them to. For Faizal, that also means following new pathways towards exploring his creative spirit. So when fellow Singaporean Elsa Asevatham lured transient Faizal from his home overseas with the express purpose of opening her Seletar Restaurant, he immediately agreed. But he also recognises that “Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”

Elsa had lived in New Zealand for around 11 years and was missing the unique flavours and techniques of Singaporean food. When Faizal arrived in December 2019, the restaurant was to open in January 2020. He had just one month to adjust to New Zealand’s cooler climes and clear skies, as well as settle into a flat. The moment he set foot on New Plymouth turf, Faizal spent endless hours a day in the restaurant – developing a menu, sourcing product, setting prices.

It was a hectic time, but the restaurant opened on schedule and welcomed a willing clientele. Faizal and Elsa’s shared enthusiasm for food integrity paid off. They had filled a Singaporean dining niche that embodied classically refined modern hawker (street) style cuisine, highlighting Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours and styles.

Seletar enjoyed massive support, and local foodies such as social medialite Olena Williams never lost an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of Seletar’s cuisine and the excellence of its service. Her involvement in helping create an ethnic food community has been a boon to Taranaki; however, in July 2021, Seletar closed its doors permanently.

In that short period, Faizal had pleased innumerable patrons with his culinary artistry. His obsession with/passion for/calling to food placed him in Taranaki, New Zealand – a province with incredible chefs and untapped food potential. He’d love to see a Food and Beverage Festival here come summertime: trestles down the main street, marquees, and food trucks, with people from all over the nation sitting down, sampling cuisine, eating, laughing, drinking, and having fun: “We’ve got the space, the talent, and the love. It’s time for this industry to shine.”

“I may not have the gift of words, but what I have is a lifetime of history, of caring, of tenderness and tradition and through my hands, heart and soul prepared for the plate.”

– Harvest America Ventures

It really resonates with Faizal, who wishes to offer special thanks to Elsa: “For her faith and trust in me,” he says.

Cultural descriptions of some of Faizal’s dishes:

Wonton prawn noodle

Wonton prawn noodle.

Wonton noodles – Chinese: 雲吞麵; Cantonese Yale: wàhn tān mihn, also called wanton mee or wanton mein is a noodle dish of Cantonese origin. Wonton noodles were not given their name, húntún (餛飩), until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE. The dish is popular in Southern China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

 

Porterhouse steak with confit burnt shallot, roast potato with Rendang reduction.

Rendang is a Minang dish originating from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Rendang is often described as a rich dish of meat – most commonly beef (rendang daging). It is slow-cooked and braised in coconut milk seasoned with a herb and spice mixture until the liquids evaporate and the meat turns dark brown and tender, caramelised, and infused with rich flavours.

 

Modern take on gado-gado salad.

Gado-gado is an Indonesian salad of slightly boiled, blanched, or steamed vegetables; hard-boiled eggs, boiled potato, fried tofu, tempeh, and lontong (Indonesian rice cake), served with a peanut sauce dressing. Gado-gado comes from the Indonesian word “digado”, which originates from a specific Indonesian culture, Betawi. In the Betawi language, the word means “to not be eaten with rice”, which is why rice is not included as a main ingredient.

 

Refined Nasi goreng kampong (fried rice)

Refined Nasi goreng kampong (fried rice).

Nasi goreng refers to “fried rice” in both the Indonesian and Malay languages. Nasi goreng is distinguished from other Asian fried rice preparations by its distinct smoky aroma and caramelised yet savoury undertones. There is no single defined recipe for nasi goreng and its composition and preparation varies greatly from household to household in all regions where the dish is endemic.

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