Using Local Farms To Bring Global Cuisines To Life
Retno Pratiwi and Chandra Gouldrup are both award winning chefs in the Boston area but their cuisines couldn't be more different. They find common ground, and inspiration in the same place: their local ingredients.
Retno Pratiwi is the head chef and co-owner at Kaki Lima, a pop-up restaurant that's been making its rounds in Boston and introducing its diners to an adventurous and nostalgic version of Indonesian cuisine.
Chandra Gouldrup is the head chef and owner of The Farmers Daughter in Easton, where she's perfected an elevated American breakfast and lunch fare made with locally sourced ingredients provided by farms in New England.
Their cuisines couldn't be more different. But the two chefs have more in common than you'd think.
For starters, they're both Taste of WGBH Food & Wine Festival award winners. Retno took home the 2016 Food Fight award after wowing the audience with her spicy Lillet Satay during the showdown. And Chandra's use of local farms and true community support earned her the 2016 Culinary Stewardship award, which annually honors a chef who educates or informs on food topics or cooking techniques, inspires others to try new things, and contributes to the improvement of food quality by investing in a sustainable food supply chain.
Retno and Chandra are also big supporters of using local ingredients and are willing to take the time to craft their cuisines around them, despite the challenges that may come.
We caught up with them at Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth to talk more about this, their food inspirations and aspirations, and to learn more about what it's like to work with local farmers and how they help bring their individual cuisines to life.
How would you best describe your cuisine?
Chandra: Real food. We describe ourselves as farm to table breakfast and lunch. We just really try to approach putting fresh and seasonal product out from close to our front door.
Retno: It’s Indonesian food that I’m trying to explain to the American audience. The flavor is bold and distinct. For example, on some islands, the cuisine is very complex. More than 10 spices in 1 dish. On the eastern side of Indonesia, it’s more herbal and fish-oriented. You’re using native ingredients and influenced from other cultures-Chinese, Arabic, European.
We try to recreate the concept of the history of the spice trade. For my cuisine that I am trying to create here, I take dishes from my home country and apply local ingredients with similar flavors, so the flavor is still there but not same ingredients.
When we did our pop up, one dish had more than 31 herbs in the dish. Traditionally, you’d harvest the herbs in the local area, but since you can’t get it here we worked with local gardens like Eva's Garden to incorporate whatever was available. When I started cooking here I was growing my own kafir lime and other ingredients, but with more demand it was difficult to keep up. At that time is was hard to find, especially turmeric, galangal, but it’s amazing now you can find most of it at the grocery store.
What was the first Food TV program you remember watching?
Chandra: Jaques Pepin and Julia Child. Those were my "Saturday morning cartoons". Food has always been a part of my life. I don’t think I recognized it as a profession, but was fascinated and excited about seeing the use of all these ingredients.
Retno: There’s this program I would watch in elementary, called Wok with Yan in Indonesia. When I moved here, I’d watch Chopped with Pete (my husband and partner).
What is your earliest memory of food from another culture different from what you were used to?
Chandra: I was raised vegetarian and I have interesting memories of dabbling in a lot of different cuisines. A lot of Asian influenced dishes with bok choy and tofu. A chef I worked for was like “I don’t know how you’ll go to culinary school and cook meat if you don’t eat it.” I transitioned from being a vegetarian to eating meat, and started trying things at my first restaurant job. It was a slow transition, baby steps. I started with seafood worked my way up.
Retno: I guess it was when McDonalds started to come to Southeast Asia. I was in elementary school and all my friends were talking about it. Some of my friends went to Singapore to get MCDonalds… it was such a fancy, exotic thing. I think I had the filet o fish. I remember liking the tartar sauce, but I thought the fish was weird.
What is the single most important thing to you when it comes to preparing food?
Chandra: I (kind of) chase the “perfect bite.” I like to build flavors. I don’t have vast technical ability like some, but want each bite have the flavor jump out at you.
Retno: The taste has to connect with my memory of the taste. For instance, Rendang, a dish from Sumatra. It’s really popular in Indonesia. My mom has her version of it. When I make it I have to find that taste. It has to have the right kind of coconut milk, then the ingredients. I include whole nutmeg instead of ground and everything I do is from fresh ingredients. It’s about using the authentic, whole ingredients.
We spent the day at Eva’s Garden. Clearly, you have a deep respect an appreciation for the farmers you work with. What does that relationship look like, meaning how do they keep you out of a culinary rut and how do you convince them to grow more than just kale, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.?
Chandra: Eva’s was great experience. She’s growing with chefs in mind and I hope we see more of that. The reality is economics. I thought we worked a lot in restaurants, we can’t hold a candle to what they do. They sometimes run out of space or if I’m the only one who’s going to buy it, it’s hard to ask them to grow something just for me that no one else will buy. I do buy things that are odd, but I try to showcase that product where I can. I have a couple key local farmers I work with. In the beginning, I’d meet my connections on the side of a highway because they weren’t delivering. It looked kind of illicit.
Retno: There’s this one dish that you can’t find herbs for in Boston. I thought “how do I find it?” I asked Peter if he could use his journalism skills to research and he found Eva’s Garden. When I went to (first) visit, they said, “just walk around taste things and pick them.” I spent hours at the farm tasting and picking herbs and it made me so happy. They aren’t the same herbs, but there are things that are similar and her soil makes things taste different than things I’ve had from other places.
Your food is clearly influenced by other cultures. What drives your interest in weaving these into your cuisine?
Chandra: I’ve been very inspired by the ingredients for breakfast and lunch, I like to incorporate whatever’s seasonal and then think about a global application. I like to keep things interesting.
Chandra, last year you were awarded the WGBH Culinary Stewardship Award by a panel of judges at the WGBH Food & Wine Festival. Why did you decide to apply for that award and what did winning it mean to you?
Chandra: It was our second year participating and I felt like it was the best food festival I’d ever been involved in and felt like it really supports our philosophy. It was a fun challenge and winning was icing on the cake. While I’ve been fortunate to have some good press previously, I didn’t go into this to win the award, it was more about the challenge, but winning was so rewarding and unexpected. In fact, I had a friend email the other day who had just received an email from WGBH and there was a picture of me. It was so cool to have that come back to me.
Retno, your food is taken from your home country of Indonesia. What drove your interest in opening an authentic restaurant in a city not known for liking "spicy" flavors?
Retno: In Indonesia spicy is almost everywhere. There’s always sambal in their meals, it’s like ketchup to Americans. If you want to eat Indonesian food, that’s how it is. I tell people, you don’t have to like it, but at least try it. I encourage people to have it and hope they like it. I like to give options to what Boston already has and hope there is more demand for Indonesian food. There are a lot of people in America who are not from Europe, they’re from all over. Why not celebrate that diversity? It’s a way we can all come together, over food.
Retno, last year you were awarded the WGBH Food Fight Throwdown. Your dish, Lillet Satay was quite spicy, and yet you won by a landslide. What did winning this award mean to you and what do you think it says about the Boston dining public?
Retno: It was huge. We made 500 sticks of a dish I love from the island of Bali. When I heard that we won, I was like “really?!” I didn’t know if people would like it, and people liked it! I was amazed and it gave me more confidence to explore my creativity. At the festival there is a great number of people who like food who are appreciative and curious. I hope the Indonesian food I serve to Boston can increase an interest and understanding of Indonesia.
Retno Pratiwi and her partner continue doing pop-ups and are on the search for the right place to land their Indonesian concept. Chandra Gouldrup will be opening her new endeavor, Towneship in Easton this fall. You'll find both of them at this years Taste of WGBH Food & Wine Festival Chef’s Gala on October 5th. Get your tickets here.
The interviews have been edited and condensed by Stacy Buchanan.