Bring on the Revolution
Tanja Wessels, Wendi Song
The 8th edition of the Macanese Cuisine Competition reveals upcoming talent
The heat can already be felt in the kitchen of the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT), despite the air conditioning and the maxed out exhaust fans. On the stainless steel benches, arranged in parallel rows, colourful dishes are prepared. Nerves are almost imperceptible, only given away by the slight tremble of a hand pouring a thin stream of sweet and sour sauce on meticulous compositions of meat and tamarind. The jury does the rounds to the various benches, reading recipes and lurking in fridges, all the while taking notes.
This the atmosphere at the 8th edition of the Macanese Cuisine Competition for Professionals promoted by the Macao Culinary Association, held last month at IFT. The first edition was launched in 2010 with the aim of promoting the training of chefs specializing in Macanese cuisine.
There are four different evaluation criteria for judging: “‘mise-en-place’ - or preparation - execution, taste and presentation,” explains jury member, Greg Bunt, an Australian chef with 25 year’s experience and director of culinary operations at Wynn Macau.
Taste is the criterion that’s worth the most points and where the talent and skill of the chef really make a difference.
“It’s no use having fantastic presentation if taste fails, the chef works for taste,” stresses British chef Richard Stuart, a judge of cooking competitions certified by WACS (World Association of Chefs Societies), an organization that sets the international standards of quality for the sector. Stuart has been in Macau for about seven years, and is Assistant Vice President of International Cuisine at Galaxy Macau.
Just before five o’clock, the 10 contestants - from different casino hotels in the territory – are about to complete the competition. They have had two hours to prepare a starter and main course of authentic, traditional Macanese food with a “modern presentation”.
The jury takes an hour and a half to sample, and approve or disqualify dishes with or without Macanese characteristics. At the end, the jury reveals that only “50 percent of the dishes presented” by the 10 competitors have characteristics of Macanese gastronomy, according to Greg Bunt.
Missing were “the basic ingredients”. “They need to have the right ingredients, but they also need to know how to put the ingredients together. In this case, it’s a competition, they’re young chefs, so sometimes they tend to overdo it. But if we read the rules of what Macanese food is, we are asking for the dishes to be kept as simple as possible, almost homemade,” Blunt says.
It seems that despite the efforts to educate and train cooks - particularly by IFT and the Macao Culinary Association - there is still a way to go before Macanese gastronomy becomes professionalized and affirms itself outside domestic kitchens and family restaurants, in order to become an real asset for Macau tourism.
The challenges begin with the difficulty in distinguishing between Portuguese and Macanese cuisine. The competition organizers recommend that the contestants: “do research, because many dishes may be traditional Portuguese and not Macanese.”
Newly arrived in Macau, 28-year-old British chef Hearty Derlet has been in the business for seven years, and confesses that he knows little about Macanese cuisine. But that’s why he wanted to participate in the competition, to be forced to learn a little.
“I thought that Macanese cuisine was basically Portuguese food without the right ingredients, but I realized it’s a lot more complex than that,” he says. Derlet says that the difficulty begins with knowing exactly what Macanese is, because “some say it is one thing, others say it is another”.
“There are a lot of confused people who cannot distinguish between Portuguese food from Macanese food. The latter is a bit different and that’s why we want to push and develop this type of cuisine,” says Perry Yuen, president of the Macau Cooking Association, which promotes the competition with IFT. The director of Food and Beverage at City of Dreams, Perry is also a member of the jury. Originally from Hong Kong, but living in Macau for 10 years, he observes that Macanese food is known only in Macau and Hong Kong. “We want to preserve this type of cuisine and raise it to a more international level,” he adds.
David Wong, IFT’s assistant executive director and one of the promoters of this competition admits “it is not easy to define Macanese food, but there are some authentic dishes of Macanese food that are not found anywhere else - minchi, the tacho, the lacassá soup, these are authentic, but there is a tendency to confuse them with Portuguese dishes”.
Macanese Gastronomy has been inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Macau since 2012, and the government has announced the official candidature of Macau to become a member of the Creative Cities Network of UNESCO in the category of Gastronomy.
David Wong points out that the culinary competition is held to “keep the tradition alive and promote it. This fusion is unique in the world, this mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Asian influences, ingredients, techniques, styles. But the knowledge is dispersed. Most Macanese cook at home and the recipes are kept secret.”
Yves Duron, also a member of the competition jury and Executive Director of Food and Beverage at Grand Lapa Macau, believes that Macanese gastronomy has room to evolve and modernize, without losing its authenticity. For the French chef, who has lived in Macau for 29 years, there is “a tendency to pay close attention to presentation and less attention to taste. Often, people say, ‘it doesn’t look Macanese’, but as long as the ingredients and taste are there and the Portuguese, Asian, African influences are felt, it continues to be Macanese,” he says.
For a number of years, casino hotels have been keen to include Portuguese and Macanese cuisine on their menus, says Richard Stuart.
“Macanese gastronomy has been dormant, I think because all the restaurants look the same. But all it takes is one chef to risk leaving that closed circle and modernize the gastronomy. Then we will have cuisine that stirs things up and everyone will follow suit. I’m looking for a chef who really stands out. But it takes some time to nurture people,” Stuart says.
The chef, who brought a Michelin star to Terrazza restaurant at Galaxy Macau, believes that “knowledge is power” and that academic training can make a difference. “When we have knowledge we can think of any dish, we understand the basics, the classics, and we put this knowledge into what we are doing. Those who don’t have it, don’t understand what they are doing, and they will not be able to add anything to a dish, it will not evolve”.
Still, Stuart believes Macau is on the right track. We are not at Hong Kong’s level, but there is already a buzz around Macau, he says. “It’s encouraging that outside chefs come here, this could help local cuisine evolve. This cuisine has to evolve and the way to progress is to have more chefs come up with ideas so the younger ones learn”. Reaching that level, Stuart says, “requires a lot of effort, passion and commitment, because this profession is very hard, and like any other, it takes 10 to 14 years to reach the top. It’s a journey and you have to be patient to make it”.
The first prize winner of the 8th edition of the Macau Cooking Competition was 33-year-old Liu Rong from Guangzhou, who works at Portuguese restaurant Gosto at Galaxy Macau.Rong began to specialize in Macanese food when he arrived here in 2011. The Guangzhou chef captivated the jury with his African chicken and a starter that combined the concept of traditional crab shell with avocado salad and crab pastel. Second place went to Wynn Palace's Lam Sai Kit with a dish of cod and pork belly tamarind, while third place went to IFT cook, Cao Yao Chang.