Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen King

Art and science come together, with award-winning chef Azizskandar Awang.

 

17There’s a lot of common ground between art and cooking. Chefs, like artists, need to learn the basics of their craft. There are materials to study and techniques to learn. To start with, you copy – either the motions of a top chef or the drawing style of an old master. As you advance, your repertoire of skills progress. Then you find yourself drawn in a certain direction - to a style of painting or a genre of cuisine. Artists and chefs alike, all experiment, learn and develop. And then they’re faced with a crossroads.

      Around Samui, you’ll see quite a few ‘art’ shops. The ‘artists’ inside are busy copying famous paintings. Their skills and techniques are first-rate. But they’re not creative. They’re not following their own personal vision. Some chefs are like this too: they’ve learned just about all there is to learn in their own specialised area, and so they create the same perfect dishes, over and over again, deftly, and with effortless skill. Both these sets of people are skilled technicians. They’ve mastered the science of their subject. But they’ve not been able to go to the next stage and step over the edge of the cliff into the deep, dark uncertain drop towards breaking new ground.

      “When I’m working at making a new dish,” chef Aziz told me, “I know exactly where my boundaries are to begin with. I’m working in a culinary area that comes from classical French cuisine. And so, if I was a painter I would have already chosen my palette of colours and be instinctively aware of what style I was going to work in. In the kitchen, I’ll begin with one main ingredient – duck or salmon, for example. Right away I can sense the variation in flavour and texture if poached, sautéed, confit or slow-cooked. I can visualise a spectrum of the contrasting and harmonising complements of vegetables to go with this. I can actually taste the duck with tarragon, juniper berries or Sichuan peppercorns, compare them in my mind, hold the flavours, and then imagine it again with a tangy sauce to balance it or a citrus element to allow an after-taste to linger.” And, just like a painter, Aziz will return to his ‘canvas’ again and again over a period of weeks, making slight changes, adjusting the balance of ingredients in the sauce or varying the proportions slightly, until he is satisfied and can place it on the menu.

      ‘Aziz’ is Malaysian-born Azizskandar Awang, currently Executive Chef at the inter-linked Peace Resort’s ‘Sea Wrap’ restaurant in Bophut, and the boutique Scent Hotel’s ‘Le Jaroen’ restaurant in Bangrak. When it comes to sorting out the men from the boys, right from the start of his career Aziz was up there like some kind of culinary Russian gymnast. It’s bordering on the sycophantic to paste the label of ‘prodigy’ onto him, but if there were an Olympic slot for cooking, Aziz would have knocked the other galloping gourmets sideways. But the best thing is, he’s quite shy, moderately modest, and prefers listening to talking!

      He came out of IKIP School of Hotel and Tourism, in Pahang, Malaysia, in 2002, straight into a sponsored scholarship from the Renaissance Group. In 2004, he was well up the career ladder and was awarded ‘The Best Young Chef’ in Malaysia. He then went on to win gold and silver medals in Malaysia and Singapore at the ‘Golden Chef Hat’ and additionally an award at the ‘Chaine des Rotisseuers’ competition. Aziz admired the workings of the Renaissance Group and progressed within their nurturing structure for two more years before getting itchy feet and applying, on a whim, for a job on little old Samui.

     “I’d become used to working in a hotel environment where there were almost a thousand guests, and seven restaurants within the hotel which employed more than 300 kitchen staff,” he told me. “I just felt I needed a change of scene. I took a job on Samui at what was then Karma Samui, a high-quality boutique resort with a comparative handful of 5-star-quality pool villas. I couldn’t believe the difference. I went from a thousand breakfasts and catering for banquets of 400 people, to a little patch of paradise. I knew all the guests by name. After a day or two, I knew how everyone liked their food cooked. And, more to the point, I had the time and the encouragement to begin creating my own menus.”

      Aziz remained there for two years before accepting a position at one of the island’s foremost small resorts, ‘Rocky’s’ in Lamai. Here, he was welcomed, and encouraged to have free-reign with their exceptional fine-dining menu, as well as with the more laid-back daytime restaurant. If Rocky’s already had a superb reputation pre-Aziz, then it’s true to say that his three-year tenure there did them nothing but good. This was also the same period of time that he was selected as one of the Samui contributors to the staggeringly prestigious annual limited-edition Unilever ‘Signatures’ coffee-table cookbook, complimentary copies of which are sent to leading politicians, film stars, divas, and royal families all over the world.

       On leaving, he landed feet-first into his current position. Aziz is not some kind of aging culinary guru. But he already had become an island legend in the short time he’d been here. Thus, like every master chef, when he moved on, several of his under-staff followed him, and three have been with him from when he first arrived. “Yes,” he smiled, “of course I like to change the menus. It’s not an aggressive or sudden thing like I need to mark out my territory. It’s a natural part of the growth. I’ve added a themed barbecue night on the beach with Japanese tables and bean bags, an on-site Thai cooking academy and new dishes. I’m not just a chef. I have a responsibility as a teacher, too, and these new elements are how my staff learn and grow.”

         Aziz has been here a while now and just loves the whole island thing. He now has a serious girlfriend, Alice, and is looking forward to marriage. His ambitions? “To work towards my own restaurant.” His future? “Who knows what!” And such a centred outlook is the brand of a true artist – a king of the kitchen, not a lab rat!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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