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The science of the perfect meal

La Pergola’s new French chef applies some novel techniques to his cooking – including foams and jellies – to produce a range of colourful, unique dishes. Photo supplied
La Pergola’s new French chef applies some novel techniques to his cooking – including foams and jellies – to produce a range of colourful, unique dishes. Photo supplied

The science of the perfect meal

French chef Olivier Guillon recently took over at The Plantation’s restaurant La Pergola, introducing a bright and colourful new menu that draws on his science education and training as a pastry chef while incorporating local ingredients and flavours. Guillon this week gave Will Jackson a rundown on his novel approach to cooking

Briefly, how would you describe the food you cook?

It could be defined as creative and modern, yet centered on one particular natural element. I construct dishes around one central product, adding ingredients, side flavours and textures to enhance it. Creative in the sense of stimulating, surprising. I like to bring the “wow effect” around the table when plates are served. The Plantation Hotel gave me carte blanche to design and execute a brand new menu list at La Pergola. Being 23 years old, I take it as a fantastic opportunity.
 
You have said you approach cooking like chemistry. Can you elaborate on that?

Cooking has always been on my mind since childhood, and I opted for a science-oriented education precisely for that reason. This scientific background helps me to better understand how natural products are going to respond to chemistry-related factors such as heating, cooling, acidic or sweetening additions... Cooking “is” chemistry, which does not mean you have to overlook other crucial approaches, like how you inscribe yourself in a culinary tradition, how you focus on the freshest resources at your reach. Whenever you cook, you are using chemistry, you are looking for the ideal balancing of various components. And none of them should be chemical, of course! I think that explains why I have been so attracted to pastry techniques: any pastry is an exercise in combining the rough and the smooth, the sweet and the savoury.
 
What skills did you learn as a pastry chef that you feel you can apply to cooking more generally?

This is more about behavioural skills, I guess, but I would say – the pursuit of constant accuracy in measuring and timing. I like things to be precise. Cooking temperatures, for example. Pastry is a really demanding discipline on that level. It also leads you to pay special attention to presentation. Each time I plate a starter or a main course, I rely on the pictural and minimalist approach that so much characterises pastry.

Olivier Guillon studied science and was trained as a pastry chef. Photo supplied
Olivier Guillon studied science and was trained as a pastry chef. Photo supplied

 
You seem to like using a lot of foams and jellies (at least that’s what it seemed from Saturday night). What do you see as the advantage of techniques like those?

Working in Cambodia, I tend to look for textures, sizes and flavours suitable to this climatic and cultural environment. I like to explore the register of foams and emulsions, because they bring lightness and a refreshing relief to any preparation. Within a hot weather context, a mousse is particularly pleasant in the mouth, and it also allows to concentrate one simple taste, which is going to bring a surprising note to the dish. As for jellies, most of Khmer desserts are jelly-based and it inspired me to use the texture for different purposes, for a starter or a main course dish. This is a way to awake curiosity, break the standards.
 
You tend to incorporate savoury flavours into your desserts. What do you believe is the difference between desserts and other dishes?

Dessert is the last “note” in a meal, the sensory coda of a culinary experience. That makes it the most important element, I believe. Something that leaves a lasting memory. Here again, I am looking for lightness, which means not too sugary, which led me to experiment more and more in introducing ingredients you are not usually expecting in a dessert. Vegetables, mainly. This last note has to be sweet but not sweetish. Pure pleasure. 

How did you go about developing the new menu for La Pergola? Have you taken any influence from local cuisine?

I am trying to be at the market every morning. Cambodia offers several natural ingredients that are exciting to work with, from waterlily to ta’mao to sesbania, a huge variety of herbs and edible flowers. Almost all my creations include some Cambodian influence, yet I am not trying to develop a kind of “Khmer nouvelle cuisine”. I am not running after identity labels. My aim is to find the best flavour combinations between local, natural products and modern cooking techniques. Since I grew up within the French culinary tradition, I still work with many of its core elements (salmon, foiegras, strawberry...) and I found out they get marvelously well along with local ingredients and spices. I like to be a matchmaker in the kitchen, for instance matching salmon with tropical fruit, duck with Kampot pepper, chocolate with cardamom...
 
It seems like the food you make is very elaborate. What do you cook for yourself at home?

I almost never cook at home. The joy is in cooking for others. Occasionally, with my roommate, who is also a chef, we invite a bunch of friends home and make a real food feast, but apart from that, as the saying goes, “the cobbler’s son always goes barefoot” and the same applies to our profession.

La Pergola at The Plantation is located at #28 Street 184. Tel: 023 215 151.

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