CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF LESTI HASTUTI
Chef Lesti is nothing like I imagined her to be. This petite lady, with a smile on her face is polite to a fault – she has hospitality running in her veins – I think it might be a part due to the fact that she is Asian and it runs in their blood. But over the couple of hours I spent with her, you know she commands respect. She does boss around 70 men, you know (she does lead a team of 70 men – that is a fact, and she is their boss)! She studied hotel management in picturesque Bali but left it to explore the world and share her culinary skills. She is my first UAE resident lady Chef interview and I am glad I got to meet such a wonderful and humble person.
Name: Lesti Hastuti
Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton Sheikh Zayed Road and Four Points by Sheraton Downtown Dubai
From (Country): Bandung, Indonesia
Culinary School: Hotel & Tourism School, Bali
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @fourpointsdubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes, because I like vegetables. I loved tomatoes especially. I loved carrots, and I am not sure if you have heard of this here in Dubai, but it is available here but not very popular – it’s called kang kung, its water spinach and is used in Asian cooking. We have different types of cooking in Indonesia, with each place having its own style. There are so many dishes which used vegetables as the main ingredient, like Gado Gado where 90% of the dish is made of blanched vegetables served with peanut sauce. It is a very popular dish everywhere in Indonesia.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I never thought I would be a chef growing up. I always wanted to be a teacher. I had this one teacher in school who was very strict, dressed really well and all the children paid attention to her and respected her. I wanted to be that teacher. In terms of my introduction to the kitchen, I belong to a family of 5 children and I was always the one to help my mom when it came to cooking. She always asked me to help peel the garlic and shallots and I thought that I liked cooking. When I started cooking at home around the age of 14-15, I love the fact that my whole family appreciated it.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
When I was working at a seafood restaurant in Grand Hyatt, Jakarta I worked in an open kitchen cooking in front of guests. It was always hectic and busy and guests could see what we were doing all the time and the guests will appreciate what you are doing instantly. I enjoyed the interaction with the guests – they ask questions while you are cooking and I enjoyed asking for feedback. If the guest was happy, I was happy.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I usually have soup for lunch – white beans and spinach soup.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I used to like going to Wok-It n Karama for good home-style Indonesian food, but it is now closed. Otherwise normally I go to Noodle House and try different things each time, except for the fried food. I also enjoy sushi, maki rolls, nigiri at Bentoya.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I like tomato. Tomatoes have a sweet/sour taste. There is a freshness taste. I also like garlic. Garlic and tomato bring the food nice flavour and make it more tasty. Garlic and tomatoes can be used in so many cuisines.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Bandung, Indonesia. I have tried many places so far, but home is home. I would be eating Sato Ayam – it’s kind of a chicken soup with vegetables. My mom makes this very well, so I will have it at home. It’s very popular dish in Indonesia and has good flavour and a fresh taste. It’s really nice when you eat it during the rainy season.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Turkey. They have art, nice food, even street food is fresh. I loved the Doner Kabab and the fish sandwich. All people have art in the food, wherever you go you will see art, maybe because I appreciate art. I would love to visit Spain because there is so much history in that country which I have not yet seen but would love to see.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I love to travel so would like to cook everywhere. But if I had to choose just one it would be Holland. There are a lot of ingredients which we use in Indonesian cooking which are used in Dutch cooking like peanut sauce. I would love to learn and understand how they use these ingredients in their cooking. Even McDonalds in Holland serves dishes with peanut sauce.
What has been your most proud cooking moment?
I took part in the World Culinary Championship in Singapore representing the UAE. We were a team of 6 Chefs from Jumeirah and I was the only lady Chef. I was used to only cooking for the Jumeirah Group but when I reached there I saw so many other Chefs from different countries. I had done many competitions in the past but only between hotels, never on an international platform. On Day 1 we had the box competition – where you are given a box of ingredients and have to prepare a dish. Day 2 was preparation for the buffet presentation on Day 3 for about 25 people who would judge the food. Since we were representing the UAE, we were going to present Arabic food. I had spent 2.5 learning how to prepare fusion Arabic cuisine. I was in charge of salads and some mains where I had to make about 10 dishes. On the last day of the 3 day competition I was very sick perhaps due to the pressure and stress and lack of sleep but we won Gold and I also won the individual Gold. I would not do it again though – too stressful.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My mum, Hartini. She supported me and prayed for me. I remember once my Chef told me that he wanted to promote me to Chef de Cuisine and I was scared because I thought I was not ready and declined. When I was discussing this with my mum, and she said, “Why not? You have never tried.” She always supported me, she had more faith in me. She like simple, fresh food. She likes soups, vegetable and fish so I would make her Chap Chai. It is a mix of vegetables with prawns and fish in oyster sauce which is eaten with rice.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I enjoy the light spicy chicken with grilled sticky rice cake at Level 43 Sky Lounge. I enjoy having it because it packs a lot of flavour – it’s crispy with just the right hint of lemon, garlic and ginger.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I like simple, fresh and clean. I believe food should be easy to cook which have their own original taste without any mix of chemicals. Once you eat the food which is not natural, the taste is gone and you don’t enjoy the taste of the food. So the ingredients should be fresh. When you cook, you need to put love in there – good marination, proper temperature – not over-cooked, where the food you cook, you too will enjoy eating.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
For me a good meal is always about sharing and so I enjoy taking my friends to have steamboat or hot pot. I usually have this once a month at Xiao Wei Yang Hotpot in Deira. Steamboat where there is this huge bowl of soup put in the centre with raw vegetable and meat around it and you cook it. I always go with friends.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Cheesecake – baked strawberry cheesecake. I eat this everywhere because I love that it has a bit of salty and sweet taste in the cheesecake and I love that combination.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Tomato. Sometimes I make people happy, and sometimes I give them a headache (the sour taste) when things are not done right.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
My mom told me to always do things with love. If you don’t like something don’t do it.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I might have been a sportsperson – I like swimming, volleyball and table tennis – and I would be representing my country.
Most underrated ingredient? Cumin. It has a strong flavour and not all people like it. It is not used in many cuisines but when you use it properly cumin will give the food a distinctive flavour.
Best culinary tool? Knife
A chef that inspires you? My ex-boss, Chef Holger Jackish. He cooks with patience and his presentations were always clean, simple and fresh.
Favourite cuisine? Far East Asian. Because that is when I come from and now a lot of people love to eat this cuisine – it’s become popular globally.
One dish you can’t live without? I love soup – any soup.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Chemical food, or molecular gastronomy. It changes the original taste of the food and although it looks good in presentation, but the taste I don’t like. It has a short trend life.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. We have a sweet dal (like mung bean or green gram) in Indonesia which we call Kacang Hijau. It is made with coconut milk and sugar and pandan leaves. You eat it with white toast either for breakfast or as a snack. I still make this myself because I miss it. It’s something that my mum used to make.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Pasta with tomato pomodoro sauce with garlic, onion and fresh basil with chicken.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Fresh, simple and clean.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!