A téte a téte with a macho kinda guy who went far from what he originally tried to achieve and wound up being one helluva chef.
By Erza S.T.
Not many Indonesians have achieved respect as great chefs, especially overseas. Most chefs would start by studying in an F&B school in a country like Switzerland followed by years of internship around the world in renowned establishments before coming back home to open their own restaurant. Chef Juna Rorimpandey escaped all of that and had a totally different experience. He earned his reputation by working in impressive establishments such as the world renowned French Laundry in Napa Valley and ended up as executive chef for the prestigious restaurant Kenzo Sushi Bistro, in Katy, Texas. Such an amazing achievement by an Indonesian in Uncle Sam’s land.
“My profession happened by accident. I went to the US (Brownsville, Texas) in 1997 for a flight school. I got my private pilot license, but in the middle of taking my commercial license, the school went bankrupt. So, I went to Houston to continue training, but then in early 1998 Indonesia fell into the economic crisis. My mother told me that she couldn’t help me financially, so I had to survive working anything illegally (no working permit) so I could live.”
“After a couple of jobs, I eventually worked in a traditional Japanese restaurant as a waiter (they paid me cash). After two weeks the sushi master asked me if I wanted to be his student, so I said yes. I started from the bottom, trained so hard and worked my way up. The owner of the restaurant was so impressed with my work ethic and performance that he sponsored me to get my permanent residency. In 2002, I took over as the head chef of the restaurant after my master chef left for another restaurant. Then in 2003, I went to work for the number one upscale sushi/lounge restaurant in Houston, called “Uptown Sushi. I entered as second in command right away and after a couple of months, I became their executive chef. In early 2004 I was bored with raw preparations and Japanese cooking, so I went to work for a French / New American fine-dining restaurant, worked my way up from the bottom to top, then I went to a couple of other places and did the same thing, working two jobs eager to learn more. Finally in August 2007, I was asked to open Kenzo Sushi Bistro from the ground up being their executive chef.”
Of course, by saying French/New American fine dining, Chef Juna is referring to the famous French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Known as a restaurant that implements such high standards in the kitchen, it is quite remarkable that he was accepted as one of the cooks. “Yes, The French Laundry… they still have a position open for me there if I ever decided to go back with them. But I tell you, they are such a fine establishment, not just the food, but the management also. We work so hard and it’s disciplined like the military. There is punishment for mistakes and it’s so easy to get ‘your butt chewed off’ for a simple mistake. It is an honour to be able to work for them, I learned a lot of techniques, and how to handled proteins, seasonal ingredients, local and organic products, and of course, dishes that you wouldn’t think could be so delicious and pretty”.
French Laundry is the creation of renowned chef Thomas Keller, who is also the owner of the restaurant – a uniquely American restaurant whose inspiration lies in the countryside of France. In this restaurant, they create two unique, nine-course tasting menus everyday, including a chef’s tasting and a tasting of vegetables. No single ingredient is repeated throughout the meal to give the sense of surprise and freshness. Their achievement has been acknowledged around the world. Michelin Guide awarded them three stars in 2006 and French Laundry also became the perennial top finisher in the annual ‘Restaurant Magazine list of the Top 50 Restaurant of The World’.
Chef Juna’s move to Kenzo has made this recently opened restaurant one of the most-talked-about newcomers in town. Though it is also a fine dining establishment like French Laundry, Kenzo has implemented more Japanese influence in its concept by having a full-fronted sushi bar. The menu ranges from modern Japanese to non-Asian. “Actually we can almost do everything The French Laundry can, except we have to choose to either make it as an appetizer or entree. It just that we (at Kenzo) can’t do such unique products, as the clientele are different, and the prices are a little too steep for an upscale casual restaurant such as Kenzo compared to a fine-dining establishment like The French Laundry, where they can charged US$240 and up per person excluding beverages.”
“In our region, we are a little different from any other Japanese restaurant. We are located in Katy, Texas (25 mins outside Houston) and it’s a new developing area. We do offer something different, as the hot food is more towards New American/French influences and we are pretty elaborate with the raw stuff (sushi/sashimi) such as live sea urchin, live abalone, seasonal sashimi grade fish and shellfish, lobster sashimi and lots of other stuff. With the creative and delicious Kenzo specialty rolls, and martini and mixed drinks menu that we have we do have a good lounge crowd. Kenzo works well as most Japanese restaurants in the area are more like family restaurants with traditional Japanese food.”
Since opening a year ago, Kenzo has been receiving many rave reviews from punters and critics alike. It seems that Juna’s 12 years experience in some of the country’s best kitchens has really made him one of America’s great chefs. It is no longer just a job, it is something that he loves to do. He believes that in cooking, we have to respect the products and take care of them properly. It is important to try every dish or sauce before you put it out. Chef Juna understands that to achieve great creativity in the kitchen, you cannot cut corners. Instead, to work cleanly and be organized are the keys to success.
“Cooking is something that you love when you work in the kitchen, it is not just a job! It is your passion and it is a hard work. I love cooking, because I look at it as an art (I love art, but I can’t draw or play music instruments), so when I create a new dish it is like you have finished an art project. Strive for perfection, make the dish delicious, and make it look pretty with colorful ingredients to create the final presentation on the plate. Every night when I cook in the kitchen, especially in a super busy night, I feel such a sense of accomplishment, because I make my customers full, happy, and give them a great dining experience.”
“I also love the hectic atmosphere in a busy kitchen, the sound of a hot pan when you put the ingredients in, utensils banging, tickets coming out from the printer, people communicating to each other about what they’re doing, all of that it just like music to my ears.”
Chef Juna is really a one-of-a-kind type of chef. With fully tattooed arms and driving a big motorcycle, it wouldn’t cross your mind that he is actually a great chef. He is returning to Indonesia to explore the opportunity of opening his own restaurant and we’ll be lining up once he does to give it the once over.