By Catriona Mitchell
Blake Thornley wasn’t the kind of chef I’d expected to meet at Mozaic. He simply looked too young, too green, to be leading an establishment with a reputation that soars mightily across the globe, and is listed among the Grandes Tables du Monde.
With an elfin mischief in his eye and a faintly Geordie accent – though he’s from New Zealand – Blake looks more like someone you’d meet at the pub in the middle of an afternoon, or at the beach hanging out with his mates, than in the finest – and most expensive – gastronomic restaurant in Indonesia.
But (and it’s a big but) I’ve met Chris Salens, Mozaic’s founder; even taken a cooking course with him. I didn’t think he’d put staff on who weren’t capable of doing the job, and doing it with aplomb. I tried to keep my judgments in check.
Away we went.
The workshop, entitled “Asian Ingredients in Western Cuisine,” commenced with a tour of the garden. Now this is one of the things I love most about Bali: that the food we eat grows all around us. I’d never done a herb-garden-tasting before, but with Blake’s guidance we nibbled our way around a variety of plants – most of which I’d never heard of, such as laksa leaf, which tasted like a delicate Vietnamese mint, and some of which I eat nearly every day but have failed to ever notice actually growing, such as turmeric.
We tasted baby star-fruit, more sour than a lemon, but with a green apple flavor. Blake’s tree produces more than he can ever use, although he makes sweets with them. We tasted Kalimantan lime, orange on the inside, “reminiscent of sage and lime, with mandarin notes”, and kaffir lime, or “old man’s lime” because it’s wrinkly and dry on the outside (unlike our chef) – to be cooked with salt to cut the bitterness. We tasted curry leaf which “smells like Bombay – or better,” and cumin leaf, which bears no relation to the seed, and is something of a miracle because it has the flavor of several herbs rolled in one (sage, oregano, mint). And we tried fresh vanilla beans, and tamarind, which Blake sliced open delicately to expose its sticky-date texture – used at Mozaic with lobster, foie gras, beef carpaccio and chocolate ice cream.
That’s the thing about Mozaic: the dishes are highly exotic, and impossibly sophisticated. Combinations you wouldn’t come up with in your wildest dreams are here on the menu, with two or three new dishes appearing each week to accommodate Blake’s ample imagination and insatiability for new flavour combinations. (He spends four to five hours a day just playing around with different flavours in the kitchen).
For example – who else would ever come up with the idea of serving turnip with a chocolate sauce? I mean, really. But we did: it’s one of the things we prepared together, in Mozaic’s exquisitely decked-out kitchen, custom built for workshops like this one.
Blake also highly recommends cauliflower with chocolate. The man uses turmeric in sorbet, curry in chocolate, and crunchy coriander seeds in poached fruit. Those ingredients that he can’t source easily here – for example, pineapples of the sweeter variety – he has delivered to a postal box at Ubud Post Office. But his favourite ingredient in desserts doesn’t need to be posted. It’s one he confided in us once we’d got going in the kitchen, beginning, for logic’s sake, with the dessert, before moving onto the fish, the lamb, the potatoes, the turnip.
Oxygen. His favourite ingredient in desserts is oxygen.
His second favourite ingredient, by contrast, seems to be butter. Blake was not shy when it came to adding three, four, five times what another (generous) chef might use. “Might as well eat well,” he’d say, adding another dollop or three.
It was when we were halfway through the cooking – all participants being assigned little tasks, so as to learn while doing – that Blake told us his personal story: how he came to be here. As a young teenager he wanted a surfboard, and his mother told him to get a job, to save up for one. He took a job in a kitchen. Completely untrained, by the age of 14 he was winning national culinary competitions in New Zealand. Later, he came third in the world against 25 other competing nations.
His mother, he assured us, “can’t cook to save herself.”
He’s taken training since then, of course, but that didn’t stop me from feeling incredibly humbled. We were in the company of an extraordinary person – someone who was entirely self-made, because of his natural passion for what he does.
That natural passion spilled over to affect everyone else. It was hard not to be touched by Blake’s simple wisdom, and his clear enthusiasm for experimentation and learning. He was constantly throwing in snippets of advice, from the high-falutin’ (what kinds of meat to use in combination with chocolate; how to cook meat in an oven that’s switched off), to the medium-challenging (how to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon preparing a mere 300 chocolate fondants for the freezer), to the basic (how to correctly use pepper and salt). Above all he emphasized the importance of relaxing and enjoying the process of cooking for others. “If you get stressed out,” he said, “nothing works. It’s the best advice I have.”
The meal, which we consumed after some three hours of in-depth but fascinating preparations, was spectacular, the blend of flavours unlike anything I’ve tasted before. It was like music for the tongue, and a full orchestra was playing.
The Singaporean family I took the course with decided to make a booking that evening for dinner. Dinner was only three hours away.
Here is what we prepared and ate (and shall mimic for dinner parties in future: we took the recipes, and a Mozaic apron, home. Oooh, what fortunate dinner guests!)
Confit Coral Trout, Coriander Braised Baby Potatoes and Crème Fraiche Sambal Kecicang.
Rack of Lamb, Curry Turnip & Cocoa
Valrhona ‘Guanaja’ Chocolate Fondat, Fresh Star Fruit Sorbet & Spiced Young Star Fruit in a Coriander Seed Caramel