Sunday, 21 October 2012

An Inspirasianal Lunch with Two-Michelin-Starred Chef Eneko Atxa

Chef Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi
If you are reading this, you are probably here for a report on the food.  Atxa, the first two-Michelin-starred chef in Biscay and an exponent of avant-garde Basque cuisine, flew in this week to cook one exclusive lunch for 40 guests at the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore.  But to focus on the food would be to miss the bigger picture.  Why was Atxa here, and what’s with the typo in the heading?

I received an email earlier this week from Mark Weingard, a businessman and philanthropist, saying that he got my name from some mutual acquaintances and would like to invite me to this lunch, which he organised to tell people about the Inspirasia Foundation (www.inspirasia.org) and the Iniala Beach Resort, his new business / philanthropic venture (www.iniala.com).  Meeting him in person, Weingard is a compact bundle of energy, with short woolly salt-and-pepper hair and ridiculously eye-catching marbled red and purple shoes.

Weingard's story is nothing short of remarkable.  When his father passed away two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, the 9-year old Weingard was fixed with the fear, irrational as he himself now admits, that he would also die before he reached 36.  So he applied himself super-hard in all his endeavours, worked as a successful trader in Singapore and London in his 20s and with his savings, started up (and sold) a string of successful businesses.  And he didn’t die before his 36th birthday, despite a near-miss on September 11 when he couldn’t make an early morning meeting at the World Trade Centre.

Tragedy finally struck in October 2002 when his fiancée and companion of 7 years Annika Linden went missing during the Bali bombings. Unable to reach her, Weingard flew immediately to Bali, along with a plane full of journalists looking to cover the bombings.  “I am normally a very private person”, Weingard relates, “but I walked up and down the aisle, handing out pictures of Annika to all of these reporters, pleading with them that they could have my story if they would just help me look for her”.  A BBC journalist, Clive Myrie, agreed to help him out.

Once Weingard arrived in Bali, he got down to the morbid task of unzipping bodybags resting on giant ice blocks, trying to identify whether Annika was amongst the bodies recovered from the debris.  After an unsuccessful day, he got in touch with Myrie.  “Sorry, I can’t do this anymore.  I know I’m not going to find her like this, and your story is going to have to finish here, I’m afraid”.  Myrie simply pointed at his own wedding ring, and said “I understand.  You have to find your own way”.

Dejected, Weingard returned to his hotel.  Unable to do anything else, he returned to his room, showered, sat down at his desk and started writing.  Suddenly, his room door swung wide open.  “As if someone just opened my door and pushed it hard”, recalls Weingard.  Dressed in nothing but a towel, he approached the door, but there was no one there.  He walked out into the corridor, looked left and right to find the intruder, but there was no one there.  Suddenly, his room door slammed shut, and he stood there, dressed in nothing but a towel and wondering how the hell he was going to get back in.  After a moment, he burst out laughing.  “Annika loved playing practical jokes on me.  I saw this as a message from her to get on with life and do something good for other people”.  He walked down to reception to get another key, and never looked back.

The following year, he started the Annika Linden Foundation, which provides strategic philanthropy to various NGOs in the health (particularly for medical services which the authorities were either unwilling or unable to provide) and education sectors.  “I’m not going to let the terrorists win”, Weingard states emphatically.  “If we help the people in the areas which they attack, what power do they have over us?  What has their hate and violence achieved?”  He started similar initiatives in Phuket after the tsunami struck in 2004 (another close shave as the waves passed under the stilts of his beach house) and India after the devastating terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2005.  With the recent 10th anniversary of the bombings, the Foundation was renamed “Inspirasia” (“if it remained the Annika Linden Foundation, it would always be about me, and I want it to be much more than that”, Weingard says) and inaugurated the Annika Linden Centre in Bali, which will house YAKKUM and YPK, two NGOs which provide assistance respectively to children with physical disabilities, and children with cerebral palsy and adult stroke victims.  To date, he has donated more than US$9 million of his own wealth to fund the Foundation's projects.

Recently, Weingard has turned his focus to Iniala, a super high-end 10-room design hotel created in collaboration with eminent craftsmen such as the Campana Brothers, the architecture firm A-Cero (who designed footballer Fernando Torres’ beach house) and our chef for the day, Eneko Atxa, who will open Phuket’s first gastronomic restaurant at Iniala, cheekily named Aziamendi.  Iniala will donate 10% of its revenues (as opposed to its profits) to the Inspirasia Foundation.  Per the standard practice at the pointy end of the hospitality market, prospective guests will need to book the entire resort out for a minimum week’s stay.  At US$1,300 per night per room, it isn’t cheap, but Weingard has never been one with modest ambitions; he is aiming to raise some US$800,000 for Inspirasia annually.

Oh, the food, yes.  Quick notes below on what we were served.  Unfortunately, because this lunch was only organised on a week’s notice, Atxa could not bring out any of his signature produce or technical equipment, so he had to make do with what the hotel had on hand.  In Singapore, this naturally meant lobsters, foie gras, oysters and other items which make up the French haute cuisine larder.  Atxa actually apologised for any shortcomings in the day’s meal, but invited us to discover his real cuisine at Azurmendi and Aziamendi.

Starter: “Truffled Egg”

Nice and earthy but neither the flavour nor the texture were particularly eggy which threw me off for a moment.  A very worthy variation on the rather more common olive spherification.


First Entrée: Oyster and Aromas of the Sea

A fresh, meaty specimen with “sprigs” of what tasted and felt like deep-fried coral.


Second Entrée: Tribute to Producers – The Garden


This dish perhaps attained its most popular expression on Noma’s menu, although its inspiration can be traced back to Michel Bras' gargouillou at Laguiole.  What both of those restaurants have in common is their proximity to super-fresh herbs and vegetables which can be foraged on the morning of service.  The Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Australia pulls off a pretty good rendition with its home garden, but in Singapore, we just don’t have access to the quality of vegetables that allow such dishes to be successful.

First Main Course: Vegetables and Lobster Stew

A simple but delicious dish, with nubbins of asparagus, onion, bacon and lobster.  If anything, it was a little over-salted, but it was very pleasant all the same.  The various elements added layers of texture.

Second Main Course: Foie Gras, Duck Jus


Great quality ingredients, good sauce, skilled execution.  I was doing it justice and mopping it up with bread and talking to one of my neighbours when one of the super-efficient staff whisked my plate away.  I turned around to remonstrate, but she pointed out very unhelpfully “Sir, you have already finished”.  Further debate would have been pointless as one of the busboys had already stacked my dish with some others.

Deseert: “French Toast”


Not bad, but it paled in comparison to Catalunya’s excellent torrija.  I didn’t think it was caramelised enough or had the depth of flavour to carry off the concept.

Peccavi Wines of Margaret River donated their wares for the lunch, and I particularly enjoyed their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Normally, I avoid celebrity chef guest appearances overseas because (a) you probably won’t get to taste their food at its best anyway, and (b) I don’t think it is fair to judge a cook when he is 8,000 miles away from his kitchen, larder and team.  I certainly won’t be judging Atxa’s food on this meal and I hope you don’t either, but I look forward to trying Aziamendi once it hits its stride.  The challenge, I think, will be to convince holidaymakers that Phuket needs a high-end gastronomic restaurant, and also for the culinary team to adapt its recipes to local produce.

It was good also to finally meet Danny Drinkwater, the CEO and General Manager of Iniala.  Danny was one of my favourite (and I think most underrated) chefs in Sydney back in the 2000s when he was at the helm of the Park Hyatt’s harbourkitchen & bar, and it was great to see him devote his considerable talents to a very worthy project.

A wonderful afternoon, and a very refreshing and, dare I say it, inspirational message.  Best of luck to the Iniala team and I hope they make a real beneficial impact for the community and for Inspirasia.

Many thanks to Mark Weingard for the invitation, and also to Mason Florence and Raymond Lim.

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