In a world of millions of apron-clad chefs, there are very few that set the bar for cool, but in Ubud, Bali, at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, executive chef Dean Nor is doing just that. And with a world-class repertoire of food, colour, and funk to match, chef Dean has a way of keeping the kitchen loose.
The kitchen has closed, and I’m sitting alone on the terrace of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah’s restaurant before I’m happily interrupted by head chef Dean Nor. “Whew, what’s goin’ on man? How was dinner?” You’ll notice this about chef Dean, which he is called more often than not, the fact that whenever you come into contact with him, you can’t help but smile. “Dinner was great, chef,” I respond smiling, “couldn’t have been better.” The towering Singaporean pulls out his chair and drops in before ordering a drink to cap his busy evening in the inferno, “Long day?” I ask. He smiles, “I’m always happy in the kitchen, no day is ever long there.”
A robust figure, chef Dean’s got a polished head, dark rectangle specs, and a sliver of a goatee — or something like it — that all add a bit of flair to the kitchen maestro, and for the life-long chef, nothing could be more fitting. Dine at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah and you’ll notice that everything has got this flair, from home-grown edible flowers, to vibrant dabs of sauce and spice, to funky combinations that besmirch the bore of so many chefs around the world — and that’s just the way chef wants it. “I love these super cool colours,” he says, “these edible flowers, these beautiful spices, these cool arrangements of fresh and beautiful organic vegetables and fruits. Creativity and colour and fun are what I thrive on in the kitchen, and if I can’t see it, or I can’t feel it, then what’s the point?”
Dine at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah and you’ll notice that everything has got this flair, from home-grown edible flowers, to colourful dabs of sauce and spice, to funky combinations that besmirch the bore of so many chefs around the world — and that’s just the way chef wants it.
But chef Dean’s plates are more than just appealing eye candy; they are the refined product of a life-long culinary pursuit. When he was young, however, he never thought about being a chef, “I wanted to be a seaman if you could believe that,” he says in his raspy but booming voice, “but my mom — you know how moms are — she was against it.” Discouraged, but not defeated, teenage Dean tossed aside the sailor’s cap and instead picked up a knife and started chopping away at fruits and vegetables in a local kitchen for part-time work. “Man I loved it! The smell, the sight, the freshness of it all, I was hooked. And after I began playing with food, I think I knew right then that I’d become a chef someday.” And with this new-found passion, chef Dean started his journey through the culinary world. Starting under famed chef Charlie Chan, Dean worked himself, over time, through many-a-kitchen before ending up, years later, at his now-home at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah as the executive chef. Specialising in all types of food, Dean finds certain styles to be closer to the heart, but the closest is that which remains organic, fresh, and without manufactured distraction. “Of course I love Singaporean food, I love the fun combinations that that country taught me about, and I love fresh seafood having lived for so long here in Southeast Asia. I also love my edible flowers, fresh ginger and turmeric, chilli, mint — basically, if it’s organic, if I can grow it, I want to use it.” And when you sit down and partake of some of the chef’s plates, this comes through in spades as each bite of each dish is crisp with freshness, colour, zest and snap.
He’s smiling, he usually is, and with beads of sweat lining his forehead, he takes a long sip from his glass before asking what I ate that evening for dinner. “The barramundi,” I say. “Cool, cool, and you liked it? How was it cooked? How was the sauce? How did it look?” Chef’s ever-inquisitive, but it goes to show how dedicated he is to his craft. I’m a relative novice in the food scene, and while I eat, and eat a lot, my standards still aren’t what one would exactly call ‘high’ or ‘refined,’ yet to chef Dean it doesn’t matter. “It’s important to be nice. To be humble and not to be dismissive about things or people, you know? Everyone’s taste is important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a world-renowned chef, or somebody off the street — everyone should enjoy their meal.” And this, perhaps, is what most sets chef Dean apart from his counterparts around the world. He is the layman’s king. He likes to have a beer after work, he likes to hit a bar or club every now and again, and he also just so-happens to enjoy cooking — and cooking really damn well at that.
For a chef this off-the-wall cool I begin to wonder about his influences, and while I usually get the same long list of notable culinary figures from chefs I talk to, with chef Dean, it’s a bit different. Sure, some of chef Dean’s influences are the likes of Heston, Pavelli, Tetsuya, and Nobu, but most of his inspiration, he says, comes from within himself and his group of friends. “For me it’s about creating something cool. It’s about competing with my friends and seeing that one of the guys is using wine in some funky way, and then trying to one-up him by putting an out-there jelly on a classic dish. It’s about going to the market, or to my organic garden and becoming inspired by the colours. The greats will always be there, but being in the kitchen is where I find comfort, finding inspiration within myself, and through healthy competition with my friends to create — that’s what it’s all about you know?”
I order a Bintang, the local brew, and ask chef if he’s happy where he is now, if happiness and success are the things he’s found since landing in Ubud. “Like I said before, I’m always happy in the kitchen,” he responds. “I look at it this way, if I want to get five times better in the kitchen, and I do, I’ll still be looking for happiness outside of the kitchen, and the same thing goes for my life outside of the kitchen. In that way, there’s a constant pursuit of growth, happiness, and success, in both life and the kitchen. I’ll never stop searching in either place. But right now I’m finding great comfort in the kitchen and in my life, and that’s what is important. I mean, look where I live!” he points out to the sweeping rice paddies that surround the restaurant terrace and I can’t help but chuckle, half in envy and half in realising just how out of place my question is in such a location. “This is where I live and work!” he exclaims, “It’s hard to get better than this. I have my own garden, my own place, a wonderful kitchen and staff, beautiful sunrises, fresh air — I mean, if this isn’t success or happiness, it’s at least some sort of super cool comfort that I’m very happy with—and if I’m not happy with this, then man, something’s the matter.”
“It’s important to be nice. To be humble and not to be dismissive about things or people, you know? Everyone’s taste is important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a world-renowned chef, or somebody off the street — everyone should enjoy their meal.”
We finish our drink, or drinks depending on how you want the story to unfold, and as I’m ready to leave, I get the feeling that I’m not parting ways with an executive chef at one of the premier destinations in Bali, but a friend, and that’s just kind of the feeling you get when you’re around chef. So when you pop into The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, don’t be afraid to say hello, to shoot the wind, to take a cooking class, or even to take a walk through the chef’s private organic garden where a multitude of shades and hues serve as his sounding board every morning on his walk to the kitchen — because there aren’t many chefs in the world that make you feel the way chef Dean does, both with his personality, and with his food.
Note: Cooking classes, and tours through the organic garden with chef Dean can be arranged through The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah upon request.
(Featured image: Chef Dean’s house-smoked Tasmanian salmon with signature edible flowers and balinese saffron mayonnaise dressing. Both seafood and edible flowers play large parts in chef Dean’s repertoire as a chef who gravitates towards organic, fresh, and colourful food.)