With a culinary career that include positions at award-winning iconic restaurants in London, Melbourne and Sydney, Singapore-based Chef Christopher James Millar, the Executive Chef of Stellar at 1-Altitude, has lived in Asia since 2003.
In fact, Chef Millar’s time in this region has awakened his palate to a wide range of Asian cuisines and introduced him to ingredients that he could creatively add into his culinary creations.
“Texture, purity of flavour and quality of ingredients are paramount when crafting unique dishes,” said multi-award winning Chef Millar, who was featured in the second instalment of the Desaru Coast Gourmet Series.
“Malaysia’s culinary scene is known for highlighting all three components through the availability of its diverse cultures and traditions,” he added.
Themed, A Malaysian Journey: Farm-to-Table, the menu for this gastronomic event was specially designed for diners to rediscover the iconic flavours of local produce.
I was among the guests invited for this much anticipated, exclusively curated gourmet experience held at Prego, the award-winning Westin Hotel affiliated restaurant in The Westin Desaru Coast Resort.
Chief Executive Officer of Desaru Development Holdings One Sdn Bhd, Roslina Arbak, explained that each instalment of the six events in the Desaru Coast Gourmet Series would feature a world-renowned chef who would showcase their own rendition of Malaysian dishes through their choice of ingredients, techniques and presentations.
Chef Millar talked about his experience with local food and fondly remembered going on a veritable Food Safari to enjoy the unique experience of discovering the many cuisines in our multi-cultural country.
He went on to discuss how a range of easy-to-find, high-quality produce and spices here, are able to compliment a flavourful gourmet experience.
Aware that discerning diners the world over are interested to know about the origin of their food as well as how animals were reared in farms, the chef went in search of ingredients at various farms both near and far, about a month and a half ago.
From his confident smile, I could tell that his explorations reaped interesting results.
With this in mind, my expectations shot higher as I prepared to be wowed by the creativity that would go into our gourmet Malaysian Journey lunch.
But first, guests gathered in the foyer to observe Chef Millar in a brief demonstration of two items on our menu.
In the Gamberi (Shrimp) course, the chef showed us the finer points of creating cold capellini (very thin pasta) topped with Tiger prawns, ginger chips, ebi sakura and ikura, drizzled with rich prawn bisque.
He talked about the strong seafood culture here and was pleased to find such fresh and plump prawns through a local supplier.
Then Chef Millar introduced the fresh fruits – guava and rose apple – as well as herbs like Lemon Basil and Stevia which he sourced locally from neighbouring Desaru Fruit Farm to create the Dolce (Sweet) course.
I couldn’t help feeling a sudden rush of pride because this farm was featured under Portraits in my book, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People.
While he added the leaves into the pot to prepare panna cotta for dessert, Chef Millar encouraged guests to pluck the leaves off the Lemon Basil and Stevia plants to taste them for their natural flavours.
I watched with interest as guests reacted to the taste of Lemon Basil (tangy) and Stevia (sweet) flavours and realised that many were unaware that Stevia is a zero-calorie substitute for sugar and is also ideal for diabetics.
These incredible plants, along with a wide range of fruits, herbs, spices and vegetables are cultivated in the Desaru Fruit Farm, not only as showpieces but also to educate visitors on their tastes, textures and medicinal value.
Buoyed up by the fact that a local brand like Desaru Fruit Farm was linked with the work of an internationally renowned chef, I floated into Prego and found my seat at the table, ready to savour his culinary creations.
Throughout the meal, the event Master of Ceremony kept up a lively banter as she introduced each dish as it was served and challenged guests to taste and consider which local food inspired its creation.
While the Gamberi course was served with cold capellini, I felt that its prawn umami flavour and the plump whole prawns just smack of the familiar taste of Penang Prawn Noodles.
Next we enjoyed a collaborative creation that combined Asian and Italian flavours when Chef Millar and Prego’s Chef Massimiliano worked together to present their Cage-Free Roasted French Poulet Risotto.
I couldn’t help wondering what French Poulet (Chicken) was doing in Johor?
My curiosity was satisfied when I learnt that the GG French Poulet breeds of chickens are specially reared at Toh Thye San Farm at Sungai Renggam.
This is one of three farms in South East Asia that had earned the Humane Farm Animal Care certificate from Humane Farm Animal Care and Humane Society International, a leading international non-profit certification programme.
The Risotto with mushrooms and tender pieces of chicken that had hints of a smokey fragrance, reminded me of Claypot Chicken Rice!
The piece de resistance must be the Carne (Meat) course where a portion of Grilled Sanchoku Wagyu Brisket, nothing less than F1 Wagyu-Angus, garnished with Kelantanese beef floss and deep-fried curry leaves, was served on a bed of delicate smoked mash.
Intrigued by the traditional Peranakan ingredient, buah keluak, Chef Millar applied the pulp of this nut as meat marinate in a painstaking 4-day preparation and the results were simply superb.
The beautifully balanced marbling of the tender meat coated with a crust of buah keluak was so delectable that when the MC asked for my comments, I could delightfully reply, “I’m speechless!”
I came back to earth when dessert was served.
The Lemon Basil flavoured and Stevia sweetened Coconut Panna Cotta topped with fresh fruits from Desaru Fruit Farm just made me smile.
The fact that Chef Millar chose to partner with our local brands was like icing on a cake in this exquisite gourmet Farm-to-Table experience.