We’re rounding off our Guest Chef Series for 2020 with none other than our very own Co-founder and Culinary Director, Susan Soulard. Having trained in restaurants and kitchens around the world, Susan’s extensive hospitality and culinary experience spans over 20 years. She has spent the last 5 years developing delicious and nutritious recipes for The Whole Kitchen, and more specifically, she has spent the last few months developing and testing a whole new range of products just for this festive period.
We sat down with Susan to get her take on our monthly Guest Chef Series, find out how it started, what she learned and challenges she faced. She also talked us through the exciting new Christmas Range that she has developed and the Fig and Pecan Cake that we’re highlighting for this final Guest Chef Series.
As we’ve come to the end of our Guest Chef series, from your perspective, what was the experience like?
I trained in kitchens about 15 years ago and was professionally working as a chef for approximately 10 years so I haven’t actually been working in restaurants for a very long time! However, I’ve been working in The Whole Kitchen (kitchen!) since we started 5 years ago. To be working alongside professional chefs again was just fantastic, spending long periods of time just discussing food, learning what’s new, what’s hot, working on recipes and discussing challenges of the kitchen – I just really enjoyed connecting again with industry professionals and speaking on that level.
Can you tell us why you started the series?
Well the idea started back in April just after COVID really started, with Remy [Lefebvre]. It was when the world started turning, the F&B industry started changing, restaurants were closing, nobody knew what was going on, the borders were closing, people were losing their jobs, some had made decisions to leave certain restaurants and start careers in other countries. There was a lot of unease and anxiety in the air. But for some, it was also a bit of a novelty at the start, people cooking from home, trying out sourdough recipes, people enjoying working from home and being with their children. Yet the F&B industry was definitely really affected by the Phase 1 Circuit Breaker.
I was inspired when I saw Remy doing lots of innovation from home with Gluten Free and Vegan products and posting them on instagram. I contacted him out of the blue and said “Hey, what are you doing? Maybe we should do something - collaborate?”. I was already working with Remy on customised items for his restaurant Butchers Block so we knew each other already. And then I started talking to a few of the other chefs that I know, to understand who else would be interested in participating in a guest chef program. Together, we pieced something that would work for the community and the industry, thinking about how we could bring some new information to our audience, and bring some of that know-how into our kitchen so that our team could learn some techniques at the same time. It was also about working together with the Chefs themselves and supporting their profiles, restaurants and FB industry - that was on very shaky grounds at the time.
What was the process like?
The usual process would be to meet with the Guest Chefs to discuss the concept and potential recipe. Once we were confident with the product, the Chefs would come into the TWK kitchen and we would work on the recipe, adapting it as needed - reducing sugars, adjusting elements here and there for taste and texture. Once all of that was somewhat settled we sat down with them in the factory (or my home!) and got an insight into their lives and challenges.
From there it was The Whole Kitchen who would then take the recipe and roll with it for the month and go to market to our online community.
That sounds like a huge commitment, what’s your work life balance like?
During the Circuit Breaker there was definitely no work/life balance! I was working long hours in the kitchen, my kids were homeschooling and it was a really stressful period for everyone. I wasn’t doing anything well or good enough, and then I decided that that wasn’t hard enough and introduced the Guest Chef series! But in general, work/life balance is something I really struggle with. Just when I think I’ve managed it - I tip the scales and burn out. I try to remember to connect with friends and the world, but sometimes it’s nice just to find some time to rest, rejuvenate, and reset your perspective on life. It’s a constant battle but I try to look on the bright side and have a sense of humour about it.
Did you find yourself repeating any lessons to the chefs who were new to the world of Gluten Free?
I think the biggest challenge was that you can’t just take any recipe and replace the flour or the mix, it won’t work likewise when reducing sugar quantities or sugar varieties. Sugar is not just a flavour or sweetener, it acts as a preservative, it adds viscosity and binds other ingredients. You need to be very resourceful without the help of gluten and sugar and this can be very challenging! Another very big challenge is replicating a recipe in large volume. When the recipe yield is for one cake when you need to make 100, the ratios you thought were perfect don’t seem to be working anymore and you need to adapt to these methods and techniques. A classic example was the Wildflower Honey and Raisin Scones. We actually ended up making more than 200 packs of scones (400 pieces). We may consider continuing this product in the future!
Did you feel like you learned anything from the experience?
Lots of things! but probably a big one was bringing different ingredients into the kitchen. Nicolas (Vergnole), our first Guest Chef, introduced me to the beautiful Indonesian Batak Berries which I’d never seen or used before. They give a very floral and perfume-y dimension. I’ve actually included them in our Christmas cake which I’ll talk more about later.
And any final comments on the Guest Chef Series?
I think we all want to say a BIG THANK YOU to all of our Guest Chefs for 2020. Our community loved it, it was a great way to offer new, if temporary, products. I won’t shy away from saying that it was a huge challenge for the kitchen to achieve. We had to adapt and learn new recipes really quickly, and roll them out on a weekly basis on top of our normal production workload. Only a few weeks later we would be learning yet a new recipe and the whole process would start again. It takes a lot of energy and training to launch a new product, test and tweak it and make it better so a huge thanks to the entire team. And once again, thank you to the Guest Chefs for participating - we all made some good friends and had fun!
Talk us through the new Christmas range then.
We’ve created lots of new things this year. As mentioned already we have a new Christmas cake on the range which is the Fig and Pecan Christmas cake. Although it is on the sweet side for TWK, it remains in line with our rustic and artisanal style. Compared to traditional fruit cakes we have increased the nuts and seeds including a hint of the Batak Berries and slightly bitter Cacao Nibs which offset the sweetness of the fruits.
It is beautiful with blue cheese on any entertainment platter or served with a splash of coconut cream or traditional Creme Anglaise at the Christmas table. Aside from the fruit cake, we are offering a gluten free Lavosh Bread, a nice and crispy bread with TWK’s classic 7-Seed Mix, topped with fleur de sel and caraway seeds (which is an aniseed flavour similar to fennel).
The lavosh is an Australian thing, right?
Yes it is, it’s like a rustic crisp bread that only the Aussies living in Singapore recognise but it’s something we love, Anne also loves it and it’s something we’ve always wanted to do. It goes well with dips or alongside a delicious salad.
We’ve also made some spicy Gingerbread Cookies which is something we’ve never done before, so we’re releasing some Gingerbread boys and girls this year!
We are also introducing 2 new nut mixes that we were working on pre-COVID but of course were abandoned in the chaos. Both mixes are very natural and premium without too much flavour or salts added. Perfect for post workouts or dreaming of hiking through mountains with your trail mixes! Both mixes will be perfect for your Christmas grazing table including brazil nuts, macadamias, hazelnuts and pistachios.
What does Christmas mean to you?
Well, I have children so it’s super exciting, it brings back so many memories of being a child myself and putting the tree up, getting together with friends and family, and getting excited for new beginnings. At home in Australia it would mean feasting all day, cricket in the background and singing ABBA into the night.
But here in Singapore, it’s about inviting all of our friends together to host a huge gourmet Christmas lunch that goes well into the night. Each person is responsible for a dish or a course, and we always exceed expectations! We have a great big day of eating and drinking and playing games and dancing and catching up - it’s awesome. The kids love it, we love it, and everyone has a blast. Hopefully, restrictions will be lifted and we’ll be allowed to have more people gathering together soon, hopefully before Deepavali as well so all friends and families can celebrate together.
Favourite Christmas must have for the table?
I’m an Aussie so definitely a Pavlova! For our Christmas parties, I generally choose to make a pavlova or meringue variation with lots of fresh summer berries, herbs, and creams.
Do the kids get involved a lot with the food you make at home?
In my house we eat as a family, the children eat what we eat, we also encourage them to finish everything on their plates. There’s no special treatment and it’s just what we’ve done from a very young age. If they don’t like something one day it doesn’t mean that they won’t like it the next – they need to be given a bit of respect and space to make their own decisions on what they do and don’t like to a certain degree. In general, though, they eat a huge variety of foods, and we’re very proud of them in that way.
And finally, can you give us any insight into the future plans for The Whole Kitchen?
The Whole Kitchen has some exciting plans ahead, so stay tuned!!! More on that later.
In terms of family, we’re trying to stay optimistic and move forward. We are very thankful that we’re here in Singapore as they’ve done a great job of managing the pandemic and supporting the community and business so we’re extremely grateful.
Thank you so much for your time, Susan, and to our audience, remember to check out our Christmas range.