The Chef with the Knife Tat­toos

mailife - - Contents - By RA­JAN SAMI Pho­tos SUP­PLIED

Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Ashim Singh cuts a lanky fig­ure in his kitchen whites, the sleeves of his uni­form rolled up to re­veal a smat­ter­ing of chef’s knives tat­tooed on his right fore­arm. “There’s also a butcher’s di­a­gram of beef cuts on my back,” he tells me as we sit in the Toko­riki Is­land Resort lounge in the Ma­manu­cas to talk food. The Nadi-born, Nau­sori-raised, globe-trot­ting chef picked up the Me­mento-es­que tat­toos on his culi­nary trav­els through Asia, the Pa­cific Isles and New Zealand over the past 20 plus years. They tell you a lot about his pri­or­i­ties: food isn’t just some­thing he does for a liv­ing, it’s his life. It’s this ob­ses­sive pas­sion with the nuts and bolts of cook­ing that saw him trade in ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions in South East Asia and New Zealand where he led big teams in larger kitchens for some­thing that’s much more hands on. “I be­came a clip­board chef which I dis­liked im­mensely, it gave me no joy manag­ing large kitchens with 74 chefs cater­ing to 2000 peo­ple” he says. Ashim was ex­pand­ing his culi­nary reper­toire, hav­ing left Fiji and his Head Chef po­si­tion at Toko­riki Is­land Resort in 1997 at the age of 21 for greener pas­tures in New Zealand, then on­ward to Hong Kong, Dubai, Pa­pua New Guinea and Viet­nam. In an Al­chemist-wor­thy twist, Singh has found him­self right back where he started 21 years ago as a young man of 21. Toko­riki’s cur­rent owner An­drew Turn­bull (who, foodie sidebar, made his mil­lions bring­ing Chupa Chups lol­lipops to the masses) had only just ac­quired the thread-bare, half-star resort the year prior in 1995 on a whim. In the years since, An­drew and his de­sign-sa­vant wife Yvonne have trans­formed Toko­riki into what it is to­day ‘Trip Ad­vi­sor’s No. 1 Resort in Fiji’ for the fourth year in a row.

This ‘home­com­ing’ of a lo­cal boy done good, who’s been given the reigns (and carte blanche with the menus) at Toko­riki, is mon­u­men­tal for a num­ber of rea­sons. The Turn­bulls have long put the resort’s lo­cal staff as well as Fi­jian art and cul­ture front and cen­tre at Toko­riki – it’s part of what makes the place so cap­ti­vat­ing in a sea of cu­tand-paste looka­likes. Their faith in putting a global Fi­jian chef at the helm of the multi-award win­ning lux­ury resort’s kitchen and food experiences marks the dawn of a new era – one in which home grown tal­ent can fi­nally put their own distinctly Fi­jian stamp on the coun­try’s resort menus. At Toko­riki, Ashim is ap­proach­ing this in a mea­sured yet self-as­sured way – putting his own take on the Asia/Pa­cific Rim cui­sine-themed menu. He’s el­e­vated Fi­jian soul food sta­ples like ika vaka lolo and palusami to fine din­ing sta­tus. “We crisp the skin and gen­tly poach the fish in fresh co­conut milk in­stead of cook­ing it whole,” he says, of what has be­come one of the re­sorts most pop­u­lar lo­cal dishes. Moringa, a trend­ing su­per­food or sai­jan as it’s lo­cally known is pan­fried Ker­alan-style with grated co­conut and wrapped in a roti to ac­com­pany freshly caught walu. Only a chef raised in the is­lands could take a down­home in­gre­di­ent found in back­yards and put it on a resort menu. “We throw the drum­sticks from the sai­jan tree into our dhal here at the resort,” he says, adding: “It’s great for flavour.” Ashim caught the food and cook­ing bug in his early teens while study­ing agri­cul­tural science at school. This led him to grow­ing veg­eta­bles at home and sell­ing the sur­plus to neigh­bours. In his spare time, Ashim would help out with his fa­ther’s mo­bile cater­ing com­pany, cook­ing and sell­ing pop­u­lar lo­cal dishes like chop suey. To this day, he gets ex­cited about lo­cal pro­duce, which he is in­creas­ingly in­cor­po­rat­ing into the resort’s menus.

In­flu­ences from Ashim’s South East Asian jaunts meet those from his Pa­cific her­itage in dishes like the crunchy heart of palm salad and palusami lasagne (taro leaves baked with co­conut cream lay­ers). “Ev­ery day there’s also a tra­di­tional Fi­jian curry on the menu,” he says. A fan of bold flavours, he likes to throw in a bit of fresh chilli to spice things up. In re­cent months, he has gone on a culi­nary odyssey of Thai­land where he hung out with a lo­cal chef friend in places where only Thai was spo­ken and where he tried a bunch of du­bi­ous un­men­tion­ables. But he did learn to cook re­ally spe­cific re­gional dishes from his friends’ grand­moth­ers, which will form some of the Thai-in­spired dishes com­ing up at the resort. His ear­lier stint at an ex­pat fre­quented Aussie steak­house in Hanoi ex­posed him to aro­matic Viet-flavours after hours. Late nights would end with early morn­ing bowls of steam­ing hot pho. At Toko­riki, these Viet­namese street food experiences trans­form into more re­fined dishes like the pho ga noo­dles in broth with crispy chicken and gar­lic pickle. Also on of­fer: a cus­tom seven-course Viet­namese de­gus­ta­tion that he’ll make upon re­quest. Next up, the chef is putting to­gether a cook­book show­cas­ing his sig­na­ture dishes for Toko­riki Is­land Resort that guests can take home and savour. He’s also look­ing at in­tro­duc­ing more lo­cal touches to the resort’s food experiences such as cook­ing on an open wood fire – “the way my mother and grand­mother used to”. He’s also con­sid­er­ing adding to his grow­ing num­ber of tat­toos. The sub­ject of his next one just hap­pens to be one of his favourite in­gre­di­ents: le­mons.

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Chef Ash Singh

Toko­riki’s beach framed by palms

Kokoda Toko­riki style

Chef Ash with Aunty Raj & cousin Vinod Lal

Fish in lolo Toko­riki’s fa­mous Sandy Ice-Cream

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