Elevating humble, aboriginal ingredients in Taiwan is at the heart of Richie Lin’s culinary mission. Jessica Chan finds out how the head chef of MUME is shaking up the country’s fine dining scene.
Richie Lin of MUME
After the restaurant shutters come down after every dinner service, it’s off to Tonghua Night Market. There, Richie Lin sits inconspicuously with his team, among locals and travellers, tucking into a bowl of gan yi mian (Tainan noodles with ground pork). It’s hard to guess that this man is, presently, one of Taiwan’s most sought-after chefs. Lin’s restaurant, MUME, recently snagged one Michelin star and the number 18 spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list (MUME was also one of the two winners of the Highest Climber Award 2018, moving up 25 spots from last year’s 43), thanks to his idiosyncratic and impassioned showcase of Taiwanese produce. Think New Nordic cuisine served with aboriginal ingredients like maqaw (mountain pepper), fermented black beans or white asparagus from Changhua.
MUME sits in a quiet alley of Da’an, where Lin and his fellow culinary innovators, Long Xiong and Kai Ward, have been wowing diners with their elaborate and intricate dishes. His famed beef tartare surprises the palate with an intriguing burst of chye poh (preserved turnips) and shrimp sauce. “I left Hong Kong when I was 13 and lived in Toronto for 10 years,” recalls Lin. “The influence, on hindsight, was huge. It became natural for me to mix western elements with my Asian heritage; that is who I am.”
What surprises is his late start into the industry, switching from a marketing career to the back-breaking world of the culinary arts in 2007. But he has come a long way since graduating from Australia’s Le Cordon Bleu circa 2009. Fate brought him to Quay, where he became enamoured of Peter Gilmore’s nature-based philosophy. Noma, followed, where he turned down the position of a pastry chef for a lab coat at Nordic Food Lab. The current menu at MUME perfectly echoes the produce-driven culinary philosophy, which the 37-year-old regards as undefinable and international. “Everyone in the kitchen comes from different countries and backgrounds and with different perspectives. Defining the style by traditional standards is difficult. It is a revolution and a representation of where and who you are,” Lin says proudly.
What does MUME stand for?
What name would better represent our dream to put Taiwan on the modern gastronomic map of the world? It refers to plum blossom, the country’s national flower. It is bubbling with potential, from its great produce to culinary prowess, but is often overlooked.
Coming from a marketing background, what sparked your interest in a culinary career?
The defining moment was the passing of my father 10 years ago. It had a huge impact on me and left me questioning what I wanted out of life. What fulfils me? As cliché as it sounds, I followed my heart (much to my mother’s dismay).
How has working with Peter Gilmore and René Redzepi influenced you?
Words will never be enough to express my admiration. Peter Gilmore is an incredible mentor. The way he incorporated nature into his cuisine opened my eyes. Read his book Food Inspired by Nature and you’ll see. It inspired my move to Noma. Redzepi is an icon and inspiration to a new generation of cooks. It was what he accomplished outside the kitchen that struck me most. He got me thinking about what chefs can do for their environment, which doesn’t come easy. Be it using whole animals or plants, supporting sustainable farms and charities or reducing the carbon footprint, it all compounds on the responsibility (and cost) of running a restaurant. But I’ve not looked back. It is what I want to do.
About 90 to 95 percent of MUME’S menu is created using Taiwanese ingredients. Why?
While Taiwan is small and mountainous, it demonstrates tremendous diversity in its terroir and heritage. We looked to 16 indigenous tribes who know the land like the back of their hands. It was through watching them forage that we discovered magao, a citrusy pepper we can’t seem to stop using. The restaurant doubles as our R&D space and is often filled with wild vegetables we would experiment with. Sometimes, we’d rope in experts from other fields for different perspectives. There’s bird nest fern, cardamine, aiyu seeds and betel nut flower, to name a few. It is our goal to introduce diners (local and tourists) to this unique side of Taiwan.
What would you consider as your restaurant’s signature dish?
The MUME salad is a picture-perfect bouquet of 20 to 30 locally grown vegetables. It is seasonal and we would change the cooking methods to better suit each component. In a way, it is constantly evolving. I also wanted to challenge our perception of a salad. Rather than have it acidic with a vinaigrette, I uses fermented black beans, a traditional Chinese condiment, to introduce a burst of umami. There’s no dressing. Instead, the beans are dehydrated, chopped finely into the size of coarse salt and mixed into the vibrant medley of vegetables. Tell us more about your charity initiative Hao Hao Chi Gu Shi Che? As a father of two (two-and-a-half and nine years), I wanted to reach out to rural kids to share about the benefits of local produce as well as learn how to cook, plate and add a sense of aesthetic to their experience with food. They hardly get a chance to try western cuisine.
It officially starts this month, when I will be using onions from Hengchun (the southernmost township) to make a rendition of the French Onion Soup, an onion salad seasoned with black beans along with a multi-grain stew with caramelised onions and pork. The geography and climate yield amazing onions. It is a fantastic way to let them discover what’s right at their doorstep and share with them the history of French cuisine.
Head chef and owner Richie Lin with chefs Long Xiong and Kai Ward
Beef tartare MUME’S interiors