CHARTING A NEW COURSE
More than 9000 workers are thought to have lost their jobs in New Zealand’s hospitality industry due to the pandemic but some of them are back in different kitchens and turning up a new kind of heat
Until early this year, Russian chef Sam Shevchenko used to supply food to cruise ships docking in New Zealand ports.
But after Covid- 19 killed the industry, the 34- year- old i s following his passion of becoming a sushi chef and creating a modernised take on the dish.
Joel Singam, 33, trained as an Italian chef and used to work in Non Solo Pizza and Farina, but is now going back to his Malaysian roots and carving out a new career as a chef specialising in nasi kandar — a popular northern Malaysian style of eating.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit New Zealand’s hospitality industry like a steamroller, with the Restaurant Association estimating the closure of more than 540 restaurants and at least 9300 hospitality workers losing their jobs.
Some top chefs are weathering this reality by starting food stalls at markets, but others — like Shevchenko and Singam — are completely transforming the t ype of food they offer.
Originally from St Petersburg, Shevchenko said he had dreamt of becoming a sushi master since he was a teenager and saw this as an opportune time to realise that dream.
“Cruise ships are not going to come back anytime soon, so what do I have to lose?
“I’ve always been fascinated with sushi, and how you can create thousands of variations and discovering new flavours and ways of preparing it.”
Shevchenko said he was currently working on a concept and implementation of a project called “Sam’s Sushi” and was looking for a commercial kitchen base.
“My sushi is not a quick snack like what’s common here. It’s a proper full meal that harmoniously combines taste, quality of ingredients and aesthetics,” he said.
“I am very attentive to the quality of the products, I buy all the ingredients myself, because one of the main rules of Japanese cuisine is that the taste of each ingredient should be felt, while they should be as fresh as possible and harmoniously complement each other.”
Shevchenko said his sushi creation would be similar to what people get at top Japanese restaurants in St Petersburg — lots of ingredients, but little rice.
“My main rule i s that everything should be simple, bright and yummy,” he said.
Singam said he had mulled over what to do since leaving Farina and being made redundant as a car salesman with Holden when it closed early this year.
“I specialise in Italian cooking, having been trained by great chefs like Antonio Crisci and Dave Scouller, but in times like these, there is no job for an Italian chef who is Indian,” he said.
“Then I thought to myself, ‘ my wife is not only a great cook but she also has amazing Malaysian Indian recipes. Why don’t I go back to our roots and carve out a new career cooking food that is closest to my heart’.”
Singam said that back in Malaysia, he had a favourite restaurant in Penang called Nasi Kandar Merlin — serving rice meals with a variety of curries and side dishes in a style that was popularised by Tamil Muslims in India.
The rice, either plain or flavoured, is accompanied by dishes such as fried chicken, mutton curry, sambal eggs, beef rendang and fried fish.
“There i s really nothing like it in Auckland, and I thought we could give it a go,” Singam said.
So with the help of his wife Alexan
Cruise ships are not going to come back anytime soon, so what do I have to lose? Sam Shevchenko
I specialise in Italian cooking, having been trained by great chefs like Antonio Crisci and Dave Scouller, but in times like these, there is no job for an Italian chef who is Indian.
dra Kumaran, 35, they started a nasi kandar stall at the Auckland Night Markets and now operate five times a week at Botany, Henderson, Papatoetoe, Pakuranga and Highbury.
“It is a huge risk planning to open a business during the pandemic, we don’t really have a business plan except for a gut feeling that no one can resist delicious food,” Singam said.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois described chefs as a creative group.
“Many will try different styles of cuisine, if only for personal pleasure,” she said.
Bidois said it was common for chefs who specialised in one style of cuisine to return to the flavours of their childhood.
“Sid Sahrawat is a great example of a chef that specialised in classical fine dining before opening up t wo restaurants specialising in Indian influenced flavours,” she said.
However, Bidois said it does take years to build up a good knowledge of one style of cuisine.
“So to transition from being a senior chef in an Italian restaurant and go in at the same level in a restaurant that specialises in a different style of cuisine is challenging,” she said.
“There will need to be a degree of learning before that chef can reach the same level.”