Vindex Tengker Brings Contemporary Indonesian Concept to L.A. with KASIH
“In Indonesia, people were proud to eat out at French restaurants and at Italian restaurants. Now, finally, they’re also eating out at Indonesian restaurants,” says chef Vindex Tengker. He’s worked at Four Seasons hotels from Bali to Jakarta to Los Angeles, and he's been a judge on MasterChef and Top Chef Indonesia. Now, as he’s preparing to open his own concept, Kasih, in L.A. in March, he reflects on how cuisine in Indonesia has evolved in the eyes of its own populace. It used to be that if people wanted to eat Indonesian food, they’d do it at home or in a low-cost setting, like street food or takeout.
“It was viewed as canteen-style dining, that’s it,” Tengker says. “Also 25 years ago, vocational schools and hotel schools were teaching only teaching French cuisine. That’s what people had to know to work abroad.” That outlook—slowly changing—resulted in a lack of chef-driven Indonesian restaurants.
It’s only recently—within the past decade or so, he estimates—that that’s changed. The Michelin guide has something to do with that, he thinks; but it’s also just a culinary awakening that’s finally beginning to shake off the shackles of colonialism: the idea that Western ideas, and food, reigns supreme.
And L.A., Tengker thinks, is ready for a contemporary Indonesian concept as well. As famously popularized by L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold, one of the city’s culinary strengths is its cultural diversity—but for some reason, you don’t see many well-known Indonesian concepts in the city proper. There is, of course, Erwin Tjahyadi’s well-reviewed Bone Kettle, which Jonathan Gold describes as proto-Indonesian; since opening, however, the restaurant has expanded its scope to brand itself as “Southeast Asian.” Nearby Rinjani is also of note. But overall, chef-driven Indonesian concepts are conspicuously absent, despite the size and vibrancy of its Southeast Asian community as evidenced in the city’s Thai Town, for example.
But Tengker thinks L.A. is ready. And so does chef de cuisine Zachary Hamel, who grew up in Thailand because his parents were teachers at an international school there. Later, he attended the Cordon Bleu in Bangkok and staged at Michelin-starred Nahm down the street, which has also been named as a World’s 50 Best Restaurant. Most recently in L.A., he was sous chef at West Hollywood’s E.P & L.P. restaurant, helmed by Louis Tikram—there, Tikram translates his Fijian and Indian heritage with flavors of Thailand and Vietnam.
To prepare for KASIH’s launch, Hamel spent four months in Jakarta and Bali, training with Tengker and taking cooking classes, developing his respect for the vast differences between regional Indonesian dishes, as well as what differentiates Indonesian cuisine from its national neighbors. He’s careful to respect these complexities, which are all too often lumped together under the umbrella of “Southeast Asian cuisine.”
And even though KASIH doesn’t aim to literally translate Indonesian dishes—there will be Santa Barbara cod, for example, and the rendang will feature spinach instead of cassava leaves—there is devoted understanding of their origin.
“You can’t marinate beef in an uncooked rendang curry and call it rendang-marinated beef,” Tengker says, for example. “The very word rendang refers to the process of slow cooking. It’s not rendang until it’s been cooked.” If you cooked down a rendang curry and then slathered it on beef, however, then you could use the word, he says. That would be an appropriate instance of interpretation.
It’s more than semantics; it’s a respect for the integrity of the cuisine. Hamel and Tengker both shun the word "fusion." “It’s more like, confusion,” Tengker jokes. It’s all too often been used as a carte blanche for whatever goes.
The cuisine at KASIH will be contemporary, decidedly, and with California ingredients—but the DNA of the dishes, the housemade sambals to the three-hour cooked rendangs (condensed from the typical eight hour cooking times)—will aspire to adhere to the integrity of their origin.