As a chef, Loh Kain Boon is unusual; as a personality, he is unique.
Consider his costume. The head covering is an empty flour sack, draped sideways in pirate fashion. A white T-shirt tops shorts and a brief blue-and-white domestic apron. Legs are bare, feet shod in black running boots.
Can this be the lead chef in Margaret River, the fast-developing Australian wine region often compared to Bordeaux?
Boon’s menu at the Arc of Iris restaurant is equally eccentric. Veggie soup and hummus are joined by an onion and tomato tarte Tatin. The pungent curried Brussels sprouts are not for the fainthearted.
“We sort ‘em out with the sprouts,” Boon says of his customers. “Then we know who’s who.”
Main courses include Thai salad, Moroccan chicken, curry laksa (a Malaysian fish stew) and Indonesian gado gado.
Even on Sunday night, the Arc of Iris is humming. Boon’s partner, Glen, rummages for soft drinks behind a makeshift bar composed of two oil drums topped with a wooden plank. Background music from the library of CDs filed beside the stove ranges from Dylan to Bach to Irish reels.
“This is a big family kitchen,” says Boon. “I’m here 12 hours a day, seven days a week. My grandfather was truly Chinese; he went to market early every morning and we children went with him. I guess I’m always trying to go back to my youth.”
Boon was born to a Chinese family in Malaysia and, as the eldest son, given an education in English. Sent to Norwich, England, to study accounting, he was soon diverted by cooking: “I found mayonnaise more fascinating than figures.”
It was a long road to Margaret River, but here Boon has found his niche. The area was a backwater until the 1970s, when a viticultural study showed it to be a southern hemisphere Bordeaux, almost identical in climate and geology.
Margaret River is still a one-garage town in frontier country. To the west stretches the Indian Ocean. A few miles to the east the outback begins - scrub land, then desert for 2,000 miles with scarcely a settlement in between. A bush survival manual sold in the tourist center warns starkly: “Death by exposure and dehydration is anything but a pleasant way to go.”
The Arc of Iris seems suddenly a haven of civilization.
Boon stops by our table to chat.
“There’s not much difference between French and Asian cooking,” he says. “French is a bit more genteel. We Asians cook food on the bone; the French remove the bones but then cook them separately to extract all the flavor.”
Like all outstanding chefs, Boon likes to analyze the structure of dishes, and the more he cooks, the more he pares the process down to essentials.
“My flavorings are clear and basic. I don’t go for complexity. Take this Vietnamese Beef,” he says, pointing to our plates. “The idea came from the sauce in a noodle shop, but I keep the meat in pieces, European style. I’m aiming at a fragrant, simmered broth that does not cloud. We must bridge the ethnic gap.”
An Asian version of French pot au feu, this recipe is good with a firm piece of beef such as brisket or shin, which delivers rich flavor to the broth. For a quicker version, use chuck steak, which will be tender in 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
2 pounds beef brisket or boneless shin
4 quarts mild veal stock or water, more if needed
Small bunch Vietnamese mint or fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon peppercorns
2 stalks lemon grass, peeled and chopped, or pared zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce or more to taste
1 pound bok choy
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
Tie beef into neat cylinder, leaving long string. Combine stock with mint and peppercorns in large deep pan and suspend meat in it by string. Cover and bring to boil. Add lemon grass to pan.
When liquid boils, skim froth and reduce heat so liquid scarcely bubbles. Poach until meat is very tender when pierced with 2-pronged fork, 3 to 4 hours. Skim often during cooking, especially at the start, and if necessary add more stock so meat is always covered.
Let meat cool to tepid, then lift it out. Discard string. Cut meat into 1/2 -inch slices. Strain broth and if necessary boil it until reduced to 5 to 6 cups. Add soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Coarsely shred green leaves of bok choy and cut stems into 2-inch lengths. Add stems to broth and simmer until almost tender, 8 to 12 minutes. Add leaves and simmer until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and heat until very hot. Taste again and adjust seasoning.
Arrange beef in bowls and ladle hot broth and vegetables on top. Serve boiled rice on side.
Yield: 4 servings.
The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = MARGARET RIVER, WESTERN AUSTRALIA