Words by Heidi Chan
At the tender age of 26, head chef Ernest Toh helms the kitchen at NKU Firewood in Taiwan, cooking up a storm with local ingredients while staying true to his identity.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Tea Culture’ issue
LOSS AND GAIN.
I have been cooking since 11, but believe it or not, my time in the Food and Beverage Industry started because I wanted to shed some weight. As an overweight kid in secondary school, I was desperate for a change in lifestyle and was determined to enhance my knowledge for a healthier life. I then decided to take on Nutrition in polytechnic and lost 20kg in 22 weeks.
LOVE THY JOB.
I had participated in a cooking contest, judged by chef Emmanuel Stroobant, and was offered an internship at his restaurant, Saint Pierre. It was then that I realised I could see myself putting in that kind of time and effort and not feel like it is a job. Upon completing my National Service as an Infantry Officer, which taught me discipline and teamwork, I decided to enter the workforce instead of continuing my studies.
After Saint Pierre, I worked at The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and Nouri in Singapore. I then went on to intern at Relae and Amass in Copenhagen. Instead of taking the conventional route, I invested my time to gaining knowledge through experiences. One amazing trip was when I went backpacking in Europe. There, I knocked on the doors of various food service shops and asked if I could learn their skills during my, albeit limited, time in each city.
A HAPPY ACCIDENT.
My journey with NKU Firewood was entirely coincidental. I was on a vacation in Taipei when my friend brought me to NKU and from then, I became friends with the team and owners. As head chef, I manage the whole restaurant, including costing, pricing and training of our staff. Apart from leading the kitchen, I also design the beverage program. NKU’s complete operation has 12 people, consisting of a small but efficient front of house team.
NKU stands for ‘Nordic, Kept, Unique’ and serves New Nordic cuisine. It was originally a Scandinavian-themed restaurant which was established about two years before I joined the team. Last year, we changed its concept to omakase to showcase the ingredients of Taiwan in creative ways. One of which is Taiwan’s wild seafood: be it squid, John Dory, or rockfish. We brush them with vegetarian rempah (spice paste), grill them over charcoal, top them off with a generous spoonful of rempah glazed uni, and finish with calamansi, basil and coriander garnish.
*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Tea Culture’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter