Chef John Rivera: If it is not hard, it is not worth it

Another person that I got the chance to meet and interview was Chef John Rivera. Ya, sosok kelahiran Filipina yang besar di Australia ini tengah duduk dengan cookies dari Dough Lab, salah satu tenan yang ada di Jakarta Culinary Feastival. “How is it?”, tanya saya. “It is great, it is delicious!”, katanya.

Jujur, harus mewawancarai dua koki dalam dua hari berturut-turut membuat saya bingung. Sudah dengan Chef Bjorn Shen, saya kembali harus mewawancari Executive Chef dari Lume, Melbourne ini. Pertanyaan seperti apa yang harus saya ajukan untuk membedakan dua pribadi ini. Keduanya sama-sama belum pernah saya dengar sebelumnya dan belum pernah juga saya cicipi hidangannya. But, hey, everyone is definitely unique in his or her own way, don’t you think so? Maka terjadilah perbincangan yang kembali menambahkan pengetahuan saya akan sosok seorang koki, terutama di balik hidangan-hidangan lezat yang disajikannya selama ini.


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Hi, Chef! Okay, so first, can you share a bit about how you started your journey as a chef?
I just really love eating food when I was young. I was just really interested in cooking show on TV. I remember when I was young, instead of watching cartoon network, I watched food network. So, going through high school, thinking about what I’m gonna do with my life, I didn’t like learning from a book or sitting down listening to someone teaching me something. I love being involved, using my hands, learning as I go. So, for me, it was in my brain that I had to be a chef. That was kinda how it started. 

What is your favorite food when you were a kid? Cookies?
Cookies, haha. It still is. I often have like you know a stack of cookies somewhere. But, I enjoy every type of food, most especially foods with a lot of flavor. So, I grew up ate a lot like Italian food and Asian food that are really packed with something sweet, salty, spicy, that’s the stuff I love, all I eat on the weekends.

Okay, so what are the characteristics of your dishes?
My cuisine is Filipino inspired. Understand my food you kinda understand where I come from. I was born in Philippines and I moved to New Zealand when I was four. Then, we moved to Australia, that’s where I did all my cooking. So, growing up my only connection back to my heritage was through food, the food that we have ever heard. So, my palette was Asian food but the techniques that you learn in the restaurants that I’m working are very classical or very contemporary and modern. I didn’t get the chance to learn traditional Filipino cooking of Filipino techniques because I wasn’t there. So, I wouldn’t say my food is authentically Filipino, but it is inspired by the flavor profile, by the cuisine, by the ingredients, and by the culture of how we share and how we eat food. So, it is a little bit unorthodox, but I think that’s what makes it great.

For you personally, what is the best dish you have ever made?
I should say my dish that I entered the S. Pellegrino with. I mean, that is the one that really changed my life. It was a reinterpretation of sinigang, which is a Filipino version of like a hot and sour soup. I wanted to show Filipino flavors with the ingredients that are more commonly found in where I grew up, in New Zealand, Australia. 
So, it was a dried-age fish, which is very common in Australia that we wrapped in fermented turnips and glazed in burned tamarind and miso, cooked that on the barbecue. That’s kind of what you think in Australia, everything is cooked on the barbecue. To pair with that, we had a taro and coconut mousse. A sour and spicy broth made from tomato infused with native pepper leaves and river prawns from Australia and then a lot of foraged herbs and greens. And then, to finish it off we made like a cracker, or like a kerupuk, we actually have the same thing in Philippine, named kropek, a fish cracker. We made the fish cracker by using the bits from fish that are usually thrown out, in Australia we really look out on the sustainability in every part of it. That dish was really the start of how I look at how to cook, of my ideology, you know like modern Filipino and the flavor profile. It is the dish that took me to the number five in the world of the young chef. I worked on that dish and the presentation and the whole thing for one whole year, we practiced every week for one whole year. So, after I cooked it in Milan and it was judged, I ripped up all the recipes and threw it on the fire. I don’t want to see it again.

Hahaha, okay! What is the best thing about being a chef?
You eat very well. I mean it doesn’t matter if you eat KFC or anything, but like you can go anywhere in the world and know what will be good. And, just eat well all over the world. And, I think also it is because the cooking community is very small and understanding that like you know chef can automatically connects with each other, it means that you can make a lot of friends, you can make a lot of connections all over the world. And, you always get taken care of in the restaurant, I think that is the best part of being a chef.

So, the other way around, what is the worst part of being a chef?
The worst part of being a chef..

Wait, is there any?
I am sure there is. I mean like working late at night. It is actually not a bad thing for me because I don’t like mornings. For me, I would say there is not anything that is so bad about being a chef, but that’s because I’m so obsessed with it. 

So, never once in your life you’ve ever thought that chef is not for you?
Oh, I have. I think you will always go through that in every career. If you don’t ever feel like you don’t wanna do it anymore, and you keep doing it and you love it, if you never test it, you never really know that you like it, right? So, for me, I went through a stage where I was so struggling at work, I was really hiding it and thought about leaving and becoming something else. But, if you get through that, in the end you’ll be like, you know what, it is actually not that bad, it is good, that’s when you realize that it is what you meant to do. 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Yea, but then it still kills you, hahaha.

What do you think about JCF?
Oh, it is great and I like Jakarta in a whole. This is my first time here. It is surprising how friendly everyone is, how nice the city is, and JCF is so well organized, it is so lively. You can’t be bored here. It’s been great.


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Yes, so true! Okay, so you are appointed as the head chef of Lume when you were 25 years old? How do you feel about it?
At the start I was really nervous because we already had the reputation for the restaurant. And, in a way we were changing the restaurant completely, essentially, we were like opening a new restaurant. I was 25 years old, I am still a kid in the industry, but I look at it and it was a great opportunity. To this day, I am still learning how to do everything. But, it has given me the confidence in pursuing and evolving my own food and experience. So, now, it is not more about the nervous-ness, it is about yea just learning. Surprisingly, I didn't learn this at school, but I should have learned this. When you become a head chef, you actually do less cooking. It is more about the management, the accounts, making sure that everyone is doing his or her job right, making sure that everyone is happy. And, that is the stuff that I am learning now. You know that you can cook, you can make a good food, but it is now about how do you manage everything else that everyone does not see. There are a lot of things behind the scene that guests don't see that are as important or maybe even more important than the food. So, yeah, that is what I'm learning now, i am very happy. Yes, it is very stressful, but if it is not hard, it is not worth it. 

But, when the first time Lume was established, it was not a Philipino-inspired restaurant, was it?
No. So, my old head chef, who is one of my mentors, he did more like a theatrical, more like gastronomic food, like modern style of dining, 14 to 15 courses in a very small portion. That was great, it was really cool learning those techniques. But, when I took over, I wanted a restaurant that I could eat that. Still doing a really great food, still doing in the fine dining level, but less of a commitment, like I didn't want people sitting at the restaurant for four hours and getting bored, feeling like they just want to go home. If you want to stay for two and a half hours and eat the whole menu, great. If you want to have three courses in 30 minutes, we can do that as well. We did not have to change the decor and everything, it is still beautiful. But, for us, the first few months was really about changing the mentality to be more relaxed and chilled out, but still doing a really great food and really great service.

So, now Lume is more into the Philipino-inspired restaurant?
Yes, I often call it secretly Philipino. I am an Australian chef even though I am a Filipino because that's where I do my cooking. So, all the foods are inspired by the Philippine, but we describe it as it would be like a modern Australian. I think the menu as it keeps going becomes more and more obviously Filipino. My main course is like a lechon. 

What is your biggest dream as a chef?
Well, I am a simple guy, I just want a nice little fine-dining restaurant for to be able to cook the food that I really want to cook, that I am proud of, and to be able to serve that myself to the guest, talk to the guest and pretty much like I am welcoming guests to my house. And, that's it. I am pretty simple. I don't dream of having michellin stars or being on the top of like the world's 50 best chefs. I think that is great, it is awesome to get that, but for me, that's just a bonus. For me, I just want my guests to be happy everyday, they come and eat food that they are really happy with. And that's it, I am going to go to bed happy every night if that happens.