Our test kitchen

Story by Tony McGeorge

7 years ago

From the initial discussion of launching a Northern Thai restaurant to swinging open the doors of saan it was a yearlong process. A lot of this time was spent on the less than exciting necessities of opening a restaurant such as working through the financial case and signing our lives away in the lawyer’s office.

One part of the process however which is always very much looked forward to is the food development. There are plenty of challenges to create a balanced, exciting & profitable menu and it’s never straightforward. But nothing drags the team out of the woodwork like trying new dishes.

Prior to opening Café Hanoi our ‘test kitchen’ was Krishna & Tony’s home in Mt Eden. Tastings occurred around the dining room table accompanied with wine samples. A standard domestic hob isn’t ideal when you are use to 256 mj/hr wok burners but there is a real comradery in trialling in a home environment.

Once we opened Café Hanoi we were able to use the Hanoi kitchen for the saan menu development.  This is a very professional environment where recipes can be tested accurately.

Nothing bet however the day the newly fabricated chargrill was delivered to Jason’s back yard in Westmere, a suburb in Auckland’s inner west. 

Our chargrill requirements for saan were unique so we’d built the grill from scratch. What began as a sketch on scrap paper was CAD’d up by DJ from Cheshire Architects then built by local steel fabricators Design Production. No one knew for sure that the design was going to work but after years of cooking on a solid fuel grill we felt we knew the fundamentals.

Firing up the chargrill for the first time was like firing up an outboard engine newly attached to your boat. All the males gathered around nodding and commenting with beer in hand. Within 20 minutes of poking charcoal & measuring temperatures we were happy that we’d nailed it.

First off Lek grilled the simpler dishes Sai Ua (Lanna pork sausage), Sai Krok (Isaan pork sausage) and Satay Leu (goat skewers); dishes that are quick to cook and not so easy to mess up as we were still coming to grips w the nuances of the grill. Getting use to the grill temperature proved to be a challenge but we were greatly encouraged by the smoky flavours the lychee & longan coals gave to the spicy meats.

We then moved onto the more serious stuff. The Ab Pla (fish marinated in young galangal wrapped in banana leaf) and Gai Yarng Wichian (whole grilled chicken) are two dishes that are more testing of cooking technique. Wives, friends, children & pets were on hand to try it all & provide their professional opinion. 

Trials always involve plenty of hit & miss. We keep going for months until the texture and flavours are just how we want them. We have to check recipes, re-calculate food costs and perfect presentation. Our ultimate gauge is whether the dish is exciting, unique and shows true respect to the cuisine.

Although it can be hard work, trialling food is one of the true pleasures of being in the restaurant game. Nothing is as inspiring as a food trial that smashes it. It suddenly makes clear that ultimately we are here to create wonderful food and it energizes us for all of the hard work that lies ahead.