Chef Tommes by Bernard Steffin

I MET TOMMES, the chef without a surname, in his restaurant That Little Wine Bar in Chow Tye Street (a chic part of George Town) that’s becoming known for its food and, of course, wine. The restaurant is a great little place – cosy and friendly with a community spirit and delicious food – and is the kind of place you’d drop in for a drink after work and end up passing an enjoyable evening.

On the day of our meeting, Tommes was preparing to shoot a pilot the following day for his new food series for the Asian Food Channel. “I want to do something that hasn’t been done before,” he explained

when I asked about his next show. “Usually, cookery shows demonstrate how to cook a meal; they’re entertaining, but they don’t tell you the professional secrets, which are surprisingly easy to learn, that will transform your cooking.”

Hints from a Master

Although people cook every day, Tommes continued, they don’t think about why they do things; people tend to just repeat techniques regardless of whether they work. He used steak as an example. “You

have to cook it fast, don’t you, to seal the juices?” he asked. I nodded in response, but was then challenged by his next question about where the juices go when the steak is overcooked. You’ve sealed it but it’s dry, he reasoned, so the bit about sealing the juices can’t be right. His ability to turn accepted wisdom on its head and examine the science behind the cuisine is what makes Tommes so special.

Getting things right, according to Tommes, is all about knives. An 8” cook’s knife and a small paring knife are suffi cient, but they must be sharp or food will be crushed instead of cut. And the instruction

continues: onions are “weird” because, as the knife slices down through the layers, the cell structure oxidises so fast that it leaves a bitter taste. This is why cut onions shouldn’t be left hanging around the kitchen for long; the chemicals they release can upset an eater’s tummy.

Salt is another substance far more interesting than I previously realised. Tommes explained that Americans use kosher salt, which is hollow inside and thus less dense. Therefore, when chirpily following an American recipe, using the same amount of any other salt will leave the dish far too salty. Tommes is well versed in salt; he uses eight different types in his kitchen, including a locally sourced Malaysian Sea Salt.

A Different Start

Tommes wasn’t always a chef. He was highly successful in the corporate world in a past life, and has a background in law, business, and psychology, although he also made a living in New York as a painter.

New York is where he eventually learnt his cooking skills under the tutelage of Wylie du Fresne, the renowned molecular gastronomy chef at restaurant Jean Georges. It was the molecular approach that attracted Tommes to cooking more than anything. “The science really fascinated me,” he explained. “I learnt about the different protein structures of food and why you could pair certain foods together, such as asparagus and sauce Maltese (made with blood oranges): its because the flavonoids are similar.” Other happy pairings are cayenne chili and chocolate, dried apricot and lamb, and chicken and thyme. While he no longer cooks molecular cuisine, Tommes still utilizes his scientific knowledge in his great, but less fiddly, food that he serves today.

Life in Penang

Tommes showed me his kitchen, which is quite small and not particularly high-tech. His three staff members bubbled with enthusiasm and, amazingly for Penang (its known for its high turnover of staff),

it transpires that the trio have been with Tommes for three and half years. He teaches them tips and tricks constantly, and they clearly love it. Tommes also teaches classes at Irrawaddy, the New York style deli that he has opened around the corner from the wine bar, where he focuses on specifi cs such as knife skills, bread making, salt, and seasonings. These classes have been very well attended by expats and locals alike.

Tommes, originally from Germany, and his English wife, Louise, set up their business in Penang almost by accident. They were both working in the corporate field in France when they met, and he admits to being shocked that her Parisian kitchen had great champagne but no oven. The pair bonded despite this and they subsequently migrated to New York before spending five years in Shanghai. “Shanghai was a very urban environment,” recalled Tommes; “you worked hard, partied hard and never saw a tree.”

By 2008 they were ready for a change. They found a lovely house in George Town which needed a great deal of tender loving care and, under the MM2H programme, settled their lives in Penang. Tommes arrived intending to rest but confesses that he became bored very quickly, so That Little Wine Bar was born.

Biking and Shopping

The restaurant opened in December 2009 and has already gathered a steady stream of loyal clientele. The establishment holds wine tastings and special food events, as well as being open for regulars six days a week. Louise and Tommes love Penang, admiring particularly the friendliness of the people,

the relaxed lifestyle, the weather, and the low crime rate. The pair are keen motorcyclists and Tommes can often be spied riding Louise’s pink Vespa to the Pulau Tikus Wet Market. (Apparently, his Harley Davison doesn’t have any room for the purchases he makes there.) “It’s great,” he says of the market. “The vegetable guys know what I want and will keep it for me, the fish stall holders will even get me small cod. It took them a year to contact the supplier in Australia but they did it. Penang people are so positive.”

It seems Chef Tommes and his careful, intelligent food will be a part of the local landscape for the years to come.

First published September, 2012