France and China may be oceans apart, but there are more similarities between the cuisines of these two culturally-rich countries than one would expect.
At Racines, a seven-month-old restaurant in the equally new Sofitel Singapore City Centre, expect a culinary confluence of classic French and Chinese flavours in a novel restaurant concept.
At the sprawling 136-seat restaurant, the menu is split in the middle with French and Chinese dishes listed side by side. Diners can have the luxury of alternating mouthfuls of house-made foie gras terrine scented with truffles and Cognac, and lobster bisque with steamed tiger prawns drenched in Shaoxing rice wine, and black pepper and chilli Sri Lankan crabs that are redolent of wok hei.
Although Racines serves two distinctive cuisines, it chooses not to venture into the fusion realm. Instead, the French and Chinese dishes stick firmly to traditions and remain deeply-rooted in culinary history.
This trait is encapsulated in the restaurant’s name, Racines, which means ‘roots’ in French. Time-honoured dishes include French classics such as poulet, a pot-roasted chicken with ratte potatoes, heirloom carrots, chicken jus and pommery mustard and homard, a whole roasted Maine lobster with French Grenaille potatoes and fennel butter. On the Chinese end, stalwart dishes such as sweet-and-sour Kurobuta pork and kung pao sakura chicken continue to charm diners.
Helming the French brigade in the kitchen is executive chef Jean-Charles Dubois, who has a long history of cooking French cuisine in Singapore since he relocated here in 2004. Leading the Chinese side of the kitchen is executive Chinese chef Andrew Chong, who has honed his craft of whipping up refined traditional Chinese cuisine in local restaurants.
The mouth-watering melding of French and Chinese cuisines is epitomised in using ingredients that transcend national boundaries. Take frog legs for example: one of the quintessential French dishes is cuisses de grenouille, which has pan-fried frog legs with pink garlic, parsley and wild mushrooms emulsion. For a Chinese touch, the frog legs are stir-fried two ways: with spicy Szechuan salt and with ginger, scallions and Chinese wine.
Seafood-wise, the French degustation menu offers a pan-seared barramundi with heirloom carrots, tomatoes, braised banana shallots drenched in a leek confit and lemon tarragon butter, while those craving for Chinese food can dig into a steamed fish with fermented soybeans and coriander paste.
Dubois says: “Chef Andrew and I are from two different continents and by coming together at Racines, you can have pan-fried foie gras and Szechuan-style frog legs at the same table”.
By working together in close proximity, both chefs complement each other’s mastery of cooking by sharing their knowledge of ingredients and cooking techniques. “What I like about chef Andrew is his Chinese style of cookin,,” says Dubois. “He masters the work and really has a strong connection with the wok and flame".
Chong shares that Dubois has a keen curiosity on the diverse range of herbs and spices that he uses in Chinese dishes—some of them are grown in the hotel’s herb garden. He says: “For example, I use seven to eight ingredients in my Nonya sauce and chef Dubois will take a look at the types of ingredients that I am using”.
However, collaborating in the kitchen also means having to adapt to each other’s cuisines. Chong points out that the biggest challenge is to adapt to the individual portions and plating reminiscent of Western cuisine, as opposed to communal Chinese meals that are served with rice and noodles.
A Long-Time Passion for Food
The similarities of the two chefs do not end in the kitchen. Both chefs share a deep connection with the culinary world as they come from families with long cooking backgrounds. Born in Angers in France's Loire Valley, Dubois comes from a family of chefs. He credits his father to cultivating his culinary passion and educating him on the foundation of cooking and life values that can be gleaned from working in the kitchen.
For Chong, his love for food sparked when he was seven, seeing how his chef-father whipped up large-scale celebratory feasts in his hometown of Sabah, Malaysia. His grandfather also ran a niang tofu stall. He recalls: "Growing up, my siblings and I helped out at the stall. We picked up the basics of cooking along the way and gradually, this shaped my interest in honing my culinary skills”.
As Dubois sums up, “We bring what we have learned from tradition, our roots and our two identities to the table at Racines”.
Racines is at Sofitel Singapore City Centre, 9 Wallich Street.