With his work at one-MICHELIN-starred Alma, chef Haikal Johari is praised by the MICHELIN Guide inspectors as passionate, with this quality of his directly reflected in the restaurant’s menu that boasts whimsical culinary delights made with carefully selected ingredients and well-thought through ideas.
Having spent over a decade in Thailand, Johari has been cooking for a total of over twenty years, with his culinary prowess still very much rooted in European cuisine. “My style has always been very classic, while incorporating some modern techniques of European or French cuisine,” he says. “I'm pretty much old school when it comes to my cooking techniques, so my inspiration still comes from classic French dishes. I don't get carried away too much with trends, but I do like injecting new flavours based on where I was and where I’ve been.”
Johari expresses that at Alma, he, along with his team of chefs, tries to make the dishes very simple yet not too complicated. “We make sure that the flavours are something our guests can relate to,” he adds. In order to achieve this, Johari says that he creates his own substitutes and interpretations based on flavours he’s experienced in the course of his culinary journey.
“This is how we create or interpret a dish at Alma. We take traditional flavours and present them in a different way.”
“I believe nobody can reinvent cuisines and flavours,” says Johari. “In this line of work, you get to adapt and think about what flavour best suits you and the cuisine you do. That's how we evolve, but we're not running away so much from the original taste.”
Apart from being a great inspiration to many chefs, Johari is also one who is always up for a challenge. Last August 2022, Johari partnered with plant-based seafood and meat alternative company Growthwell Foods in a very special dinner showcasing a variety of dishes featuring Growthwell Foods’ products, as interpreted through the lens of MICHELIN-starred Alma.
“I love challenges. Challenges keep us on toes, keeps us moving forward, and helps us to evolve. If not, we’ll all just be sitting on our laurels and be comfortable.”
“Especially with the rise in popularity of these plant-based meat alternatives, I was happy to take on the challenge,” shares Johari. “When I was presented with the task, the first question I asked myself was, ‘how can we make plant-based alternatives applicable in a fine dining restaurant, or even in a normal setting, where people will not be able to tell the difference between a normal prawn and a plant-based prawn?’”
This question of Johari’s was brought to life in a course of Shrimp made with plant-based Prawniee from the HAPPIEE! brand under Growthwell Foods, served in a cold consommé with avocado and sorrel. A second course of plant-based Squidiee under Growthwell Foods' HAPPIEE! brand was cooked with a squid reduction and studded with lily bulbs and negi. And lastly, for the main course, a Beef Bourguignon made with maitake mushrooms from Growthwell Foods instead of beef, and served with onions, sunchoke, and a vegetable jus.
For both Johari and Growthwell Foods, one of the key purposes of food is to nourish the body, and for Johari, he believes that the word “nourish” means to eat good food and to eat responsibly and in season. “To me, eating according to the seasons is the most responsible way to eat because not only do you feel good about being satisfied, but you’re also consuming the best produce at that particular point in time,” he adds.
When asked about his experience cooking with Growthwell Foods' plant-based seafood and meat alternatives with an Alma touch, Johari describes it as fun. “We also have some diners who have dietary restrictions, so in a way, it’s also testing the market and ourselves. How can we be creative with these products? How can we give people this kind of dining experience that’s focused on plant-based cuisine?” he says.
“The present-day food culture is now so big on plant-based products. In the future, I see more of them being invented or being improved. We simply cannot run away from it, especially since the product caters to so many dietary concerns. I say we should all embrace this change,” says Johari.