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Interview: Chef Phuong Tran says hello Ellipsis

After bidding adieu to chef Kelvin Cheung last year, the Ellipsis kitchen welcomes chef Phuong Tran as he readies to dish out global flavours with local produce

"Flavours are more robust and bold in parts of Asia, India and the Middle East. It’s tricky to infuse them while keeping it delicate," observes Vietnam-born chef Phuong Tran, who is set to helm the kitchen at Colaba’s Ellipsis. Raised in New Orleans, he began a career in engineering but found kitchen to be his calling and worked with accomplished names like Thomas Keller of the Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry and French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong. He’s also opened restaurants in southern California. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Phuong Tran
Chef Phuong Tran

Q. Tell us how working in Southeast Asia, South America and Mexico shaped your cooking style.
A. My style is to extract the maximum flavours of the product I work with to achieve all the elements — sweet, acid, sour, earthy and umami. The first dish I cooked was an omelette at the age of nine, for my brother and sister. Seeing their reaction was powerful and transcendent. I immediately fell in love with cooking and it gave me a purpose. My travels helped me understand that regardless of technique, all of us try to extract as much flavour from the ingredients as we can.

Q. What did you learn from Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten?
A. One of the most important lessons from either place was proper handling of raw ingredients. Knowing how to cut, cook or plate maintains the integrity that goes into the final dish.

Q. You’re also part of Croft Alley in LA where celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire have dined. Can you share their favourite dishes at the restaurant?
A. Everyone loves the yoghurt, partly because we make it in-house. Commercial items we find in the markets will never resonate the flavour of something made from scratch. Then, I add 100 per cent chlorophyll extraction for their health benefits and finish it with fresh market berries and florals that the restaurant grows on site. Bon Appétit coined it as their top 20 dishes for the New Year in 2016.

Q. What can we expect from your creations at Ellipsis?
A. Expect unexpected flavour combinations, and see how we take a provincial item and make it special. For instance, I’m doing a dish that has a French element, with an Asian flavour, and using the local produce — all in one dish, and yet it’s an American invention. In Los Angeles, the Korean communities have started borrowing from the Mexican communities, and created
new dishes.

Q. In what way will you be using the local ingredients in your dishes?
A. Much of the glazes and sauces will incorporate the local produce using classic French methods. I know the papayas and mangoes are much sweeter with deeper flavours — so because of the natural sugars in the fruit, it will glaze and reduce differently. Furthermore, I will incorporate them as they are because they are innately luscious and flavourful. I will also use young coriander leaves, which I found to be very delicate with the flavour nuanced differently from what the US market provides.

Q. You’ve toured the local markets here…
A. Yes, I arrived here on February 24, and since then, I have been to many markets — from seafood to vegetarian produce to the flea markets that dot across the city. I have also met with suppliers and vendors to see what equipments were available and the different tools the industry uses.

Q. What are you looking forward to during your stay here?
A. I am seeing Mumbai’s daily life. I also hope to explore regions outside of the city.

Q. Are there any Indian chefs you are keen to meet?
A. I am doing my research as I am excited to eat at and support their establishments.

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