Richard Millar darts around his tiled-and-stainless steel kitchen, asking the four chefs kicking off service tonight when various items will be ready. Crisp replies cut through steam curling from bubbling saucepans. As products appear, Richard assembles plates of his unique cuisine, which he struggles to define in a phrase but essentially takes Japanese produce and style as its inspiration.
“Has that been steamed?” I ask of a brown-ceramic bowl being uncovered, its enticing aroma swirling under nostrils.
“Thirteen minutes,” Richard says.
In fact it’s chawan mushi, the famed Japanese steamed custard. Richard’s take? The velvety custard, almost more not there than there when you take a mouthful, is subtly flavoured with foie gras and studded with tender chicken and moist king crab morsels.
Richard’s no-words-wasted reply reflects the exacting precision and discipline that goes into all of the food that he and his team prepare at nearly one-year-old RIN, the breezy poolside eatery tucked next to the Conrad Suites at Bali’s resort beach of Nusa Dua.
The story behind RIN goes back around another year longer than that. Initially the idea was for the space it now occupies to be a traditional Japanese restaurant catering towards the Japanese guests who are the Conrad’s main market. Given the plethora of decent Japanese restaurants already around and the Conrad’s contemporary brand, however, the team decided to create something a little more 21st century – and that’s where Richard came on board.
He had been working for several years as a chef cooking Western-style food in Japan, picking up the language and becoming entranced with Japanese cuisine.
“Now it’s my life,” he says of Japanese food. “When I’m not working, I eat it, all the time.”
What is it that makes it so alluring?
“The first side is that I love the art to it, the artisan style, the way that the Japanese are very methodical and very attuned to details. There’s a lot of purity in Japanese food,” he enthuses.
“Sometimes with Western food it gets over-refined, with too many flavours, too many colours, too much going on the plate. I think over the years chefs have tried to pare that back a bit and concentrate on the essence of the food or the ingredients, the purity of them – but that’s something that Japan has been doing for hundreds of years.”
Japan’s cuisine that has been long shrouded in secrecy, though this is slowly changing, Richard says.
“The only way you could learn was you really had to speak Japanese and then it’s still very difficult to learn – you don’t have recipes… you have to go into a very long-term apprenticeship.”
The other appealing aspect for Richard is cultural, and with a son to a Japanese woman, he’s been brought closer to that perspective, he says.
Working alongside Japanese chefs at a resort in Japan gave Richard an opportunity to try to learn about their cuisine.
“And that was a challenge because they don’t easily teach you. You’ve got to earn it.” Devising the concept at RIN gave him an opportunity to build on the minimal basics he did manage to pick up, he says.
“And that’s what I set about doing. A lot of it was self education, studying, reading books, eating in Japanese restaurants all the time, asking questions, testing… RIN is not a Japanese restaurant and I am not a Japanese chef,” he emphasises.
One of the Japanese chefs from the Conrad in Toyko spent a month at RIN at the outset, helping to develop recipes and source ingredients – and with about 90 percent of the produce imported, many products only being labelled in kanji, this was a major task he helped with.
If it’s not Japanese, how would Richard like to see it described?
“Some of my food is really, if you were to look at the menu, fusion, but fusion has such a bad reputation. To me, it’s eclectic, a difficult word to use as a tagline, but that’s what it is.”
The menu is driven by Richard’s passion for food, he says. “I’m trying to not necessarily capture Japanese food because I’m not trained in that area, but to to capture some of the essence of it, some of the flavours.”
A lot of Richard’s focus has been on training his staff of 15, only two of whom have worked in Japan. He gets his staff to taste their food, to learn about flavour as well as technique.
“It’s about being a chef rather than just being a pair of hands chopping… A lot of them are good cooks. I would be proud to work with them in any kitchen I work in around the world.”
RIN’s menu is inspired by kaiseki-style Japanese menus, with dishes divided by how they are cooked – in RIN’s case, pickled, simmered, fried, grilled and sweet – and dishes taking into account the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
I ask Richard to describe one of the dishes he would most want to show to another chef.
He selects the tuna chutoro – the lower part of the locally sourced fish’s belly – accompanied by shoyu, or soy sauce, jelly, tamago yaki, or Japanese omelette, and an apple-mustard vinaigrette. A tiny poached quail egg garnishes the dish along with wispy garlic chips.
Richard explains that the chutoro is a classical Japanese ingredient, usually served as a sushi or sometimes sashimi. It has a high amount of fat marbled throughout – indeed the flesh looks somewhat like wagyu beef – so it is warmed with a blow torch to melt the fat slightly and tenderise it.
The careful preparation of the very simple omelette again showcases Richard’s attention to detail. Prepared daily, the omelette is left covered in the cool kitchen, so it’s cool, but not hard.
The second dish he nominates is a dessert, pannacotta flavoured with sakekasu, a byproduct of the sake-making process, topped with sake-braised strawberries, and Australian hand-made saffron pashmak, a sort of adult fairy floss. It’s served in a glass cup resting in an arc of elegant glass – as with all the flatware, it was purposely designed by Richard in conjunction with two local designers.
The sakekasu, traditionally used in nabe or hot pots, was an ingredient he asked a supplier to source – with success.
“When it got here I thought, wow! What am I going to do with it?”
He thought the flavour would work well in a pannacotta – and it did, he says, adding that this he would call fusion.
“Although it hasn’t taken a recipe, it’s taken an ingredient that is very traditionally Japanese and it’s been blended into a very Western recipe, Italian pannacotta.”
And diners can expect RIN to keep evolving.
“It’s interesting because the more that I learn, I realise the more that I just don’t know… It’s evolving as I become more educated.”