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Chefess Farah Quinn

Farah Quinn’s appeal reaches beyond her celebrated cooking shows as she works with the UN to improve nutrition in Indonesia. Sarah Douglas met with her as she tangoed in the kitchen with Bali’s Chris Salans.

Photo: Stephane Sensey. Styling: MaiKhanh Bertrand. Hair/Make up: Juno. Silk shirt MKH. Watch by Cartier. Earrings EPA jewelry.

Ask yourself what do you really know about regional Indonesian food? The food of Sumatra? It’s likely that Padang food comes to mind. Indonesia’s homegrown celebrity chef, Farah Quinn, wants to change that, and judging from her past record she probably will.

Farah Quinn grew up in Sumatra. Her mother and grandmother were passionate cooks and it is here that she first learned. Although she travelled to America to study finance, before long she enrolled in a pastry course at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. In her early 20s she set up her own restaurant in Phoenix Arizona, which earned four stars, before returning to Indonesia, where she began working on TV.

Quinn is now a celebrated chef and presenter in Indonesia and increasingly beyond. As well as her own products, a successful TV series and regular guest appearances, she is also the creator of the Indonesian menus for KLM and has worked with Air Asia. Her rise to fame is not so surprising when you meet her. Aside from being a beauty, she is both charismatic and charming.

Her passions for the food she grew up with and raising the nutrition levels of local children is currently her focus. Tackling her first goal brings her to Spice kitchen in Ubud to share her local knowledge with Chris Salans, another celebrated chef, well known for his love of local ingredients.

“The Ubud Food Festival has given us a chance to work together on an event. He’s interested in the dishes from Palembang and he will then add his own twists. We’ve been friends a long time but haven’t worked together much, so I’m very excited about this event,” explains Farah from her Ubud villa.

“No one really knows much about the food of Palembang and there is a lot to know. Each of the areas of Sumatra has different influences in their cooking. In Aceh, the food is almost like Sri Lankan, and the food from Padang is already well known. In Palembang the influences range from Arab, Chinese and Malay. There is a lot of variety and depth that most people know very little about. I love having the chance to show people what it’s all about.”

Thus the scene is set for a kitchen tango with Chris Salans, the master chef who pioneered the use of local ingredients in European cooking. With Mozaic first, followed by his Spice restaurants, Chris Salans remains the most awarded chef in Bali. He is also increasingly well known for his work on Top Chef Indonesia as a judge and more recently on Ironchef where he took the top honours.

Farah Quinn is surprisingly approachable. She greets people warmly, remembers their names, speaks passionately about what she loves and looks fabulous pretty much all the time. You’d almost like to dislike her but she doesn’t make it easy, she’s friendly and genuine.

Nutrition is another concern of hers and her next project will be looking at educating families and schools about hygiene and nutrition. As a mother, her concerns are personal but she sees the current state of nutrition for children in this country getting worse not better.

“When I came back to Indonesia and started visiting schools and local communities, my impression is that things are getting worse. Processed food is everywhere; artificially coloured and flavoured and loaded with MSG, and children aren’t growing up with a taste for good food. There’s very little focus on nutrition or hygiene and as a mother that concerns me personally and as an Indonesian I would like to help to improve the situation,” she explains.

“Like the Jamie Oliver of Indonesia, I ask?’

“Well kind of,” she says. “From babies, the kids are given this instant porridge that is loaded with MSG, sugar and flavours. They are addicted from a young age. I was no different really, I loved instant mie as a kid, and sometimes still do, but I was lucky that my mother and grandmother cooked using natural ingredients and subtle flavours,” she explains.

One thing she isn’t shy about is her love of baking. This is where her career really began and she hasn’t lost the taste for sweets or her passion. After our interview we were attending dinner at Room4Dessert and after hearing about it she showed up at the event and ate through the whole menu of desserts, staying until long after the event was over.

The following day media and Ubud Food Festival guests were packed into Spice Restaurant for a lunch that introduced many of us to the food of Palembang for the first time.

A classic fishcake made from mackerel stuffed with tofu served in a broth is one of the region’s more famous dishes. This was served alongside a kari ayam, a classic Palembang curry with crispy potatoes and a curry espuma, courtesy of our residing chef Chris, I suspect.

A malbi daging was an earthy beef curry with a deep, dark sauce created with tamarind, kaffir lime and coriander. Slow cooked, the beef used was a local wagyu, so the meat was tender and tasty.

Alongside a rice dish called nasi minyak Palembang, fried rice studded with raisins and cardamom, was served with a fiery pineapple sambal on the side.

For the uninitiated it was interesting, while the Indonesians at the table raved about it and dish after dish disappeared. The whole team at Spice got involved while the chefs, Salans and Quinn, served and cleared the tables, happily working together, chatting about the food and serving up a specially created cocktail flavoured with curry, it was different and refreshing.

Dessert was met with great applause. A classic sweet from the area, it featured a duck egg custard with sticky rice, fresh jackfruit and pandan ice cream. Farah explains that despite her sweet tooth, she avoids processed sugar, opting instead for palm or coconut sugar. The dish is likely served very sweet normally but in this case the sweetness was restrained and the unique flavours were highlighted.

Quinn and Salans work well together. They are clearly friends and both have been instrumental in promoting the food of Indonesia and sharing their ideas and skills. It seems they have a lot to share with each other as well.

Moving forward with her next project to highlight the need to improve local nutrition education through schools has seen her meeting with UN officials and big business to get behind the move. Her high profile will no doubt help to get funding for what she sees as a priority to get children eating healthier and appreciating real food. It’s a heartfelt need to give back that is part of her appeal and enlisting the help of other high profile chefs like Chris Salans can only help.

Spice was opened by Chris Salans in Ubud in 2015. Spice Sanur opened last year and a new Spice in Seminyak will open this June on Jl Batu Belig.