He’s probably the talk of the town at the moment. As one the judges on the new TV reality show MasterChef Indonesia, his straightforward manner has conjured up images of a tyrannical Gordon Ramsay-style gourmet with audiences.
Juna Rorimpandey, 35, left Jakarta 14 years ago to pursue his dreams in faraway Brownsville, Texas. Having worked closely with top US chefs Michael Symon and Thomas Keller, Juna knows more than a thing or two about food and is keen for others to learn from his experience.
What was your first job in the kitchen like?
I made rice for a Japanese family restaurant named Miyako in Houston. All great sushi chefs in Japan start by cooking rice for four to six years. Luckily, I didn’t have to do it that long. I guess I had the talent and skill — or, maybe, more of a survival instinct. If I didn’t do it great, I didn’t get paid, which meant I couldn’t eat. At the time, I was sleeping in the living room of a small apartment with seven other roommates.
What has been the pinnacle of your culinary experience?
When I worked at Noe Restaurant. I took a huge pay cut when I gave up my work as executive chef at Uptown Sushi. I had to take a side job and was doing 80 to 90 hours a week for four years just to learn new things — and, of course, for the money too. I always look to work at different kinds of restaurants to learn different types of cooking. I didn’t even mind working for free at great restaurants like Lola or Lolita in Ohio. Working with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley was an experience of a lifetime. I really look up to him.
You’re quite accomplished in the United States. So why move back to Jakarta?
It was during my vacation here in 2009 after being away from Indonesia for 12-and-a-half years. I toured around with my friends and was like, “Man, this is what I’m missing.” Then, out of nowhere, the owner of Jackrabbit offered me this job as executive chef. It was a good opportunity, so I took it. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to the States.
Did Gordon Ramsay inspire your attitude on MasterChef?
It’s just me. I’m not pretending to be somebody I’m not. I don’t really care what people say about me. I’m not looking for popularity here. If one of the contestants serves up soup that tastes like air kobokan [hand-washing water], then I can’t find any better way to say it.
Does that mean you’ve tried air kobokan before?
Probably [laughs]. All I’m saying is, I don’t need crybabies in my kitchen. They have to be disciplined to achieve anything. At a restaurant in the US where I worked, I was sent home and they docked my pay once just because I forgot to shave. I respect the discipline. As for the show, the ratings and audience share have been going up. People sometimes don’t understand that it’s a reality show. It just so happens to revolve around cooking, with lots of twists and turns.
How do you handle all the criticism from the audience?
I’m way nicer on the show. I’ve even become the contestants’ favorite judge. They might think of me as a bad guy in the beginning, but in the end, they can see I’m just being fair. It’s nothing personal.
Do you also treat the kitchen staff at Jackrabbit that way?
Yes. When they make crappy food, I’ll ask them if they really want to serve it to guests who have paid Rp 100,000 for it. It wouldn’t be fair to the guests.
How many people have you had to fire?
Surprisingly, none. If they don’t show up the next day, it’s their problem. That’s just me at work. After work, I’m a different person. I ask them to drink with me after a successful night at the restaurant and when things run smoothly in the kitchen. I just need to show them that when we all put in 100 percent, we can get it done.
Have you ever hit rock bottom?
There were times when me and my roommates looked for cigarettes in the garbage. I didn’t beg for money, but we looked for pennies on the street just to buy food. We didn’t really count how much we collected, so long as we could get ourselves Jack in the Box [fast food] for $1.07.
How long did the slump last?
A few months. Then I finally landed a small job with a steady income. I worked illegally with an expired student visa at first. But the owner of the restaurant and my chef sponsored me for a green card. I must have done something good. From there, I worked my way up from the lowest level to sous chef [No. 2 in the kitchen]. Then five years later, my master chef retired and I took over the place. Now, he was mean. But if he hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be here right now.
What do you think of budding chefs using cook books?
If they’re cheap and don’t come from a famous restaurant, they can work. They can be used for inspiration; to give you some ideas about being more creative in the kitchen. But just like Gordon Ramsay says, cooking is not something you can read about. You’ve got to feel it, practice and use your experience.
Who does the cooking when you’re out on a date?
The restaurant. I don’t cook at home. I’m very professional and a perfectionist. It’s not fun to cook at home. One day, if I have a family, I’ll build a nice semi-professional kitchen and I’ll cook for my guests. But for now, I just order Nasi Padang, takeaway or delivery. Quick and painless.
Juna Rorimpandey was talking to Dyah Paramita.