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Sitka’s Christian Recomio creates stunning food with local produce.

Photography Goh Seng Chong

Scottish Chef Christian Recomio and Partner Jenifer Kuah

It was a chance meeting for Scottish chef Christian Recomio and Malaysian restaurateur Jenifer Kuah. Recomio was on a break from his café, Moonfish in Aberdeen, and visiting his sister, who was living in Kuala Lumpur. While in town, he helped with an underground supper club, where he met Kuah. They started chatting and found out that they shared a lot of common ideas about food.

It also happened that Kuah, who owns Food Foundry and Butter and Beans, was on a casual lookout for chefs. In Recomio, she found the person she was looking for, a like-minded gourmand, and they would go on to forge a tight business partnership. “His palate is very unique. He likes different flavours on the same plate,” says Kuah of Recomio.

They opened Sitka Eatinghouse and Winebar in 2013, a modern Asian restaurant with inventive and refreshing cuisine that is heavy in its use of local produce. Recomio has changed the menu several times over the years, offering diners an interesting and eclectic selection such as soft-shell crab bao, mango and couscous salad and duck confit on toast. These days, you’ll find chicken and chives dumplings, spicy chili seafood pasta and BBQ sambal roast seabass on the menu.

When the floor upstairs of Sitka became vacant just when they had to stop their Friday ‘Test Kitchen’ nights, they seized the opportunity to expand on their culinary vision. “Or we would become a restaurant that was just a business. It was not creative or exploring new boundaries,” says Recomio. With Sitka Studio, a restaurant with a cool grey ambience, minimalist Danish furniture and a playful tasting menu, they have the ideal creative outlet. Currently only open on Friday nights, it allows Recomio to go all out with his ambitions in the stylish open kitchen.

Sitka Studio’s minimalist decor is reminiscent of a Scandinavian living room
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The idea is that Sitka Studio is going to showcase mainly Malaysian produce, it is going to be inventive, and it is going to be fun. Recomio is also big on traditional techniques, so the kitchen sees a lot of fermenting, brining, salting and pickling action. The menu changes regularly but has featured the humble baby kailan grilled and glazed with kelp and topped with a smoked confit egg yolk, the unsung local sea bass basking in calamansi vinegar butter, and tart shells made from yuba (the skin formed from boiled soya milk) filled with creamy chicken parfait and pickled grape.

It is not about forcing square pegs into round holes, however. If the local beef isn’t up to par, they won’t serve beef. Instead, Sitka concentrates on seafood and duck, two products for which they can find good and reliable suppliers. The duck is aged for 28 days and is one of their signature dishes.

“Seafood here is very good, although supply can be a bit inconsistent. Like even if I want to have the same prawns as last week, I can’t always have them,” says Recomio.

Born and raised in Scotland, Recomio had a mixed culinary background that went far beyond haggis and puddings. His father is Mexican, which inspired a love for all things spicy, and his mother is a catering director with classical French cooking training.

He says he’s always had a creative streak in him. He started with art and design in school but after his first year, had doubts that this was the path for him. He was presented with the opportunity to open a gourmet deli, which he took and discovered the business side of food as well as a passion for cooking.

In 2004, when Recomio was just 26 years old, he opened Moonfish, a seafood restaurant in Aberdeen. “In our early days, we weren’t great for decor or service, but the produce was so good,” he recalls. “We were using almost 100 percent local produce, but it was not even spoken about that we were a farm-to-table restaurant.”

The fresh produce was the selling point of the restaurant that saw him through two tough years as he was learning the ropes of an F&B business. Recomio was always curious and keen to learn, whether it was running a restaurant or cooking. When the Moonfish business was firmly established, he started taking summers off so he could take on culinary internships in restaurants around the world. One was Noma, where he spent a couple of months.

Since Sitka, he’s settled in Kuala Lumpur, taking regular breaks to get out there and recharge himself. Every year, Recomio and Kuah will take a month-long food tour to culinary hotspots around the world. So far, they have been to Japan, Mexico, Scotland, Paris, London, Naples and Copenhagen twice.

“Wherever I am, I try to pick up something from the local markets. We’re not obsessed with just using local produce at the restaurants,” he says. From Kuala Lumpur, they connect with the rest of the world through collaborations, inviting chefs to cook for an evening at Sitka Studio.

Now 42 years of age, Recomio finds that his tastes are changing. He’s never had much interest in Italian food, but the trip to Naples, where he sampled simple pasta dishes made well, changed his mind. “I’m appreciating more the good stuff that is honestly made. When you’re 20, you want to display all 20 ingredients and techniques in your food, but now that I’m in my 40s, I want to take away absolutely everything, leaving just the mackerel and the kosho.”

RECIPE

Chef Recomio shares his recipe for Mackerel with Mandarin Kosho.

Ingredients:

  • Mackerel
  • Kosho (see recipe and method below)
  • Pomelo
  • Dashi
  • Scottish rapeseed oil or olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Salt

Method:

  • Panfry the deboned mackerel until medium rare.
  • Assemble all the ingredients together.
  • Finish with a grating of fresh horseradish.

Kosho

(An acidic and spicy condiment, it is usually made with yuzu, but in this instance, Recomio has replaced it with mandarin)

Ingredients:

  • Zest of mandarin orange
  • A pinch of salt
  • Hot chillies

Method:

Combine in a clean glass jar. Leave overnight.