There’s something about the entire concept that is a bit salacious and feels fundamentally “naughty”. You know you want it...but that little voice in your head keeps telling you that dessert comes "after" a savory main course, and it certainly CANNOT be the focus of a 5-course gourmet dinner. But that is exactly what Chef Roger Van Damme dared to do at the 14th Annual World Gourmet Festival which was held at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok
World Gourmet Festival is all about pushing limits and breaking down barriers and Chef Roger was the undisputed trailblazer this year. His avant-garde 5-course "desserts and wine" dinner is testimony to his relentless commitment to perfection on the plate. Unlike most people, I personally lack the “sweet tooth gene”. I am usually happy to take a bite and leave the rest, and I have always been immune to the mysterious powers of chocolate. So the idea of five courses of dessert seemed a bit daunting, if not downright intimidating. This experience successfully broke down every assumption I had about what is possible with dessert and made me a true believer.
The meal began with a perfectly delightful amuse bouche of Gin Fizz w/ Pop Rocks, Cucumber & Lemon Grass. The playful concoction reminded me a bit of a sweet tart with a S.E. Asian twist as it literally bubbled and popped in my mouth. It was without a doubt an attention getting way to start the meal. Next up was the Cube of Crème Dulce de Leche, Cube of Lemon, Tangerine, Bergamot & Orange w/ Soft Herbs, Cream & Cacao Cookie. Also known as the “Van Damme Signature” dish, it was a contemporary structure of edible art. I can only describe it as s a 3- dimensional "cubist” offering that was almost too pretty to eat upon presentation. Every individual component on the plate had a distinct characteristic, texture and flavor element and yet it was somehow elevated when eaten in tandem. This captivating opening act was paired with the To Heinz Velich, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland, 2010 (from Austria). It was an exceptional semi-dry white wine that was well matched with its oak and slightly floral notes.
Next was the “Half Moon” made from Chocolate Biscuit Brownie, Milk Chocolate Tonka, Notes of Caramel, Fresh Passion Fruit, Banana & Mango Coulis. It was made with four different types of chocolate including Chef Roger’s professed favorite Grenada Organic Chocolate. Each bite was a new flavor combination that somehow managed to be distinct yet cleverly cohesive. Nothing was dominant and it was a very strategic study in the subtleties of chocolate in its various incarnations. The wine was a fabulous red from the Southern Rhone region in France called VdP de Vaucluse 'Les Plans' Domaine Santa Duc, 2010 which was a meticulous pairing.
Next came the most provocative dish yet; the delightfully sinful “Lady In Red”, which was one of my favorites. It can only be described as “high drama” on a plate as it was composed of Sphere of Yogurt, Raspberry, White Chocolate Mousse, Strawberry, Basil, Cookie Dough, Ribbons of Sugar, and Violet & Raspberry Coulis. It was served with a scarlet colored “sugar ball” that Chef Roger and his team handmade and painstakingly transported from Belgium for the occasion. Once individually placed upon the plate, the shimming scarlet ball of sugar is expertly cracked open by Chef Roger so that it erupts in a cascade of sugar that is part liquid part foam. The experience was quite magical and the basil and yogurt components were exactly what was needed to tame this fanciful dish. It was served with a Moscato d'asti DOCG Vietti, 2012 from Piedmont Italy that I was sure was going to be too sweet. But once again, I was utterly surprised as the tart and sour notes in the dish mellowed brilliantly elevated it.
You may be familiar with the saying “save the best for last”, and in my opinion that is exactly what Chef Roger managed to do. Admittedly, I was a bit underwhelmed at the prospect of ending the meal with a simple chocolate mousse, although I was looking forward to the Porto Special Reserve Quinta Nova Douro that it was paired with. Yet again my expectations were exceeded as the Belgian Chocolate Mousse I experienced that night left me in awe of how good a mousse could be. The texture was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was truly ethereal and somehow seemed to be absorbed in the mouth; instead of swallowed, while leaving behind a "pure" and unmistakably clean aroma of chocolate (minus the surgery sweetness). Suffice it to say, it was a mind altering experience, and I will never view chocolate mousse the same way again.
About Chef Roger Van Damme
Roger van Damme is one of the most experienced and innovative Belgian patissiers in the world. He was recognized as “Chef of the Year” by Gault Millau and is also widely recognized as being the “godfather of molecular pastry”. Chef Roger gets a delightfully devilish twinkle in his eye when he begins to talk about his inspiration for his dishes. He asserts that it takes over 6 months of trial an error to perfect just one element on a plate and that it is the ingredients that drive him. “I love working with natural ingredients like lemongrass and pandan leaf” he shared, “I play with the concept of sweet and sour, trying to make something special by balancing different elements. I like to use the different sugars, textures and ingredients in making desserts the same way I would use herbs and spices to build flavor in savory dishes”. One of the secret ingredients Chef Roger uses to balance the sweetness in his dishes is powdered vinegar. ”People would be surprised if they knew just how much vinegar is used in a dish like the half moon” he said with a mischievous grin.
Ever since he was a child, Chef Roger has been fascinated by baking, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a patissier himself. His great grandfather was a baker, and the young Roger often went to help him in his village bakery. After finishing cooking school in Bruges, he accomplished his dream and started to work for Huize van Wely, one of the most famous dessert makers in Holland. Later he moved to the botanical gardens of Antwerp, and opened Het Gebaar: a tea room. There he creates desserts that surprise and delight with exquisite flavors and scents.
Since 2010, Chef Roger has been starring in his own TV shows at Njam TV. In 2011, Het Gebaar was rewarded with its first Michelin star. More TV shows followed the first, and Roger launched Njam! Magazine together with Peter Goossens, Sanoma Magazines and Njam!. His books ‘Desserts’ and ‘Bakken’ reached the top of the bestseller list after just one week. “My greatest success is in my everyday life. I delight in simple things like bringing my team together, teaching them, and bringing people together to have a great experience dessert-wise. I try to make every day a better one than the day before,” shared Chef Roger.
There are so many things that could have gone wrong with a concept dinner like this. The sweet elements could have made the wines taste bitter, it could have been sensory over load, or everything could have been overly sweet; yet none of these fear proved to be true. I was afraid I would leave this meal feeling hungry or like I needed to eat something salty…yet this was NOT the case. Instead what I experienced was something truly unforgettable. Successfully pairing wine with desserts is a skill to be admired in itself, yet to do it course after course is a stunning accomplishment. To say that Chef Roger is highly accomplished or a master chef is a woeful understatement. The creativity and vision required to conceptualize and successfully execute such mind boggling cuisine verges on pure genius. Not only was each dish visually compelling, but the harmonious and complementary balance of the various elements of taste and texture was unprecedented. Every once in a great while you get the chance to experience something that fundamentally changes your perceptions, and alter the way you view the world……and for me, this meal was such an occasion.
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Four Seasons Bangkok
155 Rajadamri Road
Tel: + 662 250 1000
Fax: +662 254 5390
MRT: Lumpini Station