Up Close with Surinamese Chef Patrick Woei
Patrick Woei, is an accomplished chef and restaurateur born and raised in Suriname. First learning how to cook out of necessity to feed himself and his sister after school, while his mother was still working. Woei developed over time a passion for the craft and now years later, he has made a name for himself in the industry. Chairman of the Surinam Chefs Association, as well as owner of Spice Quest, a Caribbean fusion restaurant. Though Woei may be a busy he is committed to helping aspiring young chefs, and advancing gastronomy in the country. During this first interview Chef Woei, shared his journey in the culinary industry, some of his favorite ingredients to work with, as well as what makes Surinamese cuisine unique.
Photos provided by Patrick Woei
CE: You stated that you learned how to cook out of necessity, over the years what kept you interested in the kitchen and when did you know when you wanted to become a chef?
PW: Aside from cooking for me and sister, at age 12, during a summer holiday, I started working in a hotel in Paramaribo. There, I was given several boring and tedious tasks such as breaking stacks of eggs for the pastry department. The pastry department was very busy, and they used to make lots of cakes. The same cake that my mom used to make at home. A simple sponge cake that started with 12 eggs and 12 spoons of sugar that went in a mixing bowl. After beating the mixture for a long time, she would fold in 12 spoons of flour. The batter was then poured into a baking pan. Whatever cake batter was leftover in the mixing bowl is called “likke-pot” in Dutch. Between my sister and I, it was always a fight over who was allowed to have the likke-pot. At work however, the entire giant likke-pot was all mine!
During my teenage years, I worked my way up in the kitchen. Once on a very busy night, when I was standing behind the grill station with all the orders on the rack, between the high heat of the fire and the pressure to get it right, is when I realize that I was hooked on to the pressure and the adrenaline of a professional kitchen.
My greatest interest is in people and the stories that they tell through their food and the ingredients that they use. Re-reading a great book such as MFK Fisher’s “How to cook a Wolf” takes me back in time. Now that I have matured, I can totally relate with what she felt and thought about the pleasure of sitting alone in the back of dining room and observing the coming and going of the other diners. It is a great joy to have the skills and the background to be able to contemplate and create a dinner for friends or customers, and to know that the memories of a perfect evening can last a lifetime.
CE: How would you describe Surinamese cuisine?
PW: There is an old Dutch proverb: “Wat de boer niet kent, wat de boer niet eet!” Meaning, most people will stick to the food that they have grown up with and will not venture out to new things. This was true for most of the world before the 80’s. However, this gradually changed and there was a great interest in cooking shows, cookbooks, and new restaurants. Most people became very inquisitive in new ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques. Contrary to the exciting culinary development in the rest of the world, Suriname was burdened by the military regime and their oppression.
The country was isolated, basic goods were scarce or rationed. In other words, we missed out on this development and this lasted until 1996. Luckily, the winds have changed; the number of restaurants has boomed, people have become inquisitive, better informed, and are more aware of the possibilities of food around them.
Surinamese food was stuck in time, but it is now catching up quickly. Our young chefs have finally started to appreciate and experiment with the local ingredients that are available to them. As a result, Surinamese Cuisine is transitioning from substance food to something with more finesse and a broader spectrum of flavors.
CE: What are some ways you get inspired to create new dishes or experiment in the kitchen?
PW: The best inspirations I get from talking to market vendors and farmers. We would talk about their ingredients and for example, what they are having for lunch. Some inspiration I get also come from reading cookbooks. But I also enjoy traveling the world, both in person and on YouTube.
CE: How have your cooking techniques changed over the years?
PW: Having traveled around, I realized that I enjoy simple food that is healthy and equally nourishing to the body, as well as the soul. Moreover, my daughter is getting ready for college, so we started teaching her how to use an Instantpot. It is convenient, saves a lot of time, money, and makes delicious hearty meals.
CE: How have Chinese spices and cooking techniques influenced your style?
PW: Growing up with three grandmas gave me a good foundation for understanding Chinese food. But it was not until I started traveling in China when I started to grasp the wide spectrum of ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques. One of my favorite documentaries on Chinese food is “A bite of China”. It illustrates the relationship of people and the ingredients around them, as well as the influence that their geography and climate have on their food. 樟茶鸭 Zhang Cha Ya (Tea Smoked Duck), is one of my favorite Chinese dishes, it is a 4-step recipe. The biggest influence that Chinese food had on me, is my constant quest for new and exciting ingredients and at the same time never forgetting the importance of harmony, balance and variety of each meal.
CE: What are your favorites ingredients to cook with and why?
PW: I love mushrooms, I enjoy their texture and earthy flavors. Besides, they are a good aphrodisiac. Eggplant is another fantastic ingredient. Every culture uses it as a canvas to paint their own story. For example, sitting in the winter in a small street side stall and having Hot Eggplant Tempura, made by two old aunties. Or Eggplant Choka made by Jane who works for me at the restaurant and is a self-thought cook. In Guangzhou China, there is a 鱼香茄子 YuXiang Qiezi. That is braised eggplant with salt fish, all you simply need is a bowl of white rice.
CE: Do you have a specialty that you’re known for?
PW: In Suriname, my restaurants have always had open kitchens. I have always tried to highlight local ingredients and flavors. I think I am known more for my interaction with my guests than just one particular dish.
CE: What is your favorite Surinamese dish and why?
PW: One of my favorite dishes is the refreshing Longtong, which is a Javanese dish popular in Suriname. It is made with cold solidified rice cubes that are topped with crispy bean sprouts, fried tofu, and drizzled with a salty, sweet, and slightly spicy Ketjap Sauce. For its garnish, it is spiked with caramelized onions and garlic.
Growing up with my Creole great grandma, I also vividly remember a classic Surinamese Peanut Soup, made with Tom-tom (green plantain dumplings).
CE: What would a holiday Surinamese meal consist of?
PW: Definitely, Pom, Pastei met Antroea op zuur en Kouseband. Pom is unique and is only available in Suriname, it is from our Jewish heritage, almost like a potato gratin, but made from Dasheen, stewed chicken, and cured beef. Pastei is very rich in flavor, almost like Chicken Pot Pie, but in Suriname it is made with additional capers. Antroea op zuur, is pickled West African Bitter Eggplant. The pickling brine is made with Lontoe Ai (piment) and Laurier Blad (bay leaves), two classic flavors passed on and preserved from our colonial culinary heritage. Kouseband (Yard long bean) is a popular local vegetable, also originally from West Africa.
We also have a variety of different cookies, such as peanut cookies, maizena cookies, cheese cookies, and coconut cookies. Finally, a holiday meal will usually also include, Bojo (Cassava cake) or Viadoe that is similar to a Cinnamon bun but made from Brioche dough.
CE: What role did you play in establishing the Suriname Chefs Association and what is its goal?
PW: As the first Chairman of the SCA, we focused on laying down a platform for local Chefs to foster fellowship and to help elevate professionalism. With organizing the annual competitions, we stimulated many young chefs and increased recognition of our profession. Additionally, we made our Surinamese countrymen aware, that we had a wealth of our own local ingredients and flavors. My restaurant, Spice Quest, was an ideal location for organizing meetings, trainings, and competitions. But most of all, I am thankful for the support that my customers and suppliers provided for the establishment of our young association.
CE: What have been some pivotal moments in your career thus far?
PW: I am grateful for my solid culinary education received at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. It gave me the skills for understanding the ingredients and cooking techniques from around the world. This was especially eye opening, as a young student in the early 90’s, coming from the Caribbean which was quite isolated and from an era where the free flow of information didn’t exist as yet.
Another highlight is the “break”, I received as a young teenager. The opportunity to be allowed to work as a stagiaire at the local hotel, Torarica. Likewise, I have also always had my restaurant door open for other young students who are interested in a culinary career.
But maybe my biggest adventure was the decision of accompanying my Grandmother on a short holiday to China in 1993. Instead of a couple of weeks, I stayed behind for a couple of years and experienced firsthand the beginning of the transformation of a country where they were still using coal fired locomotives, into a country with the most high-speed trains. For any person serious about food, China is an exciting and dynamic place to visit. Hopefully, when I retire, I can return there and ideally live next to a lively produce market.
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