Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. The results: MUNCHIES Garden recipes for you, dear reader. This time, we hang with Fijian-Chinese-Indian chef Louis Tikaram of West Hollywood's wildly popular E.P. & L.P. Tikaram walks us through how he hopes to place Fijian cuisine on the global culinary stage and makes a killer rib eye with nam jam and an arugula and mustard green salad with a watermelon dressing.
The MUNCHIES garden was popping in all its mid-summer glory when Louis Tikaram, the Australian chef of Fijian-Chinese-Indian heritage, stopped by. Tikaram is a mere 30 years old; he won the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award from the Sydney Morning Herald two years ago and his West Hollywood restaurant and bar, E.P. & L.P., has been massively successful since opening a year ago. Our culinary director, Farideh Sadeghin, led him around the garden as Tikaram prepared to cook up a meal that was indicative of his Southeast Asian and South Pacific roots.
"I grew up on a farm," Tikaram told us as he surveyed the rooftop. "We were growing lots of palms and things like that. One time my dad went out in the back, and there were all these wallabies. They use to come down and just nibble the tips of the palms." Tikaram is talking about the 100-acre farm in Mullumbimby, Australia where his family raised cattle and had an orchard filled with citrus fruit trees.
"So I was thinking of, because I cook Asian, trying to do maybe something that you wouldn't think is Chinese-inspired, but actually is." He explains, "My grandma is Fijian Chinese and my grandfather is Fijian Indian. So you wouldn't really know what was going to be on the dinner table at night. It could be traditional Fijian or Indian or Chinese. And that's kind of what I bring to LA." At E.P. & L.P., Tikaram serves pan-Southeast Asian cuisine that is dazzling demanding LA eaters. Tikaram's grandmother was his first cooking teacher. "My grandma used to stay with us and she'd be out wading in the creek, collecting all the watercress. Basically it's like a weed, but she'd make massive watercress soups."
When Tikaram got married recently in Fiji, he brought his Australian chef friends there and, he said, "We did a massive lovo the day before. It's when you dig under the ground to cook your food. My grandma was at the helm, teaching all the guys, wrapping meats, marinating them, prepping taro and cassava, squeezing coconuts, making a seaweed dish. It was kind of cool for the guys to experience true Fijian cooking."
In the garden, Tikaram headed first to the garlic. "Can I get some ginger as well? I want some for the main. I might do almost like a fresh take on a southeast Asian style wasabi where there's tons of ginger and white pepper and garlic to give it that nasal sensation, and then flavoring it with some fermented yellow bean and soy to round it out. The garlic is so subtle and fresh." As he gathered the ginger, Tikaram explained that he always wanted to be a chef. At 16 he went to work for the closest restaurant to home and learned to cook Thai food.
We headed into the kitchen, where Tikaram explained that after his first restaurant experience, he hightailed it straight to the acclaimed Thai restaurant Longrain in Sydney, where he literally begged for a job. After three tries, he was relegated to the corner of a room and "I stood in there for like 12, 13 hours a day, making curry paste for a year. That was it. But you know, it taught me so much. And now to this day, I make all curries from scratch, all spices get them in whole, roast them, grind them, sieve them, store them."
We got to see Tikaram's philosophy in action when he used a mortar and pestle to grind the stuff he had just dug up in the garden and create a variation of nam jam using yellow soybeans. "Doing it in a mortar and pestle is what I mean by doing it all yourself. This way, we're extracting and melding all the flavors. You just pound it and you don't stop." You can do it Tikaram's OG way, or you can take a short-cut and use a food processor, as our recipe recommends.
After getting a firm grounding in Asian cuisine in Sydney, Tikaram felt he needed to see the world and learn more about European cuisines. "I didn't even know how to make a mayonnaise," he said. So he took off for Europe, staging in kitchens, eating the food, and learning all he could. But on his return trip to Australia,"I flew into Bangkok and went up to Chang Mai and that was it. It re-ignited the fire of cooking Asian and I was like, this is what I want to cook."
Time to grill the steak and add a salad on the side, Tikaram said, as he told us what it was like moving to LA as an already successful Australian chef: "It was a treat to open a restaurant in LA, but I figured that if I was not going to cook the food I wanted to cook, I would have just stayed in Australia and continued to do what I wanted to do. So it was kind of like I promised myself that I wouldn't change how I cooked or cook anything I wouldn't personally want to eat."
As Tikarama balanced a slew of spicy mustard greens with a vinaigrette that contains no oil at all, he explained, "I don't really use oil much in salad. I like to keep a clean palate, especially with peppery greens like this."
Tikaram understands that Fijian cuisine is still misunderstood—or not known at all—by many diners in America. But at E.P. & L.P., he has certainly succeeded in making it something to which Angelenos can relate: "The first dish I introduced to LA people was kokoda, which is like a Fijian ceviche. I knew if LA people were already sashimi- and ceviche-mad, they would really get it."
And get it they have. But as sophisticated as Tikaram's cooking is—and what he cooked for us on that mid-summer day was a dream, indeed—for him, it all comes back to grandma's cooking. His favorite thing to cook? "I really like cooking my grandma's chicken curry," Tikaram explains. "I think it's really cool. Lots of spices and dry rubs mixed with lots of coconut and seafood. People kind of ask me what Fijian cuisine and that's what it's like."