Wallflower Chef Harryson Tobing showcases his native cuisine for the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum
By Richard Foss
It might seem that every cuisine in the world is on a menu somewhere in Los Angeles, but appearances can be deceiving. Some cuisines have disappeared; L.A. used to have multiple Hungarian restaurants, but none remain. Others have never been here, among them the distinctive cuisine of Sumatra. That Indonesian island is home to over 50 million people, only one of whom is serving his native cuisine locally — and he’s doing that for one night only at an event benefitting a new culinary museum.
Harryson Tobing left Indonesia after completing cooking school and worked in hotels around the Persian Gulf before being recruited to cook at a golf resort in Georgia. The owners liked his work and offered him a position at a resort in Utah, where he met an architect named Dustin Miles through an odd chain of circumstances.
Miles, a New York native who had worked in restaurants while putting himself through architecture school, was thinking about a career change when he met a chef named Shon Foster at a hotel in in Utah. Miles and Foster had plenty of time to talk because a snowstorm shut down all roads for a week, and guests had nothing to do but socialize with the staff. The men became friends and stayed in touch, and one day over the phone Miles mentioned that he had recently acquired a restaurant space in Venice. At the time he was considering serving Spanish tapas, but he was more interested in offering Southeast Asian cuisine.
As it happens, Foster had just started working with Tobing at the new resort, and he told Miles that his new sous-chef was Indonesian. Miles drove to Utah, tried Tobing’s food, and invited him to cook at Wallflower. For Tobing, this was a dream come true.
“From the time I left Indonesia I had been at resorts and hotels working for other people, and for 15 years I hadn’t cooked Indonesian food regularly. I wanted to give Americans a chance to experience it,” he said. “Here at Wallflower almost everything we serve on a typical day is something you can get in one of the communities in Indonesia. The flavors are authentic, even if the details of my presentation are a little different.”
The cuisine is Indonesian, but on a typical day the menu items are from all over that vast country. Most Indonesian restaurants here serve the food of Java, the most populous island, or Bali, the most visited, rather than Sumatra. Indonesia has hundreds of different ethnic groups that make over 5,000 different dishes, and Tobing was born in an area where two of those groups came together.
“I grew up by Lake Toba near a Chinese community, and they had their own cuisine — you might call it a fusion cuisine, but we didn’t think of it that way. They call it Pinakan cuisine, and it includes spices and techniques introduced by traders from China, India, Thailand and Vietnam, all mixed with local flavors. I had that as well as the food of my parents since I was a child,” he said.
Lake Toba’s regional cuisine will be on display at an event organized by the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum, an institution for exploring California cuisine that I’ve been tapped to curate when it opens in November. In the meantime, the museum’s board offers The Thoughtful Feast, a series of events that allow diners to learn about a cuisine while enjoying a meal in authentic style.
On Monday (Aug. 7), it’s Tobing’s turn to explain his food culture while his assistants faithfully execute his recipes. He’s confident the staff will be able to do that, even though all of them are in the same position he was in when he crafted French sauces for business travelers in Dubai.
“None of my staff back in the kitchen are Indonesian, but you would never know that,” he said. “We get people from the Indonesian community here, including the staff at the consulate, and they never guess.”
Asked whether he worries his staff will someday leave him to follow their dreams just as he followed his, Tobing laughed.
“I have people in my kitchen who are like I was. We had a Korean native who wanted to learn Indonesian flavors, and he developed ideas based on his North Asian palate. Now he has moved on, but he taught me how to make a kind of Korean pancake. It’s the only non-Indonesian thing on my menu, and it’s not made precisely the way they make them in Korea. I borrow from him and add my ideas, and where he is, he’s using ideas he got from me,” he said. “Being in L.A., it’s such a melting pot, we all meet each other. This is happening everywhere.”
Tobing and Miles will no doubt continue to explore this exchange of ideas as they expand the menu. Some items will become more authentic and regional, some more original, as both innovation and rediscovery continue. It’s the L.A. way.
“The Thoughtful Feast: Supper in Sumatra” is from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday (Aug. 7) at Wallflower, 609 Rose Ave., Venice. Tickets are $55 to $65 at pacificfood.org.