by Eric Michael Wight
The kitchen has closed, and I’m sitting alone on the terrace of The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah’s restaurant before I’m happily interrupted by head chef Dean Nor. “Whew, what’s goin’ on man? How was dinner?” You’ll notice this about chef Dean, which he is called more often than not, the fact that whenever you come into contact with him, you can’t help but smile. “Dinner was great, chef,” I respond smiling, “couldn’t have been better.” The towering Singaporean pulls out his chair and drops in before ordering a drink to cap his busy evening in the inferno, “Long day?” I ask. He smiles, “I’m always happy in the kitchen, no day is ever long there.”
A robust figure, chef Dean’s got a polished head, dark rectangle specs, and a sliver of a goatee — or something like it — that all add a bit of flair to the kitchen maestro, and for the life-long chef, nothing could be more fitting. Dine at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah and you’ll notice that everything has got this flair, from home-grown edible flowers, to vibrant dabs of sauce and spice, to funky combinations that besmirch the bore of so many chefs around the world — and that’s just the way chef wants it. “I love these super cool colors,” he says, “these edible flowers, these beautiful spices, these cool arrangements of fresh and beautiful organic vegetables and fruits. Creativity and color and fun are what I thrive on in the kitchen, and if I can’t see it, or I can’t feel it, then what’s the point?”
But chef Dean’s plates are more than just appealing eye candy; they are the refined product of a life-long culinary pursuit. When he was young, however, he never thought about being a chef. “I wanted to be a seaman if you could believe that, but my mom—you know how moms are—she was against it,” he said. Discouraged, but not defeated, teenage Dean tossed aside the sailor’s cap and instead picked up a knife and started chopping away at fruits and vegetables in a local kitchen for part-time work. “Man I loved it! The smell, the sight, the freshness of it all, I was hooked. And after I began playing with food, I think I knew right then that I’d become a chef someday.”
With this new-found passion, chef Dean started his journey through the culinary world, first under famed chef Charlie Chan and years later at his now-home at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah as the executive chef. Specializing in all types of food, Dean finds certain styles to be closer to the heart, but the closest is that which remains organic, fresh, and without manufactured distraction. “Of course I love Singaporean food, I love the fun combinations that that country taught me about, and I love fresh seafood having lived for so long here in Southeast Asia.”
For a chef this off-the-wall cool I begin to wonder about his influences. Sure, some of chef Dean’s influences are the likes of Heston, Pavelli, Tetsuya, and Nobu, but most of his inspiration, he says, comes from within himself and his group of friends. “For me it’s about creating something cool. It’s about competing with my friends and seeing that one of the guys is using wine in some funky way, and then trying to one-up him by putting an out-there jelly on a classic dish. It’s about going to the market, or to my organic garden and becoming inspired by the colours. The greats will always be there, but being in the kitchen is where I find comfort, finding inspiration within myself, and through healthy competition with my friends to create — that’s what it’s all about you know?”
I ask the chef if he’s happy where he is now, if happiness and success are the things he’s found since landing in Ubud. “Like I said before, I’m always happy in the kitchen,” he responds. “I look at it this way, if I want to get five times better in the kitchen, and I do, I’ll still be looking for happiness outside of the kitchen, and the same thing goes for my life outside of the kitchen. In that way, there’s a constant pursuit of growth, happiness, and success, in both life and the kitchen. I’ll never stop searching in either place. But right now I’m finding great comfort in the kitchen and in my life, and that’s what is important. I mean, look where I live!” he points out to the sweeping rice paddies that surround the restaurant terrace.
As I’m ready to leave, I get the feeling that I’m not parting ways with an executive chef at one of the premier destinations in Bali, but a friend, and that’s just kind of the feeling you get when you’re around chef. So when you pop into The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, don’t be afraid to say hello, to shoot the wind, to take a cooking class, or even to take a walk through the chef’s private organic garden where a multitude of shades and hues serve as his sounding board every morning on his walk to the kitchen—because there aren’t many chefs in the world that make you feel the way chef Dean does, both with his personality, and with his food.