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What Chef Ragil Thinks about Design and Indonesian Gastronomy

Chef Ragil Imam Wibowo and architect Mei Batubara travelled the archipelago for five years before establishing NUSA Indonesian Gastronomy in Kemang, South Jakarta. The chef is a five-time winner of cooking competition Allez Cuisine, while his wife is the mastermind behind the restaurants project they run together, from DIXIE, Warung Pasta, Ginger Li, and Segarra. Their journey have resulted in contemporary dishes of Indonesian traditional cuisine that are tasty and aesthetically pleasing. “We needed to have a showroom of local ingredients. That is why we are here,” Ragil says. Mei echoed the chef. “It is not just from the food persepective, but also the interior persepective. It’s all about Indonesia.” Here Indonesia Design explores Ragil and Mei’s passion and experience in preserving Indonesia’s culinary and design heritage.

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono

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Describe NUSA’s dining experience.

Ragil: The gastronomical approach is something different. We want to give more information on where the food comes from and our servers are the bridge. That is why our tagline is the “edible story of Indonesia”.

Mei: Our servers know every detail of our ingredients. They speak English and Indonesian. The response has been very positive, as foreigners like to find authentic Indonesian food, but sometimes the sharing concept or the names confuse them. Here we serve it in a fine dining concept, so they are familiar with it.

What is your approach to plating?

Ragil: Most of our ingredients are locally sourced–and often traditionally cooked with tools we bought from the traditional market, except the nitrogen to help form [supercooled] liquids. My approach is using traditional technology with a gastronomical approach to create a contemporary presentation.

Mei: My designs are actually based on the food. I know the food is the main art piece, so I follow the same concept with chef, “to modernize the look of the traditional or antique design”.

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Do you pair Indonesian food with wine?

Chef: No, because it usually overpowers the food and does not blend well with Indonesian tastes. We usually pair food with local drinks. Mostly we use coconut water, to make the flavor smooth. For example, we combine fermented juice and coconut water with other spices.

What is the most memorable place you have visited when traveling the archipelago?

Ragil: It is difficult to say. You can find almost everything in Pasar Bukit Tinggi. They have the cheapest palm sugar to the premium, that they do display on the table because they think it is very expensive. It is actually not so bad. It costs Rp 47,000 per kilogram.

Mei: Sangihe Fish Market has the most amazing fish. It is the northernmost part of Indonesia, three hours by boat from the Philippines. You can find two-meter-long tuna. We even found a large parrotfish that was probably as big as we are.

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How did you find unique ingredients in places that are literally not on the map?

Ragil: It takes us usually five to seven days everytime we visit a place. We start with the traditional market or the local farmers, because we have been establishing relationships with local producers since 2012. For example, one time we found this white edible flower. We didn’t have the time to wait for the seller to show up. Until now, we don’t know the name of it.

How did you come up with the set-up for NUSA?

Mei: We did research when we went abroad and visited fine dining restaurants. We noticed that most fine dining restaurants, they always have library, lounge, a small-seating dining area, and a little shop where they sell trinkets and artisanal things. We took that idea and set it up here.

How did you get this house?

Mei: The house was moved from Menteng to Kemang in 1994. It was once had three twins, but the rest were all destroyed. Before we found it, the place was rented out as an art gallery. However, the owner is indeed an art lover–that’s why they decided to keep the house and redo it from scratch. We took over and did renovations for almost five months.

What is your favorite part of the restaurant?

Ragil: The kitchen.

Mei: The garden. It is a nice green area to relax.

Tell me more about the driftwood sculpture lighting.

Mei: Before the ceiling area had a chandelier that didn’t really match with the interior. We thought we should find a replacement for it. When we were looking for traditional mortar and pestle in Muntilan [Central Java]. We saw this Mahoni-root and tweaked it and put lights on that serves as the focal glow.

What’s next for NUSA?

Mei: First is to complete the library. We want to showcase local Indonesian products so guests can bring them home and give the products as souvenirs for their friends and families. Second, to open NUSA for lunch. Third, we are also asked to make a book about Indonesian recipes, that is the next big goal for chef Ragil. People are waiting for this.

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