Tuesday, July 13, 2010


There’s more to their good looks and admirable achievements. Here’s proof that even celebrities turn to good old books to keep learning about the world around them. ERIC FORBES takes a respite from reading and talks to famous celebrities, Malaysian or otherwise, about their favourite books and how they find the time to read despite their busy lives.

EMMANUEL STROOBANT is a Belgian chef. He just turned 42, and is married to a Malaysian who helped him set up five restaurants (including the famous Sainte Pierre and Brussels Sprouts) in Singapore. He has been living in Southeast Asia for 13 years (two years in Kuala Lumpur and 11 years in Singapore). “I am a father, I do consultancy work for restaurants, I do yoga, and I love bikes and music. I did two seasons of a TV show called Chef in Black on the Asian Food Channel (AFC) and wrote a couple of books,” he says. “I still have no idea what I want to do later, but it will probably involve education. I am a vegetarian and I have two cats! I stopped smoking in February and I should be opening two more restaurants in 2010,” he continues. Stroobant is the author of three books: Cuisine Unplugged: Reinterpreting European Cuisine with an Asian Touch (Times Editions, 2003), Vine Dining: White (Marshall Cavendish, 2005) and Vine Dining: Red (Marshall Cavendish, 2007).

Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photographs courtesy of EMMANUEL STROOBANT

How do you find the time to read with your hectic schedule—managing your restaurants, TV shows, family, etc.?
There is always time: it is just a matter of choice. I take time to play with my kid by going home earlier at night, I find time to do yoga because it is important to seek balance within and I find time to read on my day off, in planes and at airports, anytime I am queuing, waiting, sitting on the toilet bowl ... I always carry at least one book with me wherever I go.

Do you think reading matters?
It is essential, it is for me the best way to unwind and yet learn. It is essential because it is like a continuous self-study, it is essential because it will never be replaced by television or the internet ... and paper smells really good.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I am from Belgium! In Belgium we produce beautiful comics. Nothing to do with their American counterparts or the Japanese Manga; I am talking about hand-drawn books with real stories ... that was my reading as a teenager. Of course, at school we had to read a lot of (French) classics and I still remember the name of some heroes from the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo.

Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Albert Camus’s L’étranger (The Stranger). Also most of Boris Vian’s work, and being Belgian, Georges Simenon.

Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers? Why do you enjoy reading their books?
I need to separate the French from the English. On the French side I like Philippe Djian. On the English side I have enjoyed books by Mitch Albom, Michael Pollan and a lot of other people actually! Djian and Albom are similar in style. Their writing flows, allowing the reader’s imagination free rein. They are heavy in their content but very light in their writing, almost akin to a perfect dish—full of flavour, yet not too heavy to digest! As for Pollan, I love his style. He is a journalist, he goes straight to the point, never forgetting a touch of humour (generally dark) and his research is amazing.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I occasionally read fiction, but most of the time I am looking at a specific subject and will target that specific area with much enthusiasm. It can be anything from my professional side (molecular cuisine, autobiographies of famous chefs or simple recipes) to a wider spectrum such as history, Indian culture, anatomy, religious sciences, etc.

Do you have a favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
That would be Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I love Coelho and this is his masterpiece. I like to pass it around, lend it to people even though I know I will never get it back. I probably bought this book 15 times! I will always reread books I loved. I put them aside and hope to find time one day to read them all again.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell my why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I do prefer nonfiction to fiction. Someone said “the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to make sense” and that may answer why I prefer nonfiction. Having said that, credit must be given to a lot of fiction writers for their creativity and research. A great novel would take me less than 24 hours to read, a merely good one will be on the pile on the table next to my bed with the rest of those to be continued one day ...

What are you reading at the moment?
Believe it or not, I am always reading three or four books together, depending of my mood. Right now it is Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s How Yoga Works. I would recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in the philosophy of yoga. Don’t be put off by the title! Also, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, the simplest book about what a human being should be swallowing. And also the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
If I could predict the future I would be making a living from it! My humble opinion is NO WAY! It will be difficult for me to fathom the depths of enjoyment one gets from reading off a computer with the way I enjoy sitting in a library surrounded by centuries of knowledge or in a room smelling of leather and paper. E-books are only convenient but the physical paper is so much more ... it is like having a virtual [online] girlfriend on some porn website or the real McCoy in your bed!

What are some of your favourite Malaysian or Singaporean delicacies?
My favourite Malaysian dish used to be beef noodles from a small shop called King’s Beef Noodle in Seremban. I would drive all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban just to savour it! But as I mentioned earlier, due to health reasons, I became a vegetarian last year and am now in love with two dishes. One is tofu braised with spinach and mushroom. Every weekend I end up at an Indian eatery in Dempsey in Singapore. The place is called Samy’s and I have biryani rice with palak paneer, a sort of spinach puree with cottage cheese.

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of June 12, 2010


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