The secret is out! Blue Toba has just been filmed in a prominent national culinary television show that will feature the mastery of local chef and restaurant owner, Birong Hutabarat. Originally from North Sumatra, Indonesia, Birong grew up surrounded with a family and culture that celebrated culinary excellence. Now having spent the last thirty-three years living in Ashland, Birong and his wife Leslie Caplan (who lived in Indonesia for eight years before she even met Birong) have grown the dream of Blue Toba from a modest food truck at the farmers market, to one of Ashland’s most locally sought after restaurants. Blue Toba is a one-of-a-kind experience in particular for the fact that most of the spices and all of the chilies are imported directly from Indonesia. With the help of Birong’s family, and his yearly return to Indonesia to stock up on fresh supplies, and new recipes, Blue Toba is kept as authentic as they come! Now having received national recognition, it is only a matter of time before travelers far and wide make their way to Ashland for a meal at Blue Toba.
Birong and Leslie, congratulations on the great news and amazing recognition you have received! Locally we all knew how amazing you were… but to have the word get out nationally takes Blue Toba to an entirely new level.
Thanks so much! We’ve been watching that show for over six years and when they contacted us and told us people wrote in about us, we were floored. It was such an honor to be on and we can’t wait until it airs in the fall. We are waiting to hear about an airdate and when we do, we will blast it out on social media and also do a big “Shout Out” in the LocalsGuide to know when everyone should watch.
Birong, you grew up in an amazing food culture. Please tell us about your early life before Ashland.
Growing up, I was fortunate to experience all kinds of Indonesian food because we moved regions a lot. Indonesia’s food is so diverse from region to region and I learned different local tastes all my life. There is a reason Indonesia is called the Spice Islands. It is incredible how one area’s cuisine can be full of spices that can’t be found in another part of Indonesia. Every time I go back home to learn more dishes I am continually amazed by the artistry of my county’s culinary depth and skill.
Food was an integral part of your life growing up. What are some of your favorite food memories?
National or religious holidays were my favorite when the entire town (almost like a village) would cook. You could literally smell the different meals wafting through the streets. We’d go from house to house and eat to our heart’s content. And people would come to our house and do the same. In Indonesia, food is culture, community and filled with love, gatherings and gestures of welcoming. You literally felt the whole town was your family brought together by amazing food. I’m always hoping I translate some of this at Blue Toba.
At an early age you traveled to the United States and really began to create new dreams for yourself.
I came to the US when I was twenty-four years old. I was so curious about it. After some time going to school here and working many different jobs, I realized what I missed more than anything was Indonesian food. I craved it. Sometimes at parties or potlucks I would make some of my favorite dishes and introduce my friends to Indonesian cooking. They always loved it. I discovered I had a knack for cooking. I also knew that there was no Indonesian anywhere near Ashland. I decided, no matter how long it took me, I was eventually going to offer Indonesian food in the valley.
I have a never-ending pride and fascination about my own culture. There are literally hundreds of languages being spoken there. There are so many different ways of living and preparing food. If I could just offer even the incredible food of the region I come from, North Sumatra, I would be honored. I set out on a slow, but sure mission that would take me decades to manifest, to open an Indonesian restaurant in Ashland. Working many minimum wage jobs, you can imagine how many decades it took me to save up the money to open a place. In the meantime, whenever I could, I would return to Indonesia, find the best, most traditional cook I could find, and learn from them.
When did you first seriously get interested in cooking and what steps did you take to actualize your dream of creating a restaurant?
I have always been interested in cooking and in eating! I missed my country’s food and couldn’t find it here. In 2007 is when I could actually see myself getting closer to the possibility and probability of having a restaurant, so I went back to Indonesia for almost two years and studied not only at culinary school, but also, I would seek out the best cooks, the most traditional, and learn from them. This was hard on Leslie and me for sure, but she was so supportive and since she lived in Indonesia long before I even met her, she was also on a mission to support me doing this. She knows the culture, the language, and the food because she lived there for about eight years.
Besides the cultural culinary experience of Indonesian food, what inspired me to open a restaurant was wanting to work for myself. Yes, the main reason is to offer such an incredible cultural through food to this valley, but also to be my own boss. It gets tiring and uninspiring to work for others my whole life. I knew that had to end.
In 2013 Blue Toba was born!
Yes, after much work, Leslie and I launched the first Blue Toba in a twenty-five foot food truck. It was all we could afford at the time and we put all of our energy into it. It was a pretty decent success aside from the fact that it was seasonal and sometimes 105 degrees outside which meant it was probably at least 120 degrees inside the truck. It’s not a memory I love to talk about actually. Neither does Leslie. We both got heatstroke a couple times during one awful summer. But we tested the market and knew we would do great in a storefront. We sold the truck and waited. The spot where we are now came up for sale and since it’s small, it was perfect for us – and affordable.
We jumped on it and made it the home of Blue Toba.
In your decision to create a fully authentic Indonesian restaurant you wanted to do things different. Tell us about the choices and efforts you have gone to help keep the authenticity.
One example is the chilies. I could buy Thai chilies here. They’d be easy and cheap to get. But I won’t. When I go to Indonesia, I buy fresh chilies and dry them in the sun and then I bring them back. When I run out, I call my brother and he does the same. He dries them in the sun and ships them here. This is super expensive and a bit arduous, but this is exactly the answer to your question. If I’m not using Indonesian chilies, which you cannot get in the US, then I cannot call it authentic.
Part of what makes your story and Blue Toba restaurant so interesting is your continued connection to Indonesia.
I am Indonesian to the core. I will always stay connected and return home as much as possible. I go back every year to see my family, get spices and learn new dishes from a variety of tribes and regions. It is my passion, my heart, and my determination to keep connected to my homeland and bring it back to Ashland and serve it up on a plate!
Birong, many of the recipes you have chosen to use have been in families for years.
Most everything on our menu is cooked with hundreds of years of tradition. When I go to Indonesia, I make certain the village or person I am learning from follows the deepest and truest of traditions. Like this past January, I learned dishes from a Balinese family that were known for cooking all the village ceremony food for generations. They were amazingly gracious and generous offering up some of the most traditional Balinese recipes to me. I went every day for about a week and cooked with them all day. From the grandmother to the grandchild, that entire family compound could cook! This is my definition of ‘heaven on earth.’
“It’s not just rice.” Could you please explain this?
Blue Toba’s rice is special, for sure. It’s very labor-intensive like the rest of our food. I did not want to serve my food with just plain white rice, even though it’s organic and common to use. I make a rice called ‘nasi kuning,’ or ‘yellow rice.’ The base of it is organic basmati and then turned into what Indonesians use only for ceremonial food. You don’t find this on the streets of Indonesia. One would have to be at a wedding, a cultural ceremony, or some other big event to find the yellow rice. It’s made with turmeric, lime leaf, lemongrass, coconut milk and other things I won’t reveal here because it truly is something unique to Blue Toba. Even the process in which I cook it is a secret and is what makes it the fragrant, unique, delicious rice that it is. We had a customer on Yelp that said she is not a rice fan at all. Never liked rice. Then she tried the rice at Blue Toba and couldn’t get enough of it. She ate her partner’s portion and then had to order more because she couldn’t stop eating it!
Walk us through the process of making Rendang. I hear it is no easy task.
Rendang is definitely our top seller.
We have customers that come in once or twice a week to get it. They tell us they’ve been thinking about it for it for days and just had to come in again. I remember growing up, my mom making Rendang and it took all day to make. I’d open the front door to come home and the scent of it would waft through the house and make everyone’s mouth water. Rendang is complex and labor-intensive like no other. It is a spicy dried curry cooked with the best cut of Painted Hill beef. So tender and layered with flavor because it has to cook for at least five hours to get it just right. And you can’t just put it in a crock pot or turn it on low and leave it simmering on the stove. You must stir it every five to fifteen minutes. We’ve had customers from out of town that were in Ashland for four or five days and once they discovered Rendang, they came in every day to get it for the rest of their stay in Ashland. It’s the most famous and loved dish in Indonesia. And also at Blue Toba, but most everything at Blue Toba seems to be a favorite when people come and try it.
Many of the spices used in Indonesian cooking have health benefits, what are they?
Yes, just like turmeric is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which we use a lot in our food, there are many other spices that have health benefits as well. In Indonesia, there is an herbal medicine called Jamu. You can find it almost anywhere. It’s made of a variety of plants, roots, bark, flowers, seeds, leaves and fruits and remedies a large variety of illnesses. So many of the ingredients in Jamu are used in the cooking all over Indonesia. Most spices all over the world, I imagine, have some kind of health benefit if used in their raw form and not processed like so much food can be. Because we at Blue Toba use the raw form of the spice, root, leaf, or pod, it tends to have a health infusion benefit. People have said over and over again how good they feel after eating at Blue Toba. Like all their cells wake up and are alive. I attribute this to spices we use and the way they are combined together.
Part of what I like about the Blue Toba experience is also the social aspect. I often see you coming out to talk with customers, many of whom you know by first name.
It’s very important for me to create a family vibe. There’s not much of that in America and there is a lot of that in Indonesia. It’s also very much part of my personality, to be friendly, to get to know people. I know people love Blue Toba partly for that reason.
I want to congratulate you and Leslie again for creating Blue Toba in Ashland. I know I am not alone in saying you have made our community richer for the culinary excellence and diversity you have shared.
Thank you so much. You/LocalsGuide has always been a huge support and our customers are truly amazing.
1690 Ashland St.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/bluetoba/
Tues-Saturday 11:30 am – 7:30pm