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Smashed chicken. All photos taken by Javier Cabral

Being a Stuntman Has Turned Me into an Indonesian Food Bandit

Steve Tartalia

I’m a stuntman, caterer, and DIY food delivery person. I'm also an Indonesian food bandit.

Smashed chicken. All photos taken by Javier Cabral

Smashed chicken. All photos taken by Javier Cabral

Indonesian "smashed chicken." Photo by Javier Cabral

I'm an Indonesian food bandit because I run a DIY Indonesian food delivery service in LA called Lasian Kitchen.

If you've ever seen the 80s kung fu movie called Wheels on Meals with Jackie Chan—where he delivers food around town in a little car—that's exactly like me riding around on my motorcycle. I'm a stuntman, caterer, and DIY food delivery person.

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Steve with his two-stroke motorcycle

I just got off the set of Supergirl and I had to dodge cars coming at me at 25 miles an hour. I've had a lot of roles throughout my 30-year career, from playing many "Western bad guy" parts in the Hong Kong film industry—during its heyday, that industry was the third largest film industry in the world—to doing stunts on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I was a stunt double for Spike).

But I'll tell you what: Dodging cars, jumping off four-story buildings, and getting beat up on three-versus-one fight scenes over the edge of a cliff is a cinch compared to learning how to cook such a complex cuisine like Indonesian food.

The strong flavors found in that region of Thailand—when you eat it, breathe it, and live it every day—just get hard-wired into your marrow.

I became interested in Asian food during the 80s and 90s, when I toured around Asia being a Western bad guy and doing all of my own stunts. The braver you are in this industry, the more gigs you get. I was almost fearless, so I worked in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. However, in Asia, there was no such thing as film catering services like there are when you work in production in the States, but we did have these old, grouchy granny cooks on set who were like makeshift, DIY caterers. They made really bold-tasting curries, noodles, and other dishes. These jungle village grandmas and aunties were my first teachers in cooking Southeast Asian food.

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Steve Tartalia in action

My earliest memory of being so blown away by it all was when I was doing this super-low-budget Thai film in Chiang Mai. The strong flavors found in that region of Thailand—when you eat it, breathe it, and live it every day—just get hard-wired into your marrow. My obsession with Indonesian food came later on in LA around 2008. I decided to add Indonesian Kuntau Silat into my martial art repertoire, and then started eating Indonesian food at this restaurant near the dojo where I trained to complete the experience.

My technique was to humble the cooks at each party by trying to recreate their dishes at home. They would get flattered by that, and they would eventually tell me some of their cooking secrets.

I found myself very, very happy while eating the food, but the taste was very inconsistent at the restaurant. So I took it upon myself to try to recreate it at home and master a lot of the dishes. I figured because I already had a solid foundation in the flavors of Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, I could do it. Little did I know then that it would not be that easy, because Indonesia consists of 17,500 islands and the cuisine is just as complicated as it sounds.

At the time, I started eating at this other Indonesian restaurant named Simpang Asia. I got really friendly with the chef in the hopes that she would share her cooking secrets, but she wouldn't tell me jack shit. She would say things like, "Even if you give me $100,000, I wouldn't tell you anything, but thank you for coming so much to my restaurant." One time, she invited me to a big party thrown by the Indonesian consulate. Most of the food was gone by the time I got there, but I was able to make a small plate of vegetables in the style of Bali and I was so blown away.

I went back home and tried to recreate that dish over and over and over again. When I was finally happy with what I created, I brought a plate to the chef at Simpang Asia, and she connected me to her Balinese friend who was an avid cook. She then recommended me to five other Indonesian cooks, and then to 20 other cooks, and so on and so on. Then they invited me to their family weddings and parties. My technique was to humble the cooks at each party by trying to recreate their dishes at home. They would get flattered by that, and they would eventually tell me some of their cooking secrets. This is how I learned to cook Indonesian food, one family party at a time. I dedicated myself to that for five years straight.

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Acar Kuning Udang (turmeric-pickled shrimp)

Every single recipe is in my head; I don't use any cookbooks. I become like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and download dishes into my head after seeing a grandma cook it. Sometimes I even meditate to visualize techniques and recipes. At times I've even asked the gods, "Help me out on this." Because of all this, I know around 150 different Indonesian dishes to date.

I keep it strictly traditional in my cooking, so I use plenty of garlic, chilies, candle nuts, shallots, salam leaves, bilimbi (tree cucumbers), fresh turmeric, and plenty of other intense Indonesian aromatics. Though I do substitute coconut sugar (which is actually a traditional Southeast Asian ingredient) for white sugar in dishes because this is LA, after all.

I started getting into the catering business because the catered food that you get when you work overtime started to piss me off—canned-like "garden vegetable soups" and a whole bunch of bland things that are incredibly so-so. The first film that I catered was 17 Again with Zac Effron. I was doing stunts for the movie and I bet this other guy on set that I could make way better food than the crappy overtime catering food. I brought samples and the crew loved it. Then I catered the overtime meal three days in a row for the next film I worked in, Alice in Wonderland.

Now here's the kicker: I have never been to Indonesia. But tell that to my dozens of Indonesian customers that text me on a daily basis to request food, and they won't believe you. Fortunately for me, LA has a very large Indonesian community, around 150,000 according to the last census.

One day, if I find the right partners, I'll open up an actual restaurant. For now, I'll stick to Steve the Stunt Chef.

As told to Javier Cabral, who has been to Indonesia and agrees that Steve makes some of the most authentic Indonesian food in LA.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.