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What does the Phuket diner want?   by Chris Watson

Two chefs share their philosophies!

  Kata and Surin

October 2019

Phuket’s culinary landscape has indeed evolved over the past ten years and noticeably more acutely in the recent past twelve months. Visitors to Phuket from across the globe, and those who are fortunate to call it home, have become markedly more demanding in what they seek to consume whilst on the island. The increased presence of social media across all age groups has amplified our hunger for unique gastronomic experiences. Both first timers to Phuket and even our resident population, non-Thai and Thai alike, have been quietly cultivating a high level of inquisitiveness in the multitude of food trends and pioneering chefs practicing them. This curiosity has peaked even higher with the arrival of the Guide Michelin. A growing number of vegetarians and vegans, defined not only by belief but also many purely by lifestyle choice, and the emergence of dietary restrictions and allergies have tested chefs’ creativity to deliver on a daily basis. Food trends of sustainability, experimental molecular gastronomy, fusion, modern Thai and hyperlocal farm-to-fork are eagerly followed, liked and commented on through Instagram and Facebook. But sometimes all we yearn for is a traditional fish and chips or a tender steak! Yes, perhaps today, it must be a line-caught fish for us to feel that we are doing our bit towards avoiding the sad depletion of fish in the ocean, while our steak must, of course, be wagyu to satiate our clamour for the best. And chips? Mandatory twice- or even triple-cooked with duck fat an essential ingredient in the process.

But let’s perhaps take a step back, diners and chefs; are we not unnecessarily over-complicating this? Surely memorable dishes can be created by letting the products speak for themselves?

So how do Executive Chefs meet and truly exceed today’s diner expectations? In this first feature on food trends in Phuket, I have invited Jonathan Bruell, Executive Chef of The Boathouse and Alberto Zaniboni, Executive Chef of The Surin – two leading chefs of landmark upscale resorts – to share their approaches to delighting diners.

Jonathan joined The Boathouse towards the end of 2017. Born overseas, but educated in the UK, he is truly a globetrotting chef, having cooked in iconic properties in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. His culinary neighbour, Alberto has been in Phuket since 2003 but joined The Surin as Executive Chef in 2011. His fascination with cooking began in his native Italy and continued via Montenegro, a lesser known, and still today undiscovered, country where Alberto spent time in a renowned hotel on the idyllic island of Sveti Stefan in the Adriatic. We meet in the late afternoon, overlooking the distinctive and dramatic black tiled swimming pool at The Surin. I begin by asking these accomplished Chefs to describe their individual culinary styles.

Alberto reminisces that his career actually began at home in the kitchen with his grandmother and perhaps that’s where he realised that with fresh and highly seasonal ingredients, he could create truly spectacular dishes. “This philosophy I have maintained throughout my life and is the foundation of everything I do at The Surin. I use premium products and focus on flavours, keeping the combinations simple and allowing the products to sing together in harmony.” This is evident in his homemade fettucine which has only five ingredients; wheat flour, egg yolks, burrata and parmesan cheese and is finished off with fresh black truffle. Whilst Alberto does adhere to the formula of keeping the dish uncomplicated, he points out that diners do expect decadent luxe products on the plate.

Jonathan shares his view, passionately adding, “Chefs today have a tendency to throw together far too many ingredients on a plate, often creating confusing combinations, whereas as we gain more experience….or get older, I find that I am simplifying following the adage of less is more; its often much harder to create a stunning dish with only a few ingredients and this, for me, is the true test of a Chef! I also believe in classic and unfussy flavours, such as my grilled salmon fillet with silky hollandaise sauce and asparagus.”

I continue by asking their views on healthy eating, Alberto is first to respond. “Yes, we have many diners who stay with us for two weeks or more and occasionally wish for a lighter meal. I must ensure we have options for them. One of my most popular dishes is my beetroot salad which has colour, texture and at the same time is refreshingly flavourful.” Jonathan also has a local product salad dish which is a Boathouse treasure; his Phuket rock lobster with pomegranate. Both chefs become more animated when we talk about local products versus their imported cousins. Whilst they both endeavor to utilise as many local products as possible, acknowledging the importance of protecting our planet for the future, they also offer fine imported products where that local variety may not yet be at the standard they need to satisfy their discerning high-end diners.

seared foie-gras with local figs, which is
a perfect blend of the best of both. He also adds, “I use a fabulous Andaman tuna for sashimi.” Jonathan then chips in offering up his rich and creamy local white snapper fish soup accompanied with a crunchy crouton as a great local dish. He continues, “Local fish can be quite challenging as the warm waters restrict the conditions needed for the fish to develop the texture and flavours we look for. However, this soup is an exception and one of our top sellers.”

Presentation has become incredibly important due to the rise in sharing food pics on social media and of course, ‘we eat with our eyes’ has always been a truism; what do our chefs think of this? Jonathan humourously comments, “dishes must always look good enough to eat but presentation must never be number one at the expense of flavour.” Alberto agrees and they both feel there is perhaps a little too much emphasis on presenting pretty pictures for diners to consume with their mobile phones! Whilst diners do enjoy lighter dishes, both chefs note that on their last night before departing their hotel to return home, diners invariably want to ‘push the boat out’, with an old-fashioned steak in one form or another.

Jonathan’s meltique tenderloin is a popular choice and Alberto echoes this thought, adding, “my black angus tournedos with creamy mashed potatoes and truffle sauce is the preferred dish for the last night in Phuket.” Jonathan is often approached by diners who want a specific dish such as cottage pie. “We all have childhood memories which we love to rekindle. I try to put some of these extra special dishes on our friday lunch menu, say a chicken kiev with a dollop of Paris mash – loved by our regulars.“ Alberto has the same thoughts with regards to The Surin brunch. “We always offer a weekend roast, perhaps a lamb gigot and a surf and turf with bearnaise for our frequent returnees and residents.”

So, my afternoon with these two culinary giants draws to a close and as I bid my farewelIs, I am somewhat comfortable in the knowledge that Phuket’s culinary legacy and blossoming future is in safe hands. Whilst both chefs have differing nationalities and backgrounds, they both wholeheartedly agree that taste is a priority, as is using local produce where possible, quality fine-tuned classics or simply put – give the diner what they want NOT what you want to cook.

So, I suggest when in Phuket, head to either The Surin, or The Boathouse and test this out! Both have infectious smiles, winning personalities and I am sure regardless of what you choose to eat, you won’t be disappointed!


Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in the Middle East and Asia, has settled in Thailand and writes various restaurant columns about Phuket dining.

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