Acknowledging the past several months of turmoil, hardship and great loss, we begin again with our lives, post lockdown and adapt to what many are calling the “new normal.”
Whilst the hospitality industry, particularly in Phuket and across Thailand has been hugely affected, I am one, perhaps in the minority, who firmly believes that the “new normal” is in fact, at least for our industry, somewhat of a misnomer. Travellers still want what they wanted before lockdown. Whilst it will undoubtedly be a considerable length of time for business to return to the levels previously experienced, we still seek hotel stays that delight and food that tantalises our taste-buds. I am confident Phuket will continue to prosper and conversations at high level of re-focusing on the luxury market whilst discarding mass tourism, for me, are pure folly.
Stepping down from my soapbox, I thought it would be fitting for this article to feature two chefs, one pre-lockdown and the other post-lockdown. So I recall my most recent visit to The Surin, where General Manager, the devilishly handsome, Claude Sauter, whose personal brand tagline is “managing one of the nicest hotels in Phuket and enjoying it immensely”, kindly invited me over for an evening to enjoy his Thai cuisine, prepared by Chef Saroch – Roj for short. As we sat down for dinner, Claude shared with me that this would be the last couple of weeks before they would close for an extensive refurbishment and reopen 1st October. Claude has been at the helm of this luxury resort since 2014 and is proud of many achievements, not least that during high season, all guests are known to Claude by name and returnees request the same dates annually and even the familiarity of the same villa. Claude assures me they are also recognised by name by staff – and welcomed back as old friends!
Whilst we enjoy views over the spectacular signature black anthracite tiled hexagonal pool, Claude shares with me, “Our hotel has a long history, originally established in 1982, one of the first luxury hotels in Phuket, it morphed into another hotel in 1995 and then again in 2011 to The Surin.” All projects were overseen by the sadly recently passed American architect Edward Tuttle who had truly unique vision. Claude continues, “Throughout this, it has maintained an elegant and stylish exterior with dramatic interiors combined with truly comfortable villas.” Coincidently, FB reminds me as I write this article, that I stayed in one almost exactly one year ago.
Chef Roj sends out several signatures, Sen Mee Nua Poo, thin rice noodles with poached crab meat in yellow curry, a true southern dish, grilled tiger prawns Samunprai, with crispy aromatic herbs, and Gang Phed Ped Yang, a red curry of roasted duck, cherry tomatos, grapes, pineapple and kaffir lime. He joined the hotel in 2017 and has been a mainstay of The Beach restaurant since then.
As we eat, he joins us and tells me,
“I was born in the south, and from a young age, after school I would assist my mother, with pestle and mortar, hating every moment; of course, now I love what I do! I like to showcase southern Thai cooking and share with diners truly authentic recipes, but occasionally adjusting the spice level to accommodate the non-Thai palate.” He smiles mischievously, “Many of our regular diners know what they want, but some like to order off-menu and be a little more adventurous – which I am happy to accommodate. Our repeat clientele is like family.” Continuing with his philosophy, he says, “Whilst how dishes look is important, the presentation for me is not number one; flavour is foremost.”
Based on what I have experienced, from October onwards, The Surin is definitely worth a visit; authentic dishes prepared with love!
Chef Roj is not a newcomer to Phuket, so I thought it might be interesting to get a different take from the just-arrived, Executive Chef Andrew Dickie, who has joined the uber luxe Kata Rocks; the host of the exclusive annual Superyacht Rendezvous – where the owners of the world’s largest yachts gather, perfectly matching the vision of owner Richard Pope. I have been fortunate to previously meet and dine with both Richard and his General Manager, Phuket hotel veteran, Gordon Aeria.
Gordon introduces me to Andrew and we discuss his new menu plans over a mid-morning coffee. Andrew is not new to Thailand, having previously run a prestigious hotel signature restaurant in Bangkok and has worked for several luxury chains across Asia and Europe as well as counting high calibre restaurant experience in his background. It would seem like a perfect fit!
Andrew shares, “I believe in quality ingredients, simply prepared, flavour first! I am not a fan of wagyu, more leaning towards US prime ribeye or a Rangers Valley Black Angus ‘Aussie’ striploin. I like to let the ingredients sing.”
He plans to launch ,Wellington Wednesdays’, reworking a buttery, puff pastry encased fillet of beef accompanied with truffle mashed potatoes and honey glazed carrots. He continues, “I will soon launch a three-course menu, perhaps with a carpaccio or a bisque to begin and ending with a dessert of crème brûlée; this classically based menu will be offered over the weekends to add to our current renowned world class brunch and floating breakfasts, which have become memorable standards. I will also continue to improve the Dining on the Rocks experience. “I personally vouch for that!
Brimming over with enthusiasm, he adds, “I will also gradually add new dishes to our present menu, including a braised beef cheek in red wine sauce and octopus carpaccio with pickled pineapple, coriander and cucumber.” Andrew also wants to ensure the Thai cuisine is up to par and is working with his Thai chefs on marinated fresh salmon with lime and fish sauce, Khung Sadung Makam, tiger prawns with tamarind sauce and Poo Nim Gang Hang, stir-fried soft-shell crab with red curry sauce.
I vow to return the following month, to experience these new dishes.
Both Roj and Andrew do not fit the stereotypical slightly aggressive and ego driven chefs typified by the TV variety; these two are in contrast, unassuming and talented, but both expressing their love for what they do. In this alleged “new normal”, I would suggest that you make visits to both to enjoy the current normal, high quality ingredients, confidently prepared in luxury surroundings – just the same as before!
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.