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The Culinary Detective: Chefs during Lockdown

The current COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone across the globe and with sadly many losing loved ones, the impact of this tragedy will undoubtedly continue to be felt for some time to come. Navigating our way through this present danger whilst worrying about the health of our families coupled with the devastating economic consequences of loss of income is a mammoth challenge. In addition to these critical concerns, the restriction of enforced lockdown has created an exceptionally unique environment.

By Chris Watson

Sunday 19 April 2020, 12:34PM

Clockwise: Jim, Mark, Morten, Seumas, Seumas with Boris. Photos: Supplied

Clockwise: Jim, Mark, Morten, Seumas, Seumas with Boris. Photos: Supplied

 For people like me who spent the majority of my time working alone from home, now having my hotelier wife with me 24/7 is definitely a ‘novel’ experience. I confess that prior to this life-changing period, with the exception of weekend eggs benedict, I never cooked at home. My days passed with enthusiastic anticipation of dinner at a new restaurant or one of my beloved favourites. Whilst many restaurants in Bangkok are offering delivery services, I am a firm believer that the joy of dining out and tasting just-prepared culinary creations cannot truly be replicated with dishes unpacked and consumed in the confines of one’s own home. 

Therefore, I am now cooking on a daily basis, rediscovering my culinary skills and learning from the many professional chef videos on social media. To counter my more sedentary work day, whilst jogging through the greenery on the roof of my condo, I thought it might be interesting to discover how Chefs are coping with this self-isolation. They are in fact a particularly hard-working group of individuals. starting early in the day and often working well into the late evening delighting people like me. 

My first call last week was to Mark Jones, Executive Chef of The Nai Harn. Mark is married with a young son and whilst thoroughly enjoying spending quality time with his family, he is also keeping his innovative culinary juices flowing.

“I decided to pop to a nearby foundry to collect a granite slab on which I can create authentic Napoli-style pizzas and bread. This is a result of a recent promotion at the hotel where master chef Salvatore de Rinaldi visited and I learnt to cook Neapolitan pizza,” Mark explained

“I am currently preparing lamb shank for Easter and have just placed in the oven some hot cross buns for later today. An early riser, I am exercising with a little weightlifting and a daily swim whilst preparing an e-book of my recipes and of course, coming up with ideas for new dishes when we reopen. 

“A fan of fresh fish, I support my local fisherman with a frequent order of local halibut, cooked whole on the bone or when cooking with my wife Khun Pan, the fish placed in lettuce wraps and accompanied with her homemade seafood sauce,” he added.

My next call was to Morten Nielsen, Executive Chef of the Hotel Indigo Phuket. Morten is leading a particularly different sort of life, his family currently in Bangkok and him, living in his currently closed hotel, as resident caretaker. 

When I call, Morten is in the middle of his daily exercise regime. “At least twice a day I briskly climb the stairs from the ground floor to the roof. Sadly, I don’t have a kitchen to operate in as all power is off [while the restaurant is closed], so most of the time I cook with a couple of colleagues on a rice cooker; this is definitely forcing me to eat more healthily and be a little more creative with ingredients. 

“I was quite emotional when we had to close the hotel and restaurant as it is not that long ago that I actually opened it,” he adds.

I recall eating with Morten in Butcher’s Garden, earlier this year and enjoying a superb piece of steak simply served with a green salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette, perfectly echoing Morten’s philosophy of letting the products sing. I leave Morten to continue inspecting the hotel to ensure they are ready when they can reopen.

Brightview Center

I make my next call to Jimmy Ophorst, Executive Chef of the Michelin starred PRU at Trisara. Jimmy is as usual full of energy: “I start my day with a 5km run and following this spend quality time with my young son, whilst also beginning to learn to read and write Thai.” 

However, his mind is never far away from his restaurant and he informs me enthusiastically, “I am sourcing new products, devising new dishes and raising the bar to try to achieve a second star. When PRU reopens, we will be offering a totally new experience.” I can’t wait! 

My last call is to a relatively new arrival to Thailand, Seumas Smith, Executive Chef of Iniala Beach House in Phang Nga and the culinary talent behind the recently launched Parla restaurant. I was fortunate to eat at Parla prior to the restrictions and it is indeed an intriguing and innovative concept with part of the experience actually taking place in the kitchen. 

Seumas has been somewhat fortunate in having several long stay guests who are still residing in this uber luxe property. However, the other side of the coin is that restrictions on imported produce have forced Seumas to really put his creative skills to the test. 

“I along with colleagues make a daily journey to Sarasin bridge where suppliers, respecting social distancing, hand over fresh produce from the Phuket markets which we bring back to Iniala to help us prepare the day’s menus,” he says.

As I end my call Seumas lets me know he is heading out for one of his thrice-daily walks with his corgi, Boris. I forego asking him if he named him due to any resemblance to a certain prime minister!

I have enjoyed chatting with these four Chefs, each getting through this challenging period in their own individual way. Whilst I am confident their partners and children are indeed enjoying having them at home, I suspect that both they and the chefs themselves, like me are looking forward to returning to perhaps a new normal when safe to do so. 

However, whilst they surely can’t wait to return to their kitchens to cook, I can’t wait to return to their restaurants to eat!

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.

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