The coastline of Krabi, in southern Thailand, is lined by a collection of islands. One of them, Koh Lanta, was made popular by a 2001 French reality show, “Koh-Lanta”, which literally adopted the island’s name. The island’s stronghold is the 17-year-old Pimalai Resort & Spa, a 100-acre, family-owned resort managed by Boudoir-born general manager Franck de Lestapis, who relocated to this sleepy island 18 years ago. “There was nothing here,” exclaims Lestapis as he gestures to the busy coastline punctuated with small hotels and backpackers’ hostels. When word got around that Pimalai was being built, hospitality investors flocked to the island and subsequently, the reality show catalysed the popularity growth of the island. In just a decade, the island grew to be one of the more sought-after resort destinations that it is today.
Yet, despite an international crowd regularly descending on the island, Lestapis remains the only foreign face visitors will find amongst the resort’s body of staff. The rest of the staff are locals, in particular, young adults who joined the resort to learn the ways of the hospitality industry. In the kitchens, aspiring young chefs work and are mentored by their seniors; where culinary methods — usually traditional, domestic cooking techniques — are passed down from the chefs.
However, the lack of institutionalised culinary skills on the island posed a problem. In April this year, the three Michelin-starred French chef Bruno Menard was invited to design a new menu for the resort’s Western-themed The Seven Seas restaurant.
Menard spent days soaking up the sights and culture of Koh Lanta. At the end of it, the Frenchman came up with a seafood-inspired, three-course menu titled “A Taste of Paradise”, which is essentially his own take on local ingredients. The starter was a delightfully refreshing dish of finely chopped Japanese-style tuna tartare seasoned with quintessential Thai ingredients — chilli padi, fish sauce, lime, and lime zest — and topped with pickled radish and watermelon. It was a mirror of the vibrant landscape of Koh Lanta. “You look around here, it’s colourful.”
The main dish featured poached lobster — sweet, succulent chunks set on a light puree of carrots, orange blossom water, kaffir lime leaves, and butter. “Amazing, beautiful local lobsters from the fishermen here,” shares Menard. Although lobsters are a rare sight at the markets (only one or two lobsters for sale on any given day), the resort was able to secure 30 live lobsters for the launch day. This is all thanks to the fishermen who knew the lobsters’ migration patterns in the Andaman sea. They headed out to sea for a couple of days and returned with their prized catch of the lobsters. For these fishermen, the dish offers them a steady income opportunity for they will continue to supply lobsters to the resort in the year ahead.
When it came to the dessert, Menard turned to his French roots and came up with a traditional Baba — a yeast-based, brioche-like cake soaked overnight in a light syrup, which in this case, was made with Thai spices and the island’s tropical citrus fruits.
This was a menu that employed some complicated culinary skills. Menard spent a day imparting his knowledge to the local team, in smatterings of English, hand signs and gestures.
Their efforts paid off as the opening night of the dinner menu was a resounding success; further sealing the three Michelin stars that Menard once earned in Tokyo — which are also visibily tattooed on his arm.
The flavours were balanced, the techniques were right, delivery was punctual, and the diners were left both surprised and impressed. Yet, beyond all of the technicalities involved for the chefs, it was one of the most humbling meals to have for a diner.
While the global universe of fine dining has always been about the diner and his enjoyment, Menard subversed this logic. As diners tucked in, Menard patiently narrated the many stories behind his food — turning the spotlight on the numerous pairs of hands that pulled the dinner together. His menu has far-reaching consequences, creating meals that celebrate local sourcing, and giving quiet support to the local fishermen, farmers, and encouragement to aspiring young chefs.
Bruno Menard's menu for The Seven Seas will be available from July 2018 onwards, and will run for a year.
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