Dava delight

Zipping across the island in a hunt for fresh tomatoes was not something William Gumport envisioned lying ahead when he jetted into Bali last July to head Ayana Resort’s upmarket Dava restaurant.

But he has found himself making a mad moped-dash for them, along with a sprinkling of other items, as he settles in to life as a chef de cuisine on the sometimes unpredictable island. While Bali offers plenty William was expecting, tussling with suppliers was not one of them.

“That’s one thing I had no idea about. I got over it pretty fast — I’m okay with that challenge,” says unflappable William. We’re chatting at an intimate Dava table jutting into a pond punctuated with lotus flowers shuttered against the dusk. A breeze from Jimbaran Bay below stirs the leaves of surrounding trees.

The chef, who has served time in eateries in Las Vegas and New York, jumped at the opportunity to work in Indonesia, despite never travelling here before. William’s Asia experience extended to living in China for a few months when he was younger with his family and a trip to Japan.

“I had never thought of Indonesia until the opportunity y came about and I’m very happy I made the leap,” he says, adding that he had been passively looking for work in Asia for two or three years.

“My concern honestly was with the people and attitudes and what I would be running into, basically because I didn’t know any Indonesians… I came with an open mind and these people have totally won me over.”

On arrival, William decided to eschew the usual Bali expat ghettoes and set himself up in an apartment at nearby Kedonganan beach.

“I definitely wanted to be able to immerse myself a little bit more into what’s going on around here and down there is mostly Hindu. It’s very representative of the Bali population so I’m happy with it.”

In the name of research, William has stuck his nose into Denpasar’s main market as well as a slew of local ones, he’s popped into the fish market at Kedonganan and even swept through the aisles of Carrefour, which does a good range of produce from around the archipelago.

Essentially William seeks to use the “incredible” local fruit, vegetables and seafood along with imported products such as beef, lamb, vinegars and olive oils to create a menu international in flavour, but not technically fusion.

“If I do something Asian, I kind of stick to those flavour profiles. If I do something European, I kind of stick to that profile,” he explains. “I do believe in classics, in classic combinations. I respect tradition.”

William’s next challenge is to source more interesting produce from Bali’s smaller farms. He has a series of meetings lined up in Bedugal in the days ahead to get to know some of the key suppliers there.

“They have all these resources. You just have to go out and kind of adjust a little bit but it’s all there for the taking,” says William. “I really am trying to use as many Indonesian things as possible but I’m trying to put them into a context that Westerners and Japanese would be familiar with. Using those ingredients just makes sense.”

The local market is already providing rich threads for the fine tapestry the chef weaves into his six-course degustation menu, which William aims to change weekly.

The menu follows a standard routine: Amuse bouche, followed by an appetizer, a seafood, a red meat, then two desserts. “I kind of think in a traditional Western way about how to fill those in. It could be the ingredients, something that I’ve seen, it could be a technique or a dish that I’ve done before that is inspiration — it could be a number of things.”

The amuse bouche on tonight’s degustation menu—the most European one William has done so far—is a case in point for both local sourcing and using a technique William has been experimenting with: local beetroot gazpacho with Dijon mustard ice cream and a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

“Basically I wanted to do a cold soup, ice cream sorbet combination because I’ve been doing that with a couple of things, and this is a combination that I know and I like. We found some beets that were grown here and Dijon mustard is a flavour that is not indigenous to here, but it’s similar to Japanese wasabi, if you can understand that, so it’s something that [Japanese guests] can relate to,” he says.

The appetizer of calamari is also local, and amazingly tender, served julienned after being marinated in preserved lemon, parsley and herb oil, alongside potatoes crushed with a touch of mayonnaise and garlic and romanesco sauce.

The warmed-till-rare yellowfin tuna up next is another local item, and delectable—“Tuna is like a luxury item in the United States so I was excited to see that”—and the beef following allows William to use two local ingredients he’s loving: ginger flower and tamarind.

It’s slow-cooked wagyu cheek, glazed in tamarind with wilted spinach, mango chutney, white radish and the flower, which William had read about but never used before coming to Bali. Traditionally the Balinese use it in a sambal, chopped and mixed with chillies and shallots, served alongside meat and fish.

“I use it more in like a Western way, where you cut it really fine and you sprinkle it on things, or use it to infuse broths,“ William says.

The plentiful tamarind on the island has also captured William’s imagination.

“You can get it in the United States but here you walk outside and it’s on the tree, and it’s like, wow! I need to think of some things that I can do with this!”

Dessert begins with a beautifully caramelised pineapple tart tatin served with banana ice cream subtly flavoured with rum. And Dessert Number Two—William concedes that a “pre-dessert” is really just another dessert—is a parfait of chocolate mousse, coffee gelee, chocolate streusel and rum cream.

How does William keep his work exciting day in and out? “For one, it’s exciting driving my moped every day — near death experience keeps you alive. But it’s searching out these places. Meeting these people. Meeting other food professionals. It’s learning a new language. You’re only bored if you’re lazy.” It looks like Dava is going to be kept exciting for a long time to come.

Simon Blaby at Karma Resorts (profile)

It began with two weeks of peeling prawns at a restaurant for no pay a quarter of a century ago, give or take: Now the sparkling culinary career of Australian Simon Blaby has brought him to Karma resorts in Bali, where he’s shaking up menus and adroitly steering esteemed Di Mare, Nammos and the Steakhouse into the future.

Blaby once aspired to be a graphic designer, but work experience placements for that particular career were filled, so he was asked whether he might be interested in going to a restaurant instead.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself in for,” he admits over flat white coffees at Karma Jimbaran’s airy poolside Steakhouse.

It was 1985 and his mother decked him out in an oversized chef’s jacket to turn up for work at the restaurant.

“I got there and basically stood in the corner and peeled prawns for two weeks for 12 hours a day,” he says.

On his final day, the chef asked what he was doing for dinner and Blaby confessed he was going to eat at a renowned fast food restaurant again, as he’d been doing on his breaks for the two weeks.

“He said, ‘You can’t eat that garbage!’ He sat me down in his office, at his desk, and cooked me the most amazing rump steak I have ever had in my life, with French fries and salad. And that was it for me. My career path was set.”

It wasn’t just about the steak, but also the sense of camaraderie that came with working in a restaurant that appealed to the then-schoolboy, who soon attended a six-month pre-apprentice course before winning an apprenticeship at Adelaide’s Sebel Townhouse.

Two years there were followed by two years at a “gastro pub” – it was the beginning of that era of gourmet food in gleaming, refurbished pubs — where Blaby completed his apprenticeship. Then travel started to work its way into his bones. Blaby headed to Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia, to work a stint at the isolated Sheraton for a year.

Memorable events included setting up for a five-course degustation dinner at a telegraph station outside Alice Springs, with white tablecloths, silver cutlery and French glassware on a red desert floor, with wandering kangaroos, wallabies and lizards stopping by to visit charmed diners.

“They would bus in French and German tourists who would walk over the rise and you’d hear a collective gasp of amazement rise up.”

After a period at an eco-resort in Queensland, Blaby headed back to Adelaide to work at riverside restaurant the Jolly Boathouse, which collected a swathe of awards as Blaby worked his way up to head chef.

With itchy feet again, Blaby headed to the Sunshine Coast to work at The Spirit House, a Thai restaurant in the hinterlands of Noosa. The owners sent the up and coming chef to Thailand on his first overseas trip to get a feel for the kingdom’s cuisine. His trip took in the capital Bangkok, former royal capital Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui.

At the time Thai cooking was becoming very in vogue in Australia – “a culinary lantana”, he quips – but he and his team read obscure Thai cookbooks to research more unusual dishes, and ran a cooking school as well.

“Thai food is very much a discipline and not so much a cuisine… That was a huge learning curve — it was like another apprenticeship.”

Then Blaby’s Balinese fate was sealed.

He met a hotel manager who asked whether he’d be interested in working at her resort, the then Serai and now Alila Manggis. She flew Blaby up to take a peek around, including a browse through less-than-touristy Klungkung market.

“That was my first exposure to an open-air Asian market – we didn’t see any in Thailand – and it was pretty mind blowing, that’s for sure. That was it for me.”

Blaby called his wife, Saffron, to ask her to start packing their bags, and they arrived in 2002. While experimenting with the menu at the Serai, Blaby got an intensive training in Balinese cuisine when he asked his staff to each bring in three recipes each for a starter, main and dessert.

“Some of them were great, some not so great, some were brilliant,” he said of the experiment.

The Blabys returned home briefly after Bali’s first bombing but the lure to return was too strong: “Saffron sums Bali up best: ‘It speaks to your soul.’ ”

Blaby had met the owner of Bali’s iconic La Lucciola who regularly ate from his menu at the Serai and that was where Blaby headed next, taking the helm there for five years during which he sought to create a menu that pushed the boundaries of the usual Italian fare on the island.

Then, last November, Blaby started afresh at Karma as executive chef and was soon promoted to food and beverage manager, a move that pushed him outside of his comfort zone to do different things, from designing wine and cocktail lists to training waiters.

“Chefs have a use-by date,” Blaby explains. “It’s physically demanding work. All of a sudden you have 25 year old guys running circles around you and you think ‘Oh, might be time to step out now.’ "

His ambition for the restaurants he oversees is to provide, quite simply, the best food possible. He sees the menus’ focus tightening in on light, healthy food, with a bit of comfort food thrown in and some celebration food.

“At a hotel you’re always going to have things like a club sandwich on the menu, so if you’re going to have a club sandwich, make it a great club sandwich: Make it with great bread and really nice smoked chicken and fantastic home-made mayonnaise and crispy bacon.”

As far as overall trends go, Blaby predicts a shift away from the fussier foams now all the rage back in the vaguely macrobiotic direction with an emphasis on healthy, green cuisine, and on sourcing local products.

The latter have flourished on the island in recent years, with for instance a local maker now producing mozzarella, which Blaby uses on Karma’s pizzas, though a Caprese salad will still see the traditional Italian cheese used for its unique flavour. Blaby also seeks to source sustainable fish. Swordfish, coral trout and grouper are off Karma’s menus as fishermen will smash reefs to get to them. Barramundi, snapper and fish caught in open water is okay, along with large scampi which are usually farmed.

“I’d hate to put food out that had been somehow ethically corrupted for whatever reason, by whomever,” he says. “That’s what I see the future of food being, really… Food that doesn’t cost the earth to put on the plate, for the consumer or the creator.”

Blaby has also shaved prices to encourage people to eat at Karma, and get rid of the general stigma often still attached to hotel dining.

“We deliver value for money and we have good quality food and service… You can swing on down to the beach and have a great Asian meal at night time at Nammos or you can go to Di Mare and have a degustation menu. Or you can stay in your room and have a burger — which is what I like doing.”

Kind of like right back at the start of his career?

“Yes, but now I eat Wagyu burgers!” he jokes.

Victor Mason Bird Walk

Victor Mason, clad in an open floral shirt, hands me a list of the names of 53 birds that I might spot on our ramble through Ubud’s patchwork of paddies this morning.

“Yes, you can tick them off, if you like! Twitchers, we call them, the ones who like to tick.” Victor speaks in the sort of British accent you usually only see on TV.

Five other birdwatching enthusiasts are heading out with us, along with Victor’s eagle-eyed sidekick Sumadi. The loquacious pair have been running these walks since 1993.

“Shall we?” Victor asks. Someone mentions Victor’s lack of shoes. I had been worried that my flipflops might not be sufficiently hardy for today’s hike, but Victor, a resident of Bali for some 40 years, is still not wearing any at all.

“Oh! I never wear shoes. Except when one must – hospitals, for instance, or airports, that sort of thing. Is that alright?”

Binoculars swinging round our necks, we stroll down Ubud’s main street over that old rusting Campuhan bridge, stopping every few metres to exclaim over a bird, butterfly, or indeed plant. I’m reminded of how I learned during snorkelling that you don’t really need to move very far at all to see a lot. Be perceptive and you’ll see a lot – especially when you’re with Victor or Sumadi, who can’t help but regale you with fascinating facts, stories and colourful opinion.

Victor mentions that the bird we’re really after today is the magnificent Javan kingfisher – and once we’ve seen that, he jokes, we may as well head home.

At last, we are off the main road. Rounding a bend, paddy stretches before us. Sumadi gives a little cry.

“What do you have, Sumadi?” calls Victor.

It is, of course, a Javan kingfisher (um, that would be number 20 on my list), its blue feathers shimmering in the mid-morning light, sitting preternaturally still on a bamboo pole in the far distance. We need our binoculars to see it. None of us have any idea how Sumadi might have managed to spot it.

“Ah one suspects she’s been out with her glue pot again!” Victor mutters. “Fantastic!”

It is, even to my untrained eye, a gorgeous bird, but there’s plenty more to come.

In fairly quick succession we see a white-bellied swiflet (number 17), a scaly breasted munia (45), and an olive-backed sunbird (41).

“Co-op-er-a-tion, please!” Sumadi rallies us back into a tight group if we’ve spread too thin and she’s spotted something worthy – it could be a nest, or some eggs.

“Look, if she can’t see it, there’s no point any of us trying to have a look,” Victor confides at one point.

The paddy paths we are following, for the most part, are little thoroughfares for villagers, tourists and even cyclists.

“I say chaps! Lovely hats you’re wearing!” Victor calls out to the half-dozen Indonesian cyclists who scoot past on their own little adventure.

What’s amazing to me is that in such a completely agricultural and reasonably bustling area so many beautiful birds, butterflies and wild plants can still be seen. You just need to know what you’re looking for – or you just need to look.

We stroll down what Victor calls “Butterfly Pass” and indeed, it’s alive with flitting yellows, oranges, browns and blues. Sumadi adroitly captures the insects, noting that she is not crushing their abdomens so they will be quite alright once she lets them fly off.

Plenty of dragonflies also dart around, but Sumadi says she’s still in the process of learning about them.

“I don’t know their species yet. Nature’s got a lot to teach and one year is nothing. Every day, I learn just a little bit,” she says.

We pass wild yellow orchids growing on the edge of one paddy – Sumadi says she’s tried to grow them at home, but with no luck. Victor points out a paddy that is old-style Bali rice, a green slightly paler than the vibrant ones we’ve otherwise seen. Then we reach an open vista stretching down into a deep gully and back up again on the other side.

“There’s Bali, in a nutshell!” Victor explains that right where we stand is wetlands, where rice is cultivated, a little further below is plantation – coconuts, bananas – and further down still, maybe 30 metres below us, stretches old growth forest, harbouring amazing birds, monkeys and other wildlife.

We stop for a drink of young coconut before traipsing down into the “jungle” – Victor says he’s being slightly facetious when he calls it that — but it is a different sort of flora. A vertiginous drop is shielded only by enough foliage to make you think you could keep walking straight over it.

Four hours after our initial departure we are ejected back onto Ubud’s main road, metres away from where we started. As Victor might say: “It was marvellous!”

See http://www.balibirdwalk.com/ for further information about Victor and Sumadi’s walks.