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.