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.