Samui Wining & Dining
Kitchen King

Exotic kitchen magic at The Sea Koh Samui, thanks to Executive Chef, Khun Jack.

 

5Have you any idea how many times a week I am asked to recommend a restaurant? Odd acquaintances, people in pubs – they all want to know. Maybe I need to start wearing thick glasses and a beard. It’s like being asked, “what’s the best car to buy”. Who knows! Personally my idea of a really good restaurant is fabulous food and reasonable prices. And this ‘yardstick’, this standard for judging eateries most certainly applies to ‘The Sea’ in Bang Po. And for that, we have to thank Chef Jack.

      Khun Ronnalit Meunsripron – more usually known simply by his nickname of ‘Chef Jack’ – has been the executive chef here for a while now. It’s always a gamble when you first try out a new restaurant, as for all you know the ‘chef’s’ last job might have been tossing beef burgers somewhere. Chef Jack is youthful but serious, and his marginally intense public interface is based on the fact that he’s fanatical about food. He’s currently working with one day and two days off every other week (one day’s break this week, two days off next week) and guess what he does in his spare time? Food. Reads about it. Watches YouTube videos on it. Checks the TV programs about it. Experiments with it, tries new combinations of it and generally fiddles about to see what Thai ingredients best complement Euro-style dishes.

      The cynical among you will no doubt be nodding and muttering “. . . mmm, ’cos he’s a burger cook who’s trying to learn the ropes.” But in a moment I’ll go into his history and tell you some of the internationally renowned chefs he’s already served his time with. But suffice it to say that this is a driven man. Food is his life – but it wasn’t always as profound as this.

      Khun Jack was born in Khon Kaen, a depressed farming area in the northeast of Thailand. Even before he had left school, he realised that he wanted to get away, to move to where there was more opportunity. This logically meant somewhere where there were tourist dollars. And the arena to serve this was the hospitality industry. He’s not the only Issan kid to have had this dream. But whereas others had friends already in the business, he didn’t. He had nobody to give him a leg up and he had to do things the hard way.

      He left school early and managed to get a job working locally as a restaurant cook-helper. It was a foot on the ladder and, a year later, he secured a position as a steward in Bangkok’s Orchid Moon Restaurant. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he realised he was in a rut. He gripped the bull by the horns and, quite out of the blue, headed for Samui. He’d seen several features on TV about our island – seemingly, one aspect of Samui is that it has a ton of restaurants! He knew nobody here and there were no friends or family here to help him. But, murmuring prayers against ghosts and gripping his good luck charms, he got on a bus in Bangkok and when it stopped, Khun Jack found himself in Nathon.

      The first year here was depressing, and many others in his place would have given up. His English wasn’t good, he had no school certificate and there were no friends to put in a good word. He found a job as a junior technician in a company that serviced air conditioners, mostly around the island’s hotels and resorts. And this exposure to the local resorts gave him an opening as a kitchen helper in SALA Samui Resort in Choeng Mon. This gave him the experience to step-up to a big resort in Chaweng. Then came his break.

       Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa is one of the small handful of Samui’s top family-owned resorts. It’s 5-star quality and has always prided itself on featuring world-class cuisine, with a top international chef to match. Thus it was that Khun Jack started working under Executive Chef Walter (Wally) Andreini. And Khun Jack is a very quick learner. He stayed with Chef Wally for four years, by which time he rose to be second in the department – executive sous chef. And then he moved on to The Sea as executive chef in his own right.

      The Sea is a lovely little boutique resort, situated on the main ring-road in Bang Po, between Maenam and the big hill where you’ll find Four Seasons Resort. The restaurant, Café Lebay, is actually at the front of the resort, but many prefer to dine at the tables on the beach or the nearby terrace. The menu here is a superb example of ‘delicate fusion’: a sensitive merging of European cuisine with complementary Thai ingredients – Chef Jack really seems to have mastered this approach. But, like all competent chefs, he’s in the process of revising the existing menu to contain his own creations.

         And they’re impressive. Chef Jack has a knack of finding Thai beans and pulses and then making his own light sauces to enhance them in combination with the more-usual steak, chicken or fish dishes. His cuisine is lean and healthy, yet draws on the Euro French and Italian heritage – with a unique twist. He’s had a hard time getting where he is, but now it’s full steam ahead. There are many kitchen workers on Samui, but there are not so many kings in the kitchen – Chef Jack is one of them!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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