Samui Wining & Dining
Circling Around

The Samui Culinary Circle keeps growing – president Rueben Kimber reflects on how this links-in with Samui’s wining and dining trends.


20It’s not hard to imagine. As Samui began to grow, it began to specialise. We didn’t just see better engineers and architects, but better restaurants appeared, too, and their chefs with them. Then there was a kind of pivotal point on the island’s dining scene – and also in a lot of other areas; these things are all inter-related. This can be tracked down to the last few years before the new millennium. Samui was anticipating a–turn-of-the-century influx like never before, and all around the island the air was full of smiles and optimism.

      Naturally enough, competent, international chefs need to use quality ingredients – and bear in mind that at the time we’re talking about there was only one bakery on the island; this was in Nathon and specialised in the sugary loaves of white bread that the locals preferred. And so, in little isolated pockets around Samui, the better restaurants and resorts baked their own in-house breads. The climate of southern Thailand is too hostile for the usual staples of tomatoes and potatoes – even peas and carrots have a hard time surviving, and strawberries don’t stand a chance. So all these things, and more, had to be regularly shipped down from the cooler regions around Chiang Mai.

      The specialist food suppliers, which today abound, had yet to make an appearance. So it made a lot of sense for two or three of Samui’s chefs to club together and share the costs of imported herbs, cheeses, meats, truffles and all the other gourmet items that are actually quite common in a well-stocked Western kitchen. And, quite simply, this was how Samui’s Culinary Circle began. For a while this remained as informal meetings between friends. But as the island headed towards the turn of the century, so more people became involved – the general managers of smaller resorts, the food and beverage managers of the larger ones. Thus, in the high season of 1998, the Samui Culinary Circle (SCC) came officially into existence.

      Today there are more than 70 full-time active members, with double that amount on the mailing list. Each month there’s a get-together hosted by a different member, usually in the form of a lunch. Specialist suppliers and distributors have a chance to showcase their wares, new info and gossip is exchanged, and plans put forward for future events, sponsorships, and fund-raising ideas for deserving local causes.

       Today Rueben Kimber sits in the president’s chair. Rueben’s been on the island for a while now, having moved here from a distinguished career in the UK (including, most-recently, his stint at the prestigious London Dorchester). Looking back over Samui’s evolution reveals more than a few peaks and troughs, and so I was interested to delve into his insights, particularly with regard to the culinary scene here on the island.

         “I think the whole atmosphere changed some four or five years ago,” he told me, “when the big international 5-star names all seemed to take an interest in Samui around about the same time. There were already many world-class restaurants and chefs on the island. But these conglomerates spend millions every year on research into potential new locations. And whatever it was that needed to be ticked off on their lists, it seems that Samui suddenly met their requirements. Quite obviously this meant that there was a significant number of new, top-of-the-line restaurants and chefs being introduced onto the Samui scene – it’s quite usual for some of these icons of the hospitality industry to build three, or even four, restaurants into their resorts. This is significant in itself. But what also came along with all this is more revealing.”

         “Samui already had an active alternative to the many beachside resorts,” Rueben continued. “Scattered around, and mostly privately-developed and owned, there were small estates of villas, usually in clusters of six or seven or ten. But with the influx of the 5-star luxury resorts, so a parallel developed. Now increasingly more up-market villas appeared – quite a number of them being introduced on the sites of the 5-star resorts themselves, as an alternative to their in-house suites. These opulent villas came complete with their own staff, including an internationally-experienced chef. But quite often the privately-owned sector relies on the availability of outside catering of a correspondingly high quality. And this means that now many more ‘boutique’ villas have access to visiting gourmet chefs that previously were tied to a tighter contract.”

         “The other aspect that’s connected with this is Samui’s upsurge as a desirable destination to get married. Where at one time you usually saw chicken in a basket, it’s now common to find a whole range of gourmet dishes as well, and there are more and more formal evening dinners being requested. The vibrancy of the culinary scene on Samui has taken a sudden leap in just the last three or four years, and a far higher overall quality is not only readily available, but frequently expected.”

         Which leaves us quite where, I wondered. What comes next? I asked Rueben for his thoughts about the future of wining and dining on Samui. He paused for a moment, then nodded. “The airport,” he replied cryptically. “Here, where I work at ‘YL Residence No 17’, it’s a 20-villa self-contained luxury resort. One guest – one group – has the excusive occupancy for the duration of their stay. We see many wedding groups. But there are equally as many corporate visitors for get-away board meetings, MICE events or exclusive incentive rewards. Quite often guests arrive on the island in their private jets and are transported here by road. But the plane then has to fly over to Surat Thani to be serviced and hangered. There are no facilities for this on Samui. The time for this is now upon us, and this is something that needs to be addressed in order for the island to develop further.”

         And I was expecting this to be all about the latest fads in molecular truffles and caviar. It was quite an eye-opener talking to Rueben. And, although the Samui Culinary Circle is flourishing, judging by his last observation about the number of private jets, the SCC is not the only thing that’s ‘circling around’! Rob De Wet


Rob De Wet


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