Samui Wining & Dining
The Evolution of Eating

Mapping out the changes – from fish and fruit to 5-star and finer.

 

20I wonder if you’re interested in it? I am. But then I haven’t just landed here with my head full of sunshine thoughts. For someone on a holiday break, there’s already lots to do – even if that’s made up of different ways to relax! Most folks on Samui for the first time accept what’s around them. Meaning that what they see now is all they can imagine. It’s perfectly natural. But once you’ve been here a while your outlook changes. You look around and the sudden shifts surprise you – in just a year whole chunks of coast can acquire new silhouettes. And that’s when you start to get interested in what things were like before.

      At this point, I have to pause and smile; there’s a funny little thing that happens – maybe you’ll notice it while you’re here? People who have lived here non-stop for a year or so seem proud of it. They’re quick to let you know. It’s almost a status thing. But others, those who have been here for 15 or 20 years or more, when you ask them, will just grin and say something like “. . . oh, quite a while now, really”. And these are the people who are really interested in the way the island has changed. They’ve been here for a lot of it themselves. And they’re even more fascinated by what went before.

      Time-spans are relative – five years, ten years, twenty years: they’re abstract and hard to grasp. But when you think about just one generation, then it’s an easier concept to grasp. In just one generation, the island of Samui has evolved beyond all recognition. Coming today to Chaweng for the first time, you’re unable to picture it any other way than that which you’re seeing now. But just one generation ago, there really wasn’t that much there to see at all. The town was built-up around Soi Green Mango and a little to the north of this, but only a couple of hundred metres south of here there was more or less four kilometres where you could walk across a fringe of scrubland and onto the beach. The airport was still a novelty. And in Chaweng there were no banks, no ATM machines, no taxis no 7-11s – and the beach road was a ragged, pot-holed dirt track that turned into a couple of miles of mud when it rained, and into clouds of dust when it didn’t.

      Samui as we know it today is actually only really – in human terms – a growing teenager. And, now that I’ve given you a context, try to picture Chaweng with hardly any restaurants at all. There were eateries - it’s true. One or two little burger places on the road, several bigger Thai shops which did sandwiches too, a couple of decent Italian or Indian restaurants, tucked away (and only one place which was open 24 hours). But all of them small and privately owned. The handful of more up-market resorts (plus the dozens of little bungalow resorts) all had their own beachside restaurants and cafés, but these were all out of sight and away from the road. Then, as the airport took root and Samui became more well-known, around the turn of the century, something happened.

       At this time, any international chef worth his wages was lining up to get work in the Middle East. This was where all the best-paid jobs were. This was where the top international hotel chains had the pick of their crop, together with their 5-star restaurants – and on top of that, you could add all the country clubs and golf courses, together with the gourmet restaurants that went along with them. But, as Samui grew in stature and greater numbers of high-quality resorts began to appear, so more of the top chefs jockeying for positions in the Middle East began to step sideways and head to our little island instead.

      This trend was like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining mass and momentum on its way. The more big-name chefs Samui acquired, the more that restaurateurs saw their opportunity and set-up more new restaurants. And the more this happened, the greater the numbers of chefs looking for openings on Samui. And, of course, all manner of associated services began to develop in parallel. Fifteen years ago, the only place you’d see a decent loaf of bread was when it was baked in the kitchens of a quality resort. Then came the butchers and the bakers, the vintners and the importers of all manner of fine foods and comestibles. And don’t forget; all these international chefs began to train their Thai under-chefs in the ways of the West. And so, alongside all the rest of the exploding culinary scene, Samui began to create a whole new generation of budding, international local chefs, many of whom have now spent time abroad and gone on to senior positions all over the world.

         There are some names which inspire awe in the glittering and cosmopolitan world of hospitality, so lofty is their status and impeccable their reputation. Four Seasons. Conrad. InterContinental. W Hotels. Le Meridian. Plus a dozen other exclusive names. All of which have now decided that the time is right for Koh Samui and have set up outposts on our island. Some of these 5-star resorts have no fewer than four in-house restaurants. Plus, naturally, the pick of the world’s most experienced chefs to run them.

         Little more than a generation ago, Samui was still essentially a sleepy island of coconut farmers and fishermen. It was the black sheep of the family who inherited the unproductive, sandy, salty, beach land as a lesson in humility. Who could have known? Who could have foreseen that rolling snowball which was to become an avalanche? Ponder on this the next time you’re in Chaweng at night, surrounded by the glitz and neon and tooting taxis, while you’re cruising for a place to eat. And remember – it’s an evolution which is still going on!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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