Five-star local flavour

Luxury resort's cooking class offers close encounters with community's food producers

It was sweaty, sometimes dusty, but absolutely fun-filled. We were on the back of a small song taew, with bags full of fresh local produce, listening to a young Australian chef explaining the recipes he planned for our lunch.

Executive chef Luke MacLeod on the back of a small song taew with his basket of fresh local produce.

As amazing as it seemed to we native Thais, the blond, blue-eyed host occasionally pointed to small establishments along the route where he usually bought homemade sausages, organic chicken and exotic fruits.

In Thailand, the kind of cooking class that starts with a guided tour of a local market is not new. But Luke MacLeod, the executive chef of the InterContinental Samui who commutes on a motorbike, made it unique and intriguing even for Thais from Bangkok.

MacLeod took the position of executive chef at the five-star resort at Baan Taling Ngam a few months ago. Upon arrival he was inspired by the local way of life and started to explore the lush green island, which later became an inspiration for the cooking class.

Call it a "5km radius" culinary expedition if you like.

Aiming to allow diners to see with their own eyes where the food comes from, MacLeod's cooking class, which is held every Tuesday, takes up to four guests on a 90-minute tour to nearby food sources located within 5km of the InterContinental where they can pick, pluck or purchase the ingredients (at the chef's expense) before returning to the hotel for a hands-on cooking class.

Our class, booked a month earlier, fell on a bright and breezy day. The tour started shortly before 10am with a briefing by the chef about what we were going to experience and where we were going that day. After that we hopped on what he called a tuk-tuk but was in fact a small four-wheeled song taew owned and chauffeured by Khun Satorn, a cheerful Samui native, awaiting us in front of the lobby.

Our first destination was a local chicken farm run by a husband-and-wife team. MacLeod had called to arrange the visit in advance so we were allowed into the free-roaming hen shack and, at our convenience, picked freshly laid eggs _ amazingly warm, small and shiny _ that kept dropping every 10 seconds. There, with a few eggs he gathered, MacLeod got the first idea of what he was going to teach us cook for lunch.

Next we headed to Taling Ngam hydroponic farm, located only 3km from the resort. Run by Khun Ad, a very amiable Samui lady who started the hydroponic business in her private estate occupied by various kinds of plants a year ago.

The chef explains the cutting technique to one of his students in the resort’s kitchen.

I asked how many species of fruit and vegetables are in her garden and she seemed bewildered.

"Samui people grow everything. Our philosophy is to grow what we eat and to eat what we grow," she replied. "It would be a shame for us to buy fruit or vegetables _ it means we are too lazy."

Khun Ad's hydroponic farm, set at the front of the one-rai premises, is favoured by villa chefs (many five-star resorts in Samui usually provide chefs for private villas) and features more than 20 varieties of salad greens and herbs.

From the soilless plant trays, we were urged to sample mizuna (naturally sweet), wild rocket (wonderfully spicy) and Italian basil (super aromatic). That day MacLeod bought dill, parsley, wild rocket, thyme, red coral and green coral from the farm as well as a cluster of finger bananas grown in the back garden _ all for a mere 104 baht.

"These vegetables are so fresh that even after you take them back to the hotel, they will still be growing," MacLeod joked.

The third stop was right on the route _ a rustic stall under a thatched roof selling freshly picked tropical fruits and vegetables from local farmers. There we got to taste the sweetest string beans with the least grassy flavour, the pleasantly tangy chamuang leaves and the rare mun nok potato, before MacLeod purchased a few things and hopped back on the truck.

Having bagged the greens we then went to hunt for the protein. That day it was seafood.

Situated 5km from the hotel is a small fishing village of 50 households. The men go out on small fishing boats and squid jiggers in the morning and usually return around noon with plenty of fish, shrimp, squid and shellfish. Some commercial trawlers also dock here to load up on deep-ocean harvests.

MacLeod certainly seemed to know what he was looking for. Tucked beneath piles of crushed ice in a large ice box were big silver pomfret (pla jaramed), our soon-to-be lunch highlight.

"It's nice that we can cook a great meal without having to import anything," he said while we were travelling back.

"Most chefs design the meal before seeking the products. But in reality, it's much better that you know what's available in the market before you come up with the menu. And since I get to see for myself what's really in season, it gives me the idea to create the best dishes using fresh local ingredients."

After a brief rest and freshening-up, we gathered at the beautifully-set kitchen of the resort's main restaurant, Amber. It was a practical, nicely equipped kitchen boasting a "demonstration" quality.

The chef announced the menu that we were going to cook and eat.

The appetiser was called "the chicken and egg, wild rocket, coriander and balsamic". We got to learn from scratch how to concoct the marinade and dressing, perfectly grill the poultry, soft boil the eggs and do the plating.

The main course featured white pomfret, oyster mushroom, dill, thyme and lemongrass beurre blanc with sweet beans. We missed the chance to fillet the fish (neat fillets of pomfret awaited our arrival). So other than showing how to pan-fry the fish, MacLeod demonstrated how to infuse Thai elements into a Western menu and make a perfect beurre blanc sauce.

Dessert was a clever marriage of Gallic cuisine and local fruits. Fresh papaya, banana, passion fruit and lime plus yoghurt were simply teamed up with French-style coconut crumble, which we now know how to make.

As we were enjoying the superb lunch (not just because we took part in its preparation but all the dishes tasted wonderful), MacLeod handed us sheets of paper on which he'd written the "official" name of the menus.

The meal was wrapped up by a choice of coffee and tea.

The Taling Ngam hydroponic farm run by Khun Ad, a very amiable Samui lady.

About the author

Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter