A journey from farm to table
Jim Ophorst marries fine dining with farm-to-table as chef de cuisine at PRU restaurant (prurestaurant.com), Trisara Phuket. Originally from the Netherlands, Orphost is hands-on in sourcing his ingredients and wants to show off the natural vibrancy of local flavours through multiple-course dinners. We spoke to Ophorst about his culinary journey and his thoughts on The Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket, and Phang-nga 2019, to be published later this year.
How did you discover your love for cooking?
It started a long time ago when I was about 15. During high school you had to do an internship but I had no idea what to do. My neighbour ran a restaurant and I decided to give it a shot. That was the first time I stepped into a kitchen and I immediately loved it. You can say my love for cooking begun even earlier because I spent my childhood in Westland, which is known for its greenhouses. I grew up running and playing between cucumbers and tomatoes.
What did you do before PRU?
After my internship, I went to a hotel school, worked at a local restaurant in the Netherlands, moved to a Michelin-starred restaurant for four years and came to Thailand to do a consultancy at Trisara. Then I decided to move here and, as some people may already know, I interned for six months at Gaggan before I was hired to be in charge of PRU. I accepted the job offer because they gave me the freedom to experiment and do whatever I like. It's hard to do that in Holland because it's so expensive and even harder if you're young.
How did PRU start? How much farm-to-table is it?
I had worked with Trisara before I joined them and they had a big piece of land and asked me what could be done with it. Quentin [Fougeroux, Trisara's F&B director] and I turned it into a farm [called "PRU Jampa"] in Aug 2016. There were people who had already been acquainted with the land. I had nine months before PRU's launch so I had time to find sources of other ingredients like the local fishermen, the Royal Projects and a duck farm to create my network of suppliers. It's a way for us to give back to the local businesses and showcase beautiful Thai produce and seafood, instead of importing everything. During that time, I also came up with the menu. I wasn't too knowledgeable with the local ingredients at first. But then I tried a few local specials like water lily and bamboo shoots, I got acquainted with the flavors.
The farm is constantly being improved so hopefully we reach our goal of 75% ingredient usage. Right now it's 30-35% because construction is underway in some parts of the farm. We have lakes with catfish, plenty of vegetables, and beyond the farm we have what we call our jungle where we forage for wild herbs, flowers and roots.
How do you plan your menu? What's your inspiration behind it?
We try to change it every three to four months. We kind of build cycles on the farm in different plots and each plot grows ingredients for one menu cycle. We plan in advance so we can have the produce ready by the time we introduce the new menu. Our specialty is using really simple and few ingredients and turning them into something complex. For example, we cook our carrot in its own soil and roast it so it gets a really deep smoky flavour. Even our duck. It's just a simple duck, but we dry-age it for five days so all the flavours become intensified.
What do you think of the Michelin Guide expanding to Phuket and Phang-Nga?
I think Michelin is the biggest compliment you can get for your cuisine. Hopefully, it will bring more business and that's what everyone's looking for, not to mention the prestige to Phuket's food scene. I think Phuket is ready. There's some good local food, but I'm not sure if they're, for example, on the same level as Jay Fai. Even if we start with three Michelin starred restaurants, it's a good start and we'd be very lucky.
What's the difference between working in Bangkok and Phuket?
Bangkok's more of a foodie city -- every corner you turn there's a great restaurant. But in Phuket it's more of a tourist city and people come here for the beaches. If you open a fine-dining restaurant like PRU, it's hard to fill it everyday because there's not as many people. But I'd say we've seen a recent shift in attitude especially with the Michelin guide coming to Phuket and more locals are coming to dine in our restaurant, not just tourists.
What are your plans for the future?
Personally I want the farm to supply the restaurant with 100% of the ingredients and I'd actually move the restaurant into the farm. Then it will be complete. Diners can see where their food comes from and they'll really appreciate the farm-to-table concept. It's just how I'd run my dream restaurant.
Any words of advice for those who aspire to become a chef?
Being a chef is one of the best jobs in the world because if you like being creative and working hard then it's for you. Sure there's some pressure, but that's good because it adds adrenaline and fuels your creativity.