OUR eyes lock. His head bobs in a cursory acknowledgement of my presence as I trail slowly behind St Regis Langkawi’s chatty director of communications, Melissa Mohan, who suffice to say, is oblivious to the discreet exchange. Because unlike SOME people, she’s focused on giving a detailed lowdown on this fabulous restaurant that I’m about to dine in.
Meanwhile, I’m swooning. Silently.
From behind a shiny dark work counter set along one side of a dimly-lit open kitchen, the bespectacled young man continues with his task, his brows furrowing behind his glasses as he scoops a spoonful of gravy from a silver pan and gingerly drizzles it over some delicate cuts of meat. A modest name tag is pinned onto his uniform — B-E-N-O, the name spells.
“Hey Chef! We’ll see you later ya?” says Melissa, throwing him a flirty little wave as we pass by before proceeding with our tour of Kayu Puti, St Regis’ specialty restaurant and crown jewel. And just like a vision (or is that apparition?), he’s gone.
According to Melissa, Chef Beno is one of the three “kings of the kitchen”, a team brought to St Regis Langkawi a year after the resort’s opening in 2016 to redefine the dining experience here. Led by executive chef Gaetan Biesuz, together with executive pastry chef Robby Motota, the guys pool their respective talents to create culinary magic in a variety of exquisite settings.
But Chef Beno Wicaksana, as I soon discover, isn’t the only thing that’ll take your breath away when you step into this elegant fine dining restaurant with its tasteful accents of white and neutral hues and perched majestically over the glimmering waters of the Andaman Sea.
Conceived by Bangkok-based, Harvard-educated architect Bill Bensley, also known as the king of exotic luxury resorts, as a vintage beach house, Kayu Puti (or white wood in Indonesian), with its pristine whitewashed interior and breathtaking panorama of the Andaman Sea, will make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into the luxurious lair of an avid collector’s private beach sanctuary.
There are plenty of exquisite knick-knacks and specially curated collection of antiques placed around the restaurant, in discreet nooks, above you, and certainly plenty of whimsy. The giant, wooden fish that greets you as you enter the century-old wooden doors from the grand Dutch embassy in Yangon, is one example, as too the eclectic collection of furniture. The theatrical feather-crowned chairs dominating a private and cosy “peacock lounge” offers a humorous juxtaposition against the generally classical ambiance of the main dining area.
By day, the restaurant, which incorporates both indoor and outdoor dining, is bathed in a magical glow when the sun’s rays stream in through the many French windows. But when the canvas is dark, as it is now during my visit for dinner, a different kind of magic permeates.
Looking out into the inky darkness from where I stand on the deck, I can only hear the sounds of waves gently lapping against the shore. The only thing to pierce the blanket of darkness is the intermittent winking of light from a distant boat gliding silently into the night.
ENTER THE KITCHEN KING
The tour over, Melissa leads me to a table with a commanding view of the ocean vista. The windows are wide open and there’s a gentle breeze drifting in, offering respite from the sticky ocean air. The sense of anticipation for what’s to come is palpable as Melissa’s words play in my ears: “The maestros have created an exquisite and refined menu where east meets west over the sea. Kayu Puti is the epicentre where select ingredients are transformed into gastronomic masterpieces.”
As we wait for the “vision in white” to arrive with his culinary offerings, Melissa offers me some backgrounder on their new chef de cuisine, who’s only been with the resort for the last six months. That said, the 29-year-old who hails from Bandung has had ample experience working in some of Indonesia’s top five star hotel and resort kitchens.
“He loves using fresh ingredients, which are sourced from local suppliers. His favourite dish to prepare here is the regional classic, Asam Pedas Black Cod,” shares Melissa.
“Hello ladies!” Suddenly a voice with a discernable Indonesian lilt cuts into Melissa’s enthusiastic account. It’s Beno. His face breaks into a wide smile when he notes my enthusiastic patting of the seat next to me for him to sit on.
So what’s your story chef, I ask, just like one would a future betrothed! The hotel management graduate chuckles before replying: “I’ve been in the profession for the last 11 years. Most of my working life has been in Bali where I was for nine years.”
He was 21 when he first started working in a hotel kitchen and St Regis Langkawi is his first, as he puts it, “cross-country” stint. Says Beno: “As chef de cuisine, I’m given the concept by the executive chef and then I have to go and create the dishes.”
Upon his arrival, Beno was informed that the concept here would be “east meets west, refined on the sea”. He had to relook at the existing a la carte menu and tweak it so that it would be more appropriate to Kayu Puti’s fine dining concept.
Recalls Beno: “Things were a little rough around the edges with the earlier menu so I helped to adjust a few things, like re-looking at the way we plated and presented the dishes to the way we prepared and cooked things. The standard had to be raised.”
Chips in Melissa: “For example, there’s a Wagyu dish that’s been tweaked a lot. In the old menu, it was basically served as a big slab with a side sauce in a curved plate, which made it hard to slice. Today, the meat is cut daintily into satay-style pieces and glazed with sweet soya sauce. The meat really does melt in the mouth and it’s a big favourite with guests.”
Pursing her lips, Melissa recalls another example: “The earlier version of Asam Pedas Fish dish was too sour and there was no kick. Chef Beno managed to balance the flavour and now you can really taste the flavours of sweet and sour. The presentation is also better.”
In a nutshell, when the three Kings of the Kitchen were appointed, they were given a basic brief: To enhance what was already there on the menu. “They’ve managed to work wonders at refining the existing menu. That’s the first phase. Now the chefs are moving into Phase 2 — creating something that they can truly call their own.”
Chef Beno admits that he’s excited to be part of the team at St Regis. The more languid island life, confides the bachelor, doesn’t faze him in the least having lived in Batam (a small island in Indonesia) for many years. “When I’m free, I watch movies or sleep all day!” he exclaims, before adding that working long hours doesn’t leave him with time for much else.
Recalling his early years, Beno, who has two sisters and whose father worked in the hotel industry in the Maldives, confides that his passion for cooking stems from all those times he used to spend in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. “They’re my heroes and they inspired me to be a chef. They taught me the importance of discipline and being honest in your cooking. Whenever it was Hari Raya, I’d be in the kitchen with grandmother making Raya cakes and cookies. I was 10 years old when I made my first batch of Raya cakes.”
Where does he derive his inspirations from? I ask, as my eyes widen at the arrival of dishes after dishes prepared by Beno and his team for my dining pleasure. Tearing my excited gaze away from the delightful feast that’s suddenly materialised on the table, I try to direct my focus on the beaming chef.
Says Beno, whose ultimate dream is to be the best chef in Asia: “I’m inspired by local ingredients and the local scene. I could be walking around and checking out street food and from there, I’d create something, albeit more refined, either in terms of the ingredients or the technique of cooking.”
A GASTRONOMIC JOURNEY
Small chat completed, I excitedly ask Beno to talk me through some of the dishes that I’m about to savour. A magnificent tree made of seaweed piques my interest. It’s an impressive piece of visual theatrics.
“That’s actually Chef’s Gaetan’s creation,” begins Beno, before adding that the tree is indeed fried seaweed in tempura batter. “Swimming” around it are dainty servings of deep fried oyster, Andaman tiger prawns, Italian beef rolls and more. There are also spring rolls filled with crab meat.
The grouper served with sambal is lovely, I tell him. He nods happily before sharing that a local fisherman supplies their fish on a weekly basis.
The generous serving of paella occupying pride of place in the centre of the table and literally swimming with all manner of seafood — from squid to mussels and prawns — is a captivating sight. With Beno’s forte being Mediterranean cuisine, it’s little surprise that he’s woven his magic on this. It’s truly rich and flavourful.
Another creation that’ll take your breath away is the Atlantic Cod in Asam Pedas broth. Visually pleasing, there’s a lovely crunch to the outer skin, complementing beautifully the fresh and fleshy meat.
And my last question before I shoo the chef away to savour the rest of his delightful creations in peace?
“Can I take you home?”