When PRU won its Michelin Star, it wasn’t just a triumph of their kitchen team, but a quantum leap for the whole island’s food scene. What led to that game-changing moment? Where do we go from here? These are just some of the questions we ask chef Jimmy Ophorst, Phuket’s first Michelin-starred chef.
Maciek Klimowicz: How did you set out on your path to becoming a chef?
Jimmy Ophorst: When I was maybe 14, my neighbor had a small local restaurant. At that time, I had to do an internship as part of my school education, so I called him and asked if I could do something at his place, and he agreed. So, I cleaned plates, cleaned pork bones and so on. I was very shy when I was young, but I felt very comfortable when I stepped into a kitchen. So, I thought that this was something that I could build my future on; I felt cooking was something I could use my creativity for.
I started at the bottom of the food chain, which is a story you’ll hear from many chefs. I think most chefs don’t really know what they want to do, so they just give cooking a shot. And so did It. When I was 15, I went to a hotel school which lasted three years and, in the meantime, I started working in a local steakhouse - 200 covers every day, nothing fancy. Around the same time, I finished a culinary arts school led by a two Michelin star chef, it’s where I learned all the basic French cuisine. And then, when I was 18, I moved to another restaurant, which was Michelin star level, though it didn’t have a star. It was there that I changed my mindset and decided that I wanted to become a chef creating Michelin star-level food.
And how did you end up in Thailand?
I always dreamed of working abroad. So, when the owner of the restaurant that I was working at decided to open a project in Thailand, I went with him. That project didn’t work out for me, so we went our separate ways and then, four and a half years ago, I ended up as a chef at Trisara, and two years later, we decided to do something new and different in Phuket. That’s how PRU was born.
How did that come to be?
At first, I was cooking at another, more Mediterranean style restaurant at Trisara, while in the area where PRU is now, there was nothing. The team here thought we could put that space to good use and gave me and Q, who is now Group Director of Food and Beverage, an opportunity to come up with some ideas, and PRU is what we came up with. The idea was born in February 2016 and in December the same year, we opened the doors.
How much of that idea is you and how much of it is a team effort?
I don’t take all the credit, it’s definitely a team effort. But when it comes to the cuisine, it comes 100% from my heart. If it was my own restaurant, I would be serving the same food. The first thing we wanted PRU to be was a restaurant based on 100% locally-sourced ingredients; second, it was to create a different experience on the island, unlike anything anybody else makes here. It was our goal to make it an experience for the guests, where they can discover something new, something that they have never tried before. We try to create something very special from very simple ingredients and we make our guests think differently about those ingredients.
One of our goals, in the beginning, was to put Phuket on the culinary map of Thailand – before it was always Bangkok, Bangkok, Bangkok, and we wanted to make Phuket shine. And with the Michelin guide arriving here last year and us achieving the star, I think we really pushed the island’s culinary ambitions to another level. We are very proud to have achieved this, of course for ourselves, but also for the whole community here on the island. All of Phuket can be proud and happy that we achieved this.
PRU is very much connected with its farm, following the farm-to-table concept. It’s a theme that’s gaining speed around the globe, isn’t it?
When we were opening PRU, it was already popular in the States and in Europe, but not yet in Asia. But as time moves on, we expand on that contempt. Now it’s more than farm to table, it’s about supporting the whole community and being a part of it. People put the stamp of “farm-to-table” very easily on a restaurant these days, so we want to move forward and build a bigger community around PRU.
On the topic of all things local, what is the local produce everyone should try in Phuket?
I think one outstanding thing here is the sea grapes, it’s a kind of seaweed that only grows here. Another thing that we have just discovered, which also only grows here, is water asparagus; I have chefs in Bangkok begging me to send them some, because it’s impossible to find there. It’s this kind of ingredients that make PRU even more special.
PRU is the first and so far, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Phuket. Do you think the island deserves more?
It’s difficult to say because I haven’t dined at all the restaurants here, but I think more will come in the future. I think before we received our star, many restaurants weren’t ready yet, but since the Michelin Guide came here, there is a bit of a shift in some of the chefs’ attitude, you can see them pushing in new directions. And I think it’s important that they cook what they believe in.
What was the last thing that you’ve learned as a chef?
It’s a difficult question, but I think I learn every day. I learn about wine every day, I learn about tea, as we’ve just started serving tea from the North of Thailand. You know, if you’re a chef and you are only thinking like a chef, your restaurant might never grow; you have to think like a businessman too. And it’s this mindset that will make you learn more and more.
What advice do you have for someone considering a career in gastronomy?
I think if they are aiming for the highest level, they should go and work anywhere they can and learn anything they can. If they have an opportunity to work in a Michelin star restaurant anywhere in the world, they should. Learn the basics, learn all the techniques and once you have this, you can start creating your own identity - this is the most difficult part. These days you see many young chefs creating beautiful dishes and forgetting about the flavor, and the flavor should always come first. So, focus on the basics and only then take the next step.
When did you start establishing your own style?
I think only when we opened PRU, and even after the opening, my own identity wasn’t formed yet. But then, over the months and with each coming menu, my identity as a chef was becoming more pronounced. I think now 95% of our guests would be able to recognize my food. We created something very unusual – very European but with a local influence; it’s special.
Talking about your style - it could have been anything, for what it’s worth you could have been cooking steaks…so why this?
When I was cooking in the previous restaurant at Trisara, all the ingredients that we worked with were imported. And then we had some guests ask for local stuff, local seafood for example, but the problem was that the availability of good local ingredients was very limited. Once we decided to go 100% local, it took us nine months to make the first menu and find all the ingredients. In Thailand, everything is out there, but you just need to go out and find it. We went south, north, east and west, discovering the best products out there.
What is your typical day at work like?
I get up at 7:15 AM and before 8 AM I’m in my car. On some days I go to our prawn supplier and pick the prawns, some days I go to our supplier of vegetables from the North of Thailand, and on other days I go to the farm. Then, before 9 AM I arrive at the restaurant, deal with the paperwork and then I start prepping in the kitchen. Also, three times a week I go to an afternoon market to get some seafood, herbs, duck eggs and more – we have all our own suppliers there. Then in the afternoon, we prepare for the evening service and from 6 to 10 PM, it’s service time at PRU. I go home around midnight. Before the star, I could sometimes leave at 10 PM, but since we got the star on November 14, there were only two days when the restaurant wasn’t fully booked.
How about your day off?
I’m a very casual guy. I sleep, I spend time with my lovely wife, nothing fancy really. A visit to the beach, sometimes. I also watch football, I’m a fan of Feyenoord Rotterdam and I watch every match. Also, I’m going to have a son soon and I think my life will be a bit different from then on.
That’s a big next step for you, and what's the next step for PRU?
We are doing a bit of a renovation in the restaurant and in the kitchen, we will add four more seats so we will have 20 covers. And a more distant goal is to get two stars. I think the best way to maintain one star is to reach for the second one.
Do you know what it’s going to take?
We have an idea and as a chef, I have a very good idea of what I want PRU to become. And if you believe in your goals, you just need to follow what you believe in. It worked for us with the first star so I hope, one day, it will work with the second one. We just do what we love, what we feel is right.
Final question – imagine you’re on a death row and you need to choose your last meal. What do you order?
I think something from my mom. She used to be a professional runner and before a race, she would always cook chili con carne; I think it would be that one. But it’s hard to say, I always had great food when I was young, my mom cooked very well. So, it for sure would be something my mom used to cook.
The interview has been edited for clarity
Learn more at prurestaurant.com