14 hours work days, know-it-all customers, choppy produce supply – it’s a lot of trouble to take on for one man. And yet one man does and with a smile on his face. For Jonathan Bruell, Executive Chef at The Boathouse Phuket, his love of cooking and love for Phuket make it all worth it.
How long have you been able to call Phuket home?
I’ve been in Phuket for about five years now, but I’ve been visiting Thailand for over 35 years. I’ve worked all over the world but decided to make my base here. A lot of people have many negative things to say about Phuket, but I always see the positives and never the negatives. Phuket’s grown, but at its core, it hasn’t changed. You can find anything you need here, Thailand has a great culture…every place has its advantages and disadvantages, but I think people who’ve been here long enough, will stay here for good.
Is Phuket the place where you’ve lived the longest?
No, I was living in Australia for 18 years, was married, which didn’t work out, I have 2 children…it’s also, the nature of the business – hospitality is not the easiest thing because of the hours you work, but now I’m trying to strike a life-work balance. It’s not easy, there are only 24 hours in a day and when you spend 14 of those at work, you’re only left with 10 and you also have to get some sleep…. So, for example, today I forced myself to get up at 6 am and started the day with a 5km walk on the beach.
Is it your daily routine – get up early, beach, work?
I always get up early, I feel that if I organize my day early, it all starts to flow better, while when I start halfway through, the day tends not to go so well. I normally get up at 6 am, go for a walk on Nai Harn beach, get back home at around half past seven, take a shower, change and get to work around eight. There I take care to prepare breakfast, lunch, have a staff meeting and then most days I work till nine in the evening. If it’s a bit busier, I’ll stay till later, if it’s a bit quiet, I’ll leave earlier, but normally it’s a 12-hour workday, and that’s five days a week.
And you’ve been doing this for 35 years, what about this job gets you out of your bed in the morning?
Here’s a little bit of trivia for you – I’m the oldest person working at the Boathouse. And I know cooking is a young man’s game, but I carry on and stay committed. I just enjoy cooking and I enjoy training and bringing people in. I’m an open chef, meaning that I believe in building a team, having proteges. For example, some of my proteges from Australia now have chef hats or equivalents of Michelin stars in Europe and have done really well for themselves. I take great pride in that, in trying to pass my knowledge on. In this day and age, I think the base knowledge of many chefs is decreasing, the training has changed, people aren’t taught the same basics, so I try to pass that on. Food goes into trends and cycles, but in my honest opinion, people always want simple, well-cooked food – all the fancy stuff, too many things on the plate, doesn’t really work.
And that’s what you serve up at the Boathouse?
Yes, and also – consistency. The trouble with most places is how difficult it is to get a consistent experience. Also – multimedia, social media, trip advisor, reality TV shows – it all affects hospitality. Now everybody is a critic, everybody is a judge, so everybody comes to the restaurant with their preconceived ideas. The whole industry, in that perspective, has gotten harder. Chefs have to get out of the kitchen, talk to the customers and look for feedback. Luckily, I don’t have a problem with interacting with the guests. In fact, if someone asks for something off the menu, if we can do it, we will do it, no problem.
Yet you mentioned the importance of classic education and sticking to the basics. How does that work in combination with guests’ requests, which can sometimes be quite unconventional?
Because of my diversity, as far as working in so many places, I can mix things up very well, but the thing is it all reverts to the basic training, you know how to make a good sauce, you know how to cook ingredients properly and then you have to work out which combinations work and which don’t. You know, a lot of food these days looks fantastic on Instagram but tastes like nothing.
And how does the fact that Phuket is a holiday destination, where one-time guests are more common than returning customers, affect the business here?
It’s a bit different at the Boathouse, with our Friday Wine Lunch and our Sunday Brunch we do try to get the guests to return. But yes, getting the locals to come is a challenge. The most important thing is to meet the guest’s expectations. And we do have people who try us once and then keep coming back. It’s not something you can force on someone, you just have to provide something that makes them come back for more.
Do you still learn new things as a chef?
You always learn as a chef, and I’m a guy who empowers my staff as well. So, if I show them something and they can show me a better way to do it, we can work on it together. You’re never too old to learn.
What was the last thing you’ve learned? A new technique, an ingredient you started using more often?
Let me think about that… I tell you what! Fresh, local rock lobster – it’s a great product, quite good value for the price and it’s very underused. There are a lot of things you can do with it, such as lobster cocktail, lobster tempura and many other things. So that’s one discovery. As for learning something, well, over the last year or so, I’ve learned that you cannot always cook what you want, you have to cook what the customer wants, and that is my new motto. Chefs always want to cook what they want, but it has to change to satisfy the clients. And it doesn’t kill the joy of cooking for me, because I still get to put my own spin on it.
What’s your advice for young chefs out there?
If you have a good ingredient, don’t mess with it, don’t overcomplicate things. You don’t have to overelaborate and change things. Less is more, you know what I mean?
Talking about the ingredients, what are the best local ingredients available in Phuket?
On the seafood front, the best local produce is squid and crab, prawns are up and down, the lobster is overrated – it’s warm water, though, not very tasty and overpriced. There are very good clams here, though again, they can have sand in them. In Phuket, you have to go out and look for things. Fish, for example, a lot of it is farmed and people come to Phuket with an illusion that it’s great fresh seafood all over, and it’s not always the case, so you have to pick through it. At the Boathouse, we carefully check all we get and sometimes send the substandard product back to suppliers. Also, there’s a lot of cheating going on everywhere – sometimes the top layer of prawns is good and the rest is much less so, sometimes they put more ice into seafood to make it weight more. You have to know their tricks.
On the food supply side, there is a lot of competition in Phuket. For example, there was a guy supplying prawns from Phang Nga and he tried to bring it here, to Phuket, at a good price, but he was cut out, they poisoned his farm and all. Other people were trying to bring eggs from Phang Nga and they got shut down because they were undercutting Phuket suppliers. You know, you just have to go across Sarasin bridge and things get cheaper, but they won’t let it in on the island.
That’s suppliers, and how about Phuket chefs? Are things amicable between them?
Well, it’s not like in some places where chefs meet regularly; here it’s not so common – I guess everyone is too busy. There is an association of Thai chefs but nothing for foreign chefs. A friend of mine and a local foodie, Ian Lancaster, organizes a chefs’ get-together on his boat twice a year, but even that is difficult to organize, people cancel, they don’t show up. It would be good to meet up and exchange ideas, but it’s not easy. The only chefs that seem to stick together are the Italians, but the rest, not so much.
And if chefs in Phuket were divided up by nationalities, which group would you belong too?
Well, I was born in Brazil, I have an Australian and English passport, but I really have no alliance. I’m using my Australian passports, but that’s just for convenience.
Do you remember the last meal that got you excited?
I do, it was in Bangkok, a Nordic-Thai dinner. I loved the flavor, the simplicity. I’m over all those degustation dinners, but this was a very well-balanced meal and for me, when I leave the table not too full but also not too empty, is a sign of a great meal. But again, as a chef, I like to eat simplye Maybe not McDonald’s, but still, not complicated. A bowl of steamed mussels or whatever.
You’ve worked in many countries around the world, does any place bring up particularly strong memories?
Every place has its challenges. For example, I was an executive chef on the river Nile in Egypt, where it was sometimes difficult to get the food on time, people would get sick because of the climate and heat, so as you can see, it’s not really very glamorous. Or for example working in Korea, 30 years ago, where no one spoke any English whatsoever. In Australia, I sometimes cooked for rock stars, like AC/DC and the like. And having Phil Collins wander into the kitchen and ask for green curry is a fun memory to have, but in the end, these are all very normal people who want to eat normal things.
Let’s leave work for a moment – what do you do in Phuket when you get some precious time off?
I think it’s important to associate yourself with the right people here in Phuket. And I do, I spend time on my friend’s boat, I play golf… there’s a lot of things to do here if you have the time. A lot of people are negative about Phuket, but I enjoy it. I make the best of it.
Lear more on boathouse-phuket.com