There are many great restaurants in Phuket, but only few can stand the island’s toughest test – the test of time. When a restaurant stays open and prospers for years, while many others close their doors, it’s proof that it’s not only a great one, it’s one of Phuket’s favorites. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of Acqua Restaurant, we talk to the man behind its success – chef Alessandro Frau.
When did you open Acqua?
Alessandro Frau: I moved to Phuket in November 2004, just one month before the tsunami. Before opening Acqua, I worked at the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket as an Executive Sous Chef and after one year, at the age of 28, I was promoted to Executive Chef – in charge of 11 restaurants, 140 chefs, a big responsibility. Firs two-three years were great, I got creative and changed a lot of things on the menu, but later on, it was too much management, processing, controls. And I missed cooking, which is why I decided not to extend my contract and to make a change. And so, on February 7, 2009, I opened Acqua.
How long did the preparations take?
It took me about one year, as I designed this place from scratch. Every day of construction I was here, checking the progress and updating my vision. The concept was to open a modern contemporary Italian fine dining restaurant by the sea, which is why the restaurant has white interiors, large windows, lots of natural light and a beach house feel – I wanted something connected to the sea.
Just like the restaurant’s name – Acqua
The name was inspired by my life in Sardinia. I’ve been living by the sea all my life. Sardinia is an island, the sea is always nearby, so I’d go surfing, spearfishing, hanging out with friends on the beach – I have a very strong connection with the sea and I wanted it to be kept in the name. But also, the word Acqua has a positive ring to it, it’s pure, it’s fresh, it’s part of our concept and ambiance.
Except for the interiors, you also had to design the menu.
For the menu, I put all my experience together, all that I learned working in the kitchen, from London to Paris, to Mexico, and to Italy, of course. The idea was to keep the Italian roots, the authenticity, but make it contemporary. This concept has changed over time, into Italian Evolution, meaning that we cook Italian food, but with an evolution of ingredients, cooking techniques and presentation. We take authentic Italian dishes but cook them using all the tools available today that weren’t available 20 years ago; that way we create a New Italian Cuisine. Even in Italy today, chefs have access to new ingredients – farmers can make new and better products using new technology and knowledge, and thanks to this we can make more dishes. We also have new cooking techniques, for example, in the past, we cooked octopus in a pot of boiling water and we’d lose all the juices, the color, and the skin through this aggressive method. Now, we can sous vide the octopus and keep all the nutrients, the color, the looks and the flavor untouched. We can create better things.
We keep the roots of authentic Italian cuisine alive – most of the ingredients we use are imported from Europe and the textures and flavors in our dishes are the same as in Italy. I’m not going to use Thai seabass for an Italian dish because the flavor and the texture are different. Or sea urchin, we get the Italian one to keep the flavor of the original Italian spaghetti authentic, if we use Japanese sea urchin, it’s for something else, for some special dish.
Do you remember the opening day and the first weeks of running Acqua?
Oh yes, it was very tough because the kitchen team, even though we’d done a lot of training before, were a bit lost when it came to cooking for real customers. And I remember myself jumping from station to station, doing almost everything…it was crazy. I actually spoke to some of our first guests at our 10th-anniversary party and they told me that they came to Acqua in that first week. And as we were a bit overwhelmed with a large number of customers, they waited a really long time for their food, got annoyed and left. But luckily, sometime later, they decided to give Acqua another chance and since then, they have been coming here regularly, and we are their favorite restaurant in the world.
I guess Phuket was a different place then. How has the landscape around Acqua changed over the years?
It changed a lot! 10 years ago, it was very difficult to make this fine dining concept happen here, Phuket was probably not ready for it. We were doing something really higher end, something more expensive, with all ingredients imported from Europe. And then it was tough also because we didn’t exist online. Today, if you google for restaurants in Phuket, you find Acqua right away, but then there was nothing, no reviews, no interviews, zero. Nobody knew we existed, nobody knew where we were – and we are not in the center of Patong where people can just spot as and walk in. So, for the first two years, we didn’t know if we can survive, we were losing money. But we decided to keep going. I believed in the concept because I knew that it was exciting, that it was the kind of restaurant that I wanted to visit myself.
When did the awards start coming?
After around one year. I think the first recognition was from Tatler where we were selected as one of the best restaurants in Phuket, but the big one was getting featured in Miele Guide as one of the best restaurants in the whole of Asia. Then, in the second edition in 2013, we made it to Thailand’s top five, with the likes of Le Normandie, Nahm, and Eat Me. I was very proud of it. After that, there was HAPA Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards from an association based in Kuala Lumpur, who wanted to create something like the Oscars of hospitality. They send their inspectors and marked all elements of the experience – reservation, arrival, dining, service, etc. and we got nominations in eight categories…and won eight awards. On the scale of 1 to 100, we scored over 90 points in each category, achieving the platinum level. And these were people we didn’t know, coming from Malaysia, with no reason to do us any favors.
And finally – Michelin. You were recognized in the latest edition of the guide. Is it something that’s important to you? Do you aim for a star and know how to get it?
Yes, we got a Michelin plate and, of course, it’s important. I think every chef aims for a Michelin star. And we know what to do to get it, or at least we think we know – because nobody knows 100%, we are familiar with the guidelines and we are working on improving ourselves. But it’s not easy, also because we are quite a big restaurant, we do many covers, we run a big menu plus we have two degustation menus… if I had a smaller restaurant with a degustation menu only, it might have been easier, but we’ve been here for 10 years thanks to our strategy of having a menu where everyone can find something for themselves – whether it’s a family with kids or an expert foodie. That’s why we are successful while many other restaurants had to close.
What can we expect from Acqua in the next year, or 10?
We have a renovation ongoing, walls are going to come down, there will be even more open space. The outside section will also be renovated. And then we are working on a new menu, with new dishes based on all the new ingredients and cooking techniques available right now.
So, how does it feel? 10 Years…did you expect to be here so long?
I never thought about it. 10 years is a long time, but when you’re focused on your work, they just fly by. I remember how exciting the first weeks were. At that time, when I got home after work, I just wanted to quickly go to sleep to be able to come back to the restaurant as soon as possible. And today, I’m still very passionate about Acqua. Sometimes, I come here in the morning, when nobody is here, look around and try to find things to improve, ways to make it even better.
Learn more on acquarestaurantphuket.com