Chef Alessandro Frau on the food scene and Sardinian fare in Phuket
Food devotees who long to rove around Phuket, Thailand for the best beachfront eats, the seaside city lined along the Andaman Sea offers a repertoire of fine fare, spanning street-side eateries to upscale and fine-dining restaurants. One that stands out among the cluster of restaurants, however, is the star-studded Acqua Restaurant, an Italian food institution helmed by Chef Alessandro Frau, the face of Iron Chef Thailand back in 2013.
From Sardinia to his now-home Phuket, Chef Alessandro is a culinary advocate for the two city’s treasured seafood heritage. Since 2004, the multi-awarded chef has been carving out a niche for himself through innovative Sardinian cuisine.
Read all about Chef Alessandro’s insights in our exclusive interview with him below.
How would you define your style of cooking?
I would definitely describe my cooking as clean and technical with an emphasis on super premium ingredients. Clean as in I will not mix the main ingredients picked as highlights with so many others seasonings or heavy elements like butter or cream. What I like the most is keeping the key ingredient clean, light and healthy with the original flavor unblemished.
And what I mean by technical is I always update and study new cooking techniques like sous vide, oil-cooking and much more. It’s very important to evolve ourselves with new skills to improve the result of cooking. Although sometimes the customers will not see it, a simple dish like octopus salad requires a lot of different techniques to achieve the perfect result we aim for.
Choosing the right ingredients is also at the very base of cooking; I never stop because that’s when cooking becomes static and boring. A very important part is, as a chef, you should always be looking for the best ingredients and get in contact with the direct producers to understand their stories, their cultures and their products.
You won Iron Chef Thailand in 2013, what is the greatest takeaway from the competition?
The experience at Iron Chef Thailand was a great step to make our restaurant known in Thailand. Sometimes Phuket feels disconnected to other parts of the country, so for me to be on the national TV and win the competition was not only a great achievement but it was also nice to distribute publicity to let the nation know who we are and what we do.
As for self-progress, being in the Iron Chef TV show which was filled with challenges was a test for myself. I like to put my cooking knowledge and experience in the kitchen into practice and participating in the competition and winning it gave me more confidence as a chef.
Many fine-dining slash haute-cuisine chefs tend to go for Bangkok, why did you choose Phuket?
I came to Phuket for the first time for a holiday back in 2003 and I fell in love with it straight away. Then in 2004 I decided to come back for work experience. As mentioned before, I was the Executive Chef at the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket. I worked very hard but I was very happy and learned so much. And that was such an amazing experience. That’s when I started to learn about the city and getting to know the people here. So, the confidence to build the restaurant in Phuket just came to me rather naturally.
Also, that was back in 2008 and I did not know much about Bangkok at the time. Plus, Phuket is a serene island quite similar to Sardinia, my hometown. The nice beaches, gorgeous sea and the seaside lifestyle just makes me feel like home.
Can you tell us more about how Acqua and your career as a chef here came about?
After 4 years of working at the hotel, I decided to open Acqua, mainly because it had always been a dream of mine. I was missing cooking and creating, this is the reason why I opened Acqua, my first owned restaurant, a place where I could create my idea of dining combining my passion and all my working experiences around the world.
Are there any challenges to open a haute-cuisine Italian restaurant out there, regarding the ingredients and the service that’s different from typical restaurants found in Phuket?
Yes, it was a big challenge for me in the beginning to open a fine dining restaurant in Phuket. Most people were not ready for that type of dining. Everyone in this industry knows how difficult it is to run an evolutionary fine dining restaurant anywhere in the world if compared to a casual or comfort food restaurant concept. Costs are definitely different and the people who look for haute cuisine are very much less in numbers compared to the one that look more for the less pricey, casual restaurants.
For the first two years we were not certain if we could keep going but we never gave up. It’s a real blessing because now we are one of the most respected dining institutions in Phuket. Nowadays people know that if they like an non-ordinary evening/dinner with a special atmosphere and wide range of food made from special slash pristine ingredients, they will come to us.
How has the food scene in Phuket or the customers’ expectation changed over the years since Acqua opened?
Compared to Bangkok, the food scene here doesn’t change drastically. Since I’ve lived here, the food scene has been shifting slowly. Most Thai residents prefer to stay more in the main city and not so much of eating out at the seemingly touristy or fine-dining places, as they are not familiar with it yet. So there hasn’t been much of new cooking concepts you see here in Phuket.
In Bangkok, there’s a repertoire of high-end restaurants. So it is natural that the residents there are often exposed to new styles of cooking and eating, considering that they have more choices. So for the haute-cuisine restaurant scene, Phuket will take some time to reach that same level as Bangkok. At the moment, the percentage of Thai customers at our restaurants is about 15% whereas in Bangkok, most fine-dining places will have about 80% of Thai diners over. All in all, the high-end dining concept is not so ideal for Phuket now and that’s why most restaurateurs would go for Bangkok or other big cities in Asia where people are more down to give new dining concepts a try.
In your opinion, what is the heart of Sardinian cuisine?
Sardinia is a beautiful island! [laugh] Let me just get that out. So, Sardinian people are very proud of our island and I believe that because of this attitude, it makes Sardinia a wonderful place to be. We, Sardinian, are in love with our land, food, ingredients, traditions and culture. Undoubtedly, that makes Sardinian cuisine so formidable. Some ingredients like bottarga, sea urchin, Sardinian carasau bread and traditional homemade pasta like lorighitas, fregola, su filindeu are considered the real “gold” of Sardinia. And to keep alive all the cooking traditions, the people of Sardinia are very serious and respectful of the culinary culture and heritage. Now that is the “heart” of our island.
What is the familiarity found in the cuisines of Sardinia and Phuket?
Both cuisines have a strong influence from island cooking so seafood is definitely the strength of these two cuisines.
What would you like to see more of in the future for Sardinian cuisine?
As for now, Sardinian cuisine is based purely on the age-old tradition of cooking technique and basic cooking. It would be good to see chefs sustaining the ancient tradition but at the same time, developing the cuisine to its full potential and making the cuisine evolve with new cooking techniques, new ingredients and combination to offer something new slash groundbreaking in the Sardinian food scene.
Many chefs are scared to change and they choose to play safe, thinking that people will eat only what they know or are comfortable with. But I think there is also a big crowd of people out there waiting for something new, different and surprising. So evolution, that’s the route we should go for.
Thank you Alessandro.