Mark Jones – executive chef in Thailand
Mark Jones is a successful executive chef in Thailand. You want to know more about paradise? Read here.
For almost 5 years you work as Executive chef in different great places in Thailand. Where did all start for you/ why did you become a chef?
Actually I have been working in Thailand longer than that, I arrived in march 2013 as chef de cuisine of the fine dining restaurant at Soneva Kiri resort in Koh Kood, and since then I was chef de cuisine at the Plaza Athenee’ s award winning fine dining restaurant the reflexions which lead me into my current position of executive chef here at the Nai Harn Phuket.
Where did it all start?
Hmmmm good question I have been surrounded by the best produce all my life whether that have been home grown at my parents house or my grandparents house where in particular was a vast array of seasonal fruits, berries, vegetables and even livestock such as geese, chickens, ducks and rabbits, my childhood has many fond food memories full of freshly baked cakes, breads, homemade jams and pickles, everything every night for every meal was homemade, and my mum being a chef had a massive influence on me without even realising until about 7 or 8 years ago,, I kind of discovered you could say that all the food and ingredients I was surrounded me has inspired me to be the chef I am today.
I left school at 16 and studied culinary college on a full time and then later part time basis which lead me into my first kitchen after completing a month long work experience program at the Feathers Hotel in Ludlow Shropshire also known as the gastronomic capital of England as it had more Michelin stars per population than London did back then, and that really is no surprise as in my opinion Shropshire has some of the finest produce I have ever worked with, this lead me onto other great properties and some shall we say not so good, but all a great learning curve.
In 2001 I landed a job with my biggest influential chef In my career Wayne Smith at Overton Grange Ludlow 1 Michelin and 3 AA rosettes, he really influenced my cooking style and developed my palette and to this day I hold him responsible for the chef I am today, I worked with Wayne for approximately 4 years at Overton and then later at Stapleford Park, Leicestershire and then moved back to Ludlow to run The Bell Inn Yarpole for 2 Michelin starred Claude Bosi where it gave me my first taste of running a kitchen, it was quite a challenge, and quite daunting especially as it was Owned by Claude, but after time when I realised I was just worrying to much I really feel the food came by itself and I really loved that and started developing my own style.
After this I moved to Wales and then Asia to Thailand, this was a whole new universe to me, I Had never been out of Europe, it was probably the best thing I could of done at the time, I was 32 and wanted to see the world, explore ingredients, flavours and tastes, it blew my mind, I loved this new discovery of ingredient and inspired me to think of my dishes in a different light, I think Thailand has inspired my dishes to be lighter, with more focus on key or natural flavours more than ever.
Which cooking school did you visit in the UK?
Radbrook college of arts and technology, Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
What was your greatest learning out of this time for you?
I’d say my greatest learning time was with Wayne at both Overton and Stapleford park these two properties have been my biggest influence in my cooking style.
You worked as Executive Head Chef in Wales and Ludlow Shropshire, UK. As a UK chef, how would you define the UK kitchen today best?
I think all the best restaurants in the Uk are ones that work seasonally, only using the best local produce available and changing the menus with the seasons only using produce when it is at its best.
There seems to be a lot more care of chefs in the uk now with much better pay and better working conditions.
In 2013 you left the UK, to work as Chef De Cuisine at Soneva Kiri, a 5 star luxury Boutique resort in Thailand. How was your first abroad experiences as chef in Asia?
I came from the Uk, it is a very tough and competitive working environment to work in, coming to Thailand I really had to slow myself down, learn to take the time with the team, learn Patience, something I found hard at the time, the first thing I honestly learnt was to slow down, the staff were awesome, they just worked at different speed to the chefs in the UK.
I won’t say it was an easy time at the start, you have a lot to learn about people and culture, and if I am honest I came in blind, but I was guided very well my very good friend and chef Kevin Fawkes, he guided me a lot through and gave me a huge insight into 5 star hotels, I have a lot to say thanks to him for ! and showed me a lot about customer focus, hotel chefs are more than just day to day kitchen operations, you have to build relationships with your guests, enlightening their stay
Later you moved to Bangkok, where you worked as Chef de cuisine at the award winning Reflexions restaurant, where you served modern European cuisine. Did you combined the modern European cuisine with some Asian influences?
Bangkok! What a destination, I loved every minute of it, The Plaza Athenee was unlike any property I have ever worked in Thibault Chiumenti (my first exec chef) guided me a lot more with customer focus, the Plaza Athenee is a beast of Hotel and scared me a bit at the start and is by far to this day the biggest property I have ever worked in, I wasn’t just Chef de cuisine of the reflexions, I supported all areas of the hotel, from western sets, to coffee breaks, developing menus for all areas of the Hotel, photo shooting, the list goes on, it was when Thibault left I grew even further , as I was standing interim exec chef if you like until Chef Gael Lardiere joined, I only worked with him for 8 or so months as I had been offered the Job at the Nai Harn. We had a lot of fun together creating new dishes together. Thibault was a very exciting chef to work with and very modern in his approach.
But as far as Asian influences in my food not really, maybe more coriander and I am particularly fond of pomelo, but although I describe my food as modern, I still like classic flavours with little room for fusion.
As Executive Chef at the Nai Harn in Thailand today; what is your culinary set up there?
Here at the Nai Harn we have 5 outlets, Cosmo our all day dining. Rock salt our Mediterranean focus sea front restaurant, reflections our roof top outlet, Hansha our Japanese sushi, sashimi bar restaurant and then recently we opened my latest edition and my baby if you like Prime, modern European cuisine all cooked around wood, smoke and fire, we have had a lot of fun with this restaurant, from totally customising the kitchen, and even designing the BBQ specifically to my own spec, I love it and I am pleased to say the feedback from the guests has been amazing.
The Thai kitchen it fresh, with lots of spices…. just fantastic. How does the Thai cooking influence you as a chef?
Yes massively but not so much in my food, occasionally in some dishes, but I will say one thing it was very enlightening seeing all the produce that I had never seen before, it revitalised me, energised me and made me excited about food even more, even some simple ingredients like pineapple and watermelon blew my mind when I tasted them for the first time, the difference was incredible when compared with pineapple and watermelon I had had in the UK.
Thai/ British fusion; would it work out?
For me if you cooked some nice pasture raised rib eye and served it with some nam Jim Jeaw (a Thai dipping sauce for meat) I’d say yes you’re on the money, but I get put off with Fusion food, having visited numerous restaurants serving fusion and I would say there was confusion, I think some Thai Ingredients can enhance dishes but fusion is not for me British and Thai food for me are at the opposite ends of the taste scale.
What are some of the less known spices and ingredients you use?
Since being in Asia I have not only discovered Thai ingredients, one of my favourites at the moment is sumac it really is an incredible spice it adds lots of citrus and freshness to dishes.
Do you have any special cooking technique?
I would describe my cooking technique as quite classical with a fair amount of modern approach, combining elements of sous vide as required.
One particular technique I am fond of is using sous vide to cook a Cote de Boeuf, I cook it at 52 degrees Celsius for 3 hours then finish over the wood fired Santa Maria style BBQ at Prime the results and feedback alike has been spectacular the soft meat is cooked medium rare with the spectacular charring from the 500 Celsius heat of the wood furnace with the smokiness from the wood , I have to say cooking over wood brings a whole new dimension to food and dishes alike.
What is your favourite Thai street food?
I am quite partial to deep fried marinated pork, the sticky and saltiness of the pork is incredible, paired with some cucumber Somtam perfect ! but not very good for the waistline.
There are lots of foreign restaurants in Bangkok and all over Asia. Why there are so less British fine dining restaurants in Asia?
I think British food is misunderstood, people only think of fish and chips or roast beef this is not fine dining in the sense………. More classical food, i think the main thing that people forget is Britain is a country influenced by many countries, so British cuisine reflects many different types of culinary tastes, if you asked me to describe fine dining cuisine in Britain I would say this, it is food cooked to best degree, using seasonality, classic and modern technique using influence of neighbouring European countries, is it modern British ? yes I think so, I don’t think British chefs have too much to worry about, I see the British food scene underrated by people who have never eaten there, and for me some the finest, if not the finest food I have eaten in my life, the food scene as far as Michelin is concerned in the UK I think is some of the finest in the world, and I regularly have conversations with my guests and I tell them go there and see for yourself you will not be disappointed ! chefs like Jason Atherton, Tom Aikens, have made a massive influence as far as British food is concerned in Asia.
Lots of foreign chefs would like to work as well in Thailand. Do you have any recommendation for them?
- Come with Patience
- Come with an open mind
- Come to learn
- Be the best you can be there are probably 100+ chefs waiting behind you for your job
- The expatriate job scene here in Thailand is incredibly competitive
- Network, network, network
- Be first hand with your supply chain, don’t leave it to your purchasing managers
- Cook your ass off and inspire your team and lead by example and from the front
- Nurture your team, they will love you for it
- Be firm but fair
- Never give someone a bollocking in public, always take them to one side and talk to them in calm and polite manner
Is there any place in the world you would like to work in the future?
Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore I have never of a closed mind to work anywhere in the world, every day is full of an opportunity and it should be one we grasp with both hands.
Thank you so much Mark.
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