Locavore, on Ubud’s Jalan Dewi Sita, shot to number one on Trip Advisor shortly after opening its doors in 2013, and it’s barely budged from the top spot since; last year it garnered a Travelers’ Choice award as well. The brainchild of chefs Eelke Plasmeijer and Ray Adriansyah, Locavore services refined, modern European cuisine using only the best local ingredients – chemical-free fruits and vegetables, and ethically produced meats. Catriona Mitchell interrupted Eelke’s busy work schedule to chat about the staggering success of the restaurant, the ongoing inspiration for its ever-changing menu, their latest endeavour in the form of a new restaurant called Locavore To Go, and Eelke’s upcoming food demonstration at Ubud Food Festival.
Eelke, last time we chatted, it was the day before Locavore’s doors opened to the public for the first time. Your coffee machine hadn’t arrived yet; the carpenters were still here; you and Ray were feeling excited and terrified in equal measure. Fast forward a year and half, and Locavore is nothing short of a phenomenon. It can take weeks just to get a table. What has that journey been like for you?
I never expected that this would happen, that we would be this busy. At that time we last met, I was having nightmares. We all had good jobs; we were at Alila and could have stayed there, but this was our little dream. I had nightmares about restaurants, and throwing away food. It’s a cliché but it was on my mind all the time. But since month two, it’s been super good. Now dinner books out weeks in advance, and that’s scary but also very good of course.
The best thing about it is we don’t have any financial pressure, so we know at the end of the month we can pay the guys and the girls, we can pay our suppliers and still have a bit of money in the bank. It’s more than I ever dreamed of.
It struck me back then that you and Ray were like an excellently matched married couple: you operate seamlessly together, with a singular vision.
Ray should get all the credit really; he’s the one doing all the hard work. He’s much more ‘locavore’ than I am. He’s the Indonesian guy, he is the one selling his own country with the food he’s cooking.
It helps that we are the right personalities to do this – I mean, we’ve never had a fight in seven years, even with opening two businesses in between. We can even hang out on a Sunday. But it’s really him and not me. He makes it all possible, and he bears with me.
You’re relentlessly busy. The only complaints I’ve ever heard about Locavore are that it’s near-impossible to get a table.
Of course it’s nice to have a busy restaurant. Yes you have to work harder, you have the stress of getting everything ready, but it’s a good stress, a stress you want to have.
What does that do to your creativity? Can you be more experimental, if financial pressures aren’t bearing down on you?
I used to be in hotels, and the thing that ruled your kitchen was your food cost. It’s a stupid thing to say, but I don’t even know my food cost right now. It’s just not relevant. It’s really about having a good time with the boys, and they are the stars actually. Those boys – they work and they work and they work. I push them to buy new things, to try new things.
You’re constantly changing the menu, presenting new dishes every week. That sounds like a tremendous challenge…
Yes. We like to change the menu every Monday, at least 2-3 dishes, so we’re pushing ourselves. It’s not smart or necessary but it’s how we like to do it.
That’s also a seasonal thing, right? Given that you’re only using locally-sourced ingredients?
Yes. And now what happens is, suppliers come to us with new things, knowing that we are interested. Really those ingredients are what drive our menu. We get a new ingredient and we ask, “What can we do with it?” We do weird things: we’ve had octopus, we’ve had sea urchins, you name it, we did it.
What about at your new place, Locavore To Go? What are you serving there?
This is the food that I like to have on my day off – sandwiches, burgers, nothing complicated but all homemade. From the tomato ketchup to the bread to the burgers, it’s all made in house.
I’ve no idea how you find the time or energy to be constantly coming up with new Locavore menus, let alone opening up a new eatery. Where did the idea come from for Locavore To Go?
We wanted to do that since day one actually, because we knew that if this took off, this kitchen [at Locavore] would be too small. So we said “Ok, we need a second kitchen, so why don’t we do a second restaurant?”
For me the coolest thing about it is that our sous-chef is running it. He’s been with us for six or seven years; he’s been seriously ill over the last year, he had cancer but he recovered, and he’s doing it. It’s so special that he’s there. From day one we knew he was smart and switched on, and funny. He has the toughest life of anyone I know –everything has happened to him over the last few years – and he’s still super positive. That only makes me respect him more.
And we’ve got a great guy doing front of house. That was my idea for those boys: that they should run it. Not that I want to have a lazy life, but this way you feel you did something. Cooking, I can do that in Holland and it’s much more convenient; everybody is trained, everybody is skilled, and ingredients are much more easily available. But here it’s more than only running a restaurant. Here, you have the feeling that you’re doing something more.
Do you mean there’s more of a community focus?
Yes, I think so. We don’t like to have much of a hierarchy here. We have a staff meal together sitting in the restaurant at the big table. We cook ourselves, we open a bottle of wine… That’s very unusual here, but I think it’s how it should be done.
That sounds almost as if you’re fostering a family atmosphere.
When I was a boy and started working in restaurants at 14 or 15, one of the reasons I loved this industry is that afterwards you sit and have a drink and chat… that’s what makes this industry very special, very personal.
How does the success of the restaurant intersect with your own family life?
I see these kids more than I see my wife and my own kid! But they also come here and join the staff meal. You have to push your family life. For me that’s the greatest challenge. They maybe feel like the guests are more important than them, and I understand that. That’s the hardest part: everything is about this. On my day off, when my son is sleeping I’m reading cooking books… that’s how it is. Hopefully one day we can work five days instead of six! That’s the only way I can keep it healthy.
You’re scheduled to give a cooking demonstration at the inaugural Ubud Food Festival, which is coming up very soon. What are your plans for the demonstration?
Actually it’s quite a nice idea: it’s local langouste – like a lobster but it doesn’t have the claws. First we take it out of the shell, then we poach it in 100% cacao butter and vanilla and seaweed. So it’s super tender, super juicy. There is a lot of technique involved, and beautiful local ingredients. The seaweed is from Lombok, the langouste is from Bali, the vanilla is from here, the tangerine reduction is from here, the cauliflower grows up in the mountains, the tarragon leaves and flowers we put with it are from our own garden. So it has a very strong story.
That sounds like an incredible combination of flavours. What inspired it?
The cacao butter has been sitting upstairs and we didn’t know what to do with it. Then we decided chocolate and cauliflower and lobster works…
When you first heard about the Ubud Food Festival, what was your response to the idea?
I don’t understand why there isn’t such a thing already in Bali. I think it’s a very logical thing to do. There are so many restaurants opening here, and interesting restaurants. Especially down south, but Ubud is also picking up. The chefs here are putting Ubud and Bali on the culinary map. I think it’s a brilliant thing to do.
Locavore is located at Jalan Dewi Sita no 10. Tel: +62 361 977733
Locavore To Go is also located on Jalan Dewi Sita, near the Jalan Hanoman corner. It serves breakfast and lunch.
For more information on Eelke’s food demonstration at Ubud Food Festival, see here.
For general information about the inaugural Ubud Food Festival, taking place between June 5-7, see here.
For Catriona Mitchell’s original interview with Eelke and Ray, published on Ubud Now & Then the day before Locavore opened its doors, see here.
Photo of Eelke PLasmeijer and Ray Adriansyah is courtesy of Ubud Food Festival.