Young, ambitious and adventurous… Jim Ophorst (or “Jimmy”, as most Asian people like to say) is a name to remember, as we expect this talented chef to achieve great things in the future. He has made the Thai island of Phuket a must visit stopover for foodies, establishing a truly unique dining concept, that just got awarded its first Michelin star. Chef Jim Ophorst is also one of the selected chefs for the 2019 The Best Chef Awards, so we paid him a visit to discover his cuisine and philosophy.
A piece of heaven on earth
PRU restaurant is situated in the most beautiful place in Phuket: Trisara Resort at the Andaman coast. The location seems to be a piece of heaven, boasting understated, yet refined luxury and top-notch service. All villas in the resort have private pools and sea view, as well as an unseen level of interior design with an exceptional eye for detail.
At the heart of the resort you’ll find PRU restaurant. The elegant, yet atmospheric design of the dining home immediately gets you in the right mood. Simple, stylish designs combining the local identity and international class, natural materials and beautiful atmospheric lightning set the tone.
PRU: plant, raise & understand
PRU takes its concept from Phuket’s indigenous lore: a place where the wild forest meets the sea. At this confluence of land and water, the earth is verdant and nourishing, enlivening the local cuisine and stirring epicurean ambitions with newfound creativity. Inspired by Phuket’s legacy as a culinary crossroad and the island’s unique terroir, PRU at Trisara is pursuing their own culinary ambition – to elevate farm-to-table cooking to a new level. They use nature’s gifts from their own farm and do their part to give back, ensuring that life’s cycle continues to blossom and ripen.
The name PRU is also a contraction of Plant, Raise and Understand: the three cornerstones of their philosophy. To quote chef Jim Ophorst: “If I was to break it down it would be: we plant our own seeds to grow our own vegetables; raise our own poultry and use only local produce that we serve at the table. By doing this, we complete the whole circle of understanding in agriculture and cuisine, which in turn supports the local island community.”
Quintessential for PRU is their own farm “Pru Jampa”, which is situated in Northeastern Phuket. The project was founded back in 2015, when Trisara’s chefs and gardeners converted approximately 16,000 square meters of open space into a culinary garden, cultivating vegetables, herbs and flowers for use in their own kitchen, so they could stay true to their farm-to-table vision. Farming at Pru Jampa happens organic and sustainable, using both traditional practices and modern techniques. Here’s a nice example that showcases their dedication to put their ideas into day-to-day practices: kitchen scraps make it back to the farm, where they are turned into nutrient-rich compost, and they use red worms to keep their compost robust and their garden beds aerated and healthy. At the farm you’ll find besides vegetables, also free-range chickens and goats for milking. However, most of Pru Jampa’s farmstead remains wild, ideal for foraging and exploring.
International dishes, sourced locally
What’s truly exciting at PRU restaurant is the fact that they present a rather international fine dining cuisine, made from 100% Thai and often not so well-known ingredients. One would rather expect Thai food, but chef Jim Ophorst has managed to create something unique. We must admit we were extremely curious to discover the taste of the dishes, as it’s pretty courageous and not easy to think out-of-the-box, combining flavours that are typical for the local produce in a preparation and presentation that feels rather Western.
The dishes at PRU tell a story, drawing out subtle and bold flavours from the herbs, flowers, plants and roots that grow wild in the garden, producing dishes that are both poetic and honest. So they like to summarize it as a culinary style that is founded on Western tradition and influenced by the exotic, regional produce of Thailand.
Meet Chef Jimmy Ophorst
Dutch chef Jimmy Ophorst arrived in Phuket six years ago with a team of international chefs working on a consulting project with the Trisara Hotel and has never looked back since. Now chef of Phuket’s first-ever Michelin Star restaurant and nominated for The Best Chef Awards 2019, Chef Jimmy is now officially recognised as a leading voice for Thailand’s farm-to-table movement. We’re eager to learn more about Jim’s philosophy, inspiration and ambitions, so we meet him before the service at PRU restaurant for a relaxed chat.
Hungry for More & The Best Chef Awards (Chef’s Secret): How did it all start in your career? Where did you work before, and how did you end up in Thailand?
Jim Ophorst: About six years ago I was working in a restaurant in The Netherlands. The owner decided to move to Thailand for a culinary project and I joined him for the trip. Together with three chefs we developed another F&B-concept here in Thailand. Then I went back to The Netherlands for a while, but when the resort called me again asking me to join their team during the high season, I was open to that challenge. When it got calmer, I decided it’d be great to gain experience at probably the best restaurant in the country: Gaggan in Bangkok. I learned a lot in the six months I was working there, but then the hotel contacted me again, offering me the opportunity to start off a new restaurant concept for them. After a while we started thinking about the fact that most chefs in Phuket are cooking just for the tourists, and about the opportunities there would be for a kind of farm-to-table concept. Then the journey started, leading us throughout Thailand in search for the best ingredients and techniques. Eager as we were to help the local community and not just the restaurant, our farm was founded and local producers offering top quality foods were selected to collaborate with us on the project. In 2016 PRU restaurant finally opened and it has been an amazing journey ever since.
Chef’s Secret: You must be proud of what you’ve already achieved by launching such an ambitious restaurant concept. How do you feel about the recognition you’ve received in the world renowned culinary guides and lists?
Jim Ophorst: I must admit it’s really flattering to receive such good feedback from the international community. The impact cannot be underestimated. I’ve never worked in a Michelin starred restaurant before I came to Thailand, and look at where we are now. Since we’ve received our first Michelin star things have definitely changed. People come to the restaurant with certain expectations, and you need to meet those expectations. You know, I’m just the boy next door, so it’s still new, exciting and thrilling to me. But I just love it.
In the beginning most of our clients were hotel guests, but now it’s the other way around. We hear many people talk about that Michelin star, so it has had an impact on the number of bookings at our restaurant, but also on tourism on the island in general. Fine dining fans talk about Phuket, because PRU is located there. And that way we can make a contribution to the welfare of the island
And what I do like very much is that I’m working in a small restaurant, as we only have 8 tables at the moment. That approach matches our philosophy and I’m happy that people do appreciate that. And of course it’s also nice to have the place fully booked most of the time.
Chef’s Secret: You’re 29 years old. That’s still very young for a top chef.
Jim Ophorst: I know I’m still young, but it’s like in soccer: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The same goes for cooking. It has always been my dream to work in a restaurant that I truly believe in. So we give the best we have day after day. If you’re convinced it’s your path in life, and if you go for it to the fullest, I’ve always believed the rest would follow. And you see, it did.
Chef’s Secret: You’re working with the best products available in Thailand. How did you manage to find the best suppliers?
Jim Ophorst: We started our preparation long before the restaurant actually opened. We had travelled throughout Thailand for a long time, but in the beginning it was really hard to find the right suppliers. Many local people were sceptical, so we needed to convince enough local people to collaborate, which was not easy. It took almost nine months, but eventually people started realising that you sincerely respect them and that’s when their interest started to increase. Then a word-of-mouth effect started, and today we get many great products via the network we have developed.
And then there’s our own farm of course, which is located about 10 minutes from here. That hasn’t been an easy project to start with either, as the climate here is not that easy and it’s also a challenge to find the right team to work at the farm. Today we are very grateful to have such great employees that deliver beautiful products. About 30% of our vegetables comes from the farm, as well as all our herbs and eggs. Daikon, turnips, local kalamansi, limes,… There is a rich variety. And by working on the farm day after day you understand the products better.
Chef’s Secret: It’s rather unusual to see a Dutch chef preparing dishes with 100% Thai ingredients.
Jim Ophorst: That’s for sure! Our concept wasn’t so easy to develop, as we really felt we needed to do things differently. The farm-to-table concept isn’t new, but we wanted to stand out and we were looking for a way to support the local community. That’s how the whole concept came about. At first many people did not understand what we wanted to do. Luckily most guests were open to the concept, and they started to spread the word and then the restaurant got more and more popular.
Chef’s Secret: Do you think your background of being a Dutch chef influences the way you cook today?
Jim Ophorst: My education was very classical and I still use many of the techniques I learned back then. But I also vary with modern or traditional techniques, like firewood cooking. I strongly believe that our philosophy should be extraordinary, and not so much the used techniques. I like pure flavours and ingredients, as it reflects our respect for the produce. For example there’s one dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant has opened. It consists of nothing but a carrot. But since it’s prepared in such a special and caring way, by slowly cooking it under the soul, it really brings out the intrinsic power of the flavour of that carrot. So in short I’d say my cuisine isn’t classic, as I’m not serving dishes like terrines or creamy sauces, yet it is inspired by the classical cooking techniques.
Chef’s Secret: Where do you find your inspiration?
Jim Ophorst: My inspiration really just comes from everywhere. Three or four times a week, I go to the local market. And when I see a certain ingredient there – like a kind of vegetable or some fish – I’m so eager to create something with that ingredient. I’m always motivated to let my guests taste something they’ve never had before. Dining at PRU has to be a unique experience, something you can’t find somewhere else.
Chef’s Secret: Do you have a favourite dish or ingredient?
Jim Ophorst: Maybe I’d say the carrot is one of my favorites on the menu, as it has become our signature dish. It’s one of the creations that has put our restaurant in the spotlights. Besides that, there are many products that you can find here quite easily, but that are impossible to find in the rest of the world. For example the river shrimp of Surat Thani is of the highest quality and can even stand against a langoustine, which is pretty unique when you know it’s a warmwater shrimp.
Chef’s Secret: What do you find the most difficult in your profession here in Thailand?
Jim Ophorst: I must admit I did need some time to get used to the life here in Thailand. Working with local teams is different compared to working in a European cuisine. But I do think this experience has made me a better chef. Even though I could probably get used to working in Europe again, I do feel I can make a difference here. The challenge to create something new out of ingredients that are sometimes completely new to me is really inspiring and motivating.
Chef’s Secret: So what’s next? What are your future ambitions and dreams?
Jim Ophorst: In the first place we’re doing some refurbishments to the restaurant now in order to make the restaurant a bit more independent from the hotel. To create a fine dining experience, we will be working with a neutral colour palette. Second, my wife and I are having our first baby this year, so that’s of course something I’m also very excited about. And third – which is more like a long term plan – we envision a future for PRU restaurant at the location of the farm. That would be the perfect reflection of the philosophy of PRU, so that’s definitely something we are looking into. But things are going great here at the moment. We are not in a hurry, yet we’re happy to see the opportunities.
Chef’s Secret: Thank you very much for your time, Jim. We are really looking forward to taste the philosophy of PRU.
A menu full of stories
At PRU dining is much more than eating, it’s about the history and the idea behind the dishes as well. So every dish comes with a story, personally presented to us by chef Jim. We get the opportunity to taste the 7 course seasonal inspired menu, with wine pairing.
We start off with three amuses-bouches, representing the three fundaments of the PRU concept: plant, raise and understand.
‘Plant’ is represented by a salad of young green beans, passion fruit and salted mackerel.
‘Raise’ is reflected in a creation with smoked sturgeon with caviar from a farm about two hours from Bangkok. They use the male fish for the meat and the eggs of the female deliver the caviar. It’s served in a pickled beetroot poach with a seaweed waffle.
‘Understand’ is what inspired chef Jim to prepare ‘burned’ leek – which has a texture that resembles the white asparagus – packed in house cured ham (ripened for 9 months) and served with black leek powder.
The bread comes fresh from the wood oven. It’s served uncut, as at PRU they believe you need to break it yourself, as the person at the table who’s breaking the bread for the rest of the company creates a kind of familiarity. Two kinds of butter are served with the bread: plain butter and smoked butter with lemongrass & pepper. Both are made from dairy from a farm near Krabi. As condiments we are given salt & pepper and Thai basil oil.
The last appetizer is built up around tomatoes for the PRU farm: marinated, sorbet and granité, topped off with a gazpacho of green tomato.
‘Latest catch from the Andaman Sea’ is the first dish on the menu. It’s cobia fish (cured with salt, sugar & citrus), marinated with sisho, sweet tamarind, pickled water asparagus (typical for Phuket), asparagus herbs and vinaigrette of citrus & sisho.
Next there’s ‘Black crab and Phuket coffee’. The crab comes from the nearby Phang Nga caves and is caught by the family of one of the gardeners at the PRU farm. It’s served in a hot salad with marinated coconut heart, warm finger limes and coffee (farmed in Northern Thailand and roasted in Phuket) and a bisque of crab and sour leaves.
Then we get pickled duck egg, which is a bit jelly like, combined with smoked eggplant, abalone, Japanese dashi (made with smoked abalone) and wild herbs from the PRU farm.
The signature dish that has been on the menu at PRU since the beginning is the ‘Carrot cooked in the soil it came from’. The carrot is cooked at the farm under the ground in banana leaves, for about six to eight hours. Then it’s served with hollandaise made of fermented carrot juice (1 month) and house cured egg yolk.
Next there’s the Surat Thani river prawn, which is one of the best according to chef Jim. It is cooked in the juice of the brains of the prawns, in order to get a rich and powerful taste. The XO sauce that accompanies the prawns is made of dried Thai seafood. Grilled water lily and sea berry salad give this dish the finishing touch.
Up next: aged duck (free range and organic) from the North East of Thailand. To get a tasty, crispy skin, the whole duck is smoked for two and a half hours in an open firewood, together with water, spices, herbs and honey. It’s served with cabbage, shiitake, tamarind and mushrooms.
A fresh dessert is made of celery, granité, biscuit, green apple mousse and buckwheat crumble.
A delicious dessert consists of sweet Phuket pineapple, cooked in caramel of wild pepper, combined with puffed pastry of mousse of caramelised pineapple and citrus.
Something truly unique is the fact that PRU restaurant serves a selection of Thai cheeses. Thai people don’t eat much cheese or dairy, but chef Jim managed to find a couple of artisans creating cheese in small amounts for amateurs.
Of course there’s tea and coffee, served with sweets, to end an amazing meal and a fantastic evening.
At PRU restaurant chef Jim Ophorst presents a contemporary European farm-to-table cuisine, prepared with sustainable and Thai ingredients from their own farm or small local producers. Embodying a beautiful philosophy PRU is an amazing restaurant, serving flavourful dishes in a stunning location, prepared by a very talented yet very modest chef. A must visit place when in Phuket!
PRU Restaurant (at Trisara Resort), 60/1 Moo 6, Srisoonthorn Road, Cherngtalay, Thalang, Phuket, 83110, Thailand | +66 (0)76 310 100 | firstname.lastname@example.org | prurestaurant.com | facebook.com/PruRestaurant | instagram.com/prurestaurant