Bumbu Bali: Superb tropical cuisine



It's six o'clock in the morning and holidaying visitors to Bali are still fast asleep. Bali itself, however, is already wide-awake, and cheerful banter and calls can be heard throughout the market at the coastal town of Jimbaran. Amid the bustle of women market vendors, baskets brimming over with produce and cackling hens, Bali's best-known chef stands and haggles like a local. "I guess you have to be a bit crazy to decide, as a European, that you're going to introduce tourists who come to Bali to the local cuisine," he says with a grin. Surrounding him are fourteen cooking class participants who are attentively following his explanations. They have just learned that the key ingredient of every Balinese dish is a condiment paste called Bumbu that contains shallots, garlic, chilies, prawn paste and a number of other exotic spices.

I was introduced to Asian cuisine during my time at the Hyatt.

In 1983, the renowned restaurateur came to Bali for the first time; he settled here permanently in 1990 and helped assist with the opening of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in his capacity as head chef. "Hyatt was the first hotel chain to prove that it is possible to offer quality Asian cuisine in a resort hotel and not just from street stalls or in private homes," he explains. The plan was to achieve this in Bali too. The challenge, however, was that not a single Balinese cookbook existed, nor were any restaurants serving Balinese specialties at that time. Undaunted, Heinz started asking his local chefs for the recipes used by their families that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Then he asked them to vote on each and every detail. The outcome: a broad selection of tasty recipes that were democratically approved and represented a cross-section of Bali’s different regions. The pioneering entrepreneur has since published a number of cookbooks featuring Balinese cuisine. In the mid-1990s, he hung up his chef's hat for a couple years to pursue his second passion: photography, particularly food photography. But when the opportunity arose to open his own restaurant he seized it immediately. The start-up might have been bumpy given that it coincided with the financial crisis in the Tiger economies and the confusion surrounding the collapse of the Suharto regime. But the avid chef did not allow himself to be discouraged. Cheerfully he points out that building his restaurant ended up costing only half of the original estimate due to the subsequent devaluation of the Indonesian Rupiah. "In the end there's always a silver lining to be found somewhere," he says with conviction. Focusing on the positive aspects in life is a lesson he has learned from the Balinese people.

People are fascinated by individuals who are driven by passion, and maybe just a little crazy.

Since opening in 1997, the Bumbu Bali has frequently and repeatedly been listed by magazines and tourist guides as the best Balinese restaurant on the island and it has already been copied a number of times, sometimes even quite brazenly under the same name. But Heinz is astonishingly blasé about it all. Although he had the name registered and trademarked, he tells us a lot can be achieved in Indonesia if you know which palms to grease, and now suddenly other people are claiming the rights to the trademark. What can be done? "We simply have to stay the best," he states with conviction. However, this comes as a price. Seven nights a week, the lean 52-year old who nonetheless finds time to pursue his hobby of climbing local volcanoes can be found in the kitchens of his restaurant. And, three days a week he climbs out of bed at 5 o'clock in the morning to host his popular cooking classes. Number 1'099 on the day of this interview. Every class is fully booked and there are always waiting lists. "Incredible how those popular TV cooking classes function as free advertising for us. Why, thanks to them many more people dare to attend cooking classes than would have done in the past," he chuckles.

When a guest approaches me after dinner and says: "Hey Heinz, thanks for the amazing meal!" I get goosebumps.

Even after 35 years in the business, the gourmet cook still considers satisfying his customers a gratifying challenge. The guests naturally want to treat themselves to something special during their holidays and look forward to indulging in a sublime culinary experience. And, of course, they want to be entertained too, so the presentation of the meal, and not just its quality, is an essential component. "How many restaurants are there in Bali that present authentic local cuisine as aesthetically as we do? People first eat with their eyes." The charismatic cook points at a photograph he took in his restaurant with his favorite camera, a Leica, depicting a generous platter displaying a superb selection of small dishes and colorful bowls each containing a typical island delicacy. That concept is also evident in the venue that is modeled on the style of a traditional Balinese living compound with open wooden pavilions, thatched roofs and numerous stone effigies. All this is rounded off by the legendary Balinese charm of the staff, making everything authentic – and avoiding any associations with
Disneyland. The Bumbu Bali's host wants his guests to enjoy themselves and forget about their worries and problems for the night. "From day one we told our employees: forget the money aspect. We want every departing guest to leave with a feeling of satisfaction."

It's fine to be tough from time to time, but giving praise and treating your staff with respect is crucial.

This evening, the restaurant - as always - is booked to the last seat. The chef de cuisine is standing in the open show kitchen, directing his cooks, stirring one of the pans for a brief moment of concentration, greeting new arrivals and radiating good humor. Although still using the same recipes as 14 years ago he points out that over time, the ingredients with which the dishes are prepared have been steadily improved and their taste continually refined. Six years ago, he bought his own chicken farm that now supplies the Bumbu Bali and several other restaurants and hotels too. This way he is in control of the entire production cycle and can guarantee the quality of his poultry. And, he always manages to obtain the freshest fish on the market despite Bali's depleted fishing grounds and the high density of hotels and restaurants, but that is simply a question of having the right contacts he explains with a wink. The popular restaurant owner can also count on a dedicated team that shares his enthusiasm. "We work closely together. I am here every evening as chef, and get my hands dirty too, just as they do, and they see that. My wife is also here every evening and helps serve the food. I myself was lucky to have a mentor who did not start yelling if I couldn't keep up the pace. Instead, he would stand beside you for half an hour and say, “Come on, let's do this together now." Heinz considers demonstrating instead of giving orders to be crucial. Probably because of childhood memories of the strict education he suffered in a boarding school where, amongst other things, he was forced to write with his right hand despite being a left-hander. He demands above-average dedication from his staff, but compensates them with higher salaries and a 5-day working week instead of the still customary 6-day week in Indonesia.

In the meantime, he has become something of an international ambassador of Balinese cuisine for his adopted home. He has appeared as guest chef with his crew in Dubai's famous Burj-Al-Arab, as well as on the cruise liner MS Europa, and participated in gourmet festivals in Cape Town, St. Moritz, Sydney, Singapore, the United States, Paris and Bangkok. Enthusiastically he goes on to tell us that just the other day, the food scouts of Switzerland’s most renowned delicatessen dropped by. The odds are good that, thanks to Heinz von Holzen’s passion, classic Balinese condiments such as Kecup Manis, coconut oil and maybe even prawn paste, the essentials to the mouthwateringly delicious Balinese cuisine, will soon be available on their shelves.

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Comments (1)

Daniel | 30.12.2012

Nice article! Note: "Bumbu" isn't any specific condiment paste, it's just the generic word for seasoning.


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