The world is full of talented people with absolutely no idea how great they could be. There was a butcher at my local market whose impromptu singing had meat seekers in awe and lining long for his loin. I once had a cab driver who kept me in stitches on an hour-long trip to the airport with tales of his upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks. Get him on stage and he’d sell out a stadium.
Sometimes it takes just one lucky break to change everything, like when a university classmate of 80s hit maker Tracy Chapman handed her demo tape to his record-producer dad. The rest is herstory. Or when Jamie Foxx found Ed Sheeran busking in Los Angeles…
It’s this kind of serendipitous moment that changed life’s course for Chef Benz. A chef in a family restaurant on a small Thai tourist island, her cooking was so spectacular it drew travellers like flies to a barbecue. On one fateful day, unbeknown to her, she was cooking for a tourist with friends in the hospitality game, and their word-of-mouth praise would change her life.
It took one meal and less than a day before Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva, owners of one of the more spectacular resorts in the Maldives, Soneva Fushi, called Chef Benz and asked her to come and work for them at the resort’s restaurant. “I didn’t even know where the Maldives were,” Chef Benz tells me with a mile. “Of course I wouldn’t go.”
So Chef Benz remained in her small restaurant on Phuket until, finally, after several years, she gave in to the Shivdasanis and made her way to the middle of the Indian Ocean to work at one of the world’s most exclusive resorts.
“I spoke no English when I arrived,” she says with a laugh. “No one understands me and I have to do everything with sign language. On the first night I cannot find my way back to my bungalow. But I don’t speak English so cannot explain to anyone. Finally someone works out why I am not in bed.”
For the next 10 years, Chef Benz remained at Soneva Fushi, where her English and her food excelled. Sonu and Eva then created another breathtaking resort, Soneva Kiri, on the undiscovered Thai island of Koh Kood. Not surprisingly, they asked Chef Benz to move home and run Benz, its signature dining experience.
The resort is the personification of barefoot luxury. So much so that its mantra is “no shoes, no news” and, upon arrival, you’re given a bag to hold your footwear, which isn’t returned until your departure. Soneva Kiri is a low-impact, eco-friendly Robinson Crusoe-like treehouse extravaganza. You’ll be treated to uber private villas surrounded by swimming pools, some with waterslides. There’s an ice-cream parlour with home-made delights, as well as a chocolate room sitting opposite the cheese room. A dining pod hangs in a tree necessitating delivery of your breakfast by zipline. This is an off-the-charts experience.
But Benz Restaurant – an overwater, stilted shack tucked into a small cove about 15 minutes away from the main resort – is the real showstopper. There are two ways to reach it; either on a sunset boat cruise from the main resort jetty or by taking quick car ride and walking through the Koh Kood jungle. Here, Chef Benz works her magic for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow – she proclaimed it “the most exquisite, spicy Thai food I’ve ever had” – and us.
There’s no menu at Benz. Produce is bought fresh daily at the local market in Ao Salat and the food is simple and served without fanfare. As we munch on miang kham, betel leaves filled with with peanuts, coconut, dried shrimp and fresh herbs, Chef Benz describes her cuisine as Thai “family” food. There’s deep-fried prawn cake and a chicken and prawn soup. Her prawn curry with pineapple causes my taste buds to sing and the flavours of the steamed sea bass still make my mouth water every time I think of it.
The appearance of Benz is rustic, but the white cushions and soft lighting give off an almost Hamptons chic feel. Chef Benz works the kitchen, smiling broadly at the satisfied diners as she plates up her creations. Her little slice of taste heaven is so good we return twice on this trip. Oh, and did I mention the Thai dumpling in coconut milk for dessert?
MIANG KHAM (BETEL LEAF WRAPS)
20 betel leaves (or Chinese broccoli leaves, beet greens or another earthy-tasting leafy green)
¾ cup toasted coconut
½ cup roasted peanuts
1/3 cup dried shrimp (soak in hot water for at least 15 minutes)
2 thin-skinned limes, diced with skin on
Chillies, to taste, thinly sliced
¼ cup shallot, diced
¼ cup ginger, diced
Miang Kham sauce
1 tbs dried shrimp
4cm galangal, chopped
2.5cm ginger, chopped
125g palm sugar, chopped
1 tsp shrimp paste
1–1½ tbs fish sauce
2 tbs toasted coconut, ground until mealy
2 tbs toasted peanuts, ground until mealy
To make the sauce, add dried shrimp to blender and blend until fine, then add galangal, ginger and ¼ cup water and blend. Pour into a small saucepan. Swish blender with another ¼ cup water to capture all the bits then pour into saucepan.
Add palm sugar, shrimp paste and fish sauce to the blended herbs, place over medium heat and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Adjust heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes or until reduced by about half. Add the ground coconut and ground peanuts. Let the sauce cool until it’s lukewarm, then check the consistency – if it’s too thick, you can add a bit more water. If it’s too runny, reduce it a bit more. Taste and adjust seasoning with more fish sauce as needed.
To serve, place all the wrap ingredients in separate bowls. Take a betel leaf, make a little cone with it then fill with with the wrap ingredients to your liking. Top with a little bit of sauce, close the cup and enjoy.