Paul John Lewis
MVHOTELS speaks to Paul John Lewis, Director of Cuisine of W Retreat & Spa – Maldives.
Tell us about your background. How did your career path lead to you becoming the Director of Cuisine at a luxury retreat?
Everything started when I was 15 years old. I worked in a pub in Brisbane, Australia where I used to pump out 800 to 1,000 covers for lunch every Sunday. I gained lot of experience and really wanted to integrate the luxury hospitality industry and work for hotels and resorts. I worked my away around Australia and then ended up at Crown Perth, Australia. My first overseas experience was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I then moved to Indonesia to start my Starwood journey with Le Meriden Bali for its opening. Then I went to Vietnam, before joining the iconic W Retreat & Spa - Maldives as Director of Cuisine.
What can guests expect to find in the food offerings at the W Retreat & Spa – Maldives?
FISH! The newly restyled and elegant specialty overwater venue, features ‘Ocean to Table’ cuisine with a strong focus on the freshness of the local catch prepared with a Southeast Asian flair. Signature dishes include tuna chutoro, chilli and ginger aioli; abalone, orange miso marmalade and tempura crumb; sea urchin with black vinegar pearl; and bone marrow mantau with braised octopus. We have spent long hours sourcing and talking with purveyors to find the best products for the venues. All the items we select have a story that makes them become more unique. We set high standards and tell our suppliers what to get. Since I have been here, some chefs have picked up gold and silver awards at the Hotel Asia Culinary Challenge in Malé, with only four days’ training! This year, we are planning to get them ready early and are also aiming for more international exposure.
What are some examples of typical Maldivian cuisine and how do you give guests who are staying at the W Retreat a taste of the local produce?
The typical Maldivian dishes include tuna, mashuni (mixture of coconut, tuna, onion and chilli), kulhi mas (spicy fish), kofi fai salad, garudhiya (fish soup), mas-bai (fish rice) and devilled octopus. In order to know what to offer our guests, I like sitting down with the Maldivian chefs and asking them what they cook best on their island, or what their mother makes best. Guests can enjoy ‘Maldivian night’ to experience all the flavours from the different islands.
What’s your favourite Maldivian dish?
I like grilling fresh caught fish with the local sambal sauce and then putting the fresh fish with chapattis. It’s so simple but it doesn’t get much better than that at 3am after a night fishing on a dhoni (Maldivian boat). When we go with local fishermen to nearby islands for tea, I usually eat kulhiboakibaa (traditional Maldivian fish cakes) and gulha (tuna, chilli and coconut dumplings); I really like the taste!
What inspires you as a chef? How does this translate to the menus at the W Retreat & Spa?
I believe anything is possible and there is no such thing as a failure. I am inspired by the W values of “what’s new or next?” The way I think in my cooking truly reflects what W Maldives is about. I don’t like to follow the trend or what others are doing. I like being unique and thinking outside the box. Also here we like telling a story and leaving people talking, I guess like a good action movie. I like the food to be a reflection of myself — straight to the point. The most important thing is involving my team in all we do. When they also feel inspired, anything is possible.
What is the most challenging meal you have had to prepare during your time at the W Resort & Spa?
We had to prepare a five-course dinner on our private island Gaathafushi for Tara Stiles, the yoga guru, and 15 high profile media guests. The hardest is still to come, with the CEO of Starwood Hotels, Frits Van Paasschen, visiting in the coming month, so the pressure is on.
What plans have you got for the food offerings at W Resort & Spa this year?
We will evolve the ‘Ocean to Table’ concept. We are planning to turn our beach restaurant FIRE into an amazing steakhouse and chop shop, but for the rest, you will have to come and see.
Where do like to spend your leisure time in the Maldives? And where do you like to eat during your time off?
I like spending my time off on a local dhoni fishing in North Ari Atoll. Some of my team are from Feridhoo, one of the local islands. They know all the good spots to go fishing in the atoll, which is great! Being an Aussie, I love anything off a barbecue. I am also a big lover of the Japanese food cooked by my wife.
Source: Originally Published on The Asian Story 2015 Issue.