Sarah Douglas meets the duo tasked with defining the culinary journey at Café Del Mar Bali. Images: Lucky 8.
Refining and defining a venue as large as Bali’s Café Del Mar is the job of many. Almost a year after they left their chilly London kitchens in search of new culinary adventures and warmer climes, Chefs Graeme Palmer and his long-time workmate Lani Greenhalgh are exhausted, exhilarated and still pouring all their creative juices into one of the biggest jobs of their lives.
“We were well over London and we’d been following our friend, Chef Justin Dingle-Garciyya who was appointed as pre-opening chef at Café Del Mar, and starting to feel a little itchy to get back on the road. Bali was always on the menu for us so when he rang and asked us to join, we were in, no questions asked,” explains Australian-born pastry chef Lani.
“We imagined farms and meeting fishermen, a proper adventure,” laughs Graeme, a Brit who has cooked around the world including Norway and Byron Bay. While naturally they were familiar with Ibiza’s Café del Mar, they imagined it quite differently. Instead of farms and ocean adventures, they arrived to find a construction site on the popular Berawa Beach. It was to be many months before Bali’s homage to Ibiza began to take shape. They cooked on their lap tops for many months, imagining a Mediterranean-inspired, Asian-influenced menu using local produce they would discover on their travels around the island.
Before opening, Justin was off on another adventure (he’s currently at Six Senses Uluwatu), as Graeme and Lani were just finding their feet. Today, the beach club menu is done and the punters are loving it. At the sleek seaside restaurant within Café Del Mar a new menu is building on dreams and local ingredients to create destination dining that draws on its Spanish roots and looks to the future.
With its 40th birthday coming up this year, there is a strong sense of tradition behind the beach club, and a venerable musical history. Combine this with Graeme’s love of ‘world food’ and Lani’s playful flavour combinations and it all adds up to a destination that plays skilfully from day to night.
The beach club at Café Del Mar is vast, decked out in colours that mirror the original. The long horizon pool overlooking the beach is dotted with circular seating, a popular spot for VIPs. Sun beds spread out around the pool, mirroring the blue and white theme of the venue. A massive shell-like stage is home to international and local acts, playing out the house soundtracks that reflect the venue’s original Ibiza roots. At the opposite end a bistro leads to the airy white restaurant. With the bistro and the poolside Al Fresco menus ticking along, all the attention is now on the restaurant, due to open before the big birthday bash plays out on the shores of Berawa Beach.
In a tribute to coastal dining, massive arches frame the sea views and an outdoor terrace is washed by sea breezes and sunlight plays off the striking interiors of the stunning new restaurant space.
This is where Graeme and Lani and their local team play out a time-honoured ritual that mingles menus and dishes in a challenge to create something original, unique and ultimately delicious. It’s not the first time these two have created a venue from the scratch.
Graeme began his career with Gordon Ramsay at Claridges in London before moving on to the Mondrian and then crossing borders to work at Elements at Bryron Bay, where he teamed up with Lani and Justin. Next stop was the the prestigious Hayman Island resort. Both venues reflect Modern Australian cooking that shines in a seaside setting.
Graeme and Lani teamed up again to create a fine dining restaurant on a converted fishing boat in Norway, before packing up their knives and heading to London where Graeme took on the role of head chef at the eclectic fine dining restaurant, Scully.
Lani drifted into her role as pastry chef having worked at some of Australia’s best restaurants including Cutler & Co, Estelle and Fleet before signing up for Elements of Byron. It is there that Lani found her strength in the pastry kitchen. She then had the chance to really let fly in Norway before becoming the toast of London for her creative tarts at The Laughing Heart in London’s Hackney.
Both claim they are well over fine dining and instead are now focussed on ingredient-driven food that veers more towards rustic. It’s clear that one of their favourite parts of this job is working with new ingredients, discovering new flavours and building on them.
“It’s too easy to rely on expensive imported ingredients when we have some incredible produce to play with here, and new flavours to experiment with,” explains Lani. “ It also fits with the modern philosophy of using ingredients grown close to you. It’s more sustainable and reduces air miles, it’s also more challenging.”
Feeding such a wide variety of people, from Indonesians and Asians to Europeans and Australians, comes with its own set of challenges. There is also the confusing concept of Instagram food, which adds a whole new element to plating. “I sometimes think guests are more interested in photographing the food than eating it,” laughs Graeme.
Graeme grew up in a vegetarian household, his Dad is a vegan, so Café Del Mar’s menu features a delicious menu of dishes designed for vegans and vegetarians. With the increasing demand for plant-based menus, his dishes are bold and thoughtful rather than an afterthought.
Early in his career the talented British chef underwent hypnosis to start eating meat again. “I used to taste the dishes I was cooking but couldn’t come to actually eating it. One day after the hypnosis, I was chowing down on a steak. It worked,” he explains. He has perfected a vegan XO sauce which is used on some of his favourite dishes. He also has a non-vegan version. The menu features his jackfruit san choi bao along with a vegan ragù he has created using cauliflower and taro. Slow cooked, the result is every bit as satisfying and delicious as the meaty version.
Lani has created her version of a vegan es telor, using natural food colouring on the distinctive layers. She favours natural colouring always and shuns the shiny, iridescent pastry shop offerings.
Playing to the crowds, the beach club menu favourites include dramatic platters of wood-fired prawns with a locally-inspired flavoured butter; fried chicken with a house-made fermented chili sauce and the bestselling truffled wild mushroom pizza with mascarpone.
Here you’ll also find a host of seafood dishes, including Graeme’s fish of the day, vibrant seafood platters, alongside classics from ceviche to burgers, steaks and tapas-style dishes that compliment beautiful, fresh salads and house-made charcuterie plates.
Whimsical desserts featured include a playful Golden Gaytime, fashioned on the famous Australian ice cream. Here it appears as an ice cream sandwich with a brownie base, mingled with honeycomb. It’s Lani on a plate; familiar, rustic and creative. Her take on a Beng Beng, the local candy bar, is toothy, gooey and slightly salty all at once, something for the men she explains. The menu also features a few classics for crowd appeal, including the sublime Spanish Crème Catalan and a creative take on a tiramisu.
“The tiramisu is made with coconut cream and brem to bring it in line with our philosophy of keeping it local,” explains Lani.
Brem and arak are put to good use in this kitchen, as marinades and to fire up dishes. They have also been experimenting with local cheeses. They aren’t the same as the imported cheeses, but that is the point, they agree. The flavours are different and finding ways to incorporate them into their recipes, both sweet and savoury, is a journey of discovery.
Together with an army of staff, including local chefs I Gede Ariwijaya (ex Mejekawi Restaurant) and Wirya Purnama (ex Potato Head/Katamama), shaping this new dining experience is no small task. The challenges involved with turning this incredible seaside dining room into a world class venue are what drives this team to continue evolving, creating, sampling new ingredients and creating a menu that they fully intend will be the talk of the town.