No one knows food like a chef. Their taste buds are keen to flavours that not just any roving eater can identify. They’re Michelin keen, keen like a metal detector combing the sand for loose coins. If you want to know what’s good in town, from Batalian decadence to the rawest, most shame-inducing viscera, follow the experts. They know where to go.
On Phuket, there’s a network of restaurant professionals who have a lot in common, despite their contrasting styles. They’ve worked on ships and in resorts, opened restaurants, and, not surprisingly, eaten lots of good stuff over the years. Top to bottom, they recognize talent and appreciate quality — the very best, in other words — and they’re happy to voice their recommendations, if you ask.
Kim Steppe, general manager of Blue Elephant, knows a thing or two about food that satisfies on a deeper level, about meals made with passion. His mother, Nooror Somany Steppe, is an icon among Thai chefs, and her restaurant-cum-cooking schools in Thailand (one set in a heritage house in Bangkok, the other in a refurbished centenarian mansion in Phuket Town) are bona fide institutions, serving royal Thai cuisine that balances traditions old and new. Although not a chef in title, Kim’s cut from the gourmet mould. He’s spent his life in and around restaurants. Nuance is not lost on him, even in the most humble food.
“Next to On On Hotel [on Phang Nga Road] in a yellow building is some of the best pork and chicken satay in Thailand. It’s juicy, not dry at all, and the sauce is excellent. It looks like nothing, but it’s great. A place you have to try for lunch,” he adds, “is Kruvit at Laem Hin. It’s a floating restaurant on the water by Coconut Island. You select your own live seafood. It’s really untouched.”
As manager of a distinguished restaurant, and having spent significant time at Blue Elephant in Belgium, where he rubbed elbows with world-famous chefs, Kim can also appreciate elegance.
“There’s an Italian chef doing tremendous things here,” he says. “The food is modern, but still classic, and he adds his special flair to every plate. It doesn’t come to the table without him touching it first. The restaurant’s called Acqua.” And the chef’s name is Alessandro Frau.
Frau founded the aforementioned Acqua after wayfaring stints as a head chef in Italy, South America, France, and at the Sheraton Grande Laguna, where he gave its Italian restaurant an injection of authentic Italy— “They were doing Italian food, but the chef was from New Zealand and the restaurant was decorated with zigzags and bright colours and Maori designs.” His rise has been rapid to a certain degree, a six-year overnight success.
In the kitchen, his philosophy is not about ostentation insomuch as temptation. He’s in the business of arousing appetites and satisfying them with a barrage of taste, texture, and visual beauty. Naturally, his favourite places on the island are as eclectic as his dishes.
“Ka Jok See is really interesting,” he says. “It looks old and kind of dirty, but they bring out your meal and it’s just lovely. Then the waiters push the tables back and everyone starts dancing. All night. It’s crazy. It’s the only place Beyoncé and Jay-Z went outside of the resort when they were here.”
For a diametrically different approach to dining, Chef Frau suggests The 9th Floor in Patong. “It’s all about service. You’re taken care of by, like, 15 beautiful girls. The food is rich and fresh and modern.” He also recommends Suay, a clean and cool Thai restaurant in Phuket Town headed by Tammasak Chootong, an acclaimed chef who admits finding inspiration in simple, everyday items.
“Sometimes I see the end product — how the dish is supposed to look — when I stare at one single fruit. Then I add flavours that I think will match and, using techniques I learned abroad, I make the main ingredients stand out with taste, flavour, and structure,” says Chef Tammasak.
With these guiding principles, he creates fresh and modern Isaan and northern Thai food (think yam apple pla dook foo and khao soi salmon) that has won the attention of prominent figures in Phuket’s food scene. But he, too, has much-loved destinations beyond his own.
“The Brasserie, around the corner from my place, is great for dinner. I like The Gallery Café by Pinky in Phuket Town for a breakfast [of hearty Western fare]. The freshest seafood made with local flavour is at the beachside road in Rawai,” he says, adding, “Go there for lunch.”
Phuket’s dining scene is a little like a coral reef: vast and attractive, hiding myriad secrets. Inside the maze of hills, halls, and shophouses, waiting to be explored, are bright and piebald surprises. Let the experts guide your discovery.