Chef Benjamin Cross is ready for his next big adventure. The intrepid Australian gave up his globetrotting career 11 years ago to settle down in his adopted home of Bali, where he went on to establish five popular restaurants – Mejekawi (a fine dining concept under Ku De Ta), Hank’s Pizza & Liquor, Fishbone Local, Mason, and The Back Room with BHG.
Ahead of the Aqua Blu’s inaugural voyage on 16 October, SALT sat down for a quick chat with Chef Benjamin to learn more about his culinary inspirations, his love for Balinese flavours, and how he intends to create a larger-than-life culinary experience onboard a 198-feet moving kitchen.
Describe your culinary style.
Honestly it is simple and unpretentious food, based on top-quality produce that I hope surpasses people’s expectations.
Cooking is akin to creativity on a plate. Where do you draw inspiration from?
Travelling is undoubtedly a big part of inspiration for me. Experiencing different cultures and all the good food and produce comes with that. I am also always dining at different venues which I love – anything from local street food to fine dining.
Share with us a memorable anecdote from your travels.
Looking back now, I would say living and working in Spain was a time in my career that I look back on with pride. The food, people and culture taught me so much. Not to mention while I was there, I had the opportunity to open a restaurant with Julien Lennon.
You’ve worked with acclaimed chefs like Neil Perry and Santi Santamaria and cut your teeth at Michelin-starred restaurants across the globe. How have these experiences shaped you and/or your cooking?
Learning from some of the best chefs in the industry taught me how to recognise quality ingredients and how to handle them with respect in order to preserve their best qualities. It also taught me that when you have quality ingredients, less can be more, and you should let the ingredients shine for themselves without over-manipulating them. Working with some of my food idols also opened up a lot of opportunities to work in other great restaurants during my earlier days as a chef.
What prompted you to move from Australia to Bali in 2008?
I was on my way to Barcelona from Australia, passing through to see friends, and I fell in love with the food, culture, and people in Bali. I was then offered a job while I was living in Barcelona and decided to return to Indonesia to give it a go.
You’re already known as a successful chef and restauranteur in Bali. Why did you choose to take on a new position as Consulting Chef of Aqua Blu?
When the opportunity was introduced to me, I thought it was a progressive step in my career and also an excellent opportunity for me to continue evolving. The partnership between our venues and Aqua Blu is a great brand fit.
How are you preparing for Aqua Blu’s inaugural voyage on 16 November?
The process has been intense – having to design an extensive menu that has variety and the ability to cover a seven to 12-day journey! I’m currently creating all the recipes, sourcing ingredients, and setting up the yacht’s kitchen to make sure we have all the right equipment to execute the menu.
Just how many dishes are you planning? Tell us more about the menu.
The menu draws inspiration from Indonesian, European and Mediterranean cuisines, and allows diners to go on a journey through their meals. It is important for me to make sure people are not eating the same food every day. Keeping that in mind, I have created over 160 dishes that can be enjoyed by the guests during their voyage on Aqua Blu.
Given your love for Balinese flavours, should we expect to see many Indonesian spices and flavours on the menu?
There will be elements of Balinese cuisine on the menu, and it certainly influences a lot of the dishes that we have curated specially for Aqua Blu. To showcase some of Indonesia’s amazing spices and flavours, we have a 48-hour Beef Rendang and the Balinese suckling pig with Bumbu Bali (Balinese spices).
What are some of the fresh produce you’ll be showcasing?
I’ve sourced amazing producers and ingredients over the last 13 years of working in Bali, such as Javanese organic prawns, rare-breed Balinese black heritage pigs, and line-caught fair trade tuna. I am very thrilled to be bringing some of these to the guests onboard Aqua Blu.
Which is your personal favourite dish from the menu?
Generally, I am a no-fuss eater so I can’t go past the freshly handline-caught fish served grilled with a Balinese sambal.
How is cooking on sea different from cooking on land? Isn’t sourcing for fresh produce going to be a big challenge?
Yes, it would be quite challenging as we need to look at each port, evaluate and source the best ingredients from each area. This will largely determine how the menu turns out. I am incredibly excited about this experience and look forward to seeing what we can get our hands on and how creative we can be with the sourced ingredients.
What other challenges do you foresee in helming Aqua Blu’s kitchen?
The challenges I foresee are most likely the logistics of being at sea, the availability of products, and maintaining such a large and extensive menu.
In your opinion, what sets the food on Aqua Blu apart from other luxury cruise ships?
Most of the cruise ships based out of Indonesia are not offering the variety and high level of ingredients that we are. We have invested a lot of time into sourcing and have sourced some of the best produce you can get here in Indonesia. This will be what sets us apart from others.
Have you noticed any changes in diner preferences over the years?
From working in fine dining restaurants to opening my restaurants here in Bali, I see a preference for simple, fresh food and educated customers wanting to know where the ingredients are from. With the way the world is at the moment, not just environmentally but economically, I see a trend in people eating more ethically and sustainably wherever they can. There is a lot more education and availability to do this, so conscious eating is a result of that.
Psst. Are there any pet peeves about diners that irritate you as a chef?
I usually am pretty tolerant of menu changes, but when people confuse dietary requirements with food allergies, this drives me crazy!
Share with us a little-known fact about yourself that we wouldn’t learn from the press releases.
I’m an Aquarian.
The three items you cannot live without are…
Wine, coffee and bread.
If you could sit down for a last meal with anyone, who and what would it be?
If not with my family and friends, it would definitely be eating street food with Anthony Bourdain in the guts of somewhere exotic.