Chef Alessandro Frau, born and raised in Sardinia, was the Winner of Iron Chef Thailand in November 2013.
His restaurant Acqua is located in beautiful Phuket and has been awarded many times over, including by Wine Spectator with the Award of Excellence for one of the Best Wine Lists in the world. In 2013 Acqua Restaurant was appointed as one of the Best Italian Restaurants in Thailand from Ospitalita’ Italiana in the World. But how did an Italian Chef end up cooking traditional foods from his childhood in a country so different from his own? We had the pleasure of asking Chef Frau this exact question, and many, many more.
From Sardinia to Phuket by way of London, Mexico and Sweden. Can you tell us a bit about how you decided to become a chef and what kickstarted your path to success?
“I decided to become a chef when I was in London studying English. As soon I started working in a restaurant to pay my school – as a commis waiter – I was fascinated by how the chefs were working in the kitchen. The organization, the creativity and the atmosphere was really interesting to me. So, I asked to be transferred into the kitchen. I still remember as if it was yesterday. The restaurant was located in Charing Cross road, in the middle of London, it was 1999. At the time chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey were at the top of their careers and young chefs like me were just dreaming to be like them one day. I remember walking outside Marco Pierre White’s restaurant and seeing the place from outside as something magical, something iconic, something to dream about.”
What drew you to Thailand?
“I went on holiday in 2003 with my wife Marcella, we spent one month traveling all around Thailand and really enjoyed the place, the lifestyle and the people. This was the reason we decided to come back the year after for a longer holiday, with the idea to stay for a short work experience. And that’s how we got started, I was appointed Executive Chef at The Sheraton Luxury Collection at Laguna Phuket. After four years we decided to open our own Restaurant, Acqua.”
How important was the decision to venture out on your own for you?
“When I was appointed Executive Chef I was twenty eight years old, I was at the top of my chef career in a hotel and it was amazing. I was really focused and motivated, my passion drove me to work very hard and I had the chance to learn many things. I was in charge of twelve outlets and one hundred and thirty chefs, it was a very big operation, but my time was mostly dedicated to management, budgeting, hygiene, standards control, new menus etc. Everything I did was mainly related to management and not much to cooking and creating. This is the reason why I decided to open my own restaurant. I was and still am very passionate about food and cooking, so opening my restaurant was the expression of my creativity, my experience, my food and my cooking. This is what made and makes me happy every day. I’m so happy I took this decision, even in difficult moments. In the beginning of the opening, when the restaurant was new and nobody knew who we were, the business was very slow and we faced difficult moments. But my passion and my vision kept me going until today.”
You were the winner of Iron Chef Thailand 2013, how was that experience?
“Iron Chef was a funny thing to do to get more marketing exposure nationwide really. It was fun, and after that people knew more about me and Acqua Restaurant.”
How do you come up with new dishes and menu ideas?
“To create a new dish sometimes I get inspiration from the ingredient, sometimes from a particular idea that I get when I travel and I think about food combinations, ingredients and cooking techniques, sometimes I get the inspiration from the plate itself. If I see a beautiful plate of a particular shape, it can really kickstart my imagination and I envision new food ideas on the plate. I also like to reinvent my way of some of the traditional recipes of Sardinia, or Italy in general. I take the tradition and I convert it with the evolution of ingredients, cooking techniques and presentation. The most important points on a perfect dish for my creations are quality of the ingredients, balance of taste, presentation and the story behind it all – which can be connected to tradition, culture or memories.”
How do you source for your products and make sure you get exactly what you want? Especially being in Phuket creating Mediterranean cuisine, do you have easy access to all the (fresh) ingredients you want and need?
“Thanks lo the love I have for cooking I continuously look for the best ingredients, for the different and precious, for the seasonal, it’s really never ending. This is the reason why we are able to get anything we need without any problem. Things like fresh burrata from Puglia, the best mozzarella from Campania, sea urchin and Bottarga from Sardinia, red prawns from Sicily and so on. This requires an investment of time and money, but it is what we love!”
Do you incorporate local Thai ingredients into your cuisine?
“No, sorry! As my philosophy and concept of the restaurant are to be a truly authentic Italian restaurant, I like to keep the pure taste of Italy. I verge on the classic to very new evolution of Italian cuisine and taste.”
Do you ever miss Sardinia?
“Yes, sometimes I miss the beauty of the place. The smell of the sea, the smell of the food, the countryside, the lifestyle, the evolution of the life. But I go every year for three weeks and I always return to Thailand with lots of inspiration to bring new ideas into the philosophy of the restaurant and our food.”
After all these years in the kitchen, do you still enjoy cooking for yourself at home?
“I rarely cook at home, only in exceptional cases. Normally I eat out every day for lunch and dinner time I’m always working, seven days a week. But if I go to places like Bangkok for a few days I like to visit all my friends’ restaurants and try their cuisine. I eat mainly Italian or European food and once a week Thai food.”
What was your first job in a kitchen?
“My first kitchen job was in London in a small Turkish Restaurant called “Sofra”, in Mayfair. It was a kind of Turkish fine dining, I was a commis chef assigned to the starters station. The Chef was a very good hearted person, he taught me everything from scratch, and after few days I was independent at the station. I fell in love with cooking immediately, probably because as Italians we are quite obsessed with food and quality. It all came very easy to me, so I became passionate immediately.”
Did you have a mentor or an inspiration when starting in this industry or along the way?
“As I mentioned before, when I started cooking in London it was the peak of the top chefs like Marco Pierre White and others, all these iconic chefs were role models to me. I had and I still have all of their books, still today I like to look at them sometimes. They where unconventional chefs, outside the lines of the world famous discipline of French cuisine, they had long hair and they were throwing pans to people. These chefs back then, and others later on, gave me a lot of inspiration to find my way. To find my own philosophy and food concept connected to my memories and my experiences around the world.”
What part of your personality you’d say comes through most in your work?
“Creativity for sure is the biggest part of me that comes through in my work. Also, I’m very thoughtful/visionary, so I use this quality to think a lot before I create or change something.”
What has been your favorite dish you’ve ever made, inside or outside a restaurant kitchen?
“There are so many dishes that I like, but one of the most popular according to our customers is the Sous Vide Cooked Egg on Parmigiano Reggiano fondue with crispy pancetta powder and Italian black truffle. This is memorable thanks to the perfect balance of taste, textures and presentation. Nine out of ten customers go crazy after eating this dish.””
What would you say is the number 1 ingredient that makes any recipe better?
“Passion is the best ingredient! But if I have to choose a real ingredients could be a nice spoon of Beluga Caviar. I love it!”
What do you consider a chef’s biggest asset?
I believe that besides talent, experience and knowledge, the biggest asset for a Chef is to be humble. This is what I like most in a good chef. Probably one of my biggest assets is that I am determined. If I have an idea I get really focused on that and I do not change my mind. This is very common in Sardinians actually. They say Sardinian people are very determined and thanks to this I’ve always kept going, especially in difficult moments. When I opened the restaurant and nobody knew about us, the high costs were very difficult to manage, but we kept going. I was sure that what we were doing was going to pay us back one day. And it did.”
Looking back now, if you could’ve done anything different in your career, what would it have been?
“Looking back I don’t think I’d change anything. All that’s happened was the natural course of life. If I did this or that, there was a reason and a decision at that time, so I believe in all I did.”
What advice would you give a starting chef?
“I will advise to love this job with care and respect. Fall in love with your place and be professional until the end.
This is not a easy job, but if you put some love and passion into it all will be great!”
Any big wishes/goals left?
“I would love to open Acqua Restaurant in a big city like London, New York or even Bangkok. I like to challenge myself and see how our concept will work in a different part of the world.”
Make sure to visit Acqua Restaurant during your next Phuket stay. In the meantime, take a look behind the scenes on their Instagram page for all things wonderfully Italian in Thailand!
324/15 Prabaramee Road
Patong Kalim Phuket 83100
+66 76 618 127