This is a repost, I did this interview with Penny Williams a couple of years ago. She has just been named Chef of the Year by Yak Magazine in Bali. Congratulations Penny Williams! She also did a refresh of her wonderful restaurant Bali Asli oh and got married... Luckily for us we'll be seeing Penny and eating at Bali Asli in Feb 2020.
A highlight of our latest stay in Bali was catching up with Penny Williams of Bali Asli in East Bali. I talked to her about the eruption of Mt Agung, what that meant for her restaurant and then more about how her life in Bali. The food, the people her own spiritual growth.
LG: I think the first time we visited Bali Asli you had been open about a year? So seven years on …How has it been?
PW. Last year was the best year we’ve ever had. In our sixth year we smashed all records - it was our best year. So we’re really, really happy. The food has been well received, as well as the adventures I’ve created. Every time I get bored I create another adventure. Its great being your own boss, I’m positive about the business and the formula we’ve got here so we’ll just keep going in the same direction. What we do, people love, so why not ….. and the view doesn’t hurt!
LG: Now that you’ve mentioned the view we should probably talk about the elephant or the Volcano in the room or just outside the room? How did the eruption of Mt Agung affect you?
PW: On the 27th of Sept ( 2017) when Mt Agung erupted everything just fell of the cliff the whole of Bali shut down pretty much. Mainly because everyone had a knee jerk reaction and remembered what happened in 1963 when it erupted the last time.
There were lots of earthquakes, not big ones but very often and it was quite scary, but there was nothing coming out of the Volcano and it did this for a week. And then we started seeing puffs of smoke, nothing crazy and the earthquakes subsided after a week or two and we started seeing smoke.
People started spreading rumours. No one knew who to trust. Lava started spilling down the Volcano and there were rocks raining down on top of Besakih Temple.
At night people would come and sleep here because they were scared if it erupted at night or a big earthquake hit their houses they’d fall down. We are in a safe zone here and the construction of the building is such that it will withstand earthquakes. So people would come here to sleep and then go back to their villages, even if it was inside the exclusion zone during the day, to look after the fields, cows, chickens and that’s pretty much how things are still running.
The people inside the exclusion zone are still hurting. A lot evacuated to friends and family, its nicer living there than in big plastic camps, that don’t have enough loos or food. The problem is, however, if you are not in a Government registered camp you don’t get aid.
LG: So Has Tourism picked up now?
PW: No not really, its still fluctuating as it does around this time of year anyway. We had a little bump of high season but nothing like we would normally experience. We have been very lucky. The people who had to evacuate their guests have it the worse. Buildings deteriorate very quickly here when they are not lived in or maintained. It is very difficult for people with hotels and guest-houses to leave them. At the restaurant we can control our cost quiet easily, all my staff are pretty much on half salary still and they have been for three months just because we don’t need them. So we said instead of cutting people, everyone works less and we pay you for what you do. Lets be reactive to the situation. So if its busy more staff can work and if its not then they don’t …….. so we just play it like that.
LG: The Videos about the state of the Volcano you published on Facebook helped inform those of us who live elsewhere.
PW: I decided to be pro-active, my god the gossip and Chinese whispers pumped out by the International media … I just don’t believe anything I see about disasters I see on the media anymore. I wanted people to know the state of the Volcano …. that is right here outside my front door ….. so I put a Video out on Facebook everyday. It made a big difference.
LG: What has it been like for you being a Western Woman in Bali?
PW. It’s easier being a western woman. I don’t have those cultural responsibilities. Of local women. I can get away with not do the offerings everyday if I’m not in the mood. I have a lot more leeway, I try not to take advantage of that because I believe if you are living in a country that is not your home you should assimilate, so I do take part as often as I can. Women in Bali generally hold the purse strings.
To the layperson or tourist …. all they ever see is women doing all the work, all the carrying, and the men laying about not doing very much … YES but also NO ….. in all of the ceremonies - these massive ceremonies - the women do this and men do that and it works. The men do all the cooking the women make all the offerings and it comes together. The men make the place for ceremony and everyone decorates it. That’s the way it’s been for centuries. At the market - which we’ll see – the women run that market. The women do the shopping the men carry the shopping or sit waiting on their bikes.
When I first came here I thought, if I had a husband I’d want to sit with him during ceremonies, because here it’s like a school, the girls go there and the boys go there. Then I realized it’s probably quite nice really to have a bit of a break and have a bit of a natter with the girls - same with the boys. So let it be.
The community always comes together at the end of the day. I think they are pretty easy going, open and flexible - the culture allows that and for me being a woman and living in Bali I haven’t had any animosity or discrimination or anything like that. If there has ever been a problem it has been a cultural one not a gender one.
LG: Could you have opened a restaurant in Australia and run it like Bali Asli?
PW: The only thing that probably would have stopped me are rules and regulations, things like the heights of banisters and benches, open wood and fire in the kitchen and of course the cost. I built Bali Asli for the same price my friend built his kitchen in Australia.
I was able to realize my dream here with very little resistance I have had a lot of people help me along the way. As a western mind you can’t do it on your own. Our way of thinking is so completely different and wrong here, it doesn’t work. So I have someone who does all my industrial relations, licences, certificates …. and I don’t even go anywhere near the office. Then I have a fantastic guy who helped me find all my staff …. I still have no idea how I found my staff? Then I’ve got a fantastic guy who was the plumber who is now a spiritual adviser to me. So if something doesn’t feel right …. my staff are very connected spiritually to this place - without that spiritual side, we would not exist - so sometimes I have to go and get my head cleaned out. Some days you feel lethargic or a little too electric you just have to go and hit the reset button and he helps me do that. We gather spiritual water from him and spread his love around the restaurant.
There are lots of people who help me. If I have a problem with a staff member I consult them first, I’ve learnt not to be that strong quick decision making woman that we are taught to be in western culture. I just sit back for a little bit and look at my surroundings, the situation what are the people doing before coming up with that quick answer. You don’t need to be that strong headed fast decision maker here.
LG: We have noticed the Food Scene has exploded in Bali since our last Visit?
PW : Yes its amazing and its consumer lead. When I first arrived here 11 years ago it was till very old school Dutch/ German chefs cooking what they knew. As cultures have opened up - and shows like Master Chef and various Travel shows – there has been a demand from people who are better educated for better quality food. Chefs have been inspired in the same way so away we go …
The food here is astounding, the variety, the freshness. I’m like the lucky kid in the toy store how can you not play with the leaves and roots flowers and plants.
When I first came here I was astounded that people weren’t doing that …. its cheaper … laughs … its moved away from Indonesian chefs cooking what they think western visitors want or a traveller’s palate. I understand it because if I was to cook for a Nigerian person I would have no idea about the limitations of their palate so that’s why it has taken a western person, like myself, to show the Balinese people guidelines - to mother hen - the cuisine in the right direction …. “Yes we can make the dish that spicy but maybe we won’t serve raw pigs blood.”
LG: Have you mentored many young Chefs?
PW: Yes, many. None of my staff had ever worked in restaurants before, so this is their first job. I consult with various other resorts and hotels to do the same thing, to give their chefs the courage to serve food from their own areas like Ache, Java or West Sumatra ….. because the cuisine is amazing and its not available to travellers yet, unless you really know someone and you can get in under the surface of a place to explore it.
LG: What are you most proud of ?
PW: I just enjoy sharing my experiences. I keep creating things for people to do here. So my big thing, at the moment, is to take guests down to the night-market . That’s what I do with all my friends so why don’t I do that with my guests. People are too scared, they don’t know what to eat, how to order or communicate. So we wander down the street and they have a chance to say what’s that and we buy it and eat it. It’s good fun.
You do the morning market - we can do that - and in the evening at the night market, it’s a different cuisine all together. It may be grilled corn or an Indonesian style crispy pancake or the most amazing crumpet …. then a shaved iced Slushie which you can get with hot mung bean soup poured over the top and then fruit and condensed milk and everything that’s wrong for you and it tastes amazing. Adventures …….. !
I’ve got used to NOT being told I can’t do things. I go back to Australia and its like …. ”what do you mean I cant go down that road?”. Having no “ NOT HAVE TOs” in my life is very liberating.
I do love being fluid and spontaneous. Yes I would have financial and medical back up living in Sydney but I might not need any of that, so why live saving for something when we might not even need it ?
My staff and Balinese have taught me to live everyday as it comes and that’s what I try to do …. I don’t look too far ahead.
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