Thinking Outside the Kitchen

By John Ellis
Contributor | The Bali Times

MAMBAL ~ Ngurah Sutedja leans forward in his chair and stretches his arm out to point through the window of his office, tucked in a well-lit corner of his expansive kitchen at the John Hardy workshop in Mambal, a sleepy inland farming community in central Bali. Beyond the glass, encased in a bamboo window frame, is the almost completed construction of a second kitchen devoted to what he describes as “pignics.”

Several men walk busily about carrying freshly cut lengths of bamboo, while behind us the noise and energy resonating from Sutedja’s kitchen sound like the surging of waves breaking against rocks, as his kitchen team of 12 chefs, six stewards and four service men and women prepare the daily organic lunch for the workshop’s 785 employees.

The pignic kitchen, explains Mr. Sutedja, stems both from one of John Hardy’s seemingly constant stream of ideas, and also from a challenge extended to him by Cynthia, John’s energetic, striking and seemingly omniscient wife.

“John came up with the idea to do a special lunch, and a few days later Cynthia ate babi guling (roasted suckling pig) in Jimbaran and returned home saying that it was the best she had ever had, that the skin was just perfectly crispy,” said Sutedja, laughing.

“Of course I thought I could do better, so we had to try it here at the workshop.”

But his challenge was larger than merely preparing Bali’s best babi guling – which is in itself no small feat. He had also to overcome cultural differences in preparing and serving pork in a diverse and multicultural work environment where Hindus, Muslims and Christians strive to design, create and produce some of the world’s most exciting and gorgeous jewelry.

Sutedja thought the problem through, and as he has consistently done during the past eight years he has been working with John Hardy, he arrived at an innovative solution. He and his team built a special pignic kitchen, a totally separate and self-contained environment in which to butcher, prepare and serve what is arguably the island’s best babi guling.

Sutedja’s creativity and novel approach to problem solving are nurtured in the workshop’s positive and natural environment. The property, framed by traditionally built mud walls and containing organic vegetable gardens, fishponds, fresh fruits, and innovative bamboo-based architecture, inspires a rigorous and highly conceptual form of thinking.

The John Hardy concept of sustainability is an idea that permeates all aspects of life and labor at the workshop, from silver designers to the gardeners and the kitchen, where one of the most distinctive elements of sustainability is used every day.

The story goes that a while back the kitchen cooked with gas burners. A sudden lack of gas supplies on the island coincided with a special guest visit to the workshop, and Sutedja was forced to find a new way to prepare lunch. He ordered that fires be lit and dry wood be collected, and in this manner the kitchen prepared the VIP lunch. Just before the food was to be served, John Hardy himself came into the kitchen and took note of the wood fires.

“He asked me why I was cooking with wood instead of the gas burners,” smiles Sutedja. “I just explained to him that this way was the traditional Balinese way of cooking, and that it tasted better.”

After that Hardy and Sutedja met frequently to discuss the kitchen and how to improve it in an environmentally sound, more efficient and traditional manner. They experimented with several ideas before hitting on the rice husk stoves that are on prominent display and in daily use in Sutedja’s kitchen.

The stoves are simply creations that burn on discarded rice husk. A sack of rice husk costs Rp1,000 (11 US cents) and Mr. Sutedja’s kitchen uses ten sacks per day to serve lunches and dinners to more than 800 people. He calculates his weekly rice husk expenditures as between Rp50,000 and Rp60,000, whereas before he spent Rp1 million per week in cooking with gas stoves. And the food, all locally produced and mostly organic, apparently tastes much better when cooked in this way.

The rice husk stoves and the pignic kitchen are but two examples of Sutedja’s creative thinking, something he describes as having evolved from the nurturing and pressured demands of life at the workshop, where constant innovation and a quest for a better way are inherent concepts.

“He is very creative,” says PR manager Agatha Belinda. “We frequently encounter many challenges here. For example, we had to get ready for an event with 200 people and wanted to do something organic. Pak Ngurah came up with the idea of using hollowed bamboo stalks as glasses and rolled lemon grass as straws. He always finds solutions to whatever problems or issues we throw at him.”

For his part, Sutedja remains modest. He is quick to smile and even quicker to praise his kitchen team for their hard work and innovation. If sustainability is about creative problem solving and using resources in fundamentally new ways, it is safe to say that Ngurah Sutedja is at the absolute forefront in Bali – and as a Balinese from Gianyar, he hopes that more and more people take note.

“These are my challenges,” he says softly, “but there are many more problems that we must also solve together through cooperation and hard work.”

Filed under: The Island

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