It's a little difficult to decipher the menu, what with the sun having just dissolved before me over the ocean beneath a wispy pink sky as my bare feet nestle into the beach sand that is still warm from the heat of the day. But, bringing the battery-operated candle closer, it looks as if the menu in front of me reads something like this: "Gazpacho, crab spring roll" followed by "pan seared scallop and slow-cooked pork belly", "beef fillet, mushroom risotto, lobster tail, sweet potato, puree, asparagus, deep fried julienne of leek, béarnaise sauce". Oh, and a "chocolate plate".
I'm not reeling off the menu from my private beach dinner at Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort, to, like some reef fish marinade, rub it in (though, then again, did I mention the per-course wine pairings?). Instead, I humbly do so as a service of sorts to one of the most challenged, and perhaps least lauded, of all cooks: the remote resort chef.
Consider this: the five-star Outrigger Konotta with its 52 villas (they don't do mere rooms in the Maldives) is located in the Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, South Huvadhoo Atoll, just over 400 kilometres south from Male, the capital, and one of the world's most densely populated small cities. The next closest major city is probably Colombo, Sri Lanka, a few hours' flying time away.
The resort is situated in a part of the Maldives that was opened to luxury resorts by the Maldivian government in only relatively recent times. After a flight from Australia, via Singapore and with a connection in Male, it can be a bit of an expedition to get here. But from the moment you sight the island on which the resort is, in the middle of the idyllic Indian Ocean, any hints of hardship are instantly dispelled.
Guests at Maldivian five-star resorts are among the most indulged on the planet and, seduced by luxury heaped upon luxury, with the smallest villa at Outrigger Konotta starting at 160 square metres. It's easy to forget, as the guest sinks into a designer banana lounge, what a feat such a modern-day, far-flung retreat like this one represents.
Paramount among those indulgences, of course, are the lavish quantities of food available and served to the standard of a big-city international restaurant. For Englishman Chris Long, executive chef at Outrigger Konotta, who last year came to the Maldives after a stint at another luxury resort in Vietnam, paradise can be professionally onerous. "I see myself as less a chef and more as a hospitality manager," he says. "It was a shock to come here from Vietnam. There the food was flown in on a daily basis. But it was a different experience here."
Long and his team of chefs, drawn from the Maldives and countries in the region, have to depend on a fortnightly shipment by freighter from Male, with a good deal of the produce and ingredients for the resort coming from dependable and quality suppliers from Australia, nearly 9000 kilometres away.
The nearest equivalent to the task of a resort chef at such a remote location is that of a cruise ship, especially when you add the complexity of having to feed the resort's staff, including his own 40-odd chefs. But at least a cruise ship moves while a resort like Outrigger Konotta is marooned, albeit magnificently, in the middle of a lonely and vast ocean, a speck of land with a population relying on a ship to deliver your goods every 14 days, so you'd better get your shopping list right first time.
"Everything has to converge at the resort from our suppliers Dubai, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Australia, all co-ordinated out of Male by a separate purchasing manager," he says. "I do get a little nervous before each shipment."
But Long says his only regret is not having become a resort chef sooner. Despite the logistical demands of keeping his increasingly multinational clientele fed, watered and satisfied, a resort like Outrigger Konotta allows for a more personal interaction with the guests.
It's no surprise, considering its sublime ocean location, that fish figures prominently on the menu at Outrigger Konotta, with the resort featuring its own teppanyaki and sushi restaurant. It's the one dish that can be sourced fresh locally. Hidden away behind the scenes are industrial-style freezers to store produce as the chefs await the next freighter arrival.
Long is responsible for two restaurants at the resort, Blue Salt, an a la carte restaurant serving international and Asian cuisine, and Nala Rah, which features a resort bar. But for the Yorkshireman it's the beach that's probably his biggest dining room.
Nowadays the cross-section of guests at Maldivian resorts is more diverse, with the Chinese becoming a newly important market, adding to the degree of difficulty. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one of the newest dining options for guests at the resort is, rather incongruously for the tropical setting, Mongolian-style hot pot for two. What the guests want …
Back on the beach at my private dinner, darkness has descended across the island with the main source of light coming from flaming lanterns and that deceptively realistic candle. Between courses, fanned by wafting warm sea breezes, I sit back and notice small bobbing beams of light on the other side of the resort.
Tropical fireflies? It's not until the light beams come closer that I'm able to properly identify them. It's actually the light emitted from a dozen or so iPhones wielded by a gaggle of Chinese guests who appear to be searching for crabs in the darkness along the lapping waves of the beach. Oh well, there goes the romance but there's still the beef fillet from Australia to come.
Despite the challenges of being a remote resort chef, Long isn't considering reducing the degree of difficulty that characterises such a role. When we spoke during my stay he was planning to introduce a mini-Asian street food festival, drawing on the talents of his multicultural chefs, replete with colourful lanterns, stalls and live music, to the resort. Better get that shopping list right, Chris.
FIVE MORE FOOD EXPERIENCES AT THE RESORT
YEARN TO LEARN
The resort offers cooking classes for guests who are taught to cook traditional Maldivian-style dishes such as soups and curries, as well as how to marinate reef fish. You then get to eat the dish you've made in a private area of the resort's Blue Salt Restaurant.
THE GRILL OF IT ALL
Once a week or so the resort holds a sunset barbecue on the beach, with tables and chairs set up on the sand in front of its Blue Salt Restaurant. Guests are entertained by traditional Maldivian music and dancing performed by a group formed by members of the resort's own staff.
You've haven't really dined five-star style in the Maldives unless you've done so in private on the beach, in your own villa or perhaps on a sandbank on the middle of the ocean away from the resort. Of course, you'll be attended to by your own retinue of chefs and waiters.
The resort has introduced an Asian hawker-style festival during its high season. Drawing on its culinary team consisting of chefs from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, guests are served everything from pho tolaska dishes from outdoor street-food style stalls.
TAKE TO THE TEPPAN
The teppan, a scorchingly hot Japanese-style stainless steel hot plate, delivers clean and healthy flavours that succeed surprisingly well in a tropical-resort setting in the Maldives. At Nala Rah, the pavilion-like Japanese restaurant, a selection of sake, shochu and wines are served.
Singapore Airlines operates daily services to Male, the capital of the Maldives, from Sydney and Melbourne, via Singapore. Outrigger Konotta Resort Maldives, which is located in the country's southern extremities, is reached via a one-hour or so domestic flight from Male to Kaadedhdhoo, followed by a half-hour boat transfer. See singaporeair.com
Outrigger Konotta Resort Maldives has a special deal on daily rates starting from $US769, plus taxes and a service charge, for a beach pool villa and including breakfast and a three-course dinner (excluding beverages) for two at the in-house Blue Salt Restaurant. The offer is available until July 31, 2017, with the stay period until March 31, 2018. Conditions apply. See outrigger.com
Anthony Dennis visited the Maldives as a guest of Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort and with the assistance of Singapore Airlines