The famed chefs from Three Blue Ducks create an eating experience in paradise.
It's 5.30am and a warm, woolly breeze races the 15-metre game-fishing boat Castaway west from Fesdu Island in the Maldives' North Ari Atoll to a bountiful fishing spot in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We've got bait, hand lines, flaky pastries, coffee … and a DJ, Jennifer Dons from the Canary Islands, with a monoshield visor you could fry eggs on and a playlist of drum-based Maldivian boduberu music that will have fish line-dancing.
A fiery orb of sun gatecrashes breakfast at about 6.08 and, soon after, Australian guest chef Mark LaBrooy catches the first fish of the day, a green jobfish. Mentally he's already grilling it over a fire with a spicy paste of chilli, lemongrass and galangal.
LaBrooy is in his element. A surfer, free diver and spearfisherman, he has fished for lobster, abalone, snapper and kingfish for two decades, and is wise about tides, currents and water temperatures. He's the kind of guy who knows when sea urchins are about to spawn and he will disappear now and again to hang out with green sea turtles. He is also a co-founder of Three Blue Ducks (with chefs Darren Robertson, Andy Allen, Chris Sorrell, Sam Reid-Boquist and Jeff Bennett). They are wanderlust friends like-minded in their commitment to "real food" – ethically produced, sustainable, honest; food, says LaBrooy, "that is about engaging with your environment, taking what you need from it, not being greedy".
The Ducks, who brought a restaurant attitude to cafes, now have a portfolio that includes eateries in Bronte and Rosebery in Sydney, in Byron Bay, at W Brisbane and, this summer, at the new Melbourne surf park UrbnSurf.
Right now, LaBrooy needs his crew to maximise the catch. He's cooking what promises to be an unforgettable dinner the following night: the Three Blue Ducks Island Takeover, a $445 a head, 13-course degustation of Maldivian bounty, with organic wines, at the W Maldives resort.
Dons' playlist is doing the trick. Over the next few hours dozens of snapper, grouper, rainbow runners, mangrove jack, emperors and leatherjackets end up with the jobfish in a big white cooler. The fish will be joined by prawns, octopus and, after a little free diving later in the evening, lobster.
The week before, Three Blue Ducks chef Darren Robertson wowed guests at W Bali in Seminyak with a similarly local menu and, from November through January, three highlights from each dinner will comprise a Three Blue Ducks Experience capsule menu for hotel guests at the two properties.
Meanwhile, back at the Maldivian ranch – actually 77 villas, 50 over-water and 27 by the beach – executive chef Norberto Palacios is more focused on potatoes. Because the trouble with paradise is that it rarely produces everything a discerning chef needs. No matter how "paddock to plate" you want to be, guests will still want fries and mash and food you don't grow.
Palacios, from Cordoba in Argentina, imports 300 kilograms of pink-skinned desiree potatoes each week from Australia. He orders poultry from France and Spain, beef from Argentina and Australia (mostly grass-fed, from the Riverina), vegetables, again from Australia, and fruit and more vegetables and spices from Thailand and Sri Lanka. His kitchen garden has essentials such as lemongrass, basil and rosemary.
Coconut and yellowfin tuna are the backbone of Maldivian cuisine. Dishes are spiced with peppers, chilli and curry leaves. Tuna and lobster curries are mainstays, as is a fish broth called garudiya, the fish morsel gulha, prepared with coconut, dahl, green chilli, fresh lime juice and ginger, and roshi, a tortilla-like flatbread. Watermelons, bananas, green mango and lemons are the worker bees.
In the Maldives – 26 atolls comprising 1192 coral islands, taking up 90,000 square kilometres of Indian Ocean – a chef has to be resourceful, organised and creative.
Dishes in the lead-up to LaBrooy's Island Takeover tap into the "detox, retox, repeat" wellness mantra of the W diaspora. The brand sees its target market as disrupter types with a 24/7 mindset, energetic travellers who value transformative experiences, exercise (thus the activity menu of power rave yoga, boxing, SeaBob underwater scooters, and beach boot camp), and top-notch fuel – preferably organic and with provenance.
Snacks include flamed salmon sushi with caviar and fresh wasabi, tuna and snapper ceviche, smoked reef fish with seaweed, vibrant DIY salads, fish tacos, silver-bullet juices and barbecue of whole wahoo. Sweet-tooths delve into a timber box of polished stones for "pebbles" of cold mascarpone chocolate with raspberry marbling. At a share-plate feast on the neighbouring island of Gaathu Fushi one evening we fuel up on Iberico ham on tomato bread, burnt provolone and rocket salad, beef empanadas, slow-cooked cochinillo, and rib-eye beef with chimichurri.
The best way to build an appetite for the Island Takeover marathon proves to be an hour of snorkelling on the underwater wonderland that is the W's house reef, among turtles, parrotfish, guitarfish and butterfly fish, schools of small tropical reef fish, vivid anemones, manta rays, and the odd reef shark.
The setting of W Maldives is mesmerising for its minimalist beauty, the lagoons pure filtered aquamarine and coralline sand so fine and so, so white that walking on it is like sinking into crushed velvet.
The Island Takeover, a dinner for 35, takes place on an inky dusk. A marquee on the beach is made from a thick fringing of lights reflected in the cutlery like stardust. It's as pretty as a setting gets. Under stars and a slice of moon, the fun begins. Tuna ceviche on quinoa crisps, butterflied prawns with avocado mousse and charred kale, and coal-roasted chicken with a green sauce. LaBrooy gets to marry his popular cashew cream with harissa-glazed pumpkin and red cabbage sauerkraut. The jobfish is there, dressed for success as he envisaged. There's broccoli salad with pickled chilli, and a pineapple tarte Tatin with lemongrass caramel and a gossamer custard.
But the gold medal goes to his knock-out Maldivian chilli lobster, slowly poached in a beurre blanc made with chilli and tomalley (the "mustard" in the head), delivered in an arty black-and-white patterned shell with coconut and dried fish sambal and luscious roti. It will be joined on the Three Blue Duck Experience podium by charred "occy" with jalapenos and salsa verde, and a salad of pomelo, grapefruit and bitter greens.
Over at W Bali, guests will be ordering Darren Robertson's raw Indonesian swordfish, lobster with XO butter, and flat iron steak with lettuce and charred herb salsa.
The collaboration, says LaBrooy, came from "a very honest place". One of the W executives called him from the Maldives, just after hauling in a sailfish, raving about the fishing and suggesting Mark take some guests out and later help them cook their catch.
"I didn't want to think too much about it before coming here," says the chef who trained in Tetsuya's kitchen and came away with discipline and knife skills. "I thought, 'Let's just see what we catch. Let's keep it a little bit loose.'
"My food is not that refined – it's all about crusty edges, char marks, and big flavours. And there are a lot of beautiful subtleties that come with eating like that."
Susan Skelly was a guest of W Hotels.
Singapore Airlines operates 137 flights a week from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth to Singapore. SilkAir operates 16 flights a week from Singapore to Male. A shared seaplane from Male to W Maldives return costs $US505. See singaporeair.com
A villa at W Maldives starts from $US800 a night; at W Bali Seminyak, from IDR 4 million a night . The Three Blue Ducks Experience menu is $US185 at W Maldives; IDR 900,000 at W Bali. See wmaldives.com; wbaliseminyak.com