Views With Rooms
Joshua Shapiro - April 2014
Spectacular locations, plus a well-defined sense of place in the ambience, the service, the decor, and the food, make sure Aman Resorts guests know exactly where they are.
Chef Nicola van Heemsbergen’s day starts at 6:30 a.m.—inspecting deliveries to his off-site loading dock, breakdown area, walk-ins, and prep center—and it doesn’t wind down until midnight. In the interim, the classically trained Belgian supervises six separate kitchens (formal dining, beach, room service, and three distinct staff canteens) at Aman Resort’s newest property, Amano’i, on Vinh Hy Bay on the southern coast of Vietnam.
Van Heemsbergen, who has done stints at Raffles Singapore, The Peninsula Bangkok, Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort in Malaysia, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Centre, and the Amanjena in Morocco, arrived last February. He had only about six months to get ready before the soft opening held for Aman Junkies, the hardcore, repeat-visiting Aman guests, and only four months more before house occupancy sold out during the New Year’s festive season. While the kitchen had already been planned and ordered, he had to purchase all the smallware; hire and train his staff of 45, most of whom had never worked in the hotel industry, tasted Western cuisine, or spoken English; and with the help of his sous chef, Nguyen Duy Huy, learn Vietnamese cuisine. Opening a new Aman is a challenge.
Aman is a constellation of 26 unique resorts worldwide with another in New York rumored to be in the planning stages. Aman means “peace” in Hindi. Living up to the name, it sells serenity with an Asian inflection. While an old hotel truism says a property cannot be profitable without at least 100 rooms, Aman flies in the face of accepted wisdom. Each boasts few but pricey rooms, typically fewer than 35, at well over $1,000 a night. Spacious, beautiful, unique locations are the norm. Simplicity, elegance, and personal service are brand hallmarks.
The first Aman, Amanpuri, opened in Thailand in 1988 on the site of a former coconut plantation. Coupling an intensely indigenous cultural aesthetic (architecture, landscaping, furnishings, staff uniforms, menu, activities) to international standards of comfort, the combination immediately attracted and maintained an A-list of demanding film stars, cosseted CEOs, and the pampered über wealthy looking for relaxation, beautiful surroundings, and discreet privacy. Aman’s success has spawned a host of imitators. Newcomers—Bulgari, Cheval Blanc, One&Only, COMO, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Versace, Capella—owe Aman an unstated debt, absorbing what it accomplished.
At Aman, there are no binders with system-wide standard operating procedures. Individual general managers create the air of welcoming guests into their own homes. Each resort, therefore, reflects the personal characteristics and strengths of its gm. The chef and the director of food & beverage, who handle all front of the house, each report to the gm and work together as a team.
When a new resort is opened, staff from other Aman resorts come to either help during the setup or transfer in to work. Amano’i brought in the spa director from Thailand to train its spa staff. The recreation and f&b directors transferred in from the Philippines, while staff from Turkey rotated in for the holidays to help out in a staffing shortage. All bring with them the Aman DNA for good-natured hospitality and guest service.
Food is a critical part of the Aman experience; haute cuisine is not. Glitzy and trendy don’t cut it. Aman’s founder and maestro, Adrian Zecha, believes that his guests are exposed to enough elaborately prepared meals in their regular lives. The last thing they want during a vacation, he posits, is fussy food. So Aman menus are kept short and simple. They offer what’s termed in Japanese as ofukuro-no-aji—the taste of mother’s cooking—made with the best fresh, local ingredients. Food and beverage is not designed to be a major profit center. Food cost is kept down and special equipment minimized. The Aman headquarters in Singapore establishes the conceptual framework for the food experience at each location to which every chef is expected to adhere. Menus are destination specific, reflecting the cuisine at each location, but they also include a variety of nonlocal options.
Each resort maintains Asian and Mediterranean choices. Amano’i serves Vietnamese classics such as goi cuon (rice paper rolls), bánh xèo (crispy pancakes), and cá nuóng lá chuoi (grilled fish in banana leaves). Amansara, in the shadow of Angkor Wat, serves such Khmer dishes as the vegetable samlor kor ko soup and nom ben chok (a popular breakfast noodle dish). The Amanpulo, on a remote island in the Philippines, has four restaurants and a much broader selection, offering Filipino, Vietnamese, Spanish tapas, grilled seafood, and Western pizza, burgers, and salads. Food at each restaurant is simple, but simple can be very difficult. Aman Canal Grande Venice, one of the few urban venues, has a small menu with Veneto and Thai foods served in its two indoor dining rooms, and Japanese offered outside on the terrace.
As part of Aman’s personalized service, guests can request and receive whatever they like. Guests order hors-piste for dietary limitations or just food preference. At Amans where the typical stay is only two or three days, or where guests can easily eat off-property, two starters and two entrées on a menu might suffice, but when guests are visiting for a week or a month, they’re vocal about personal preferences and confer directly with the chef to plan their meals.
Given the room rate, anything goes. For example, American guests on an Asian grand tour might overdose on local Asian specialties and demand substantial Western cooking—a rib eye and mashed potatoes. In Cambodia, chef Molly Rygg knows to prepare Khmer dishes for her Japanese clients without cilantro and to reduce salt content, while her Russian guests get the fruit bowls of passion fruit and mangosteens they love sent to their rooms. In all these situations, an Aman chef will graciously accommodate or anticipate a guest request, including modifying a dish to suit individual or ethnic tastes.
Getting the particular details right for each resort is an Aman priority. The food should offer as much of a sense of place as the architecture and decor. The climate in Rajasthan supports a garden half the size of a football field. There, the Amanbagh chef will prepare and serve guests dinner sur l’herbe.
While a typical resort takes a year to plan and 18 months to build, gestation for an Aman is generally longer. Developing and executing the f&b concept for Amangiri in southern Utah took five years, while designing, permitting, and building the resort took eight, and required an act of Congress. Amangiri guests get a communal table in an open kitchen, with their grub cooked in cast-iron pans from a wood-fired oven. The custom service crockery was manufactured in eight shades of the local desert sage. Designing the bar service was constrained by Utah’s strict liquor laws and required setting up a special wine cellar dining room.
An Aman chef plays to the strengths of local cuisine. Cambodian cuisine is based on lake fish, numerous varieties of rice, rice paddy spinaches, herbs, flowers, tree leaves, and tropical fruit. Rygg is planting a garden for Western vegetables—corn, tomatoes, and lettuces—crops that she can’t bring in from Vietnam. She’s also working with a non-governmental organization to grow local crops. However, Cambodian gardening remains a work in progress, since three months of monsoon rains are followed by three months of drought.
In Bhutan, the original kitchen had to be redesigned so that the Bhutanese kitchen staff could work as a group, which was important culturally for them. The chef there tends a large organic vegetable garden. Wild mushrooms and asparagus are very good there, but local meat is poor and local fish nonexistent. Meals feature spicy Bhutanese cuisine, or either Western, Indian, or Thai fare served to guests sitting at group tables.
Amans are typically are located in a spectacular natural setting—kitchens in the middle of nowhere. While a draw for guests, exotic, picturesque locations are challenging to reach, though private jets usually help. But with each opening, the chef must contend with isolation to successfully find and set up the food supply and logistics for the resort. At Amangiri, it involved scouting and contracting with organic growers in Flagstaff, three hours away. Other provisions come out of Las Vegas, over a four hour drive. But with the growth of Vegas luxury hotel and restaurant culture, anything is available there for a price.
Amano’i took three years to plan and another four years to build. It’s a 90 minute, mostly unpaved drive to the nearest airport and then a two hour flight or a nine hour drive to Saigon. Van Heemsbergen located organic vegetable farmers in Da Lat, only a few hours away, who grow their produce using cold tunnels and the French intensive farming technique. He hired an experienced baker from Saigon who wanted to move back to his native village nearby, so all baked goods can be baked on premises. But all dairy, cheeses, and meats are imported from Australia and special orders need a 10 day lead time. He uses Classic Fine Foods importers because of issues with customs officials, who, left to their own devices, hold up shipments and let them spoil. Rooms are so pleasant that guests seldom leave them. Much of his guest meal traffic is room service, delivered to the pavilions by electric golf cart. But he also prepares daily meals for the 250 resort staff.
Swiss chef Johann “Fritz” Zwahlen, who opened Amanyara on Providenciales in Turks and Caicos in 2005, supervises a staff of 75. He covers 38 rooms, plus 20 villas, each with its own private chef. He also prepares staff meals for 300 employees a day. Coming from Amanpulo in the Philippines, he thought that by moving to the Caribbean, he would gain easy access to everything. The cold reality was that Turks trailed far behind in its food culture. Providenciales is only a lump of stone—solid coral. It supports no fresh market and no commercial fishing. Local fishermen drive him crazy, catching just snapper, snapper, and more snapper. He had to build sources in the United States, including Seafoods.com, and uses FedEx to bring in his perishables. Like other Aman chefs, he prefers to train enthusiastic young people rather than bring in experienced staff he has to retrain.
Patience is the necessary glue that holds an Aman together. New staff aren’t strong in English, even with weekly evening classes. Guests can choose to be annoyed or amused with communications disconnects—like the guest who asked for espresso and received asparagus soup. Each chef must be patient with the guests, the staff, and the menu. Big egos seeking to prove themselves need not apply. But those who love nature and the outdoors, who prefer hiking and the beach to city night life, will find Aman a congenial place for a career.
Joshua Shapiro, a New York–based writer, has pinboned salmon for David Bouley in New York City, made dinner for the models of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot in Greece, and turned out rice paper rolls and crispy pancakes with Nicola van Heemsbergen in Vietnam.