KOH SAMUI — A little over a year ago, New Zealander Jeremy Simeon was working as an executive chef at a luxury resort on Koh Samui. His girlfriend, Jitlada “Tang” Sirachadapong, was a lawyer in Bangkok with 17-year experience in the job. And then everything changed.
The coronavirus outbreak struck, closing down borders and turning the popular island into a ghost town. With tourists gone, Jeremy’s career was no longer a safe and stable one like it was. So he and Jitlada took a gamble. They left their jobs and started a new business: they’d be private chefs for hire, cooking up fine-dining meals in private homes – just when restaurants were ordered to close down amid the pandemic.
No doubt it was huge upheaval for Jitlada, 38, who spent nearly half her life in law firms, working mostly on LGBT and disability rights. She had no background as a professional chef, but she has always loved cooking. And that’s enough for her.
“I worked with a lot of LGBT people. The same feeling that katoey have, where they are unable to come out and be themselves made me think of how I was unable to do what I really loved, which was cooking,” Jitlada said.
For six months now, under the name Chada Culinary, the couple has been cooking fine dining meals for people vacationing in villas on Samui. They target a niche, yet growing, client base: high-end families and celebrities who would rather eat at a luxury beach home than go out because of COVID-19 anxiety.
“They’re thinking, well, where can we go this year?” Jeremy said. The pair spoke to Khaosod English for an interview in Bangkok during their business trip to the capital. “Dining in is the new dining out.”
But the venture’s image as a hobby available only to the ultrarich hiso may be deceptive, when you consider the price they charge.
The range for Chada Culinary is between 1,850 baht to 2,800 baht a person, with the most expensive being an eight-course omakase. That’s actually more affordable than many of the fine-dining venues in the glitzy parts of Bangkok.
To compare, Michelin-starred Ginza Sushi Ichi offers dinner omakase for 5,000 and 7,000 baht – service and tax not included. A seven-course dinner set at Blue by Alain Ducasse runs for 4,950.
The pandemic also means a high-end vacationing on Samui isn’t as high-end as it used to be. A private villa on Samui can be rented for a cost of 5,000 baht per night on Airbnb. A Bangkok Airways flight to the island is sometimes as inexpensive as 2,500 baht.
“Yes, private dining might be for rich people, but we want food to be accessible to everybody,” Jitlada said. “We want everybody to benefit from that, not just high-end people.”
‘The Market Has Changed A Lot’
For Jeremy, 49, the new venture is a next step for his career as an executive chef – he cooked for Ed Sheeran when he vacationed at Song Saa private island in Cambodia.
The transition was much harder for Jitlada, who struggled to convince her family that leaving a stable lawyer job to start a cooking business in the height of a pandemic and soaring unemployment is really the logical thing to do.
“My heart was already there,” she said. “But I don’t think my father could take the fact that part of my job involves scraping and cleaning dishes.”
Jeremy said the pandemic “forced him to do his own thing,” and the two began approaching villas and offered private omakase packages for vacationers lumped in with the villa stay, which would in turn support resort staff.
“Before COVID, if you had a nice restaurant, good food, and a good view, you would get people coming. But the market has changed a lot,” the New Zealander said.
He gives a nod to one of his favorite restaurants in Bangkok, Saawaan, in the presentation of Thai food in a modern way. Clients often assume Jeremy is cooking the Western food and Jitlada the Thai, but the reverse is true.
The pair carry cooking equipment and meal prep ingredients to villas, making dishes like Kaeng Kua Supparot Goong, or shrimp and pineapple curry and grilled duck curry (kaeng phed ped yaang) with grape slices and flower garnishes.
Once, a client has asked for albino beluga to be subbed in, or white caviar that costs at least 20,000 baht a jar.
A Stormy Year for Samui
But Jeremy and Jitlada said the glamorous elements of their job doesn’t blind them from the harsh reality of so many lives upended by the pandemic on the island – the hardship is simply impossible to ignore.
Food bank queues were so huge in the streets that police were deployed to ease traffic flow. Although Thai tourists later trickled back to the island, their spending habits can’t match the foreign travelers and backpackers. Afterall, office workers from Bangkok are unlikely to be interested in beach chair massage or hair braiding.
“An entire section of Chaweng Beach is gone. Half the bars, massage places, resorts, are gone,” Jeremy said.
Top: A popular travel blogger shares her experience of visiting Koh Samui during the coronavirus pandemic.
He saw hotel occupancy plunge from 75 percent to 8 percent, with places staying open just to avoid laying off staff. Vendors who used to sell sunglasses switched to setting up tables and chairs to sell curry and noodles in front of their homes, but it’s never for a lot of money, Jeremy said.
One auntie who used to braid hair for foreign tourists caught the couple’s attention. They recalled seeing her, jobless and forlorn on the beach, so they boxed some extra food they prepared for a private dining session then handed it to the auntie. The reaction was heart-wrenching, Jeremy remembered.
“She started crying and holding my hands. I had to jump back in the car and get out of there, or else I would have a breakdown,” he said. “It’s really a hard time for some people during COVID. You might have food, but what about people like her?”
สมุย … มันสุดวังเวง!!!
ภูเก็ต กระบี่ พังงา ป่าตอง
เชียงใหม่ บางแสน พัทยา
— Global Citizen (@Citizen2600) September 10, 2020
Top: A Twitter user shows the dire situation on Koh Samui during the coronavirus pandemic in September 2020.
With the grim reality of life under the pandemic always fresh in their mind, Jeremy and Jitlada pledged to donate 10 percent of their revenues to several charities, including Healing Family Foundation for Autistic People in Chiang Mai, the Redemptorist Foundation for the Development of Persons with Disabilities in Pattaya, and the Ban Nana Mae Sai nonprofit for children in Chiang Rai.
Health professionals and hospitality workers on Samui are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine. The government said the initiative is to prepare for reopening the border to foreign tourists. But it remains unclear when that’ll actually happen – no timeframe has been discussed as of now.
Starting to Enjoy Life Again
Misery on the island aside, Jitlada said she enjoys her newfound passion way more than the old life of poring over hundreds of legal documents. She had no previous cooking experience, so she trained with Hanuman, a foreign Thai cooking expert, before taking her leap of faith.
As for Jeremy, he said that being able to get his hands on cooking as part of a small team has revived his dormant love for cooking.
“I’m starting to enjoy it again. At an executive level, mostly it’s managing people and numbers,” Jeremy said of his old job.
Neither regret waving goodbye to a stable corporate salary and saying hello to prepping curries in holiday villas.
“Use this opportunity to do what you really love to do. You’ll make money eventually,” Jeremy said.
“It’s like we get to go on vacation and cook each day, but with a different view,” Jitlada said. “We’re blessed.”
The two urged Bangkokians to take their next trip down to Samui. “It’s the best time to visit. It’s completely empty,” Jeremy said.
Khaosod English signing out, March 6, 2021.