A feast on the beach | AspenTimes.com

A feast on the beach

Ross Kribbs

Aspenites and new friends gather around the beachfront dinner table at Restorante Da Ali for the evening's meal.

Editor’s note: Roughly one year after the Asian tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, photographer Ross Kribbs traveled to Thailand, supposedly to document the reconstruction. As it turned out, the highlight of his trip was a sumptuous feast on a picture-perfect beach near Phuket. The beach itself had been slammed by the tsunami, but had recovered somewhat by the time of the feast. The second anniversary of the tsunami is this week, Dec. 26, 2006.

Begin with a trio of Aspen chefs on a monthlong offseason vacation. Combine it with impeccable Thai weather (tropical sun is a powerful antidote to a wet autumn in Colorado), and a strip of sand as perfectly curved as a crescent moon. Finally, add an oceanside thatched-hut restaurant with three-diamond quality, rustic appeal and gracious hosts.

It may sound like a recipe for restfulness, but not for three hardworking Aspen chefs.And so we found ourselves wading, not through the shoals of Laem Singh beach where we’d made our home, but through the open-air markets of Phuket City and the fish market at Bang Tao beach. Cory Leeland, a veteran chef at Matsuhisa, searched in vain for sushi among 20 bins of unlabeled grains. Randy Placeres, a private chef and a heavyweight in the Aspen catering scene, picked through vibrant fresh chilis, then snagged some fresh ginger root and something that looked like cauliflower. Barclay Dodge of Restaurant Barclay tested samples of multihued curries with the help of Ali, the affable owner of Restaurant da Ali on Laem Singh beach – and our tour guide/interpreter/combat driver for the afternoon.

As the photographer in the group, I documented the shopping mission that would lead to a grand feast on the beach.I’d been friends with Randy Placeres since we’d met on a rafting trip my first summer in Aspen. That weekend, he created riverside magic from a few hunks of half-priced City Market salmon and a couple of spice packets floating in the dry box.When he invited me along on this trip, he mentioned a vague plan to cook a big meal on a beach. Sun and sand were obvious draws, but I figured the possibility of a repeat culinary performance was worth my time – and a half-decade’s collection of frequent-flyer miles.

As a photographer (I was the lone non-chef in the delegation), I counted on a visual feast to complement the culinary one, and I packed my cameras accordingly; they fit nicely between the beach towels, the sunscreen, the sandals, the paperbacks, the sunglasses and the snorkeling gear. (If the TSA shares its intelligence with the IRS, I could have problems come tax time.) Not surprisingly, after a few days of leisure and lethargy in Phuket, it seemed the beach feast idea was fading, as was my similarly vague journalistic plan to document tsunami reconstruction. It was difficult to think about work in this environment.

Or perhaps more accurately, it was easy not to think about work in this tropical locale. Banana-pineapple milkshakes and cheap massages conspired against culinary exploration on the part of the three chefs, and against photographic exploration on mine.Yet at some point – perhaps it was the lunch of green papaya salad with a side of grilled prawns (a visual treat as well as a tasty one) – I noticed a gradual change in the conversation. Topics shifted from “is this place amazing or what?” to “this has to be the best damn meal I’ve ever spent 80 cents for,” to “here’s how I think they make this.”

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You can take the cooks out of the kitchen, but …In short order, the idea for the Big Dinner on the Beach was resurrected. Randy convinced Ali to keep the kitchen open past dark and to invite his entire family for dinner – an easy task, since they comprised the entire staff of Restaurant da Ali. Barclay had the more difficult task of explaining (in his best Thainglish) that the sunburned Americans would handle the cooking.For this evening, our gracious hosts would be our guests.

The makeshift propane burners at Restaurant da Ali have doubtless provided more culinary pleasure than most of the gleaming Viking ranges in the deluxe kitchens up on Red Mountain. Randy and Cory huddled above the burners, dropping fresh stone-crab cakes into sizzling oil. Barclay turned vegetables on a rusting charcoal grill. In minutes, the groceries they’d collected around the island had filled out the menu: crab cakes, ginger-lime soup with root vegetables, rockfish with Thai chili sauce, and grilled fresh vegetable salad.Ali and his family set tables and umbrellas, lit candles and found a few fresh flowers in the woods behind the restaurant. The scene couldn’t have been more tropical or more inviting. (Think Bachelorette rose ceremony set meets Survivor tribal council, minus the cameras and theatrics.)

If hunger is the best spice, then exploration and communion come in a close second – perhaps followed by sun, sand and sweet Thai chili sauce. Guests and hosts moved from the hut/kitchen to the table on the beach. Conversations continued, fueled by Singha beer and gratitude, created as much by gesture as by words.Ross Kribbs is a former photographer for The Aspen Times and now a freelance photographer.

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