By Gisela Williams
June 05, 2015
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Credit: Matt Oldfield

In the early ’90s, in the Balinese village of Ubud, one of the most fashionable expat hangouts was Casa Luna, an airy, thatched roof cafe on the main drag that served just the right mix of ambitious, home-cooked Indonesian and Mediterranean dishes. On any given evening, a traveler could find some of the island's more intriguing characters, like the monocle-wearing filmmaker Lorne Blair, who might have been seen entertaining friends at one of the round wooden tables placed throughout the restaurant’s two levels.

It was also, notably, the first place on the island where you could order a decent chocolate chip cookie. The owner, an Australian named Janet de Neefe, met and married a Balinese man in 1984, and has been there ever since. After Casa Luna, she opened another restaurant called Indus; a popular cooking school; and the intimate Honeymoon Guesthouse—all of which was recounted in her 2003 memoir Fragrant Rice.

A year later, de Neefe started the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, one of the most successful literary festivals in Southeast Asia, which has showcased writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Amitav Ghosh, while also highlighting more local literary talent. This year, de Neefe launches yet another ambitious project: the Ubud Food Festival, which opens today and runs through the weekend.

“Ubud is really ready for a food festival. The last year or two has really seen an explosion of arriving talent, complementing the already rich Balinese and Indonesian scene that has been here over a century. I predict this movement will help put Balinese and Indonesian cuisine on the map,” said Will Goldfarb, a chef who left New York City’s restaurant scene for Bali in the late aughts after pioneering the ambitious dessert restaurant Room4Dessert.

Credit: Anggara Mahendra

Travel + Leisure caught up with de Neefe to ask her a few questions about her exciting new venture.

What made you want to move to Bali in the first place? And why did you stay?

I fell in love with Bali from the very first time I visited as a fifteen-year-old girl. The flavors, colors, and fragrances—I was intoxicated! I returned in 1984, ten years later, and was bowled over once again by the experience. But when I returned to Melbourne and scoured bookshelves for more information about the cuisine, there was nothing to be found. So my mission became to research and write a Balinese cookbook and introduce the world to the food I love so much. And why did I stay? For love, of course! I met my Balinese husband Ketut here; it’s where I’ve raised my four children and made my home.

What are some of your fondest memories of being a restaurateur in Ubud?

Our first restaurant in Ubud was called Lilies. It was an enormous success and we ran it from 1987 to 1991. It was rather like Fawlty Towers with all sorts of hilarious things happening, almost like slapstick comedy. In 1992, we opened Casa Luna and most of our staff followed us. They are still with us to this day and I guess that's saying something. I love bringing people together, have always loved big family gatherings. With Maltese on one side and Irish on the other, it's part of my genetic make-up. I live and breathe hospitality and the key is to have a sense of humor.

What is it about the cuisine of Southeast Asia that inspires you and the chefs you’ve worked with?

I can’t help but love the local food. It has a home-cooked integrity that is hard to beat and somehow the chefs on the island embrace this quality. I love the reverence of locally grown spices and am inspired by the way chefs on the island, both local and international, use them.

One of the loveliest chefs I have spent time with is Rick Stein. Rick appeared on our doorstep as part of a South-East Asia tour, gathering recipes for his book, Far Eastern Odyssey, a few years ago. Casa Luna, in fact, appears on the cover of the book.

We took Rick to the Ubud market to get an up close and personal view of the locals. He was particularly fond of Ibu Jani, the eccentric woman who sold Dalumen (a green jelly-like health drink), and he drank her brew like it was chilled beer. Ibu Jani made many jokes about the white haired tourist, which of course he didn't understand. The Balinese are very cheeky!

Credit: Anggara Mahendra

Considering your background in gastronomy, why did you start a literary festival before a food festival?

I’ve actually wanted to start a food festival for even longer than I’ve been running Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which is in its 13th year now. At the time, though, the island was recovering from the Bali bombings and we needed a way to bring people together to create meaningful dialogue in the community. That concept has now evolved into one of Southeast Asia’s most celebrated literary events, so there actually hasn’t been much time to start a new project!

What made the timing right?

Last year, we ran The Kitchen sessions as part of the UWRF, and they were so well received that we realized that the time was well and truly ripe for the Ubud Food Festival to come into its own. There’s been so much enthusiasm within the culinary community, not just in Indonesia, but also across Southeast Asia and the world. I know we’ve made the right decision.

What are you especially looking forward to at the festival?

Bringing together some of Indonesia’s leading chefs and culinary icons such as Sri Owen, William Wongso, Bondan Winarno, and Bara Pattiradjawane, alongside up-and-comers like Rahung Naustion and Jon Priadi to demonstrate how extraordinary Indonesian cuisine can be. I am also excited about the visiting chefs; the dinner at Bridges with Ryan Clift; the evening at Hujan Locale with Will Meyrick and Chef Wan; Janice Wong's Mad Hatter's Tea Party at Bisma Eight; and Dave Pynt with Will Goldfarb. Eelke Plasmeier at Locavore will also dish up a feast for which he is famous. So much to eat and see!

How has the food scene in Bali evolved since you opened your first restaurant?

The food scene in Indonesia is so vibrant and fun—there are so many new places setting up all the time that its nearly impossible to keep up. There’s definitely a growing presence in Bali of Indonesia’s amazingly varied culinary scene, from authentic, traditional dishes you can buy at warungs or on the roadside to the uber modern and creative dishes. The Ubud Food Festival just becomes part of that process; bringing together chefs, ingredients, recipes and heritage in one place for people to experience. When you consider that Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands, that's no mean feat!

How have your own restaurants evolved?

The more I travel and taste my way across Indonesia, the more I bring home. In Ambon, for example, the food is so fabulous, like fragrant fish broth that glows with turmeric, and local coffee served with slivered almonds. So I’m always in the pursuit of being able to go own of my restaurants and re-visit a place in my mind.

What are some of your favorite restaurants on the island?

I have so many, it’s hard to choose. I love Mama San in Seminyak or if I feel like elegant Balinese fusion food I dine at Mozaic. For village Balinese food, Ibu Oka's suckling pig in Ubud is a hard to beat. I often go to Bridges in Ubud for a family dinner. And for grilled fish, Ikan Bakar Cianjur in Denpasar is a must.

Looking for more things to do in Bali? Read T+L’s Guide to Bali.