Like so many expats, Jess Barnes first came to Thailand as a backpacker, the now head chef of Quince Eatery tells all to Yvonne Liang – from how he discovered his love for cooking to his views on how we should dine.
When did you realise you had a passion for cooking?
My mum was pretty sick so I started cooking from a young age. Food was a strong part of our lives as kids. We were poor but we always had good food. I worked as a butcher when I was a teen, something I didn’t enjoy at all. I moved into cooking accidentally – I was trying to be a cool artist and a friend asked me to help at his restaurant. I realised instantly I had found something I liked doing.
Where do you get your inspirations for Quince’s menu?
A mixture of things. Things I’ve eaten, countries I’ve travelled to, places I’ve worked, things my nan and mum made – mum was a terrible cook though – I don’t mind a bit of a trend here and there; a powder of this, a bit of foam. Just for fun.
How would you describe your food?
It’s rough, imperfect, real and honest. I don’t peel a lot of the vegetables. I want people to see the occasional fish scale or bit of blood. We have the best bread in town – made for us exclusively by Michael Conkey – we churn our own butter. Get their hands dirty, bread some bread and slosh it down with some booze.
You have some interesting views about how customers should dine?
Food is designed to be shared. I want people to break down those ideas about western food – the first/main course, and individual plating is a relatively new concept, maybe 50 years old. Food is meant to be shared with the ones you work with, love, and care for.
I understand you try to source as much of your food locally as possible?
I get what I can locally. I have no interest in bringing second rate produce half way around the world. Oysters from France? Half of them are dead by the time they arrive. You’re supposed to eat oysters in winter – when the water is cold and the oysters aren’t spawning! I believe the local food industry is developing greatly. I’ve met a lot of new producers, the produce is getting better all the time, the range is widening – great mozzarella and goat cheese, lamb and beef, amazing pork, beautiful figs and tomatoes. Using local produce supports our community, saves on energy consumption, keeps the money in Thailand where it is needed, and I can have direct dialogue with the producers.
What’s your philosophy when it comes it food?
Eat. Respect, love, integrity. Simplicity. I have become disenchanted with the concept of dining. We should place emphasis on eating, being aware of what we eat, where it’s from, respecting nature and the people who work hard to feed us all. I’m still passionate about food but I wish people would think about food in a more thoughtful way rather than it being an assumption. Food is a luxury for a lot of us sadly. It doesn’t need to be that way.
Where do you go for a good meal in Bangkok?
I eat simple. I eat a lot of street food or cook at home. My favourite places to eat are Soulfood and Bo.lan – hands down. They are run by two of my closest friends as well but seriously I’m impressed every time I go to both of them and they have helped me a lot getting my foot back in the door here in Bangkok.
What advice would you give chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery?
Just do what you believe in and be careful with compromises – meet people in the middle but don’t change to please people. Keep it fresh, keep it simple. Try and like what you do. Cooking can really suck at times, but think of how happy you make people. It’s what I do it for.
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