Adam James is standing in a corner of the kitchen at Desa Potato Head resort in Seminyak, carefully checking head-sized jars filled with bright, opaque liquids and gently bubbling vegetables. Inside a warm drawer, a mixture of indigenous gude beans, sorghum and soybeans are softening under a thin layer of white mould, the faint scent of caramel beginning to develop.
“This was only put down yesterday,” James says of the fermenting beans, nudging them gently with his turmeric-stained fingers, clearly still captivated by the growth of the friendly, flavour-enhancing mould, even after years of seeing it work its magic.
When Broadsheet visits, it’s only the second week of the Australian fermentation expert’s month-long residency at the five-star resort (it’s since ended) but James has already immersed himself in the local food culture, forging partnerships, exploring unfamiliar ingredients and putting down a range of ferments. The Tassie-based chef’s goal is to help Potato Head implement a fermentation program that will be rolled out across the resort’s restaurants.
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“There aren’t a lot of fermented foods in Bali,” he says, inspecting a bright yellow jar of bumbu Bali, an aromatic spice paste, to which he’s added a brine to aid fermentation. “I’m excited to get my hands on traditional Indonesian ingredients and then implement techniques from around the world. That’s exactly what I do at home, too.”
James’s work spans the fermentation program at Mona’s Eat the Problem project, stints at Future Food System in Melbourne and the Agrarian Kitchen in Tasmania, and a range of fermented and congee-based products available under his Rough Rice moniker. His koji-fuelled adventures have taken him to Japan, China, Georgia, Denmark and beyond.
“I’d actually never been to Bali before. I guess I kind of avoided it because of the cliches,” he says of his first visit to Desa Potato Head in 2022, as waiters shuttle plates with mounds of glistening nasi goreng and bright tropical fruits behind us. “What I didn’t realise was how delicious the food was.”
Renowned for its hedonistic party scene, rejuvenating wellness programs, ambitious zero-waste policies and rich cultural partnerships, Potato Head also takes its food very seriously. The village-sized resort is home to numerous eateries, including Tanaman, a vegan degustation experience headed up by Australian chef Dom Hammond; Kaum, a contemporary Indonesian eatery; and Ijen, a zero-waste poolside seafood grill.
By combining widely used native Balinese ingredients with traditional fermentation processes like lacto-fermentation, James is excited to share his knowledge of these ancient practices with Potato Head’s kitchen teams in a way that resonates with their local cuisine.
“What is it going to taste like? What is it going to be like texturally? That’s the fun and fascinating part. It’s all just indulging a sense of curiosity. To be able to come to a place like Bali and look around at a completely different set of ingredients to what I have in Tasmania is literally like being a kid in a candy shop.”
Back out by the crystal-blue infinity pool overlooking Seminyak beach, James takes a sip of jamu, a juice rich with turmeric, galangal and ginger that is beloved by Indonesians. “I’d never heard of it before. I drank it literally straight off the plane and I decided there and then that’s something I need to learn about while I’m here.”
James hopes to partner with Potato Head’s Ubud-based jamu recipe developers, combining their elixir with his “fire tiger” tonic from home – a play on ancient fire ciders made with fermented turmeric, ginger and garlic – to create something new.
“My suitcase on the way here was pretty interesting,” he says of the fire tiger, starters and vinegars he brought from home to kickstart his Balinese ferments. Those ferments will include lacto-fermented green cloves (sourced during a random roadside encounter while driving into the northern Balinese mountains); belimbing wuluh (a fruit that grows wild in the jungle) fermented in the style of a Japanese shibazuke; and vinegar crafted from dragonfruit and potent local coconut sap-based spirit arak.
It’s not just about creating an arsenal of inventive ferments for the resort, or sharing his considerable knowledge with Potato Head’s chefs. The resort’s creative team is also making a documentary around the Hobart local’s visit, directed by the resort’s creative director Pete Keen. It’s centred around James’s meeting with Ubud-based rice farmer, alchemist, homeopath and dignitary Tjok Gde Kerthyasa; the film will see him introduce Kerthyasa to Indigenous Australians in Lutruwita (Tasmania), then bring them all back to Potato Head to share a meal at Kaum. While he’ll inevitably be sharing a little of his food knowledge and ingredients, James sees himself as merely the facilitator for the cultural communion.
“It’s going to be a beautiful exchange of traditional cultures,” he says. “I’m just bringing people together.”
With the dinner scheduled for later this year, and the film’s release planned for 2024, James is looking forward to seeing his ferments appearing throughout Desa Potato Head’s kitchens, and the knowledge – which Simon Pestridge, Potato Head’s chief experience officer, says has “already become part of Potato Head’s DNA” – rippling through its network of chefs.
“It’ll just take a bit of time,” James says as the fermenting eggplants in the jar beside him release a few bubbles. “Like everything does, I suppose. All I’m doing is creating a hospitable environment and letting it do its thing.”