Mon. Mar 20th, 2023

Chef Christoph has a ‘Little Black Book’ bursting with starry chef names. It reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the gastro world. The Berlin-born director of culinary services at Soneva Jani in the Maldives, chef Christoph Pentzlin is the driving force behind the luxury resort’s Soneva Stars programme, which welcomes a roster of internationally-renowned chefs to head-up residencies on the exotic island.

As he talks, the names of some of the best chefs in the world roll off his tongue – “Gordon” [Ramsay]; “Clare” [Smyth] and “Jonathan” [Zandbergen] are just a few. Most of them he knows personally, a direct result of many years working in some of the best Michelin-starred kitchens – including three-starred Gordon Ramsay Restaurant in London and three Michelin-starred Restaurant Oud Sluis in the Netherlands.

Having joined Soneva Jani in 2020, these contacts have elevated the programme even further – despite the concept already receiving plenty of plaudits after it launched some 10 years ago. He has also embraced the group’s Slow Life principles, by pioneering sustainable culinary initiatives in the resort’s kitchens, creating farm-to-table experiences and harnessing Soneva Jani’s abundant organic gardens to support the circular, ‘Waste to Wealth’ economy.

It’s hard not to buy into the sustainable way of life at both Soneva’s resorts – the original, Soneva Fushi, which celebrated its 25th year anniversary last year– is a short 15-minute sea-plane flight away. Here, the concept of barefoot luxury was invented and a deep understanding of green tourism is sewn into the fabric of both destinations.

“It’s now part of my DNA,” says Christoph, when he talks about his sustainable approach to cookery. “It’s also a passion for many of my contemporaries,” he says, when asked about the luring the big-name chefs here. “Soneva’s reputation goes before it, so it’s not hard to tempt them to come here,” he laughs.

Next month, for instance, sees Jonathan Zandbergen, executive chef at Restaurant Merlet in Schoorl, Netherlands, host a series of exclusive dining events at Soneva Jani (1-12 July). Considered one of the greatest Dutch culinary talents, with 20 years of experience in Michelin-starred restaurants and cooking competitions, Zandbergen has created his own unique style of Dutch cuisine.

Other chefs making an appearance this year include Chantelle Nicholson, chef and owner of Mayfair’s fabled Apricity restaurant; Mickael Viljanen of Ireland’s two Michelin starred Chapter One and renowned Parisian patisserie Nina Metayer. The list, says Christoph, is two-years in the planning. “With an abundance of amazing produce grown right here and with this incredible setting, who wouldn’t want to showcase their talents in the Maldives? We have a queue of chefs waiting to come.”

When you wake up on Soneva Jani, all you see are endless views of the turquoise sea – or is it jade? Maybe aquamarine? Your overwater villa is drenched with the incredible light from the ocean and sky, the cobalt and cerulean blues merging like a watercolour painting. Retractable glass walls and futuristic roofs, open up the space so you can fall out of bed and dip into your pool, or fall asleep directly under the stars, the sound of the waves all around you.

Breakfast at Down to Earth sets the tone for the day. You pad along the boardwalk, barefoot, to the beachside setting, basking in the sun rays, hungry for what’s to come.

From passion fruit and ginger smoothies to the in-house ‘Energiser Boosters’ made of special blends of juices, spices and herbs (watermelon and mint? Or mango, ginger and guava?), many of the choices are on the right side of healthy. There’s a cold room housing a bakery, with an overflowing cheese table, ‘cold cuts’ corner and a tropical fruit station, where you can ‘pick and mix’ from a rainbow of fruits.

Found on the edge of the Maldives in the Noonu Atoll – next stop: Sri Lanka – Soneva Jani offers the ultimate treasure island experience. ‘Chapter Two’ is a selection of James Bond-style villas – which offer either sunrise or sunset views – and which only opened in 2020. They feel modern yet authentic and ramp up the Robinson Crusoe feel with slides, which take you straight into the lagoon, vast indoor and outdoor living spaces, sweeping terraces, private pools and glorious outdoor bathrooms.

The design is a beautifully thought-out – think: rustic-luxe style – with the villas built using sustainable materials and boasting undulating lines and curvy architecture – no doubt, to reflect the ocean waves. Each villa also comes with your own Barefoot Butler – so you have a member of staff to whisk you around in a golf cart, arrange activities and co-ordinate your stay.

When it comes to dining, a highlight is Overseas by Mathias Dahlgren. The menu, devised by the acclaimed Swedish chef, has a focus on plant-based dishes and locally-sourced produce. Taking humble ingredients – such as sweetcorn and broccoli – he elevates each simple ingredient to new gastronomic levels. The sharing plate of deep fried corn, for instance, is served with tarragon mayonnaise, smoked bell pepper powder and garlic oil. While deep fried tofu and broccoli comes with herbs from the resort’s own garden, kaffir lime, chili and kimchi toasted sesame seeds.

While Overseas offers an elevated – albeit fun – approach to dining (if you eat there at sunset, you can watch the sky turn pink, lilac and gold from sunken tables situated over the ocean), Crab Shack lets you get down and ‘dirty’. The beachside eaterie is overseen by Chef Priyantha – who comes from the renowned Ministry of Crab restaurant in Sri Lanka. You eat with your feet tucked into the sand, bib on, ready to feast on oversized Sri Lanka mud crabs and Kamchatka crabs. You can them have wok-fried with black pepper or chilli, steamed in herbs, or as an authentic Sri Lankan curry, while seafood salads, calamari fritti and prawns a la plancha are the perfect starters.

At So Primitive – where the centrepiece is a roaring fire pit to celebrate age-old methods of cooking – Chef Christoph is in his element. Here dishes are cooked in clay pots over the coals or salt-crusted and cooked in a kettle. As the stars peek out from the dark sky, he brings over an endless array of sharing dishes – giant scampi coated with shrimp butter, served on a banana leaf; a local Rainbow Runner filet, marinated in palm sugar, lime and garlic. Like every restaurant at Soneva Jani, there’s a wide and inventive choice of plant-based dishes – such as the delicious pumpkin roasted with a brown butter miso or hispi cabbage in black truffle and garlic.

At sister resort Soneva Fushi, award-winning Maldivian chef Sobah Abdullah is championing traditional Maldivian dishes and elevating them for a fine-dining clientele. At Out of the Blue, he fuses local ingredients within Vietnamese, Japanese and Indonesian-style dishes – from tuna with ponzu and guacamole to spicy lamb chops cooked on the robata grill.

The choice of dining here is almost overwhelming – with 12 different restaurants to choose from. You can zip-line your way to your main meal at Flying Sauces or taste inventive cuisine at Fresh in the Garden, where chef Mads Refslund is currently running a 12-month pop-up championing produce grown in the kitchen gardens (found underneath the tree-top restaurant).

So Hands on by Akira is one of the resort’s most special dining destinations. Housing just five guests, you sit at a special sake-polished Japanese pine counter – known as hinoki – while sushi master chef Akira – noted as one of the best in the world – creates his sushi delicacies.

While dining at both Soneva resorts is undeniably stellar, and equal to what you’d find in the best Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, there’s something unique about matching this with the understated approach to hospitality here.

Details everywhere celebrate the location – so you’ll find portholes in villa floors so you can watch the sting-rays below and ladders which lower you down into the ocean from your terrace. Villas come with bikes so you can whisk around carefree and the widespread eco initiatives are ground-breaking and work towards educating communities with the main goal being to preserve the region.

At both Soneva resorts, there are wonderful star-gazing observatories. Come night-time, resident astronomers reveal the secrets of the dark skies, which are suddenly scattered with countless celestial bodies, as if God has turned on a gazillion lights. It’s nothing short of heavenly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *