REIMAG INEERING KHAO LAK
travels to Thailand’s west coast for a stay at The Sarojin, and meets Khao Lak’s worst-kept secret – a sommelier who doubles as an “imagineer”
THERE’S NOTHING LIKE a thin plank of wood balanced over a running creek in the jungle darkness to inspire apprehension. Not so much of actual danger as of the embarrassment of falling in. Even more so, after an evening’s wine tasting with The Sarojin’s charming resident sommelier, Dawid Koegelenberg, who conducts the tasting in a dapper safari suit.
But over we go, leaving Koegelenberg and his staff to put the last, magical details in place for their next guests. There’s to be a proposal later tonight at the waterfall, where we’d gathered at dusk to listen to the sommelier speak with verve about grapes and aromas, and to sample fine Spanish, Australian and Swiss wines from the Sarojin’s exclusive cellar – which has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the past four years – and paired canapés of seafood mousseline, foie gras and chicken-liver parfait, as well as pancetta-wrapped chicken with sliced artichoke and a pea-and-roast-garlic purée.
Candles had been lit and placed around the clearing, where a dinner table had been set for two. By the thundering water, white linen and cushions were laid across an arrangement of rocks, where the beau is to pop the question. It felt something of an imposition to be in this space, but Koegelenberg’s attention to detail is meticulous, and the couple will find no trace of us by the time they arrive.
South African-born Koegelenberg is the Khao Lak, Thailand resort’s “Head Imagineer” – a Disney-esque title that, he explains, has him in charge of “creating special moments”, usually for the honeymooning or affianced couples who make up most of the Sarojin’s guests.
Unlike private butlers at other luxury hotels, he operates at managerial level. This means Koegelenberg can call on 20 staff “at the click of a finger”, giving him the ability to fashion truly one-of-a-kind experiences. He mentions the Sarojin’s “Shipwrecked” weekend – an idea, he says, that grew out of nothing and which has become one of the resort’s hallmark offerings.
“I had to come up with something brand new for a couple who had done everything,” recalls Koegelenberg. “He was proposing, and I thought it would be nice if I could find a private island. So I went out one day on the boat with the captain and a few staff who had grown up in the area. After a few hours we found an island, which disappears at high tide.”
The idea is that the couple is whisked away on the resort’s private luxury yacht, the Lady Sarojin, for complimentary cocktails and canapés provided by the boat staff. Just before sunset they arrive on the island, where a butler and private chef have prepared dinner. The couple gets “rescued” at night by a traditional Thai boat, and enjoys a 30-minute ride back to the resort.
“That’s all in a day’s work,” says Koegelenberg “It beats sitting in an office in London.”
London is where he spent 14 years working in hospitality at Michelin-star level, before coming to Asia in 2010. Koegelenberg began at The Ivy, where he launched a career in the English capital at a time when Gordon Ramsay was “literally still cooking under the stove”. Koegelenberg’s efforts led to a degree in viticulture and the patronage of, among other celebrities, Madonna, Elton John and Stella McCartney. For four years, he hosted Richard Corrigan’s food and wine workshops at the chef’s Mayfair restaurant, Lindsay House.
By then, it was time to abandon the “breakneck speed” of big-city hospitality for a quieter life in the tropics. “London’s fantastic, but I don’t think I’d had a weekend off in 14 years,” says Koegelenberg of his decision to move. “I didn’t feel sorry for myself, but after so long, when you’re not 25 any more, you start to measure up your quality of life.
“Especially at Michelin-star level, you’re working non-stop and there aren’t that many thank yous and pleases. You get used to it, but I knew it was time to go. I was falling out of love with hospitality in London. I was looking for something smaller, five-star and boutique.”
The Sarojin, as he says, ticks all of those boxes. Opened in 2005, the 56-room resort is owned by British couple Kate and Andrew Kemp, who have focused on making it as homely as possible while maintaining the service standards expected of a luxury hotel. There are no signs on the property except for the spa, and children under 10 are not allowed to stay.
Breakfast with sparkling wine is available all day, either from room service or at the poolside Ficus restaurant, so there’s no last-minute rush for a buffet. The hotel’s second restaurant is the Edge, on the beachfront, where you can dine in the evening with your toes in the sand. On the whole, the Sarojin’s cuisine is well prepared without being extraordinary; the lauded wine cellar is probably the bigger draw for foodie guests.
Koegelenberg’s talents as a sommelier and creator of bespoke moments mean he has been recognised as The Sarojin’s “secret” (albeit a much-publicised one). On an island as crowded with five-star service as Phuket, a full-time manager dedicated to the special delights of guests – and one who can speak with easy proficiency about wine – is still a rare, if not unique, thing.
Khao Lak, a resort area on Thailand’s west coast an hour’s drive north of Phuket town, doesn’t yet have the same chichi vibe as its neighbour; it’s more earthy and chilled-out. But it won’t take long for that to change. In the meantime, Koegelenberg has had to adjust to a more authentic version of Thai island life.
“Coming from London after 14 years to a small village in the jungle is obviously not easy,” he admits, “but so long as there’s a balance, it will work. If there isn’t a balance, you’ll be unhappy no matter where you are. It’s vitally important.”
He achieves this equilibrium by travelling on his days off, which usually means weekends in Singapore or Bangkok, or a few nights at other five-star resorts in the area. Still, there are things he misses about life in a big, cosmopolitan city.
“The sincerity and friendliness of the Buddhist Thai people is a huge plus,” he explains, “but if you’re used to having dinner parties, cooking, inviting people for a bottle of wine at your home, that’ll be difficult here, because the culture doesn’t exist. Traditionally Asian people do not entertain at home, and I think the best times are spent around the kitchen table.”
Like many hoteliers, however, it’s the joy with which Koegelenberg performs his job that seems most of all to ground him. “You either love hospitality or you hate it – there’s no in between. If your heart isn’t in it people will see and it’ll just be hell,” he observes; patience is the most important trait to have in his line of work.
We’re sitting in the high, open lobby, and Koegelenberg glances out over the serene resort. It’s morning, and the legacy of rain is in the air. “You probably can’t tell,” he says, “because it looks so beautiful here. But the hours that we work, and the pressure we’re under to get things right...we’re like swans, calm and collected on the surface, paddling away under the water.”
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