Sunday, 31 May 2015

Thailand From Two Perspectives

Thailand is one of those destinations that is endlessly popular with Australians. It offers everything from cultural temples, frenetic cities, bold street food and colourful markets, to relaxed sandy beaches, luxury hotels and spa holidays. The ever-smiling Thai locals, keen to support their families in a poor nation have taken to tourism with enthusiasm and fervour. In such a vast country offering so many experiences it is always fun to create unique and interesting holidays for my clients.

This week I had the challenge of creating two Thailand packages to suit the needs of vastly different clients with very different sets of expectations and budgets. Firstly I had the 50 something couple looking for a five star experience incorporating Chiang Mai and Koh Samui and then I had a group of 20 something girls looking to celebrate a 21st birthday on the island of Phuket.

In the initial consultation with the 50 something couple, of which I was solely dealing with the husband I learnt they wanted to fly business class and in doing some research it was decided the only affordable business class option would be Jetstar. In further research I discovered the preferred dates of the clients meant that they would have to fly from Sydney to Melbourne via Singapore to Bangkok, taking what should be an 8 hour flight to a 17 hour ordeal. The clients were fully prepared to do so but based on my suggestion of leaving a day later and adding a day to the itinerary we came up with a far better itinerary that allowed them to from on Jetstar's new Dreamliner aircraft direct from Melbourne to Bangkok. Not only were they saving significant time and hassle they were getting a far more modern aircraft with a nicer business class. All round a good deal.

In discussion on their accommodation preferences the clients really only had two main preferences. Five star accommodation throughout and in Koh Samui to be located centrally on Cheweng Beach in a room with a view. That left it fairly wide open for me to make some good suggestions.

I always start with as price comparison on hotels before I make my final recommendations. In saying that I am looking for good value for money not a cheap price. Cheap and value for money are two totally different things. In the clients price category I had narrowed the options in Chiang Mai down to the Shangri La Chiang Mai, the Dusit D2  and the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and Spa. My final decision for this came down to my discussion with the clients. They did seem to have discerning tastes, they wanted something special and to be honest if people want business class flights you know they need accommodation that will complete the whole experience. Despite being the more expensive of the three I felt the Anantara offered a unique enough experience to justify the extra cost. It's river side location with a 34 meter river front pool, it's day spa offerings, its high teas, nature experiences, cooking schools and boutique size all offer something special to the discerning traveller.
River Front Pool at the Anantara Resort Chiang Mai

High Tea at the Anantara Resort Chiang Mai

Cooking School at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and Spa Chiang Mai

The next destination for them after Chiang Mai was to be the island of Koh Samui. The great advantage of combining these two destination is that twice a day there is a direct flight between the two, saving an extra transit back to Bangkok. Here we were looking for a beach front property on Cheweng Beach. I started out with the Nora Beach Resort as they were offering an excellent rate for their Ocean Villa's and the client was excited by the swim up bar but once the client had viewed the website pictures they decided the Ocean Villas ocean views were too obstructed by foliage so we decided on the sister property Nora Buri Resort and Spa. Now making a judgement call like "too much foliage in front of the view " is a tough one. It came entirely from the clients solely based on one picture they saw on the hotels website. From experience and hundreds of hotel inspections I certainly know many rooms within the one category at the same hotel will all have different outlooks. But there is no point trying to convince a client that they should not base their decision on one photo alone is pointless. They do need to make their own decisions based on whatever criteria suits them. The time you try and talk a client out of their decision is the time it will blow up in your face. So despite the $2000 price increase the clients chose the Pool Villa Hillside Seaview room at the Nora Buri Resort and Spa. And quite frankly with it's own private pool overlooking the ocean you could not go wrong with this choice. The photos on the website speak for themselves. With a room size of 115 square meters this thing is to die for. It makes me want to pack my bags right now and jump on that plane.

Pool Villa Hillside Seaview Room at the Nora Buri Resort and Spa Koh Samui

Private pool with Jacuzzi in your room at the Nora Buri Resort and Spa

So here is what we ended up with:

Travel in July 2015 for two adults

  • Return Business Class Jetstar airfares from Sydney to Bangkok via Melbourne
  • 1 nights accommodation at the Novotel located at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok
  • Internal Flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai to Koh Samui and Koh Samui back to Bangkok
  • 3 nights accommodation at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and Spa in the deluxe room with breakfast daily
  • 10 nights accommodation at the Nora Buri Resort and Spa in the Pool Villa Hillside Seaview room with breakfast daily
  • Return airport transfers in both cities

We came out at a grand total of $11200 AUD

(these prices were subject to the availability, seasonality and current deals at the time of booking, prices will vary based on all of these factors)

This package was then contrasted with that of my 20 something girls wanting the celebrate a birthday on Phuket. Being young and this their first trip overseas without the parentals they wanted to be located where all the action is so Patong Beach was just the ticket. Teaming with restaurants, markets, clubs and bars these girls wanted to be able to walk out their door and be in the heart of it. With their maximum budget of $2000 a head I scrapped their plans to incorporate a Singapore stopover which due to the lack of availability was going to cost them $1600 for the airfare alone. With direct Jetstar flights from Sydney straight into Phuket we got their airfare to under $800 per person. The next job was to find the best accommodation we could and still bring the package in on budget. Scanning all the hotel rates we settled on the Centara Blue Marine Resort and Spa. Here the girls could afford to upgrade to a Deluxe Ocean Facing room to take in the views from the hotels clifftop setting. They will be close to all the action of Patong Beach, they have wi-fi (very important for their age group), there are spa facilities, a choice of restaurants and bars within the resort and a stunning hillside pool with ocean views. For a first time holiday I think these girls will have a trip of a lifetime.

Hillside Pool at the Centara Blue Marine Resort and Spa, Phuket

So here is what we ended up with:

Travel in December 2015 for four adults

  • Return economy class flights Sydney to Phuket
  • 14 nights accommodation in a 2 x Deluxe Ocean Facing room with breakfast daily at the Centara Blue Marine Resort and Spa on a stay pay deal giving them 6 free nights accommodation
  • Return Airport Transfers

$1990 Per person

(these prices were subject to the availability, seasonality and current deals at the time of booking, prices will vary based on all of these factors)

So at the end of the day we have some very happy clients and one happy travel agent. Don't forget that by booking your travel with your local travel agent you are getting a wealth of experience and travel knowledge free of charge. Travel Agents make a commission from the suppliers to sell their travel products so their services do not cost you anything.You will also be supporting local business, you will be protected by your countries consumer laws (which is not the case if you book online as you are generally booking overseas) and you will have access to great deals and great service. There is no reason not to give it a go.
Originally posted on Sunday, 31 May 2015 by

Monday, 25 May 2015

So You Want To Be A Cake Decorator...

I have spent most of my adult life as a travel consultant, a career that is slowly becoming under appreciated in the modern world of the internet, yet rewarding none the less. The free and subsidised travel makes up for the average wages and after 14 years I am pretty good at it really.

There was a time though where I become jaded with my industry. I had progressed into a management role that had become loathsome due to the tyrannical overlords that anyone working for a "head office" arrangement can sympathise with.

So I left the travel industry with no intentions of returning and pursued my passion as a cake decorator. Pursuing my first ever career change in my late twenties was interesting indeed and came with a few lessons. First and foremost was the clichéd fact that the grass is not always greener on the other side but a career change can certainly be a path worth pursuing none the less, even if it just to shake things up for a bit before you sink into a deep, insurmountable hole of self pity, frustration and boredom in your current chosen profession.

So here it is, all the realities you need to know if you want to pursue the creative life of a cake decorator.

  •  Don't ditch the job straight away. You need to build up your business and clientèle before you jump into cake decorating full time. Keep the cake decorating as a side line job, making a cake or two a week until you have established your website and built up some word of mouth.
  • Have as much savings behind you as possible. Cash flow is volatile when you are relying solely on your cake sales as your only source of income and you need a fall back position.
  • Accept that making cakes for a living is so much more than the fun, creative side. You are running a business now and you have to manage all sides of it. The creative side as well as accounting, customer relations, marketing, deliveries, cleaning the list goes on and on.
  • Continually develop your skills repertoire and keep up with fashions, especially with wedding cakes.
  • Develop your own style, a look that is distinctly yours. I will admit I never achieved this. I struggled to get customers to see my vision and not just go with a cake picture they found online. The danger is you can fall into a rut of just re-creating other people's designs which is very dull indeed. For inspirations check out Faye Cahill and Ron Ben Israel. The have a very distinct style. 
  • You can't run a business in this day and age without a website, so get one. 98% of my business came directly from my website.
  • Register everything. When you start out you will need to register a business name and a domain name. As you want them to match you need to search the ASIC registries online  to see if your business name is available & then search to see if the domain name for this business is also available. If one or the other is not available then back to the drawing board. You do not want to have a website domain name that is not the same as your business name.
  • Get familiar with business taxation or hire an accountant. You will save a lot of money by being your own accountant but you will need to study the laws about deductions and running a business. If you are in Australia you can find all you need through to Australian Taxation Office Website
  • Purchase an invoicing/accounting program but not one that is far to complex for the level you are at. I found a program called Cashflow Manager perfect for the job. It is for cash based accounting not accrual accounting (like MYOB & Quickbooks). I cannot stress enough how essential this program was to the running of my business. You can invoice clients, balance your bank account and most importantly know if you are making a profit or not. I cannot tell you how many decorators I know who have no idea if they are making money or not and no concept of their expenses. Scary. If you aren't doing this to make money then just go back to watching TV, it is way less stressful.
  • Plan for a cake disaster and have back ups. If you have hand made sugar flowers that took days or weeks to set ensure you have spares. You are bound to drop one if you have no spares and I can tell you an ugly hole in your cake where a flower has fallen from is not pretty.
  • Understand you will get criticism from time to time and learn how to deal with it. You are putting your art out there with a price tag on it. It remains unseen to the client till a crucial point in time such as their wedding day and on the rare occasion they will not be as ecstatic as you expected them to be when you slaved over their cake for weeks. You can't please all the people all the time.
  • You will make 80% of your profit in wedding season. Depending where you live this may be a very short time of the year. Here in Canberra  where winters are long and cold a majority of your business will fall between October and March. Make sure you diversify your business enough to cover the lean months. For example build up your christening, birthday, novelty cake market to get you by. You will not be able to produce enough wedding cakes in the summer to cover a winter with little or no business.
  • Wedding Cakes are the most profitable cakes so make sure you are targeting this market effectively. Bridal expos are a good way to get your name out there with the brides. Also ensure you are booking yourself to maximum capacity in wedding season with wedding cakes. Don't forgo a large wedding cake order for less profitable novelty cake orders which are more time consuming and lower value.
  • Understand you will work harder than you ever have as a cake decorator and you will likely make less money than you ever had in any other job. At times I worked 14 days straight with no break, sick days are non existent, there is no such thing as paid leave and there is no safety net when you run your own business.
  • Work out your profit margins and stick to them. I worked on a 50% profit on all of my cakes. When I first started out I made spreadsheets so I knew the cost of every ingredient and every tool purchased to make a cake. You also need to factor in tax & GST into this calculation. If you are not making minimum 40% on every cake order you may as well give up now.
  • Keep your overheads as low as possible. Cake businesses do not necessarily need a shop front and you will be far more likely to turn a profit if you do not have all of the costs associated with a lease. At a cake workshop I attended when I first started out, Planet Cake founder Paris Cutler advised she knew no bricks and mortar cake shops making any real profit. At the time Planet Cake was Australia's premier cake decorator and school and a few years later they went into administration, so Paris knew what she was talking about when she was warning about profit margins.
  • Home food related businesses do need to get approval from local council to operate. Depending on council this can be easy (like it was in the ACT when I got approved) or it can be near on impossible. Some councils have unrealistic expectations such as a second kitchen for the food business but then will not allow you to install a second kitchen if you put in a development application to do so. Do not let this discourage you. If council are unreasonable and they likely will be then consider becoming a rogue operator. I would not tell you this if I was still making cakes as this is exactly what I did when I moved states & local council basically did not even understand the concept of a home based food business. You absolutely must adhere to food safety standards as to not put the public at risk but even with all these bases covered if council will not come to the party they don't leave you much choice.
  • Under promise and over deliver. I found when I was making cakes exactly to people's request the reaction was average. If I went above and beyond, adding touches that made the cake a show stopper I had the happiest customers on earth and great repeat business. People are generally happy for you to improve a design but do be careful as your taste may be different from theirs so don't go silly. Also ensure you do not affect your profit margin too greatly in the need to impress.
  • Put prices on your website. You will not regret it, it deters the time wasters and those that under estimate the value of modern cakes. Your enquiries will decrease but you will save immense time in fielding enquiries that will not produce a cake order.
  • My last piece of advice is to do it because you love it. Work hard, go for the big opportunities and be smart.

Originally posted on Monday, 25 May 2015 by

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Chinese Persistence

You cannot fathom the true meaning of the word persistence until you have been doggedly trailed 10 kilometres up a steep hillside, topped with the Great Wall of China, by a withered and ragged 70 year old woman , all in the vain attempt to sell you some postcards for the princely value of 50 cents. As your breathing becomes laboured and your 25 year old legs are straining and shaking with the effort of hauling your slightly over weight frame up that mountain you realise that this nimble little lady has walked this path thousands of times. She does it with next to no effort, her bandy legs rest lightly on the earth as she hounds you relentlessly to just buy her postcards.

It was an accumulation of moments like these across China that I realised if persistence is the key to world domination the Chinese will be the next world super power.

With just under 4 weeks spent in China I had concluded that there was rarely an opportunity missed by the industrious Chinese people.  I guess in the face of poverty in a country with no social security to fall back on a missed opportunity is a missed meal. In the tourist town of Yangshuo, where I spent my first few nights in China, young children work till the early hours of the morning going from bar to club, restaurant to karaoke den selling flowers to the tourists. Around 3am I approached a brother and sister flower selling team who could not have been more than five and eight years old to ask them when they would be going home. In their timid voices and with sweet innocent smiles they informed me that they will go home when the last of the tourists go to bed. In a town like Yangshuo where the streets are lined with establishments that exist for the sole purpose of entertaining tourists I am surprised that there might ever be a time where all the tourists have gone to bed.

On long bumpy train journeys through inland China I witnessed every manner of industry and progress. In the south, small scale rice farming reigned, the locals bent over in back breaking work through the day-light hours and at night they retire to little more than concrete cubes with rudimentary comforts.

A thick oppressive blanket of smog descended over the sun's rays as we moved further north. A sign that the industry was scaling up. We passed through mega cities with populations far exceeding that of the entirety of Australia's population. The Chinese who were not employed in the many factories were kept busy with jobs you would just not see in the Western World. Men and women sweeping the highway with straw brooms, dodging in and out of speeding traffic, locals taking advantage of traffic jams to sell home grown fruit to the stranded passengers sweating it out on the buses, people of all ages and questionable skill levels constructing bamboo scaffolding to extend the buildings ever upwards towards the sky.

The old clickety clack railway tracks that shunted us all over the country are now all gone. Devoured by high speed rails lines all within five years, now the most extensive and most heavily used high speed rail system in the world covering 16 000 kilometres.

At the time the mammoth Yangtze Three Gorges Dam project was part way through it's inception. 1.2 million villagers in the path of the rising river was not enough to stand in the governments way of producing the worlds largest hydro electric power project. Heavily protected my a military presence and shrouded by the standard practice of censoring information meant that we only heard the positives about the project as we made our way down the river in our rusty tub, playing mahjong with the local ladies.

At the time of my trip in 2006, China was facing a dire situation with pollution. The environment was groaning under the strain of such progress. There were attempts during my visit to clean up their act as the world was turning their attention towards the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Change seemed temporary at that point in time but time tells an interesting tale. As of early 2015 China has reduced their CO2 emissions by 5 per cent in just 4 months and will have the last of Beijing's coal plants shut down by 2016. As the largest consumers of cars worldwide there has been moves to incentivise the purchase of electric vehicles. China has heeded the warnings of an imminent eco catastrophe and have made moves to circumvent it. Time will tell if these moves are legitimate and long lasting or if they are just replaced by alternate methods that will be just as polluting.

No one nation has made more leaps and bounds in the last 10 years than China. After spending nearly a month traversing the vast country witnessing the people, their persistence and their resilience first hand it seems maybe there is nothing China can't do. Hopefully progress doesn't come at too higher price and that social reforms follow suit to keep up in some way with the vast physical and economical advancements China has put in motion


Originally posted on Thursday, 21 May 2015 by

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Heston Blumenthal at Home

"The key to cooking is thinking about what excites you and working with that" Heston Blumenthal.
Isn't Heston super creepy lurking by the fridge in a darkened room. Oh and you can see that I have enjoyed this book by the fact that there is food stuck to the cover.

There is a fine line between Molecular Gastronomy and Insanity. Heston Blumenthal is a self taught chef who walks the precarious tightrope between the two worlds. At times his modern day Willy Wonka persona presented on television has me wondering if Heston has over balanced and the insanity is taking over but his cookbook "Heston Blumenthal At Home" has me more at peace with Heston's ethos as a chef.

Aimed at the home cook Heston presents a book that is very technique and science driven but leaves the more avante garde side of Heston back at his restaurant "The Fat Duck". It is a relief to have Heston explain that he is "not into complexity for complexity's sake" and his exploration of how all the senses and the brain factor into our enjoyment of food helps demystify the often overwhelming world of cooking. Heston goes on to explain that once he discovered the science behind the senses and how they factor into the appreciation of food, the kitchen become a more enjoyable, fascinating place.

It is this enjoyment that Heston passes on through this book. He understands that with the knowledge he can impart he can bring a greater appreciation of food to the home cook. The recipes presented are an array of recognisable favourites such as baked potatoes and scotch eggs through to modern creations like Quinoa Sushi and Mushroom Jelly. To my surprise he doesn't go about trying to reinvent the wheel where perfection has already been achieved. The humble baked potato remains just that but with Heston's refined techniques the potato soars to new heights with the crunchiest outer coating and fluffiest centre you could ever imagine.

Skill level and preparation time for the recipes also varies greatly. You have quick and easy recipes that pack a punch, like my new favourite potato preparation, Heston's Crushed Potatoes. As well as more complex dishes I am yet to delve into such as the "Szechuan Broth with Duck Dumplings" as the two days of preparation has so far been beyond my reach.

As you would expect from an inquisitive if not slighty OCD chef like Heston there is an emphasis on embracing technology to expand your cooking repertoire. With Heston's encouragement our house has embraced the Sous Vide method of cooking whereby you cryovac your food to be cooked in a temperature controlled water bath. The results are as near to perfection as a home cook will ever get with any method of cooking. Proteins are evenly cooked all the way through to your exact requirements and mouth-wateringly tender. Our 72 hour slow cooked beef short ribs topped with Heston's Blue Cheese Butter was a revelation and we have even cooked scrambled eggs with Heston's Sous Vide technique. The results of which are so far from the dry cottage cheese-like scrambled eggs I have come to know from hotel buffets that there is no going back. Yes you have to pack in enough cream and butter into these things that your cellulite will be quivering in anticipation of a land grab but the rich, creamy texture topped off by a nutty browned butter will have you singing like you joined the gospel choir. Hallelujah Heston.

Originally posted on Sunday, 17 May 2015 by

Thursday, 7 May 2015

An Open Letter of Apology to Jamie Oliver

Image courtesy of Scandic

Dear Jamie,

I know you will never read this letter but I am sending it into the ether anyway, possibly to make me feel better for my former judgemental ways.

You have been around most of my adult life, seeing your face was enough to irritate my former self. Your youth was not enough to mask your slightly arrogant ways. I thought all your silly little phrases "lovely jubbly" were fake and forced and I questioned what kind of man would brand their kids for life with names like Poppy Honey Rosie, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Daisy Boo and Buddy Bear (okay I still question that a little but accept your individuality).

I didn't understand your cookbooks and didn't think anything that could be cooked in 15 minutes was worth 15 minutes of my life. I queried your motivation in killing live baby chicks on telly and I thought your crusades were a vain attempt at prolonging a fading career.

I just didn't get it, I just didn't get you.

I don't know who has matured and changed. Is it me or you? Possibly a little of both but I suddenly get you, I get it all. Your arrogance is now backed by experience and softened by maturity. It is apparent your crusades are no passing fad and I whole-heartedly agree with your approach to food. There is no good and evil when it comes to food, fad diets are worth-less and a balanced approach is best. Your Wiggle-esque shirt on the cover of your latest book "Comfort Food" brings a smile to my face and your use of fresh vibrant ingredients in inspirational.

I use to see a kid thrown into the limelight who revelled in it a little to much, I now see a man who has a passion for good food, health and the environment. A man who wants to share that passion and takes it beyond the TV screen and into real life with initiates that have been embraced worldwide like Food Revolution Day and the Ministry of Food.

Your simple and fresh recipes are designed with the home cook in mind and perfectly back your mission to teach the world to cook good food. Your website is chocca block full of free recipes to suit all budgets and your Dark, Sticky, Lamb Stew that I cooked was absolutely rockin'. Best stew I have ever made.

So there you have it Jamie, it took near on a decade to covert me into a fan but your persistence and enthusiasm won me over. All hail king Jamie!
Originally posted on Thursday, 7 May 2015 by

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Gentrification of China Town

Hand-painted store fronts faded and worn by the weather, neon lights in a multitude of languages and foreign characters call out their culinary wonders into the night and immigrant families spanning generations cook up traditional and sometimes not so traditional fare. The buzz and excitement that is China Town can be found in cities all across Australia and their cultural value cannot be quantified.

In my opinion China town is where the most exciting food in any city is to be found. Generations of immigration has created a rich food culture in Australia and the most authentic can undoubtedly be found in China Town. Hearty Vietnamese beef noodle soups, the little miracle parcels that are Chinese dumplings, fragrant Indian curries, huge bowls of creamy fiery Malaysian laksa's it is a cultural journey around Asia all without leaving the suburb. I have spent vast quantities of time at my local China Town Dickson, Canberra and I never tire of the exciting smells and flavours. It is a world where the trendiest shop fit outs and hippest staff do not matter and kitsch décor rules. All that speaks is the food and boy does the food speak.

But change is creeping in to China town. In general I am pro-change. Urban development brings with it a renewed sense of community. It can revitalise a waning location, the city area of Canberra is a great example of this. A once dull, corporate scene lacking any inner city vibe it has been renewed by large scale development that created space for outdoor eating and entertainment. But as the older buildings of Dickson are on the verge of being knocked down and modern buildings take their place I question, what will happen to my China Town?

Sure the new buildings will be shiny and modern but will the new price tag on the lease force out the small family run restaurants and grocery stores that fill the area? Already my all time favourite Pho joint is moving around the corner to make way for the development. They have stuck with an older shop front in an existing building where the rents are still affordable. Next door to their original location is a fabulous labyrinthine Vietnamese Grocer and nearby an Indian grocer specialising in spices. With shop fronts limited in this bustling area where do these businesses go whilst the new buildings go up & what if they can't afford the rent once development is complete?

Only time will tell I guess. With the planned apartments above the stores the population increase may buoy the businesses and increased rent will not be an issue. I only hope progress doesn't force out the soul of what makes China town great. Sometimes it can't be all be about the new and modern, we have to leave space for those who contribute a great deal to our culture and way of life (and tummy's) but may not have the means to play with the big boys of the restaurant scene.

I am interested to know if this is happening in China Towns around Australia or are they managing to hold on to their old school charm?
Originally posted on Tuesday, 5 May 2015 by