Space, Time, and Turmeric

After survivng cancer, James Beard award-nominee chef Will Goldfarb moved to Bali, and opened a restaurant in paradise.

Bali is a magnet for soul-searchers, yoga and wellness practitioners, and expatriates bent on reinvention. The extremely lush island in Indonesia that transformed Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert from a melancholy divorcee to best-selling author and happily married wife worked its healing magic on renowned New York pastry chef Will Goldfarb.

Room4Dessert, the avant-garde dessert and cocktail bar in Soho where he was the chef and partner, opened in 2005, and won him a James Beard Best Pastry Chef in America nomination for his artistry. It closed two years later, despite its popularity, after Goldfarb’s health issues first arose. But who said life has no second acts? The second Room4Dessert opened in 2014 in Ubud, Bali, where his wife always dreamed of going, after his bout with cancer.  Trading the asphalt jungle for the real jungle and kowtowing to no one, and the gritty Type A ethos of the Big Apple for the tranquillity of a place many equate with paradise, Goldfarb found the Hindu island ideal for his needs.

“Bali is the perfect place for recovery,” he said. “Space, time and turmeric.”  Each day he drinks Jamu, the local remedy based on turmeric, tamarind, honey and lime; along with a green juice and a bottle of coconut water.  A far cry from the life of the endless espresso.

“Bali is the perfect place for recovery,” he said. “Space, time and turmeric.”

When he first arrived in Bali, Goldfarb tired easily. Then, he began to recharge, and take charge of his career in a way he had never done before, as Bali’s fabled life-giving qualities seeped into his veins.

“Since moving to Bali, I have been able to focus on all aspects of well-being.  For the first time in my life I have given serious thought to my diet and rest habits, and the results have been surprising,” he added.  The daily routine of subways and traffic jams have been replaced by pilates and frequent steam baths at a local picturesque spa.

Will Goldfarb, plating one of Room4Dessert’s signature dishes.

He began leading the pastry team at Ku De Ta, a popular restaurant in Seminyak, an upscale beach resort area that some call the Beverly Hills of Bali. He worked with Ku De Ta to add a new floor for a second restaurant with a dessert laboratory where he could experiment to his heart’s content with Bali’s exotic bounty of tropical fruits, herbs and spices. Called Mejekawi, it opened in 2013.

His inventions began to flow fast and furiously. Bubbles concocted from torch ginger, a vivid red showy flower. A meringue from palm sugar, the caramelised nectar of the coconut palm. A pandan panna cotta, where the custard-like Italian dessert was flavored with pandan leaves, a tropical plant widely used in Southeast Asian and Indian cooking.

But Room4Dessert always lurked in the back of his mind, as unfinished business he needed to tend.

In Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, a café closed and Goldfarb decided to open its 2.0 reincarnation with what he cheerily admits was “zero” budget. Home furnishings were needed to fill up the room, nearly five times the original New York’s location in size. Recycled metal was used for the outside door and inside. Local artists, including the restaurant’s original hostess, were asked to contribute art.

Will Goldfarb

His nine-course dessert tasting menus and selection of cocktails and fine wines became a hit among locals and tourists. Whimsical creations, like Caramel Tea Brulee with cardamom and black tea, and playful names danced across the menu, like Ghostface Keller (wood-roasted papaya, apple tatin, doughnut, cocoa nibs and Reblochon cream from the soft raw cow’s milk cheese from France), whose name alludes to both the Wu-Tang Clan, the New York hip-hop group, and Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame in Napa.

The secret garden restaurant features more casual fare, inspired by Goldfarb’s global travels, including his stint at elBulli (the three-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain, now closed), and late nights at L’Hort D’En Minguets in Roses.  Room4Dessert helped develop the booming food scene in Ubud.

Goldfarb has always been determined with a never-say-die attitude. His resilience after hardship or rejection is an inspiration to us all. (It’s no accident he named his line of pastry flavorings and powders WillPowder.)

“I like to think that I have been given a second chance.  There is no way I will let it slip through my fingers.”

“I like to think that I have been given a second chance.  There is no way I will let it slip through my fingers.”

He once joked at a TEDx talk in Ubud in his first job in Paris, he was pushed aside due to his awkwardness, with remarks like, “It’s better if you’re not helping.” While working towards his Le Cordon Bleu diploma, he was warned, “Try something else.”  After several advances to elBulli in Spain, whose chef-owner Ferran Adria was compared to surrealist artist Salvador Dali for his creativity, he persevered, and won an unpaid stage position in its pastry department.

“Hopefully, 2018 will show how some of my hard work is paying off,” Goldfarb said modestly. No kidding: his first cookbook will be published in the spring by Phaidon.  The title: Room for dessert.