Melbourne-born Janet Deneefe met a Balinese man from Ubud in 1984, and without much thought, threw herself into a new life. Back then, ducks and cows wandered down the main road and telephones were a luxury. In 2003 her memoir/cookbook Fragrant Rice was published, giving an account of her life interspersed with Balinese recipes and insights into local traditions. In 2004 she created the international Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which has been named by Harper’s Bazaar, UK, as “one of the top Festivals in the world” and by ABC’s Asia-Pacific network as “the next Edinburgh Festival of Asia”. In 2011, she released her cookbook Bali; The Food of My Island Home – building on her love of food, she is now working on the inaugural Ubud Food Festival, which will be held June 5-7, 2015.
Monique: In 2004 you founded the international Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. What made you start the festival? What are some of the highlights over its 10+ year history?
Janet: The idea for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival actually came after the 2002 Bali bombings. Morale was so low and we wanted to do something that would bring people together to experience the magic of Ubud and Bali and lift the jaded spirits of the community. We’re now in our twelfth year and we’ve had so many amazing moments since then; bringing Nick Cave over in 2012 was an absolute highlight and last year we ran a SeaTrek cruise through the Komodo Islands with authors Amitav Ghosh and Deborah Baker, it was such an intimate experience. Every year is different and unique in its own way we always look forward to bringing out new people, talent and ideas.
Monique: This year, you’re involved in a new venture through the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: the inaugural Ubud Food Festival in June. What made you decide to follow this path? How does this link to the writers and readers festival? How long have you been working toward this?
Janet: Food has played a fundamental role in my life and I’ve always thought of it as the world’s most universal language. In fact, I have wanted to run a food festival in Ubud since creating the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Last year we ran a series of Kitchen sessions as part of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival program and they were very successful. People enjoyed them so much that we thought, “well why not make them part of a Festival in their own right?” There’s so much culinary talent in Ubud, Bali and Southeast Asia that it makes perfect sense to bring it together under one banner – and allow people to experience it in a brand new way.
Monique: What are you looking forward to most about the UFF?
Janet: The food, of course! But we also want the UFF to be about more than just tasting, we want it to be about understanding food – where it comes from, its history, culture and social contexts. I also can’t wait to see what some of our program contributors come up with – we’ve got the charismatic pastry chef Will Goldfarb, the ‘street food chef’ Will Meyrick, Chef Meidy of Teatro fame and the mastermind behind the acclaimed Mosaic restaurant Chris Salans to name a few, so there will be lots to learn, whether you’re an experienced chef or just someone who enjoys Indonesian cuisine.
Monique: You’ve released two books – a memoir/cookbook Fragrant Rice and cookbook, Bali: The Food of My Island Home? What’s the process involved in writing a cookbook? How long does it take? What was the hardest thing about it?
Janet: All my books began with my recipes and the stories grew around them. With the memoir it was essentially about food and my children, growing up in Bali. The hardest thing? To get into the flow or poetry mode and describe food in a luscious and unexpected way. It requires absolute seclusion and comfort (I’m a comfort freak!). In order to finish Fragrant Rice, I used to hide in a guestroom at our place and write non-stop. Sometimes the kids would sleep on the bed while I did this. It takes loads of time too. The cookbook took me one and a half years. Fragrant Rice took at least 10 but then I only worked on it occasionally, in between having babies!
Monique: We share passions for food, reading and writing – where do you think yours started? Was there a key figure who influenced you?
Janet: I truly believe you are born with your passions, but my Maltese grandmother probably influenced me the most. She had a proilific garden, including chickens, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables and made slow-cooked stewy tender meat dishes and other Maltese pasta dishes that were so exotic when we were little. My aunty, Helen Burke, was also an inspiration. She had a food column in the Sydney Morning Herald in the 70’s and gave me a beautiful vegetarian cookbook back then when no-one really knew about living on vegetables.
Monique: And now for some favourites … Favourite Balinese dish?
Janet: Gee … hard to choose. But I love smoked duck.
Monique: Favourite ingredient?
Janet: Turmeric. I love to eat it, rub it on my skin and drink it.
Monique: Favourite food movie?
Janet: I haven’t seen a lot of food movies. Did Wes Anderson ever make one?!!
Monique: Favourite cookbook?
Janet: I really love Sri Owen’s cookbook, Indonesian food, which was published in 2008. It offers such comprehensive information about the ingredients and stories that go with them. But then that’s what she’s famous for!
Monique: Favourite food/culinary fiction?
Janet: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. She turned it all around and started a whole new food, recipes and story trend.
The Ubud Food Festival is a three-day culinary extravaganza celebrating all things delicious and diverse in Indonesian cuisine. The Festival will feature a line-up of chefs from across the archipelago and the world, with the program spanning cooking demos, panel sessions, night markets, food tours, wine tastings, workshops on food writing, blogging and photography, as well as much more. For more information click here.