When Janet De Neefe stepped off the plane onto Balinese soil in 1974, she felt an immediate connection. From an early age she had always had a passion for cooking, and the family holiday to Bali introduced her to the new and exciting world of Southeast Asian cuisine.
Though curious as she was about Bali's culture, its warm people and its mouth-watering dishes, the Australian teenager never expected to eventually fall in love with a Balinese man, start a family and make a new life here.
In 1987 she opened her first restaurant near Ubud’s soccer field. Twenty years and four children later, Janet and her husband Ketut now run two of the most successful restaurants on Bali - Casa Luna of Ubud and Indus of Campuan.
In 2003 Janet published Fragrant Rice: My Continuing Love Affair with Bali (Harper Collins Publishers, Australia 2003) - "a tale of passion, marriage and food" - a combination cookbook, memoir and essay on the life and culture in Bali. In this, her first literary effort, the author provides insights into the ancient myths and rituals still so alive in Bali today, some of which are told in the opening passages of the recipes themselves.
What's so special about Casa Luna and Indus?
Casa Luna is famous not only for being one of the first restaurants to fuse Balinese and Western food, but is also renown for its well-respected cooking school which attracts visitors from all over the world.
Do you have any other interests?
Besides cooking, my other passion is painting and a few of my works are displayed in both Casa Luna and Indus. I have sold a few in Ubud, too. I also love teaching Balinese cooking - I think my role in life is to teach and educate in one way or the other - to impart knowledge, to give people an opportunity in life.
Also, in 2003, together with Heather Curnow from Tasmania, I dreamed up the idea of a writer's festival, the first event of its kind ever organized on Bali, which will take place in October of this year.
What do you - or the community - expect to gain from staging this event?
The festival will hopefully bring bring enormous economic benefits to the community but there will also be deeper benefits that I hope will be felt. With school education on the agenda, I hope the festival will provide inspiration and opportunity to Bali’s young people and also help showcase Indonesian writers. Education offers empowerment and helps pave the way to a better life.
Will there by any famous writers or literary personalities attending?
Perhaps the most famous writer is Amitav Ghosh, one of India's most respected post-colonial writers. He wrote The Glass Palace and he’ll be releasing a new novel later this year called The Hungry Tide.
George Negus, who has a current affairs show on ABC television in Australia will also be there. He has recently published The Life of Islam in Australia. Manuju Kapur, from India, will also be attending. She received great acclaim in India for her first novel, Difficult Daughters.
Do you know any famous writers living on Bali?
There are many writers in Bali and it has been very exciting communicating with them. One that comes to mind is Jamie James who will be releasing his second novel at the festival and who is also a very accomplished journalist. Of course, Bill Dalton, the man behind Moon Publications is another well-known local writer too.
What’s the connection between a cooking school and a writer's festival?
The written word brings food to life. To describe the flavors, fragrances, color and texture of food requires a passion that not all writers possess. Food also conjures up deep emotions, nourishment of the senses that are often difficult to convey. In our festival we will be looking at specialized writing and the challenges in telling a story, whether it be about food, travel or fiction.
Are you using all your own money or have there also been donations?
Casa Luna is the main sponsor at this point but we have also received two well-appreciated grants from Australia. We are still working on corporate sponsorship but it's hard asking for money for an inaugural festival. I hope next year will be easier.
What's the most difficult aspect of planning the festival?
The most difficult aspect is that I’ve never done this before. It's a little like learning to drive a car without an instructor. But I’m doing this for the people of Ubud, building the foundation for an event that I hope they will eventually be able to organize on their own. A writer’s festival is still a new concept here and reading books is not a favorite Balinese past time, but times are changing. I love the people of Ubud and I believe they will be able to create a writers festival like no other in the world.
I’m also lucky to have a loving husband who supports me in whatever I do, who stands behind me amidst all my crazy schemes and dreams. He is my strength and my mentor. I have probably made many mistakes trying to get this off the ground, but, as my uncle used to say, he who doesn't make mistakes, doesn't make anything!
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Copyright@2004 Al Hickey
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