When Star Thai Chef Ton Met Chef Thu At The Cuisine-Conscious InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula

Chef Ton and Chef Thu at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula

To its epic location on the cliffs of a secluded bay on Danang’s Son Tra Peninsula – a hillside populated by cheeky macaques and reclusive Red-shanked Douc Langurs – InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula invited Thailand’s Chef Ton to cook a four-hands dinner with their own Chef Thu that highlights the hotel’s commitment to sending guests home talking as excitedly about the cuisine as much as they do the wild nature, the secluded arc of pristine beach, or the unmistakable Bill Bensley design. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt  

“I’m jealous,” Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, executive chef and owner of Le Du and Nusara, currently ranked #1 and #3 respectively by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, says. He’s talking about the tiger prawns the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula’s sous chef, Thu, managed to source late last night. 

Long Pool at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula
InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula’s Long Pool.

Some Of The Best Seafood In The Region 

“I think Vietnam has some of the best seafood in the region,” the Bangkok-based chef adds. 

Good contacts help. Chef Thu, who was born in Hanoi, has been here for twelve or thirteen years, she tells us. And the fisherman was calling her at midnight last night to arrange their delivery. “He has to work with a group of other fishermen to help us get the right quantity,” Chef Thu explains. 

We’re at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula for a four-hands dinner. Chef Ton, rather than taking over the kitchen, has teamed up with Chef Thu, serving their dishes alternately. “Some of these – the dessert and one of the snacks – haven’t been tried anywhere yet,” Chef Ton says. He and the team are still researching and developing new dishes like these in advance of the reopening of Le Du, “with its new kitchen, new design, and new menu,” in October. 

“Right, originally Chef Ton was going to create the menu. Then, he agreed to collaborate. I’m was so happy and honored, but then, when the importance of it sank it, I thought ‘Oh my God!’” she laughs. 

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula
The breathtaking views at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula, where guests: “leave talking about the cuisine too.”

A Bill Bensley-Designed Imperial Palace

It shows how seriously InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula takes the food they serve to guests. “The hotel is beautiful and it’s in such a unique location, but we’re always reminded to not allow the reputation of the hotel to rely on those things alone – we want guests to leave talking about the cuisine too,” Chef Thu, who’s worked her way up from commis chef to here, adds proudly. And they do. 

There’s the modern Vietnamese cuisine up at Citron with its upturned conical hats as dining tables that hang over the dramatic sweep of bay, and the beachfront BBQ, Barefoot, and the Long Bar, with its horseshoe-shaped recliners, cooled by fans powered by an eccentric steampunk piston, both of which are right on the beach.   

At first glance, InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula might look like the same old 5-star beach resort. But slowly you notice the quirky touches, like those fans, of its architect Bill Bensley that add accents to this imperial palace that clings to the rocks. 

There’s hints of the maximalist designer’s later projects here – the period, Opera House-inspired Capella Hanoi, the reconditioned trains that he used to make InterContinental Khao Yai, or the university campus-themed JW Marriott Phu Quoc – in the resort’s renowned 1888 Restaurant’s boudoir, the salaciously scarlet hewn parlour inhabited by the daughter of the house, or the Cheeky Monkey, now known as M, an exclusive, invite-only private-event space and nightclub decorated by its imaginary owner, Charles, “a bachelor monkey educated in England.” 

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula's Long Bar
The row of ceiling fans that cool guests in the Long Bar — an unmistakable Bill Bensley design feature…once you tune into it.

Unmistakable Design Is Everywhere Once You Tune In To It

It’s everywhere, in fact, once you tune into it – like the steam-punk piston that drives the row of ceiling fans that cool guests at the Long bar, or the monkey statues that scratch and mug and stretch along the bridge bannisters, or the rattling funiculars that take the fast route down to the beach and back again. 

There’s even autobiographical elements from the designer – the Venice beach bodybuilder statue outside the gym or the oversized surfboard as a boardroom table that’s suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the bar. Bensley was born in California, after all.

Nowhere feels ill-thought-out or half-heartedly shaded in. A zig-zag of signage runs the length of the long bar with letters revealed or withdrawn depending where you’re standing, the family pool is flanked by an eggcup-shaped jacuzzi (two kids are in there consumed by bubbles and contentedly chatting like old men on a park bench), nearby gondola seats are suspended from a ceiling like a fixed fairground-carousel, and there’s a wall of dragon masks and elsewhere a relief of urns lining the roads — levels divided, like the resort, into three levels: sea, earth, and heaven. 

There’s art everywhere too. Lots of the latest work, like the large pieces at the head of the tables in the new private rooms of the club lounge, were painted by Bill himself. 

He’d started painting to pass the tedium of lockdown so prolifically his work fills an entire gallery here although he’s offered some space to his mentor, the Mexican artist Marilo Carral, whose mesmerising, richly patterned paintings take up one corner of the gallery.

Red-shank Douc Langur
A reclusive Red-shanked Doucs Langur.

Some Illustrious Guests

In 2017, US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other APEC leaders arrived for a summit. Trump and Putin would go on to shake hands, both of them wearing odd identical blue overshirts most of the male attendees had been forced to wear.

It’s satisfying to imagine Putin, Xi and Trump, retiring to their suite after a long day of talks, and trying to work out what the emu that flanks the bath, staring out to sea, or the toucan sitting on the end of the balcony table gazing off to the horizon, are looking at. Or how they got there in the first place. 

Or, even better, that they left their suite doors ajar, as often happens at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula, and a gang of rowdy macaques had broken in and ripped up the next day’s briefing notes and left them piled up with ripped open sugar sachets, some licked clean long-life milk tubs, and an empty pack of oreo cookies. 

Citron at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula
Citron restaurant, where Chef Thu usually presides, with its upturned conical hats.

Surrounded By Nature 

If that happened, the blame would not turn to the rare Red-shanked Doucs that call the Son Tra Peninsula and this side of Monkey Mountain home. They’re far too shy, or maybe just too sleepy, to engage in petty crime. You might see one of their long white tails dangling down from a tree canopy from time to time but that’s all. 

But the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula’s monkeys are not the only wildlife on show. Out in the bay, a flock of white egrets flicker from one side to the other, sometimes splitting into two groups before reforming again. They arrive every August and stick around for a month or so before continuing their migration.  

One egret, it seems, has broken away and is flapping out towards the ocean. 

And perhaps this was Bill Bensley’s breakaway moment too because although InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula could easily have been a soulless 5-star resort, it’s quirky and characterful, magical and magnificent. 

The designer recalls this being the first time he was given full control over all the details of the project – right down to the signage and uniforms, “signalling a new era of designing everything.” 

He probably still had to pitch ideas back then, something, he recently told a podcast, he determinedly doesn’t do any more. “Oh my dear, I don’t pitch,” he’d shrieked at the thought of it. And you can feel that in the JW Marriott Phu Quoc’s campus on the coast or even the tented Capella Bali.

Rooms at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula
The rooms at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula.

A Constant Work In Progress

He’s said to have gone to around 50 different Vietnamese temples on research trips, magpie-like, as many of the best designers are, taking a motif here and an element there. And, like the egrets, Bill returns periodically. He likes it here. And the significance of the resort in his resume clearly means a lot. Those rooms in the club lounge — in fact the whole club lounge — are a recent addition. And so is the art gallery.

Views at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula
The view across InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula from the Bird’s Eye Lounge.

Finding Common Ground 

But tonight the focus is firmly on the food, rather than the design – although the Bird’s Eye Lounge, which used to be InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula’s club lounge, is an enigmatic space for special events – part watchtower and part terrarium. 

“It’s really exciting to be in Danang,” Chef Ton says, “and to be here at InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula. I think  Thai and Vietnamese cuisine have a lot of ingredients, and flavors, in common.” And Chef Thu agrees. “I think tonight is going to be seamless,” she smiles. 

But time is up. Chef Ton and Chef Thu have to go. There are those freshly caught tiger prawns to prepare.

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