by Tina Kovačiček
After we have introduced you to Nikola Lesar’s international business story whose culinary magic left a serious trace on Thailand’s gastro scene, we got some news from this talented young Croatian man. Nikola has just opened his new chapter, on the Island of Phuket again, and started two new restaurants there. We found out everything about that directly from Nikola who is now feeling free and inspired to create some new delicious recipes.
You just opened your new restaurant in Phuket – Issara. tell me more about that project? How did you come up with that idea?
Last month I had my first day of soft opening, to be exact, on the 23rd of July, almost exactly 3 months since our first planned date, which was supposed to be the 24th of April. Nobody expected a global pandemic and a total collapse of our economies, especially the tourism industry sector – which was basically put on halt by governments worldwide. Phuket, the Island in Thailand that I’ve been living on for the past 6/7 years, has been put under a heavy lockdown and quarantine, and the tourism industry literally stopped overnight.
I was just about to open… Even though, after months of worrying, reading the news, planning and having this bad feeling of uncertainty, we decided to, despite the bad situation in the restaurant industry, to still give it a try, and fight for our industry, to prove our worth. Lotus flower has a symbolic meaning in Asia, as it sprouts beautiful from the muddy floor, without single dirt on its petals. If lotus flower can do it, so can we.
Issara Is a project that was born after Rustic Eatery & Bar that I had in Phuket as well. Rustic gave me wings and time do develop my craft, to get better, understand the community, and, most importantly, it gave me a path for my future cooking style – as I still didn’t have one at that point. Rustic was a mixture of all things that I liked, but mostly, we had to stick to European roots to cater to our clientele in Patong, which was the most tourist part of the Island. Even tho, I still did many great things in Rustic, still tried to play with food, excite and give some memory to my guests – but, something was always lacking, and I had a feeling that I still don’t know what my cooking style exactly is.
I felt a bit lost and didn’t know how I should present myself really and truly. I always wanted to go deeper into Asian cuisine, still, keep and honor my European roots, but, go full-on Asian on their ingredients, approach and complex flavour. I love to layer & build the flavours myself on my plates, sometimes changing tunes in between – and I like to stick around those exotic and, and still mystic to me ways of Asian cooking.
Issara means freedom in the Thai language. I named it to give me freedom as well. Both from the rules and boundaries that the industry often presents, and freedom to create new things and express myself in any way I wanted to. Still to this consideration, I try to soak in my surroundings and show that on my plates. I love to get inspired by street food, people making it, and overall, everything related to the food scene and its underbelly. This is what my plates will show at Issara, my homage and respect to this beautiful continent that gave me new life, and opened my mind. Issara is the result of my 8-year Asian experience. It’s my freedom and my new way forward.
Who are your new team members?
My team is mostly the younger generation, young and prosperous cooks, foodies and overall foodie enthusiasts. I need passion where I’m working. If you’re not willing to give 100% of yourself at work, for the better of yourself, your team and the place you represent, you shouldn’t join it. I want my guests to see how much my team cares.
In which part of Phuket is your new restaurant located and what is the menu like? What were your driving ideas?
I opened Issara in Kata Noi Beach, for which people say, might be one of the best ones. It’s located in a secluded cove, offering small surfing waves, sandy beaches and coconut trees dotting the neighborhood. I am just a few minutes by walk from the beach – located in a tropical garden up on the small hill over Kata Noi.
My menu is a combination of street food that I like, my travel experiences in Asia, and, most importantly, my homage to the island I live on. I try to honor Phuket, with its ingredients, it’s exotic and unique style – and show people, thru my eyes and hands what kind of flavors built this great Thai island. I use a lot of tropical fruit, coconut milk, palm sugars, herbs, chili, spices – and I love to add a charcoal element to my dishes, so we use only real charcoal grills, Thai style. I like the traditional Asian approach to the ingredient, and then I do some twist on it and breathe new life into the recipe. Issara should be about freedom in cooking – with no rules. The only rules are my own, and I set them myself. This should allow me to grow even more as a chef, and break those traditional cooking techniques, and experience, learn something new.
What is the interior like?
The restaurant is actually built like an old Thai house, with a very pointy and exotic looking roof, and it is set in a lush, tropical and green garden, with a fountain in the middle of my main dining terrace area. I’m trying to create an oasis for my guests, a safe, clean and refreshing place, where you can be relaxed and be in tune with the true environment of Phuket. I have lots of plants around my place, and you can truly and really feel like you are in a tropical southeast Asian country. I’m not stopping here though, as I will try and improve, and add more ideas to it as I’m evolving and growing in this place.
Is it now the right moment to open a restaurant in Thailand? What is the current situation like with tourism in Phuket?
I’m not really sure that I have an answer to this question, I don’t think that anybody in the hospitality and restaurant industry can give a straight and honest answer to this. All I know is that I can’t wait any longer for the situation to get better. You either seize the opportunity, or you lose it. Both the chance and yourself. Times are uncertain, but, they were always like this when it comes to restaurants. Chances of making it are slim anyway, so, you gotta be brave enough to go all in. No guts no glory. I’m confident that my team and I have this. And I think, opening during COVID, and making my name during this time, will fortify my name, my restaurant and my place in those restaurants that had enough balls and courage to go forward despite the heavy flow pushing us back. In life, you gotta be brave enough to open some doors by yourself, without any help. That’s the only way to grow, learn, evolve and be better.
Thailand did a great job keeping their infections and death numbers low, they even kept it lower than Croatia, and, they are much bigger, and a much more populated country. They are doing this very seriously, and the results are showing. Thailand was voted the second-best country in the world, in the fight against COVID, and in low infection numbers. I hope this kickstarts our tourism again. I’m confident Thailand will bounce back sooner then people expect and think.
Also, you are a partner in one more restaurant, is that right?
I just recently became an Executive chef and a partner in a project that started off as consulting for a Bali style, all day, health café. The café is called Boost Café Phuket, and it’s already one of the most popular cafes on the island, probably the only place that did well during the lockdown and during the pandemic. The concept is very chill, modern and is focusing on healthier options, like avocado toasts, omelets, chia seed puddings, smoothie bowls, poke bowls… And also, amazing coffee which is sourced directly from Chiang Mai. Owner, Mat, and I had a good friendship and good vibes together from the start, and the café became an instant hit in the local community, the logical step was for me to join the team full time and control the kitchen – both as an Executive Chef, and a partner. Boost is a passion project as well, completely different from Issara, and it allows me to evolve my craft and my profession in a totally different way – but I have to say, It opened my mind more than anything I’ve ever done before. What started off as a simple consulting, turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me.
How do you handle everything? Is it exhausting for you?
I always wanted to have kids by the time I’m 30, and, now I do. Just, my kids are my restaurants. I’m a goal chaser, and a dream catcher – I love new challenges, and I love hard tasks. Of course, it’s hard to manage 2 places, that’s over 25 staff and employees in total – but I love it. I love the process, the early morning wake up to visit the local Thai market, the stress that kitchen presents, I love my team, ingredients and the island that I live on. I’m working for myself, and these businesses are my own – so, not a single day I complain about my work. I love what I do, and I’m happy with what I have. And I want more, and there is more coming as well. I won’t stop here, this is just the beginning. Boost and Issara are my babies, and I’ll give them all my love and care to make them successful.