Behind the corrugated iron, hardwood, and cargo strapping stands captain of Opposite Mess Hall, Jess Barnes who runs a ship-shape operation, putting out plate after plate of conscientiously cooked food, everyday but mondays. Capt’n Barnes(y) and I share the same spirit for the good of our planet, so I always enjoy our brief chats together outside work hours… but we’re usually too buggered to delve deep into gritty things like overfishing and GM foods. I respect Jess’ position on minimising his protein consumption and maintaining a determined commitment to sustainability, especially because a lot of folks in the food game look past these things when they seemingly ‘get in the way of good food’. To me, these things come hand-in-hand. You can’t have good food that is dishonest to its roots, and disrespectful to our planet. It doesn’t even taste right. To me, a chef who is proud of this standpoint is one who appreciates our Universe’s goodness in it’s many weird and wonderful forms.
These days I’ve taken to barging in on many a chef’s precious prep-time, where they are racing against the clock to steep stocks, manicure the morning’s haul of local vegetables, and prime the night’s starring proteins. Sorry guys, I don’t plan to stop. Having worked in kitchens myself, being the bottom of the food chain, and having had permanently green fingers from picking stalks off spinach (that arrives in stacked 8kg boxes), or gnarly looking hands from cracking open the impossible armour of viking crustaceans, I still find this dance an exciting moment in time and space (especially now that I’m on the other side of the kitchen doors!) As a bystander, I get to have a little peek into the night’s big ball ‘o potential. If the meal is the memory, then prep time is the synapse, and I can’t decide which of the two is more special to be honest.
On this particular afternoon at Opposite Mess Hall, the usually quiet Sukhumvit soi is smokey from Northern Thai BBQ and buzzing with workers having beers, catfish, and papaya salad on the sidewalk. I make my way up a small stairway to the food vessel, dressed in my most nautical of colours because Capt’n Barnes only speaks to seafarers. Eggplants lay in their charred purple uniforms on the counter, bottles of ‘Thaibasco’ line up to be posted to their own wooden tables, and many a bottle of rum stock the bar shelves. I am always amazed by Jess’ capacity to change his blackboard menu on a whim, often following his nose and his heart to seek out whatever local produce sings a merry shanty. This is an eatery that supports goodness in so many ways. As we ramble through our interview, Jess tells me about the wonderful texture of a mozzarella from a local producer that he’s discovered, and this is when I start to understand the thrills of the hunt. When I say hunt, I mean the hunt for passionate producers like the guys at Marou chocolate who share their incredible single origin Vietnamese chocolate with the world. This is what makes Jess’s chocolate mud cake so gosh darn delicious, and the olive oil ganache that comes with, is that extra ball of good energy that differentiates itself from all of the other chocolate memories locked up in my experience bank.
We talk about what’s next for Opposite, and a new direction that’s been brought by the changing winds. This direction into open water feels liberating as well as exciting with the fresh sea breeze bringing all of its new smells and tastes to the crew. I am pleased to hear that Jess is moving away from the snacky style dude food (buns and all) that characterised the early stage of this eatery, to a more refined style of cuisine. No, he’s not going to start dressing tables in white linen, and there will be no buttoned up shirts in sight, but he brings a promise to return to cooking things with a gentler touch, and a greater complexity. Very exciting indeed. I look forward to eating honest plates of food from this rough-round-the-edges dude who is really just a delicate flower, aside from the occasional curse or rude drawing. (I was surprised how tame your interview file was actually Jess).
Q/ Describe WHAT YOU DO as if you were talking to a five-year-old.
I cook food for people + run a business in bkk.
Q/ Tell us how you slipped into FOOD.
By chance. I wanted to be a philosopher, a critic, an artist, but I went down the wrong path in my youth. I was offered a job in a vegetarian joint & fell in love. That was 12 years ago.
Q/ What did you have for BREAKFAST this morning / What do you wish you had for BREAKFAST this morning?
Tofu larb, eggplant + greens.
Q/ What does the word GOODNESS mean to you?
Positivity, health, mental confidence, love.
Q/ Draw us a picture of OPPOSITE STYLE.
[Jess casually draws an empty box in the space with an arrow pointing out of it. Then he writes ‘Outside the box’ while we talk about complete nutrition powders and genetically modified chickens that don’t have eyes. Just like that.]
Q/ What is a typical SUNDAY in your world?
Q/ What’s always in your POCKET?
Fisherman’s friends because I’m scared my breath stinks
Q/ What was the last thing you GOOGLED?
Q/ Who’s IG account distracts you MUCHLY?
my own. I’m an egotist.
Opposite Mess Hall
27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51,
ph. 02 662 6330