Will Goldfarb doesn't like bananas.
One of Goldfarb's earliest dishes, called Plat du Jour, was originally supposed to feature a banana, but Goldfarb replaced it with an eyebrow-raising choice: grilled eggplant puree. It's delicious.
For a pastry chef residing on Bali an island rich in tropical fruits Goldfarb's rejection of one of the world's most popular fruits is, at first, ironic. But at closer look, it's clear that Goldfarb likes to color outside the lines. His approach to both cuisine and life can't be defined by any one stereotype of a chef.
Like so many other island expats, it was a soul-searching journey of sorts that led Goldfarb in 2008 to move from New York to Bali an island with a then-faint foodie footprint. As documented on the Netflix series Chef's Table, Goldfarb was given his dream opportunity to co-create a dessert-only restaurant in Manhattan in 2005. Accolades, awards and egos led to frayed relationships among business partners, and Room 4 Dessert closed in 2007. After a battle with cancer, the pastry chef left New York and moved to Indonesia with his family.
Dessert of Mankind — Photo courtesy of Martin Westlake
Goldfarb and his wife, Maria, opened the next iteration of Room 4 Dessert with their own vision of what a dessert-only restaurant should be. "In a way, we're doing exactly the same thing we were years ago; we're still making desert, Goldfarb says. "Just hopefully better, in a more satisfying way with a little more kindness and caring."
Room 4 Dessert is found just on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali's artistic and cultural heart, made famous by the book Eat, Pray, Love, in which author Elizabeth Gilbert (played in the film version by Julia Roberts) writes about her journey seeking balance between spirituality and pleasure in Ubud.
Since the book's release in 2006, and in many ways because of it, Ubud has evolved into a spiritual mecca for Western travelers. In the last decade, for better or worse, Ubud has grown from a quiet city on the backpacker trail whose main attractions were temples and nature to one teeming with yoga centers and luxury spas that draw scores of more monied, cosmopolitan travelers seeking the type of spiritual awakening Gilbert wrote about. And with them came an abundance of upscale restaurants serving everything from high-end Balinese food to Japanese-Mexican fusion.
10 Years of Solitude — Photo courtesy of Martin Westlake
Room 4 Dessert was born during the early stages of this transformation, and grew up during the heart of it. Goldfarb acknowledges this readily: "It's kind of disingenuous to complain about how [Bali has] changed since change is accommodating us. We just try to be respectful of the people that live here, of our community."
While Goldfarb is soft-spoken with the zen-like calm of someone who lives in paradise, he's no yogi. His large, 90's-era gold-rimmed glasses linked together at the top betray his New York roots.
As Goldfarb drops de rigueur concepts like "balance" and rejecting "external validation," I press if he's been influenced by the island's new-age hippie trail. He insists that "the language around cooking has become the same language as around yoga...it's just a happy crossroads of the holistic 'Let's take care of everyone, make sure it's sustainable, make sure people have balance [in their lives].'"
Top Gun — Photo courtesy of Martin Westlake
With overstretched and overly connected people flocking to yoga and meditation classes throughout the city to find ways to stay in the moment, Goldfarb suggests that sometimes simply sitting at a table with a delicious plate of food allows you to reach the same sought-after transcendental state of happiness and immediacy as sitting on a mat.
"We're very one-on-one here," he says. "It's like instant pleasure for you. For us, it's methodical, a 20-year approach to your instant pleasure. We try to be mindful of both." As the chef's chestnut gelato melts onto my tongue, with well-timed flavors arriving in waves across my palate, it certainly feels like the gateway to serenity.
If balance and pleasure are the goals, the island's bounty of unique, fresh ingredients help the chef achieve such feats, keeping him more attuned to his environment while taking his craft to new heights. Goldfarb's voice rises with enthusiasm as he gushes about the ingredients he's been using to create a forthcoming dish: "The milk's warm; it's never been chilled. It wasn't pasteurized it was just held. Like, that's pretty cool. You know, we try to do that with the products we get here. Our salt is still warm and wet. Our spices aren't dried. They are part of fruit."
These ingredients form an elaborate nine-course tasting menu of desserts, and the sheer number and variety, at first glance, seems overwhelming. (Pro tip: skip dinner). Yet, there's a nice balance of rich, deeply satisfying desserts, like his rosella-infused gelatin dish, Red, that lays out an eclectic mix of refreshing ingredients, all of which are, as the name implies, red.
Everything is well-timed and well-thought out. It's clear that Goldfarb's vision is focused and his cuisine is well executed and as Goldfarb describes, is "better than ever."
Tasting one dish to the next is like floating through a surrealist's dream. Every dessert is artfully plated and has a conception and name immersed in symbolism. Each course on the menu derives from a myriad of books, films and music that have inspired the chef throughout his lifetime, and yet is likely unfamiliar to the average person while Goldfarb may have left New York, highbrow New York has never left him.
Baliwould — Photo courtesy of Martin Westlake
As I cradle an apple tempura and pear dish called Scarborough Pear into my mouth, Goldfarb explains that this dessert is an homage to his 20-year obsession with the classic film The Graduate, which features a lesser-known Simon and Garfunkel song "Scarborough Fair." It's warm, crisp and gooey in all the right ways that harken back to childhood, tasting, as Goldfarb describes it, like chicken and waffles.
"Our stuff tends to be fairly dense," he says, referring to each dessert's point of inspiration. "It doesn't seem pretentious or overwrought to me, but it's yummy and juicy."
In between courses, I ask Goldfarb about whether he's found the balance so many people come to Bali in search of.
"The point of balance is that you are aware of what's important and then you do that right," he says.
Pique Nique — Photo courtesy of Martin Westlake
So maybe you don't need to move to a tropical island to find balance, spiritual experiences or pleasure. According to Goldfarb, you simply need to create the space in your life to focus on what matters most to you.
With a focus on his craft instead of "external validators" of awards and accolades, Goldfarb has achieved success and resurfaced to global celebrity on his own terms.
"I'm really happy and it's really amazing that people come to our little place. It's so cool, I still can't believe it frankly," the chef grins.
It may be trite, but perhaps the true path to success is doing what you love and the rest will come. But first, dessert.