Flores is a rare place in the world, where different cultures and religions exist peacefully side-by-side, a harmonious blend of Catholicism, Islam and Animism that shapes communities and their every day lives. It is common for neighbours to look after each other’s children while parents attend religious ceremonies of their own faith, and there is a collective acceptance of a diverse range of religious practices. This gentle harmony flows throughout Flores, and typifies the generosity of spirit that pulls people to return again and again, both travellers and those who are coming home to their birthright. Maria Tukan, Chef de Cuisine, at the breathtaking AYANA Komodo Resort, embodies this generous spirit, and it was a joy to hear about her life growing up in Flores, the way that this continues to influence her outlook, and her path to becoming a highly respected and awarded chef.
Maria grew up in Larantuka, a small town set on the east coast of Flores, with a strong Portugese and Catholic influence, and it was here that she first dreamt of becoming a chef in a world-class hotel. As a child, her parents worked a long six-day week, but Sundays were for reconnecting with family and loved ones, picnicking outdoors, and sharing food and stories. Those Sunday picnics were special to the family, and a lovingly prepared meal was central to the ritual, shaping Maria’s appreciation for good food. When she was old enough, Maria convinced her parents to let her take over the picnic menu, and, hard-earned money in hand, she would head to the markets to pick the best ingredients to cook with. She learnt by copying recipes from magazines, or local specialities, taking great care to create something wonderful for her family, and this was the beginning of her life as a chef.
Maria says that she feels lucky to come from her community in Larantuka where women are respected, and girls are encouraged to pursue higher education and a career. She was a good student who worked hard at school, going on to tourism college where she studied for five years to be a chef, and was one of only three students, out of a class of 65, who went on to work at a prestigious hotel. She learnt to speak English, and stresses how important this has been to her career within the hospitality industry. After studying, she looked for work as a cake-maker, a path that eventually took her to a 7-star hotel in Dubai, the Burj Al Arab, where she worked from 2007-2017.
Here, her hard work and personable approach was rewarded as she was named ‘Chef of the Year’ several times, as voted by guest review. She says that her approach to customers, valuing their opinions about food and their individual tastes, talking to guests and spending time front of house, is central to her success as a chef. It also points to her upbringing in Flores, where a respect for other people’s opinions and tastes are expected, and part of the fabric of daily life.
Her success as a chef has allowed her to travel and see the world, experiencing the cultures and cuisines of places like Beijing, the U.S. and Europe. This has meant spending long periods away from home learning her craft, which at times has worried her family as they have missed important milestones in her life, like her graduation. Maria admits that she has had to be tenacious in order to prove herself in a male-dominated industry, and with this has come long hours and time away from her family. But the sacrifice and hard work has paid off, and her family are overjoyed that she has now returned to Flores to work at the restaurant, Rinca Restaurant, at AYANA Komodo Resort where she has been Chef de Cuisine for a little over two months now.
Maria is embracing the chance to create a menu for Rinca Restaurant that reflects the landscape and culture that she grew up with in Flores, reshaping the menu with local flavours and cooking methods. She has introduced a weekly ‘Flores night’ where guests can try some of the specialty dishes from the region, with an emphasis on fresh seafood and lobster, which Maria says comes from her early days cooking in her hometown coastal village. Maria’s skill at knowing how to ‘play the fire’ and using deft technique means that she can bring out the best in the local produce, creating a masterpiece on the plate.
While she is excited to introduce the flavours of Flores to a wider audience, she is also concerned with preserving the natural beauty of the region for generations to come. She was greatly relieved to learn that the AYANA Komodo Resort is actively involved with conserving the Flores natural environment, working with a marine biologist to ensure the future health of the ocean. Part of their initiative is to create a reef nursery and a team of people to work on reef regeneration, protecting the spectacular waters from damage, and ensuring a future for the locals of Flores, industry, tourism and most
importantly, the delicate ecosystem. She is also very much in favour of their zero tolerance policy on plastics of any kind within the resort.
Maria says that watching the sunset over the pristine water off Labuan Bajo, from the top deck at the AYANA Komodo Resort, is one of her greatest rewards. Driven by her lifelong passion for food, the culture of Flores, and the hard-working example set by her parents, she firmly believes that if you are resilient, work hard, and put your whole heart into your work, you can achieve anything.