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Bali’s Zero-Waste “Creative Village”

We all remember the last trip we took before coronavirus turned our world upside down. Going through hundreds of photos from the first week of March 2020, when I flew to Bali for a last-minute reporting assignment, brought on a pang of nostalgia. At first glance they seem to depict the Bali that was: a thriving tourist destination just weeks before face masks and social distancing became de rigueur, before Indonesia closed its borders and foreign visitor numbers dropped to zero. But, in a strangely comforting way, the pictures also offered a hopeful glimpse of the Bali that will be.

I say this because I was there to document an eco-conscious “creative village” established by a homegrown Indonesian hospitality brand with a quirky, endearing name: Potato Head. A place where sustainability, music, local culture, and art and design all intersect, it fits into a growing movement on the island that advocates a more responsible and meaningful kind of tourism. Desa Potato Head (desa being the Indonesian word for “village”) has been built to draw fun-loving visitors who would rather not spend their holiday holed up in an exclusive resort – its forward-thinking design allows them to mingle with local creatives and learn about turning waste into functional, beautiful objects.

The whole three-hectare (seven-acre) complex is the culmination of more than a decade’s hard work and careful planning. Potato Head got its start as a casual Jakarta restaurant launched in 2009 by Indonesian entrepreneur Ronald Akili and his business partner Jason Gunawan. This venture paved the way for Akili’s wife, then a chef working in Europe, to return home. According to Akili, it was “just a fun project” and “not meant to be a business,” which partly explained its unconventional name. The venue was unusual for Jakarta at a time when most restaurants in town looked to Europe or North America for inspiration in both their snazzy decor and gourmet menus. “We incorporated contemporary Indonesian art,” he recalled. “A lot of the food was inspired by what we ate [at home]. It was very homey, very industrial, and very different at the same time.”

The success of the original Potato Head fueled even bigger ambitions for the budding restaurateurs. “The vision then was simply to make a brand out of Indonesia that could one day compete globally,” Akili said. “Hence, we chose Bali as the first stepping stone. If we were successful there, we would have some global recognition. We’ve always wanted to do more than just a restaurant… our aspiration from the beginning was to one day make Potato Head into a lifestyle brand.”

One year later, the duo splashed down in Bali with the opening of the legendary Potato Head Beach Club, which quickly became a hit in the seaside area of Seminyak. The idea of creating contemporary designs out of upcycled materials has been in the brand’s DNA since the very beginning; prominent Indonesian architect Andra Matin gave the beach club a striking Colosseum-inspired facade with an assemblage of 6,600 antique window shutters gathered from all across the country – much like those adorning the walls and ceilings at the initial Potato Head in Jakarta.

Inside the Desa’s bamboo tunnel, named The Womb; art made with discarded flip-flops

Herbal concoctions at the jamu bar; the courtyard at Potato Head Studios

The main approach to the Studios; pouring a shot of jamu

A chalkboard and freshly caught red snappers at Ijen

Ijen was built entirely out of recycled materials; grilled octopus for lunch

Akili and Gunawan then enlisted Matin to design Katamama, a gorgeous 58-suite property behind the beach club that marked their first foray into the hotel industry. And what a statement it was. The bold neo-Brutalist building is clad in 1.8 million red bricks, hand-pressed by artisans in a Balinese village, with eclectic interiors to match: think custom-made midcentury modern furniture and locally woven textiles against a backdrop of teak and rust-red brick. Instead of a lobby, guests enter through Akademi bar – a testing ground for making cocktails with native botanicals and house-infused jars of arak, the local moonshine.

With Katamama complete, Potato Head’s founders could now focus on the third and final phase of their beachside creative playground in Seminyak. The overarching idea was to create something akin to New York’s MoMA PS1, but with hotel rooms. Akili sought out OMA, the big-name studio founded by Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas, for the project, and Matin was brought on board as a design consultant to add some local architectural nuances. Named Potato Head Studios, the building is largely raised off the ground on concrete piers, while the perforated geometric brick façade – with its full-moon shapes and square and triangular cutouts – represents the Balinese divination calendar, or tika. All the broken and unused bricks from Katamama, kept in storage at Akili’s insistence, were pulverized and mixed into the concrete to give the walls of Potato Head Studios a reddish-brown tint.

That this is no ordinary hotel is clear at check-in, when guests are ushered into a quiet, cavern-like space called the Circle Store. They’re then gifted a tote bag and a stainless-steel water bottle, as well as refillable insect repellent, sunscreen, and aloe vera if needed. Just outside the Circle Store is a bar offering free shots of jamu – Indonesia’s traditional herbal tonics. It’s here that I’m greeted by Fysh Liam. With a shaved head and intricate tattoos covering her upper right arm, the free-spirited Singaporean transplant makes a striking impression from the get-go. “I was a flight attendant with Singapore Airlines for 18 years,” she says warmly.

Fysh is keen to show me around, so once I drop off my bags, we walk over to an enormous bamboo tunnel called The Womb, a permanent installation by Balinese artist Nano Uhero. Newly built at the time of my visit, it serves as the main entryway to the Desa, while showcasing zero-waste furniture specially made for Potato Head by British designers Max Lamb and Faye Toogood. Right at the entrance is a checkpoint where single-use plastics are confiscated from visitors. “In exchange, we give them a recycled plastic token to redeem a glass of water at the beach club,” Fysh explains.

Running along one side of The Womb is Potato Head’s Sustainism Lab, where in-house technicians experiment with all kinds of waste and reuse them in creative ways. For instance, the tissue boxes and soap dispensers in the guest rooms were created from a mixture of broken-up plastic bottle caps, powdered limestone, ground oyster shells from the restaurants, and Styrofoam – the unavoidable packaging that encased the in-room TVs when they were delivered. Akili would later tell me that only three percent of all waste at Desa Potato Head is sent to the landfill; the ultimate goal is to get that figure down to zero.

I also learn that the disposable slippers at Katamama and the Studios can be composted as they are made out of coconut fiber and woven palm fronds. But the most eye-catching example of the brand’s approach to going zero-waste is Max Lamb’s painterly desk chairs, which fuse colorful fragments of melted plastic in resin; the offcuts have been turned into coasters, cookie jar lids, and boards for writing pads. Beyond the hotel rooms, 1.7 tons of recycled plastic were transformed into ceilings throughout the Studios’ public areas.

Greenery softens the architecture at Potato Head Studios; inside one of its 168 guest rooms

In-room writing pads and desk chairs at the Studios were made from recycled plastic and resin

A cotton wall hanging dyed with mahogany and mango leaves; raw materials at the Sustainism Lab

Zero-waste rattan furniture by Faye Toogood; pointing the way to Sunset Park

Fysh and I return to the Studios as she’s keen to show me how Potato Head aims to blur the boundaries between culture and fun. Up on the first floor, and reached from the courtyard via a wide processional stairway, is Studio Exotica. The multipurpose venue is simultaneously an inviting co-working space, a bar, and a library stocked with an eclectic array of tomes on subjects ranging from music, fashion, and surf photography to architecture and anthropology (there’s even a book on Toltec shamanism). Through a door adjacent to the bar, we find a high-ceilinged gallery space that will host art- and music-themed exhibitions once the pandemic subsides.

Leaving Studio Exotica, Fysh takes me up a dog-leg concrete stairway to the Studios’ unfinished rooftop entertainment venue named Sunset Park. Once complete, it will be home to art installations, a bar with a pop-up DJ space, and off to one side, a recording studio in an oval concrete structure. We’ve come late in the afternoon and the whole scene is bathed in a soft golden light. Fysh points out a small amphitheater in the beachfront area down below – an homage to the arena outside the cliff-top temple of Uluwatu on Bali’s Bukit Peninsula. “Once the setting sun hits the horizon, that’s when we’ll launch the Sunset Circle. You know the kecak dance? It’s like that, but mixing traditional arts with the modern.”

That creative, eco-conscious ethos also extends to the food. The next day, I hop over to Potato Head Beach Club for lunch at Ijen, a seafood-focused eatery billed as Bali’s first zero-waste restaurant when it opened in 2018. The breezy venue was built entirely from recycled materials, while used cooking oil has been repurposed as candle wax; Ijen’s drinking glasses were even fashioned from wine bottles. In the open kitchen, not even fish scales go to waste: these are cleaned and dried overnight with leftover rice from the beach club’s pan-Indonesian restaurant Kaum, then ground up to make flour for crunchy kerupuk crackers. My picks from the menu? Grilled octopus with chayote and black garlic, accompanied by a refreshing watermelon and tomato salad. But the highlight is a substantial parcel of savory coconut rice grilled in banana leaf, topped with succulent squid, fish floss, and sprigs of fresh lemon basil.

Back at Potato Head Studios, dinner awaits at the brand-new vegan restaurant Tanaman (its name means “plants” in Indonesian). The space occupies a submarine-like structure partially sunken into the ground below the main building; patrons who walk through its curved glass doors are reminded of the Desa’s zero-waste ethos through welcome shots of house-brewed ginger beer, a tangy drink that harnesses leftover ginger skins from the jamu bar out in the courtyard. For Akili, Tanaman had to be an honest showcase of everyday Indonesian cuisine. “I wanted it to have a solid plant-based approach that was very refined, but still very authentic and with a home-cooked feeling,” he would later tell me. Indeed, the tasting menu offers up some clever plant-based iterations of regional dishes from Java, Sumatra, and Bali. Instead of skewered chicken, beef, or goat, the well-seasoned sate (a.k.a. satay) uses oyster mushroom and marshmallow-soft tempe gembus – the latter made from fermented tofu dregs. Tanaman’s inspired take on batagor, a popular snack of meatball-stuffed tofu drenched in thick peanut sauce, is even tastier than the original treat. I’m told the champignon mushroom filling is stir-fried and then pressed to remove excess moisture before being wrapped and deep-fried.

Next up is sayur bayem: spinach, sweetcorn, and fingerroot in a clear, comforting soup with a slightly sweet flavor. This is soon followed by a piquant banana blossom stew and the addictive rendang, braised in coconut milk and spices for eight to nine hours, that swaps out beef in favor of jackfruit. There’s also a side of meatless Balinese lawar – a salad of long beans, jackfruit, and grated coconut – plus a clay pot of pandan-infused rice tinted green with ground suji leaf. I barely have enough room for dessert. At Tanaman, the humble porridge-like dish of bubur sumsum has been reimagined as a coconut sorbet enveloped by a smooth, creamy rice pudding dressed in finely chopped pineapple and drizzled in coconut nectar, then crowned with a crunchy cashew tuile. For me, this indulgent yet guilt-free meal drives home the message Akili is trying to spread through his brand: it’s not so hard to have a good time while doing good for the planet.

Alfresco seating outside Tanaman; a view of Seminyak Beach from the rooftop

The red-brick facade of Katamama; Fysh Liam oversees the Desa’s concierge department

Jackfruit rendang (center), lawar (bottom left), and rice with suji leaf and pandan at Tanaman

Tanaman’s sunken bar; the main staircase leading up to Studio Exotica and Sunset Park

The curved glass doors at Tanaman; a skylight in the same restaurant

Starters at Tanaman include mushroom batagor (bottom); servers wear locally inspired uniforms

A fiery Indian Ocean sunset

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your post also reminds me of my last trip in end Feb of 2020 when I went to Yangon for a company event. There was the covid lockdowns after that and now the coup. I don’t know when I will ever go back to Myanmar again, which is pity, as the country had so much going for it.

    June 12, 2021
    • It is heartbreaking to see Myanmar in such a state of misery right now – and all because the military refused to acknowledge their decisive loss in last year’s general elections. I will never be able to understand why those generals are so willing to kill their own people and effectively torpedo an economy that, as you witnessed yourself, was showing such promise. ASEAN and the UN must do more than voice words of concern.

      June 12, 2021
  2. Very impressive and paving the way for a better future

    June 13, 2021
    • Indeed – it was so inspiring to see a homegrown Indonesian hospitality brand manage their waste and promote healthier living in such creative ways.

      June 13, 2021
  3. I hope they manage to weather these two pandemic years. Zero-waste is a really attractive path into our future. Plus, I would like to meet that grilled octopus with sesame in real life.

    June 13, 2021
    • Me too – they’ve been doing so much good work and I would hate to see them forced to close for good because of the pandemic. The last I heard was that the beach club reopened just a few weeks ago after being shuttered for more than a year… the rest of the complex will hopefully follow soon.

      June 13, 2021
  4. This is the kind of story that makes me miss traveling even more. I love learning about new initiatives that put the environment first, which often give a glimmer of hope in this human-centric world we live in. I really hope Desa Potato Head can survive the pandemic because I like how it paves the way for a new kind of hotel/restaurant/tourist accommodation that is not only inviting for visitors, but also local talent.

    June 13, 2021
    • Same here, Bama. This is such a wonderful example of how a hotel or tourist-oriented entertainment venue can be designed to embrace the local community, rather than keeping them out. I hope more hospitality companies in Bali and the rest of Indonesia learn some lessons from what Potato Head has done so far.

      June 13, 2021
  5. The concept and ways they have worked to carry it out are truly remarkable! I hope these ideas and methods can spread to other areas of the world!

    June 13, 2021
    • I wish for the same thing, Marilyn – imagine the impact if millions of people began applying the same techniques of reusing waste in building materials, furniture, and home accessories!

      June 14, 2021
  6. This is a very interesting “last” trip to look back on. After reading your post, I had to google Desa Potato Head for more info (and prices). Based on the reviews, it seems like visitors love it. Their zero-waste concept is awesome—the fish scales and leftover rice made into crackers really impresses me. The restaurant name Ijen made me think of my last trip to Indonesia where I visited the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen. And the desa made me think of a funny story in a village in Sulawesi where we met the kepala desa (village chief?)and he jokingly told us he’s not to be confused with the kelapa desa (village coconut?). Maybe you had to be there! I hope I can make a return trip to Bali and check this place out.

    June 15, 2021
    • Ah yes, the small differences between the word “kepala” (head/chief) and “kelapa” (coconut) have tripped up many travelers over the years! In a similar vein, I have mistakenly told Bama I wanted donkey milk (susu keledai) when I meant soy milk (susu kedelai). The name Ijen confused me at first, but since many of the seafood dishes there are grilled or roasted, I guess the use of fire connects it to the volcano.

      June 15, 2021
      • That milk mix up is funny. All languages have things that can trip you up—something that has become abundantly clear as I continue to work with English second language students.

        June 16, 2021
  7. Oh I am in love! What a fabulous place, and what amazing people Akili and Gunawan are. What vision! I’m so impressed. I’d love to experience this place.
    Alison

    June 16, 2021
    • It was just so inspiring, Alison. Being there made me think about how I could cut down on waste and live more sustainably. And the plant-based Indonesian food at Tanaman really blew me away, it was such a treat! Before I left, I was told that they were building a small surf-yoga-permaculture retreat out past Canggu, with eco-friendly cabins by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. I’ll have to go back to see this once it’s finished!

      June 16, 2021
  8. Utterly fascinating place, James, and I admire not only the boldness of the ideas but also the aggressive implementation of them! I’d love to check this out someday.

    June 28, 2021
    • Aggressive is right – they certainly didn’t cut any corners! And everything was so tastefully done. I really hope you do get to visit this part of the world after the pandemic subsides. I’m sure we’re all itching to travel again after so many months spent cooped up at home!

      July 4, 2021
  9. What a wonderful post about helping the environment through and eco-conscious creative village. This is such an inspiring story from starting small and expanding while staying true to these values. Potato Head (and all the other business names) is such a quirky name indeed. So lovely that Fysh gave you a tour of Potato Head Studios. It is amazing to hear how many different things plastic bottles can be turned into and Potato Head showcases that.

    So interesting to hear single-use plastics are confiscate dfrom visitors, and the token to redeem a water in return seems like a good initiative – and a way to raise awareness about reusing and recycling. I am guessing guests genreally visit for this reason so they probably aren’t that caught off guard when entering.

    As usual, each trip for you isn’t complete without good food. The plant-based satay sounds amazing. Mushroom really is such a versatile ingredient in plant-based dishes. Beautiful shots all round, and wonderful sunset at the end. Hope you are doing well and staying safe over there, James 🙂

    August 11, 2021
    • Thank you, Mabel. 🙂 Buying plastic bottles of water is still the default here in Indonesia – it will certainly take some time to wean people off such a deeply entrenched habit, but it’s encouraging that more and more hotels have taken the step of banning them altogether and replacing them with refillable glass bottles of filtered water. Some even have their own in-house bottling plants.

      Bali has really emerged as the hub of the local environmental movement. A previous trip there in early 2015 completely changed my perception of vegan food (that was the first time I realized it could be totally delicious), and some forward-thinking individuals on the island are championing sustainable architecture using natural materials like locally grown bamboo.

      I’m happy to report that things are finally turning a corner here in Jakarta, as the vaccine rollout has really sped up in recent weeks, but it’s still pretty bad everywhere else in the country. I hear Melbourne is now in its sixth (!) coronavirus lockdown but I completely understand why. The horrifying alternative would be to see the Delta variant spreading like wildfire through the community and stretching the healthcare system to breaking point. I hope you’re staying sane and even thriving in spite of these challenging times!

      August 22, 2021
      • Good to hear hotels in Indonesia are working towards being more sustainable when it comes to bottles of water. Hopefully this trend continues. Also may you discover more delicious vegan eats in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia. Like you, I discovered vegan food pretty later in life and have come to realise it can be delicious.

        Yes we are in yet another lockdown here in Melbourne. I am doing alright, but it’s really challenging for many here. Hopefully we get out of lockdown soon and get to go out more this upcoming summer. You take care too, James.

        August 22, 2021
  10. Such an impressive initiative James. They seem to be walking the talk instead of just paying lip service to the zero waste concept as most ‘eco-friendly’ properties do. I hope the pandemic hasn’t affected them too much. The food looks spectacular.

    I am surprised to read that their incorporation of Indonesian art and cuisine is a departure from the norm. Is it less popular because it’s been overdone before?

    September 22, 2021
    • At the time Potato Head was born in 2009, for a Jakarta restaurant to be considered elegant or sophisticated, it had to serve European food. Thankfully that’s completely changed in the decades since! There are now quite a few places where chefs reimagine Indonesian dishes in an experimental way. As for contemporary Indonesian art, Jakarta does have a growing appreciation for it – a world-class museum showcasing pieces by local artists opened just a few years ago.

      But then not many hotels in town really champion Indonesian architecture or design in a way that stirs the soul. I’m reminded of a brand-new property I toured for work the other week – although it was undeniably beautiful, there wasn’t really anything that rooted it in Indonesia or gave it a real sense of place. Of course, the picture is completely different in Bali, where locally inspired lodgings are a dime a dozen! Potato Head stands out partly because it eschews the traditional aesthetic for something very modern and unique that is still Indonesian at its core.

      September 26, 2021
      • Interesting. Now I’m curious about the architects. Thank you for that detailed response James.

        September 26, 2021
      • You’re welcome, Madhu! The impression I got was that Potato Head’s founders wanted to showcase the best of 21st-century Indonesia, and help make its traditional crafts more relevant to this day and age.

        September 26, 2021

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