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.
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.
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. ◊