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Finding flavour: The top Aussie chef who transformed Pandaw's gourmet galley

Enjoyed Pandaw's onboard food offering recently? If so, you should know who to thank.

His name is Stuart Hickman, a 47-year-old Welsh Australian chef with a passion for the tastes of Southeast Asia and an inspiration for our team of talented chefs. As Pandaw's food and beverage manager, Stuart's obsession with sharing new and exciting flavours is matched by his passion for training up a new generation of young local talent.

In a year-and-a-half with Pandaw, this culinary force of nature has used his decades of globe-trotting experience to overhaul our food and drink operation. Now he is hard at work compiling a mouth-watering Pandaw cook book, due out this autumn.

Provisionally entitled Flavours from the Rivers of the Orient, the new publication will be crowd-sourced from Pandaw's stable of chefs, gathering up the best recipes for meals and canapes, based on all the diverse local cuisines from all the areas through which our unique fleet is privileged to travel.

Just hearing him enthuse about "layers of flavour"  –  verbally dishing up a "caramelised watermelon,feta salad with pickled cucumber and ginger mint dressing" for example – leaves you feeling (a) hungry and (b) respectful:  Here is a man who loves his food and cares that Pandaw passengers get the best.  A guest-focused  advocate of "theatre cuisine", he sees it as part of the onboard experience to focus passengers on the cooking and preparation of what they are about to receive.

The son of Welsh émigré hoteliers from Queensland's Sunshine Coast, cooking and catering are in his blood. He learned his trade in Australia, before venturing on a spectacularly diverse international career that has taken him from a "boutique cruise ship" on the Barrier Reef to the ski slopes of Andorra to the luxury super yachts of Majorca, to feeding 200 miners in the remotest outback of Western Australia.

Having worked  long stints in senior roles in upmarket locations in Phuket and Singapore, and married to Tangmo, a Thai, he knows Southeast Asia and its natural larder better than most, and has acquired the diplomatic skills to be effective in a testing multi-cultural environment. He talks about the importance of patience, tact, and the need for "two spoons of sugar to one spoon of vinegar" when it comes to motivating our diverse kitchen crews.

Overseeing nine ships over the cruise season, it is his job to ensure that the best ingredients are sourced, that the menus are refreshed regularly, and that food preparation and hygiene standards are consistent. 

"The idea of the Pandaw cook book is to focus on the local cuisine, with submissions from each of our chefs. " Stuart tells me. "We are sharing what's going on in the kitchens along the routes we take, we include some of the favourites of European cuisine and contemporary cuisine all developed with love and passion."

Stuart's job is made all the more challenging in Burma, the company's heartland, by the lack of an indigenous restaurant culture (though there are some stand out eateries like Yangon's Le Planteur, where he sources Pandaw's superlative imported wine list).

Another challenge is that Burma, in comparison with neighbouring Thailand, is not the easiest place to source the great ingredients that a chef of his calibre demands. "I have to say that Myanmar cuisine compared to other Asian cuisines is relatively bland and unexciting." Stuart says. "My challenge is to take Burmese staples and make them more palatable to the Western diner" he says. "For example their curries are very oily, as they use that to infuse the rice."

He is frank about the challenges of sourcing produce that meets his standards, challenges he takes pride in overcoming. "Agricultural diversity hasn't really developed in Myanmar as it has in Thailand. For example you just have one lettuce variety, iceberg. You don't get that beautiful, succulent summer leaves  that are available in Thailand. And with all these buffalo around, why don't they have a good buffalo mozzarella?"

"They do have delicious, seafood , particularly what they call seabass which is a kind of  is white snapper. And the famous Irrawaddy river prawn, which is like a like a fresh water langoustine."

Given all of the above, Stuart's knack for sourcing the best local and imported ingredients is thus at a premium. Constantly on the hunt for the best flavours and the best prepared meats and vegetables, he is a tireless market-goer who know all the good suppliers and importers.

"A true chef uses their imagination. You can always develop new techniques and new recipes. Its only your imagination that holds you back."

There isn't a chef in the world who doesn't enthuse about their passion for local produce, but what strikes most about Chef Hickman is his determination that Pandaw has a positive impact on Burma's tourism and food service industries. He is a relentlessly committed trainer.

"Some of the younger chefs coming up the organisation have had a lot more exposure and training than the older generation, and indeed a couple of my chefs have worked overseas, for example in Dubai. Those who have worked abroad have a higher level of understanding and training. We have got a good core crew of chefs, and we are bringing them on."

"I have noticed that some of the chefs are taking the ball and running with it. We have young fresh blood on board the ships, and I have shown them that I am willing to promote within the company, and two younger commis chefs have become head chefs,  one of them is taking over on a ten-cabins ship,  he's only 33, and he's young and vibrant in his cuisine."

In due course we'll be posting some of Pandaw's favourite recipes from Stuart's new publication, and if you have any questions about our food offering, ingredients, or are in search of any Asian cookery tips, he would be happy to advise. Drop him a line at stuart@pandaw.com. He'll get back to you when he can!

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