A Woman’s Love for Ubud
She’s devoted the last 30 years to sweeping visitors off their feet with her adopted Balinese hometown. Now, Janet DeNeefe reflects on how she and Ubud have grown and changed together.
“It was the trip that changed my life,” says Janet DeNeefe.
“It was a crazy, overgrown tropical jungle, and I still remember that until then, I’d never seen trees as tall as there were in Bali. It just seemed like this vivid, verdant paradise,” she tells me, thinking back to her first visit to Ubud at age 15. “Everyone just seemed beautiful, everything smelt amazing, and the food was totally different.”
A chance encounter
In some ways, DeNeefe’s visit also turned out to be the trip that changed Ubud. In the 1970s, the town already had an international reputation as an artistic community. DeNeefe’s grandfather was an artist. So when her father found himself with “a bit of money in his pocket,” he packed up the family in Melbourne and took them on a holiday to the peaceful Indonesian town.
“It was the trip that changed my life.”
– Janet DeNeefe
Tucked amid a collection of villages and emerald-green rice paddies, Ubud (pronounced “OO-bood”) became known as Bali’s cultural centre, dotted with ancient temples and chock-full of museums and art galleries.
DeNeefe went on to study art herself, eventually becoming an art teacher. But, drawn by a love of food, she left teaching to work in restaurants in Melbourne. Then, spurred by memory, she decided to make another change: She returned to Bali 10 years after her first visit.
Putting down roots in Ubud
The next part of her story, DeNeefe says, is what prompts people to liken it to a fairy tale. She met a Balinese man named Ketut, who at the time owned a successful art gallery and was studying political science in Denpasar. Within five years, she had moved there, the pair had wed, and they had opened their first restaurant, Lilies, on Monkey Forest Road.
DeNeefe had also fallen in love with Ubud, its people and the idea of helping visitors find their own love of her adopted hometown. This passion would transform DeNeefe into a tireless mini mogul, in a town where most expats are on permanent holiday.
Today, along with owning and running the Honeymoon Bakery, Casa Luna and Indus restaurants, the Casa Luna Cooking School and the Honeymoon Guesthouses, she fills her spare time as a writer and festival director.
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Knowing how to appeal to Westerners gave DeNeefe a bit of an edge. And in those days, there simply weren’t many other places to eat, “so you could serve anything that tasted remotely good to them,” she says, laughing.
After sampling her signature dishes, I suspect she’s being more than a little modest about her early cooking skills. DeNeefe deftly serves local staples, such as smoked duck or spiced fish in banana leaves, in a style that highlights the complex flavours of Balinese food.
Over the past quarter century, DeNeefe and her island home have flourished side by side. Bali is no longer a place where cows and ducks wander the roads; now it’s the premier destination for travellers to shed their shoes and responsibilities. The tourism wheels, DeNeefe says, began to turn in 1989 when the simple local market became something much grander: “From there, everything seemed to forge ahead.”
Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love came out in 2006, followed four years later by the movie, parts of which were filmed in Ubud. This was the place where Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert found her inner peace and balance.
DeNeefe laughs when I ask about the movie’s impact on the town, and says the thing that concerns her most about the “yoga set” is whether they’re trying Indonesian food at all – “or are they just eating the same smoothies, raw food and cashew butter that they are at home?” Visitors who follow her advice and try local specialties and restaurants, from the humble to the gourmet, find that besides being an international yogi hot spot, Ubud has become a serious luxury destination.
At Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan, which opened in 1998, General Manager Uday Rao acknowledges that Ubud was once perceived as “being just about yoga and spas and meditation centres.” But, he says, “it’s evolved from that to being a cultural hub of Bali.”
The Bali restaurant scene in particular has been invigorated. Warungs – small, family-owned restaurants catering mostly to locals – are plentiful, but in addition, Rao says, “There are some really nice upscale dining experiences in Ubud.” DeNeefe, he adds, has played a vital role in bringing the artist enclave into the limelight.
“Now people are discovering the food, as well as the beautiful temples, the music, the dance, the art, the literary scene and what the real Bali is all about.”
– Uday Rao, Four Seasons Bali at Sayan
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A voice for change
The town’s growth into a thriving cultural centre was not always peaceful. Ubud was an idyll, but still part of a larger, sometimes troubled world. DeNeefe admits that by 2000 she felt twinges of anxiety.
The tireless entrepreneur had already been discussing hosting a series of poetry evenings with Indonesian writers, and decided that now was the time to implement – and upscale – the idea. “I thought, ‘Writers are fearless; they’ll stand up for what they believe in,’” she says. “So I said, ‘Bring them on.’” In 2004, she staged the first Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which brought a crowd of 300 or so travellers to town.
The second festival the following year garnered worldwide attention by hosting literary luminaries Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje, and it continues to grow, attracting the world’s best and brightest writers, including Etgar Keret in 2010 and Jeffrey Eugenides in 2012. Just before celebrating its 11th year in October 2014, the festival appointed musician and writer Nick Cave as its international patron.
It still serves as a forum for healing. Despite the tumultuous political relationship between Indonesia and Australia, the festival enjoys an especially strong connection with Australian writers. “The relationship between the two countries in terms of artists and writers,” DeNeefe says, “is better than ever.”
Embracing island life
As for DeNeefe’s journey, building her businesses in Ubud has been the great joy of her life, though not without challenges. When I ask what difficulties she encountered in starting businesses in an unfamiliar, tropical environment, a rooster screams in the background, as if on cue. She laughs. “You have to be pretty flexible,” she says.
She recalls that when she began her cooking classes, she encountered more than a few raised eyebrows among her staff. “They thought I was absolutely out of my mind to teach people about their food,” she says. “Like, who’d want to learn about Balinese food? Of course that’s turned around now, but I virtually had to pull them into my kitchen at the beginning.”
By the time DeNeefe began putting the writers festival together, the townspeople supported the idea. “I remember the manager we had at Indus was very enthusiastic about it, but also very nervous,” DeNeefe says. “Finally, the night before the festival started, he admitted, ‘It’s all very exciting – but I have no idea what a writers festival is!’”
The way to get along in Ubud, according to DeNeefe, is to be low-key. “You have to under-react, not over-react,” she says. “If everything you do is an under-reaction, then you’ll get along just fine.” She learned a lot from her husband’s model of business, she says, which is characterised by “lots of jokes, goodwill and humour, and lots of kindness. You absolutely have to throw out that Western model of pointing your finger and saying, ‘Do it now!’”
A lasting love
After more than 30 years in Ubud, DeNeefe still makes time to appreciate the simple pleasures of the place she’s lucky to call home. “I love how cooling and peaceful the Monkey Forest is,” she says, “and walking across the ridge behind Campuhan Ridge is absolutely gorgeous. And I love doing my shopping at the markets, having that chance to make contact with people.”
On rare days off, DeNeefe can be found at bridges restaurant, where she’s friends with the owners; at the warung Ibu Oka, sampling the famed babi guling (roast suckling pig); or at Ryoshi, where her children love to eat Japanese food.
So does DeNeefe feel “finished” with the work of welcoming the world to Ubud? Hardly. Now she’s busily planning the second Ubud Food Festival, slated for May 27–29. Does she ever worry that the town has reached its peak as an international destination? Again, the answer is no.
“The people here are so extraordinary, and the culture is so extraordinary, it’ll always survive on that level. Ubud still has this charm about it that, no matter where you are in the world, is pretty hard to beat.”
– Janet DeNeefe