Chefs are a lot like rock stars. They have personality and charisma for days, energy that takes over entire buildings, and talent beyond comprehension. In some cases, they even become household names and have loyal followings. Renu Homsombat meets most of those qualifications, but while she might not be on Gordon Ramsay’s level in terms of notoriety, her party hosting skills will only bolster her global reputation in the years to come.
I met Renu the day before Banyan Tree Mayakoba would host its highly anticipated Thai Food Festival, so my basic assumption was that her mental state would be one of chaos. Traveling to Mexico from Thailand, where she serves as the Banyan Tree Group’s Executive Thai Chef—who among us wouldn’t be nervous within 24 hours of the resort’s biggest event of the year?
Not her. Instead, she was cool as the cucumbers she was teaching me how to properly slice in a cooking class that took place in a test kitchen tucked away in wonderful El Pueblito. In fact, the whole chef crew was in spectacular spirits, especially this resort’s Executive Chef, Alfonso de la Dehesa, who was more like a stand-up comedian than a rock star, but still playing the main stage, nonetheless.
If there was anxiety to be found on this sprawling property, it was probably mine—I was trying so hard to impress the chefs with my own cooking skills, after all. Still, they’re the pros and as such I had a really good feeling I was in for the night of my life.
No Such Thing as Too Much
It sounds funny when you think about it; traveling to Playa del Carmen to eat Thai food. However, it goes without saying that even the dullest night at Banyan Tree Mayakoba is worthy of a direct flight halfway around the world, let alone a quick and easy jaunt from Orlando to Cancun, especially with all the extra legroom and bonus perks of the JetBlue Experience. A recent $50 million renovation has put this property in the conversation for the best in the destination, possibly the entire country, and if that seems too bold, one night in an over-the-water Lagoon and Sunset Rooftop Pool Villa will settle that debate.
Of course, at the very heart of this resort’s stellar dining program is the Banyan Tree signature restaurant, Saffron, so anyone who visits already knows the depth (and deliciousness) of the Thai influence. Now imagine that spread out across every dining option on this property—Cello, La Copa, and Tomahawk, to name a few—and packed into one magical evening. Even the biggest appetites would struggle to keep up.
At least that was my constant fear because the food here is phenomenal. Between the tomahawk steak at the restaurant of the same name and breakfast buffet at Oriente, I was worried I wouldn’t have much room left in my stomach, a rarity for me but at this point a reality. On the eve before the big event, I dined at the resort’s epic HAAB experience, a Mayan-themed celebration based around the four elements, and it is a lot to handle, especially once the s’more marshmallows the size of my fist make an appearance.
As I rubbed elbows with guest of honor Paisan Rupanichakij, the Thai ambassador to Mexico, I quietly wondered how I’d ever want to eat again. But I found inspiration in his permanent smile and positive energy for this annual celebration, so I had a feeling we’d all be just fine.
Without a Hitch
The Mayakoba festival was the third of four events that only take place at the brand’s Mexican resorts. Banyan Tree Puebla kicked off the late summer fun on August 18, while Hacienda Xcanatun by Angsana in Merida kept the vibes alive just two days later. Having missed those parties (my invitations must have been lost in the mail) I can’t say with certainty that the one I attended was the best, but there was certainly a sense of excitement that exceeds the typical food festival.
The obvious reason is that the management and staff at Banyan Tree Mayakoba was in full show-off mode, exceptionally eager for guests to see the fruits of those renovations. The buzz for the lagoon villas has been off the charts for months, but we also can’t gloss over the Sands Beach Club and Beachfront Pool Suites. This was as much a food festival as it was an occasion to brag, and both aspects had visitors raving and wishing they could stay longer.
As I moved from corner to corner of the expansive open-air lobby and its dining establishments to try the wide variety of Thai cuisine, including magnificent dishes like phad thai goong sod, gaeng kiew wang gai green curry, and the crispiest chicken wings doused in a variety of hilariously spicy sauces, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the work that had been accomplished in the short time I was there. When I checked in, the lobby’s stunning tree centerpiece looked as it always does in photos. But when I arrived at the start of the event, the entire building had been transformed so well, so creatively, that it felt like walking through a magic portal that took me straight to Phuket.
You can always tell how a party is going by the host’s energy. Renu was hard to track down as the hours passed and my appetite vanished, but every now and then I’d spot her infectious smile lighting up another room, all while traditional Thai dancers circled the tree and musicians performed. At the same time, Banyan Tree Mayakoba General Manager Juan Carlos Cardona, the man who I assumed would be the most stressed of anyone involved, was taking victory laps and sharing laughs with his dedicated, impressive staff members.
If I wasn’t already set to be snorkeling with my son several hundred miles away, I would have loved to hop another JetBlue flight over to Acapulco for the fourth and final festival at Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués. “There’s no way,” I told myself, “absolutely no way anything can top what I just witnessed, experienced, and so thoroughly enjoyed.”
In fairness, though, I won’t know until I attend each Thai food festival next year. That is, if I can get tickets. Because there’s also no way there shouldn’t be a line 10 miles long for people trying to get in.