Chef Benjamin Cross shares the story of his intercontinental culinary journey and his adventures in Bali, which have culminated in the opening of a highly praised restaurant at Canggu, with Joezer Mandagi.
From the people who brought us Fishbone Local – i.e., the Brett Hospitality Group – comes another eatery celebrating good cooking and Bali’s bounty of produce: Mason, in Canggu, Bali. And at the forefront of this new foray into Bali’s latest culinary hotspot is seasoned Australian chef Benjamin Cross.
“I started off as a young apprentice chef cooking Southeast Asian food in a boutique hotel called Rae’s on Wategos beach in Byron bay, Australia,” Cross begins. “From there, I moved to Sydney and worked for two of Australia’s best chefs. First was Neil Perry at the Rockpool Dining Group and then I went to cook with Janni Krystis at the MG Garage.”
These two acclaimed restaurants were instrumental in building Cross’s understanding of fine dining. His journey, however, was just starting.
“At first, I thought it would be an easy job! I actually didn’t look at cooking as work when I started,” Cross reminisces about why he chose to become a chef. “I just loved the idea of doing what I enjoyed, cooking and travelling – and getting paid for it.”
And travel he did. After honing his skills in Sydney he moved to Brisbane to help some friends open the award-winning Urbane restaurant. “From there, I decided to try my luck overseas and moved to Spain,” where he opened a restaurant in partnership with Julian Lennon, son of the late John Lennon, in the village of Puerto Portals in Mallorca.
Then came yet another move, back to Sydney and the Rockpool Dining Group, where Cross became an executive sous chef. Following his second stint at Rockpool, he headed out to Spain once more to work, albeit only briefly, at the three Michelin-starred Can Fabes near Barcelona. This would mark the end – for now, at least – of his continent-hopping adventures.
“From Spain I moved to Bali in 2007 to begin an 11-year stint at Ku De Ta,” Cross recalls. During this time I opened Mejekawi dining where we were lucky to host some of the best restaurants in the world including Noma, Momofuku, Belon, Burnt Ends, Cure, Sixpenny, Lumi Dining, IGNI and Sitka.” In this case he was referring to the Culinary Collective, an “exclusive series of supper clubs” where the venue would host and collaborate with various notable chefs from all around the region.
Fast forward several years and Cross was ready to start his own ventures. “In late 2014 I opened my first independent restaurant, Hank’s Pizza & Liquor,” he explain. “Then, in 2018, in partnership with the Brett Hospitality Group,
I opened two more restaurants Fishbone Local and Mason.” Mason fast became the talk of the town – well, the island, actually – in the later months of last year. It has retained its must-visit label well into this year.
So, what is it about Mason that sets it apart from all the other venues around Canggu that are vying for your attention and appetite? “At Mason we work hard to make everything in-house,” Cross pointed out. “We source fresh milk to make goat curd, haloumi, feta and ricotta. We also make all of our own charcuterie such as wagyu pastrami, salami, chorizo, mortadella, smoked salmon and many more. We cook mostly with wood fire grills and our wood fire oven and have a heavy vegetable and meat influence.”
All in all, Mason appears to be the perfect spot for a low-key dinner where you simply want be comfortable while enjoying simple, familiar dishes but at premium quality. And this definitely goes hand in hand with recent shifts in consumer preferences as observed by Cross: “I think there has been a natural movement in the past few years away from classic fine dining and heading towards a more semi-fine dining sharing concept.”
Fortunately, this nicely matches Cross’ own personal style. “My philosophy on food is now based on simplicity and quality products,” he says. “I try not to over-complicate dishes, but to keep them exciting so as to surpass the customers’ expectations.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Cross also has a deep appreciation for local produce and seems to take a keen interest in supporting sustainable practices. “We put in a lot of time to source local products and test them for our menus,” he goes on. “We are always looking for better products as well as for local and sustainable farmers and fishermen that are using the best methods for growing or catching as compared to factory produced products.”
While there has been an observable increase in quality when it comes to local vegetables, poultry, meat and especially fish, sourcing locally remains a challenge. “You have to do a lot of research to find the hidden gems,” Cross added, “but it’s well worth it when you find some beautiful locally grown produce.”
For sure, there is plenty of that to be found at Mason. So, all that being said, what can a first-time visitor to Mason expect? Is there such a thing as a “typical” experience at Mason? “Mason is known for its great cocktails, wine and food, so generally people will come in and start with a few drinks in the courtyard and enjoy the atmosphere of an open wood fire kitchen,” Cross elaborates.
“From there, they would pick a selection of in-house cured meats, cheeses and dips with a serving of freshly wood roasted flat bread. Followed by that would be a section of our main courses and sides that are designed to share.”
This, of course, follows the semi-fine dining sharing concept that Cross mentioned earlier. And it’s not only foodies and vacationers who agree that Mason is doing a stellar job with it. “We have a lot of restaurateurs from Bali and overseas come in and tell us that Mason is their favorite restaurant,” he says, “which is always great to hear from industry peers.”
Speaking of which, it would certainly seem that moving forward, Cross has big plans for his future in the industry. “I now have a much stronger interest in restaurant concepts rather than just cooking; I love having different venues that each have a different style of food and service,” he notes. “I would like one day to branch out into different aspects of the hospitality industry. For example, it would be great to do a boutique hotel one day.”
And that hotel, when it opens, will undoubtedly boast one of the finest restaurants for many miles around.