The Life Interview With Federico Asaro

The Life Interview With Federico Asaro: Italian kampung boy turned restaurateur and hotelier

Thirty years after he started a dive shop, entrepreneur Federico Asaro has added restaurants and luxury hotels to his businesses

Since he was taught to snorkel at age six, Mr Federico Asaro has been itching to explore new places.

Whether it is diving into the depths of the ocean, crossing borders by train or saddling up a motorcycle to explore small towns, the itinerant Italian has made adventure his career.

Fresh out of school at 20, he started a dive shop and bought a boat to start a live-aboard business.

Today, almost three decades on, the 48-year-old is a hotelier and restaurateur, with establishments in charming, rustic spots.

He runs The Tamarind Group of restaurants, including Tamarind Hill Singapore, which is perched atop a small hill in a 19th-century villa in Labrador Villa Road.

Then there is Samadhi Retreats, a growing collection of luxury hotels.

I never have to ‘check out’ when I’m on holiday and travelling. Others will say they’ll start following their passions when they retire. But I wasn’t going to wait.

HOTELIER AND RESTAURATEUR FEDERICO ASARO on pursuing

The latest property is Villa Samadhi Singapore, which Mr Asaro unveiled in January. The 20-room retreat is housed in a two-storey, black-and-white military building, a short walk from the Tamarind Hill restaurant.

His first property was the Japamala resort on Tioman island, which clinched TripAdvisor's 2017 Travellers' Choice Award. It opened in 2004.

He then added Villa Samadhi Kuala Lumpur, which is tucked away in the city's exclusive embassy district, in 2010. A hotel in Sri Lanka is in the works.

These hotels bring guests close to nature - an Asaro business trademark - and are packed with luxury amenities and top-notch service.

Taking stock of his career so far, Mr Asaro, who is based mainly in Singapore these days, says: "The hotels and restaurants were built out of my interests, so my work is my passion. I never have to check out."

He has always been on the move, addicted to travelling and finding new experiences and projects.

He says: "If I don't travel enough, I get frustrated."

This nomadic inclination has long been ingrained in his psyche, since he moved to Kuala Lumpur when he was nine.

His father, a former captain who steered tankers mainly in Asia, had an opportunity to work as a master mariner on oil rigs on the east coast of Malaysia. So he uprooted his family from the small Italian port city of Trieste and moved them halfway across the world.

They arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1978 for a stint that was never meant to be permanent - they were supposed to be there for just two years.

"Two years became four.... and we just carried on," says Mr Asaro, with a laugh. He has a brother, who is two years younger, and now lives in the United States.

The family was one of the few Italian ones in Kuala Lumpur then. His mother, a housewife, made sure her children had a good Italian upbringing - speaking to them only in Italian and making sure they had lunch and dinner at home until they were teenagers.

But he also soaked in the laid- back Malaysian lifestyle.

He popped into friends' homes, where he would eat local delicacies and caught insects and fish.

Mr Asaro, who can speak Malay and studied at Alice Smith School, a British international school, says: "My roots are Italian, but I'm so comfortable in Malaysia. I made friends with the Malaysians and we are still good friends today. I lived in two different cultures, but I loved it."

His childhood friend and classmate Lim Hong Meng, 48, a businessman, says Mr Asaro fit in fine in his new home. Even today, he is a "charismatic and dynamic character" with a great sense of humour, he adds.

"Everyone loves him. When you walk into a room, he's surrounded by people, with everyone having a laugh."

As a young man, Mr Asaro often ventured beyond the confines of his increasingly urbanised Malaysian hometown to get his adventure fix. He was the "ringleader" who would organise trips with friends over holidays and long weekends, though he was comfortable travelling solo if he could not find company.

Since an uncle taught him to snorkel in Sicily, he has had a love affair with the sea and would snag any opportunity to go underwater. As a teenager, he took diving lessons at the Royal Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur to become a certified diver.

Mr Asaro, who comes from a family of seafarers, says: "I wanted to be a diving and skiing instructor. That was my one goal."

At 16, he approached dive shops in Kuala Lumpur that took divers out to the east coast islands and asked to work for them - for free.

"I offered to be a labourer during my school holidays and carry scuba tanks and bags. I did it because I loved the travelling and being able to see new places."

He went to Perth to finish years 11 and 12 of school - the equivalent of Singapore's A levels. Serious about pursuing diving, he then attended the Professional Association of Diving Instructors college in Sydney for a year.

Despite being wet behind the ears, he returned to Malaysia and started a dive business around a liveaboard - a boat where guests stay on board for their whole trip instead of getting off after a day of diving - when he was about 20.

To get it going, he bought an old ferry power boat from Pangkor Island. He managed to find a group of people who were willing to fund the buy. He declines to provide details, but says he met them through his contacts.

He was hands-on with the renovation and designed a layout with six cabins that could hold 12 people. He did not know how to pilot the 21m-long vessel, so he took lessons from his father.

The Sri Andalan sailed for two years with a crew of six that included a chef and deckhands. He picked up passengers from Mersing and took divers to Tioman, Redang and other islands.

The budding entrepreneur would also travel to dive fairs in the US, where he would promote the boat's dive tours. Eventually, he had competition from new dive resorts. His small boat could hardly compete.

As luck would have it, he came across a 35m-long research vessel that was abandoned at a marina in Darwin, Australia.

A kampung boy at heart

He chanced upon "the rust bucket" on a pit stop, while helping a friend sail another boat back to Malaysia from Brisbane.

"When I laid eyes on this amazing beauty, I started dreaming of what I could do with it. I just had to buy it to build the biggest luxury dive boat then."

He made his way back home with his friend's boat and flew back to Darwin to buy the boat for a cool US$100,000. It was not a particularly expensive buy, he says, as the owners were just glad to have it off their hands.

Mr Asaro spent about a year refitting it in Australia. Again, he did the designs for the vessel, which he crowned Spirit of Borneo. It could take up to 22 people on a single trip.

He sailed the 500-tonne ship to Borneo and led dive tours off the Spratly Islands.

His sales pitch: Divers would see hammerhead sharks on each trip.

Mr Asaro was living his dream. But after the 8,000 dives he had notched up since he started diving in his teens, he was burnt out. Keeping the boat afloat financially was also stressing him out.

To make some extra cash, he started offering commercial diving services - he says it was "ugly work" - to lay underwater cables.

It was a moment of reflection for him.

"I did it to keep the boat going. But if I carried on doing it, I would have hated diving. So I got out of it, laid all my interests out on the table and had to decide what else I could do."

When he returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1999, he found a black-andwhite bungalow set amid lush greenery.

Many restaurants had failed to succeed in that space, but he felt he had a sure-fire plan - Thai food would draw diners, despite the restaurant's obscure location.

His original plan after returning to Malaysia, however, was to become a consultant for restaurant owners, not run one. But he changed his mind after a chat with the bungalow's owner, who offered him a good deal on the rent.

He opened Tamarind Hill in Jalan Kolam Air Lama that year with just six tables - it was not the whole house - and hired a Thai chef, who still works for him today.

Mr Asaro says: "I didn't want to spend so much money as I didn't know if it would work. So I renovated it myself and decorated with my own furniture and antiques, which I had collected during my time travelling."

Diners started trickling in, though some were thrown off by the Thai menu. They came thinking they were in for posh European fare, says an amused Mr Asaro.

He adds: "It was too far for them to go anywhere else. So they stayed, tried the food and liked it.

"More people started coming and I slowly opened up the whole house."

In 2002, he opened a second restaurant, Tamarind Springs in Taman Tun Abdul Razak.

He was forced to close Tamarind Hill in 2007 due to high rents, but reopened it in 2009 at a new location in Jalan Sultan Ismail in Kuala Lumpur.

While he was building a stable of contemporary Asian restaurants, he added hotelier to his resume too.

In 2004, he opened Japamala Resort on Tioman island, if only to be close to the sea again.

"I was on land for too long. I needed the sea. But I couldn't be on a boat again because I had other business interests to run."

As with his other projects, Mr Asaro was hands-on with the design of the 13 luxury chalets - some of which are nestled in the jungle or perched off a cliff. He recently added a new chalet.

Passionate about nature, he took great pains to avoid disturbing the natural environment and used lots of old timber, salvaged from old kampungs, to build the chalets.

Mr Asaro, who is Buddhist, wants to provide the ultimate "Samadhi experience" in all his hotels, where guests are relaxed and removed from the daily grind. The list of activities includes yoga and meditation classes.

In Sanskrit, Samadhi means a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation, while Japamala is the term for a string of prayer beads used by Hindus and Buddhists.

He also wants to introduce guests, called Samadhians, to the culture and country they are in.

So last year, he launched Travels With Samadhi, a bespoke tour service where guests can hop on a motorcycle or into a car and go through small towns, get up close with wildlife or find places off the beaten path in Malaysia and Singapore.

In the competitive hospitality industry, he knows his niche.

"Samadhi Retreats isn't gimmicky or high-tech, trying to out-do the next guy with iPads or bigger radios.

"Our type of customer is looking for the true essence of a country. We're not trying to accommodate everyone."

Even as his hospitality business grows, Mr Asaro is very much involved with crafting each experience. He searches for the perfect route to take guests on or hunts for new locales to set up a new hotel.

He is particular about the fittings and furnishings that go into the hotels and restaurants and chooses many of the pieces.

His Malaysian wife Maple, 43, calls him a "control freak". For example, he sought old-fashioned light switches to fit with the colonial look of Villa Samadhi Singapore.

The couple were married in 2007 and have no children. They started dating after Mr Asaro attended one of her dance performances in a club. He gave her his number as she was about to head off and she called him the next day.

Mrs Asaro is a dancer who opened and teaches at the Kuala Lumpur offshoot of the famed Bobbi's Pole Studio from Australia - which offers pole-dancing classes - and used to work with her husband on his businesses.

She says: "That attention to detail is both his forte and curse. Other hoteliers might not understand why he goes to such lengths as guests won't notice these things.

"But the hotels and restaurants are his pride and joy and he wants to live up to his own standard."

Unlike his dive boat days, Mr Asaro now rests easy. Satisfied with what he has achieved, he has no plans to sell Samadhi to big hotel operators or franchise it.

"You can't just stamp Samadhi on anything. There's real soul in each one and they are all different," he says.

He also has no plans to return to Italy to resettle there, even though his mother has moved back. His father died 10 years ago.

"I'm just a kampung boy in a sarong... I'm at home here. There are many things that I still want to do, perhaps explore owning another boat. But I've already realised all my dreams."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Diving into business'. Print Edition | Subscribe