Junie Kovacs’ Crooked Journey to Koh Lanta
When taking a Thai cooking class in a southern island in the Andaman Sea, few people would expect the chef to be a feisty little American-Norwegian with blonde hair and a deep smoky voice, but show up at Time for Lime and that’s exactly what you get.
Junie Kovacs is the passionate proprietor of this popular cooking class / restaurant / B&B in Koh Lanta. She was born in California and raised in Norway, where she built a successful career as a graphic designer for several decades. At the same time that she was growing her career, Junie’s passions for food and animals were also burning bright, and 13 years ago, she decided to start a new chapter, opening Time for Lime, first as a cooking school, then later as a restaurant and B&B. She also opened the island’s first animal shelter, Lanta Animal Welfare. The profits from Time for Lime support the animal shelter, giving Junie outlets to pursue both of her passions in this tropical island setting.
When I was in Koh Lanta recently, I had the chance to participate in a Time for Lime cooking class. 20 of us (representing 11 countries) spent almost seven hours eating, drinking, and cooking up a storm. Junie shared some of her best tips for mastering Thai cuisine and we bumbled our way through recipes for spicy papaya salad, stir fried morning glory, and traditional Pad Thai (one of the most difficult dishes in Thai cuisine). If you’d like to attempt it yourself, the recipe will be up on Wednesday. Today though, we have a Q&A with Junie, and the tale of her crooked journey from designer to chef.
Q: You were born in California and grew up in Norway. How did you end up in Koh Lanta?
A: I moved here 13 years ago. I had been to Thailand about 10 times for holidays, all over the country. I decided I wanted to do the cooking school, so I did my homework at home in Norway, and when I was ready, I moved here and we opened Time for Lime.
Q: Did Lanta Animal Welfare come before or after?
A: I had decided to start the cooking school first, but I was always interested in animals. In Norway I had helped animals in a different way. I worked as a graphic designer so I would make free posters, flyers, and newsletters but it wasn’t hands on. Here, they didn’t need posters or flyers. We have five full-time staff at the centre, but my role is still much more involved.
Q: Did you always want to be a graphic designer? Was that your passion
A: When I was young I actually wanted to be a veterinarian but I soon found out that I didn’t have what it takes – I couldn’t handle blood. But I was always interested in art, and as a teenager, that interest developed. I worked many years at the Norwegian Film Institute before opening my own graphic design shop with two other girls. We did a lot of work in arts and culture, and also in food, and I got more interested in food again, which I loved as a little girl.
Q: It sounds like you had built an entire life and career in Norway. Was there something that made you decide to leave?
A: Yeah, there was. It wasn’t a very nice thing that changed my life, but I got burned out. There was too much stress at work, too many deadlines. I had been travelling a lot to Thailand and I felt like it was more – well actually there is no word for “stress” in the Thai language.
When you’re in your own environment there can be a lot of expectations. “You’re supposed to do this and that. You’re supposed to win a lot of prizes.” I did it. But I felt really down in the dumps so I thought, okay, maybe I can just go somewhere where there are no expectations. I think that’s why I moved here. I didn’t think I would do this big thing, I just thought I would come and enjoy the food, but then this idea started and then the animal thing started, and I needed more money to help more animals, and it was kind of like a rollercoaster. This just got bigger and bigger and here we are.
Q: When you started was the intention to have the restaurant and the bungalows in addition to the cooking classes?
A: Originally it was supposed to be just cooking workshops, but when we found this location there were nine really ugly bungalows (the whole place looked like a shit hole). I couldn’t just rent the beachfront, I had to rent the bungalows as well, so we took them all and redid them to be the ones you see now. They’re not the major part of our business, but it’s a nice addition for our guests.
Q: Let’s get back to the food. What’s your favourite Thai dish?
A: I like light dishes like salads with fresh herbs. Lemongrass or kaffir lime leaves – I find those flavours very interesting.
Q: Is there a Norwegian dish that you miss?
A: I kind of miss my knekke brød. If you translate it directly, it’s like “breaking bread.” It’s hard bread, really crispy. You eat it with cheese and caviar on top.
Q: One last question, if you had some life advice for your younger self, what would it be?
A: I think people should follow their gut feelings and not be scared to do things. Even if you try something and it doesn’t work out, at least you tried it. If you don’t try it, you’re going to think about it for the rest of your life and be sad about it. And work for things you believe in, not just for money. That’s one thing that I’ve learned here – material things are so much less important than I thought. Looking around me now to what I have, and thinking about what I had 20 years ago, there’s such a big difference. All the things I thought I needed aren’t important anymore. Instead, what’s important is doing things I feel passionate about.