Mass. expat in Indonesia offers hospitality at the luxury level

John Halpin
John Halpin has come a long way from Ken's Steak House. (Globe Photo / Wessel Kok)
Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2005

LOMBOK, Indonesia — With one look at John Halpin’s Irish complexion, you understand why he starts every day with a coating of sunscreen.

‘‘I put it on like aftershave,’’ said Halpin, whose childhood in Framingham, Mass., gave no hint that he would end up running a five-star resort hotel in Indonesia. For almost a decade, though, Halpin, 41, has been at the Oberoi, Lombok, the most exclusive hotel on this small island east of Bali.

Halpin’s executive profile mentions his training at the Culinary Institute of America and employment with the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the exclusive White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine. But it doesn’t include where he got his start: at Ken’s Steak House in Framingham and the former Pillar House in Newton.

‘‘I started as a dishwasher and moved up to baking and butchering,’’ said Halpin in an odd accent that he said is often mistaken for South African. It is what has emerged after years of speaking Bahasa, the official language in Indonesia.

Halpin brushes up on his mother tongue with the occasional American hotel guest and every Thanksgiving, when he goes home to visit his mother, two sisters, and two brothers, all of whom live in Framingham. (His father died when John was in high school.)

Halpin’s family has never visited here, he said, as the trip is too difficult for his 80-year-old mother, Peg, and his siblings aren’t interested in such a long journey. ‘‘But we’re a really close family,’’ Halpin said, sitting down on a recent morning to chat about his journey from Massachusetts to Lombok.

He learned about the Oberoi job in 1996 in Kennebunkport. He had left the White Barn Inn to open Halpin’s Gourmet Deli and was healing from a divorce.

A former New York colleague, who was helping the exclusive India-based chain launch the hotel, asked Halpin if he would take a two-year post as food and beverage manager, which later turned into general manager.

‘‘I’d never considered going to Asia,’’ said Halpin, but he saw the job as a way to pay off debts and try something new.

‘‘It was really, really hard in the beginning. You’re curious about them and they’re curious about you,’’ he said of the Indonesian people. He slowly learned the language and the ways of doing business on an island where tourism was in its infancy. Now he heads the Lombok Hotel Association.

As for the 24-acre beachfront resort, which features 30 oversized rooms and 20 private villas, even Halpin acknowledges, ‘‘It’s a little over the top. The level of service you can provide here is so much better than what you can in the States.’’

Halpin oversees 125 full-time employees, as well as several contract workers.

‘‘I love the staff,’’ he said. They jokingly call him ‘‘kepala desa,’’ meaning village chief. His residence is a private apartment with garden near the hotel entrance, which he shares with two cats, a bird, and a dog. His friends are a mix of Indonesians and expatriates.

‘‘Being raised Catholic and living in a Muslim and Hindu culture, I learned to respect their culture and traditions,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s been lost on a lot of Americans. They immediately equate Islam with terrorism.’’

Halpin doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Indonesia, but he has no plans to return to the States to live.

‘‘Sometimes I wonder what my father would think of me at the age of 32 just packing up and moving halfway across the world for a job,’’ Halpin said. ‘‘I think he’d be proud.’’

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