Daniel Bucher is Senior Executive Sous Chef at Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park hotel in Thailand.

We talk to this inspiring chef about his two secrets to success in running a big culinary operation, the thought-provoking art-food project he ran in Berlin, and his thoughts on food waste.

 

Daniel Bucher – Chef’s Portrait

 

Chef Daniel, you grew up in rural Germany but are now in Bangkok. Please tell us a little about your culinary journey.

Growing up, food was something from the garden, the forest or the trees. I was raised in a food environment that only knows about living, cooking, preserving and eating with the seasons. My grandpa raised pigeons, chicken and ducks, I went fishing with my uncle and in autumn we would be making jam, apple juice, cakes or chutneys literally every single day. When this is a given, you don’t realise how precious and perfect this relationship to our environment is.

Cooking came very naturally for me and in my school years and later at university I was always jobbing in kitchens or restaurants to make some money on the side. I studied art and architecture at a prestigious art university in Hamburg but spent many of my nights in dinner shifts in the restaurants in Hamburg.

I got more and more fascinated by fine dining and Asian cuisine and wanted to explore as many new flavours as possible. I decided to attend three years of culinary school. To be honest, it was mostly due to the fact that no matter how good you can cook, you often aren’t taken seriously in the rough kitchen environment if you don’t have the position or the title to prove it. A professional kitchen often reminds me of an army bootcamp. I was eager to show what I really had in me so I put lots of energy in my time at culinary school and finished first in my year at the final exams in Hamburg.

After that, lots of offers came in and it went fairly fast. A few more stints at high-end restaurants, a very successful partnership with a celebrity molecular chef, a quickly growing catering company and various guest chef appearances worldwide later and I found myself as chef de cuisine of a French fine dining restaurant in Bangkok.

I enjoy working in Thailand. The produce is amazing, the people are friendly and loyal and there is so much great food around. Seven years later, I am still living and cooking here.

 

 

Please tell us about the project called Pangram’s Kitchen in Germany that got quite a bit of press coverage. 

A pangram is a sentence that uses every single letter of the alphabet.

Prior to becoming a full time chef, I studied at a fine arts university in Hamburg. There is something I find deeply interesting about modern art. The desire to strip away and uncover the inner workings of the world is something that has driven me to art in the first place, but it’s also something that drives me to understand food, certain dishes and culinary customs better.

When you are eating a plate of som tum, you aren’t just eating a deliciously balanced dish. You are also eating a lot of culture and a lot of local customs. You need to learn how to eat this dish at first. You need to understand how to use grilled chicken or fish and sticky rice to increase the eating experience and you also have to learn that the communal sharing of this dish is an integral part of eating it.

 

So it was these observations that let you to Pangram’s Kitchen?

Yes, I wanted to create a secret restaurant space that doubles as an art installation and experiments with essential questions around food and dining. What is my role as a guest? What does it mean to be hosting? How quickly does an intimate dining situation transform an anonymous space into something that feels like home?

Over the period of two years I raised many of these question and explored answers with a handful of friends – artists, curators, chefs, filmmakers, authors, musicians and other creative people obsessed with food.

 

The outcome was mind blowing. – Chef Daniel about the success of project Pangram’s Kitchen

 

Can you give an example or two of the sorts of events you arranged?

I could talk about several of these installations for hours, I’ll just mention one example that made me understand a lot better what truly lies at the heart of hospitality.

In one instance I transformed a fancy Berlin communication company into a secret restaurant but disguised whether there was anyone working on these given nights. Guests were welcomed in the restaurant but my service and kitchen staff had also gone home, showered and dressed up and slowly arrived as groups of guests. The idea was to enable guests to participate by disguising the role and responsibilities. My staff was also instructed to casually drop what they were doing/supposed to do once an actual guest was going to take over their job.

The outcome was mind blowing. Not only did we have plenty of guests serving each other and introducing dishes to other tables, some actually put on an apron, got in the kitchen and started to plate up dishes with us. A couple of guests stayed back to support cleaning up the restaurant and a group of four even rang the bell the next morning to see whether there was anything else that had to be taken out or cleaned up.

 

[You should also try Chef Daniel’s recipe for baked sweet potato with chickpeas, baby spinach, Spanish paprika and yoghurt.]

 

That sounds like a very interesting project. Perhaps you could try something similar in Bangkok. Has living in Thailand affected your cooking or approach to being a chef at all?

I’m very comfortable here now and struggle to imagine living elsewhere but it definitely wasn’t like this from day one. A few things have changed in the way I cook since then.

1) SALT – I certainly use less salt in dishes than I used to. In Europe most seasoning is done with salt and pepper, therefore our food tends to be fairly salty. I first changed this due to the many guest comments that they experienced my food as salty but later started to understand how flavour and seasoning can be built with a complexity of umami, salty, sour, spicy and even sweet.

2) SPICE – I have always been hugely interested in the history of herbs and spices and read and tasted a lot of these even back in Europe. Here, however, I add different levels of spicy and flavours of chilli to the list as well as other deeply satisfying flavours like fermented seafood, fish sauce and local leaves, like basil or pandan. I’m not a fan of forced fusion, but I love to learn how to balance a certain dish in different ways and then translate it into my own culinary repertoire. Tamarind might translate to rhubarb, chilli turns into chorizo – the vocabulary doesn’t change but the expressions become more colourful and enticing.

 

Hiring the right people and communication. – two big success factors

 

You also head up the banquet and events, and the hotel has 5,000sqm of banquet space – this is a huge job! How do you manage such a big operation?

Ha ha, true, this is a massive food operation. I’m managing over 100 chefs in kitchens on nine different floors. For me, there are two big success factors: hiring the right people and communication.

When I first started managing teams I honestly didn’t understand just how important it is to hire the right people. I often believed that someone with a great resume might grow into just the person I needed for the job at hand, but I learned that this is often not the case. Now, I don’t take hiring decisions lightly. It is not only about hiring a pair of hands. To be successful we need to be a strong team of driven, like-minded chefs that put all their detailed attention into the food we are producing. Attitude and mind set are hugely important when hiring the right candidate.

Communication is sometimes difficult. Language can be a problem since Thai is not my native language. But it is not only that. In this industry, work hours are long and our jobs are stressful and physically challenging. It just makes it so much more difficult to put sensitivities aside and truly understand what the other person is thinking and feeling. I have learned that I have to teach my chefs not only how to cook, but more often how to communicate and how to be on the same page. I try to catch up with most of my team daily to see if we are aligned and what they are mostly focused on that day. It is very easy to get distracted in an operation this size.

Oh, and of course … the most important thing is to care about food. Delicious food is at the heart of it all.

 

 

That’s for sure. So what food do you usually serve at the events – usually Thai classics, or European, or other cuisines?

The amazing thing about working in Asia is that people expect us to be able to cook anything. Italian, French, American and local Thai food are obviously expected, but so is Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian and Japanese. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Latin cuisines, so I also feature menus from Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Peru or Equator.

To be able to execute this authentically and precise, we work with an impressive list of specialists from these countries. In my team, I have specialist chefs from India, China, Korea, Japan and Europe. Sometimes I see my role more as a curator and a guardian of overall food quality in all of these cuisines.

At the Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park, we host events for all nationalities. Caucasian guests often prefer to try the local Thai cuisine when visiting Thailand, whereas Indians, Chinese, Korean or Japanese often prefer to eat familiar dishes they are used to. The big challenge often is to understand what exactly is most satisfying to each individual group and adjusting menus and serving styles according to what suits them most.

My motivation is usually to provide something familiar to the guests cooked to perfection – this creates trust in our culinary skill. And then take our guests by the hand and introduce them to new flavours or new cuisines that will create memorable experiences. But to make you eat a fried scorpion, you have to trust me first, don’t you?

 

You were involved in the “Wasted!” project in Bangkok as inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s documentary, “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” and cooked using ingredients that would have been thrown away. Is tackling food waste important to you?

As a chef I realise that we are completely dependent on what nature provides. I don’t mean for this to sound corny or sentimental – it’s just a fact. The world’s population is growing rapidly and we are already approaching maximum land use for farming. There is certainly still opportunity to increase productivity in farming – especially in the developing world – but a food future based entirely on technological progress is a very tasteless and sad future.

Crop variety is just one example of something in the way of perfect productivity. If you ask me, I already mourn daily how many beautiful mango varieties have disappeared in Thailand due to more efficient farming and customer demands. Are we okay with just having one kind of apple, one kind of potato, capsicum or even chicken? I certainly am not.

 

 

So instead of purely relying on increased production, I believe it is extremely important to be more resourceful with the produce we are actually farming and harvesting right now. About one third of all perfectly edible farmed goods today end up in the bin. I think we all agree that this is a devastating number. Even though awareness worldwide is increasing, there are still few solid approaches to tackling this problem.

I have always been eager to find better solutions for this problem and managed to lead the Plaza Athenee hotel a few years ago to being the first ISO20121 Sustainable Event Management hotel in the world.

Today we are working with Lightblue, an environmental consultancy specialised in food waste at the Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park to find better solutions and develop a system for the future. The massive size of our operation helps in this case. Even marginal improvements immediately pan out in fairly big numbers and we have made lots of baby steps in the right direction to zero food waste to landfill.

In my role as food waste ambassador for SOS (Scholar of Sustenance) Thailand – an NGO distributing food waste donation to children in need – I often speak about this topic publicly. I’m happy to see increasing awareness and interest in discussion of this difficult and unpleasant subject.

 

Thank you, Chef Daniel, for this extremely interesting interview and we hope that projects that support the reduction of food waste such as yours go from strength to strength.

 

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