DANIEL SCHÖNBERGER – ON CLASSICAL RISINGS AND THE CALLING OF THE HIGH SEAS
We sit down with the German chef Daniel Schönberger who has held station as Sous Chef in the Kempinski Hotel Gravenbruch and Restaurant Hessler in Maintal as well as Executive Chef positions at Restaurant Hörhof Idstein, Restaurant Jakobs in Dreieich, Star Clipper ships and Aida Cruise lines.
It is a casual day of the week at his home in the outskirts of Frankfurt. His apartment is adorned with multiple beaten skateboards laying in various areas of his apartment in a quiet neighborhood. Although one might think that Daniel is perhaps a professional skateboarder or a roadie for a band, given his demeanor and attitude, you find quickly a passionate, driven Chef who has quite the exciting story to tell.
Join us as we find out what is behind the chef Daniel Schönberger.
Daniel, tell us a bit about your origins, where you started, where you found the drive to become a chef.
Well, when I was a small child my mother would cook daily for the whole family and I always kept an eye on what she would work on and how she was putting it together. As I grew older and could finally reach the stove and some of the spices I would try to make my own food. So when I would come home from elementary school I would try to cook some stuff up and I would combine all the spices so it was kind of crazy. Eventually I learned to combine the spices in a more fitting way, something that tasted better for me. That was kind of the start to my cooking career. My parents,with my sister and I would go to restaurants every weekend and I was always fascinated about what was going on behind that door… the door to the kitchen.
Once in a while I would get the chance to go back into the kitchen and see what they were doing and it was always just so magical. So around the age of 14 I did a couple of traineeships in some hotels and restaurants and actually there were a some people that would say don’t get into that career, it’s not a good career, but I didn’t care at all what they said, I just wanted to be a chef. So at 16 I enrolled in a formal culinary training program.
Where were you living at that time?
I was living at the time with my parents in Bayern although my roots are from Frankfurt. I had moved with my parents to Bayern but after a year and a half I actually moved away and started out independently in Frankfurt with the beginnings of my training.
You enrolled in a culinary school at 16?
No, I completed my training program with the Arabella Hotel in Frankfurt. In Germany we have the duel system where you do practical work in a real job and study theory in an occupational school. So basically I would have one or two days of schooling and three or four days of work. However all systems are not the same in Germany for example there are systems with one week in school and two weeks on the job.
How long was this training program?
Normally it goes for three years, but I was able to complete the program in two and a half years.
What was your first job after training?
My first job was actually at the hotel I did my training at, so I just stayed there for the next one and a half years. I started as a commis de cuisine and after a year I was promoted to demi chef de partie. I then went on to work as sous chef for a small restaurant which was an absolute blast but then was called to to my social service for Germany.
Was there a time in your career that you questioned your decision to be a chef?
Oh, that would definitely be my first head chef appointment, it was the wrong fit. I had the owners tell me that I could receive the requests I had given including supporting staff and we would be cooking for Gault Millau points and things of the sort, and I totally trusted them at their word. It turns out they had no experience in the industry and even less in gastronomy. I stuck it out for around three months at which time i just had to move on due to frustration. Up until that point I had always had an upwards trajectory, and that set-back really had an effect. I guess it’s not specifically a time that I questioned my career, but it was definitely a set-back to my motivation and momentum. The heartbreak was that I put my all into that position at the time working from 7 A.M. until midnight and nothing came of it. I had a break for about one and a half months just to get my head back into the game.
We know kitchens can be chaotic, they can be loud and crazy. Could you give us story about a time where you thought “wow. This is crazy”?
Oh wow. Yea, for example we had one guy working for us in the hotel from the US. This guy didn’t speak much at all. He was working as a chef de partie but was just completely non-vocal. You could just sense a crazy energy from him and everyone was talking about what is going on with that guy. He would never let me pass in the hallways, even if I would be carrying heavy loads, would just keep his head down and not move. Anyway, he left but after a couple of months we get a call from… I don’t know, the police, or some international agency and he was being sought in a murder case! Maybe he wasn’t the murderer and only a witness but it was still really freaky.
Aside from your classical training in restaurants and hotels, you have quite some interesting experiences working on ships. Could tell us about the different ships you have been working on?
Yes, I worked as a guest chef on the Star clipper ships, these are the tall ships, 5-masted and 4-masted sailing ships. For example a trip could be around 8 to 10 days and I would perform show cooking for the wonderful guests, usually about 4 or 5 times during trip. Show cooking in this case would entail the guests coming back from a great day on the land usually in the later afternoon, and they would often be a bit hungry. Normally they have a snack buffet, but when I was serving aboard as a guest chef or “celebrity chef” we would set up a small cooking station and I would prepare one of my signature dishes for the guests to enjoy. Most of the time I would prepare around 70 to 80 plates.
You were working on some amazingly beautiful clipper ships, are there some big differences from working on other ships such as a cruise liner?
Oh definitely, the biggest difference is that you are always moving in a clipper ship. We would rarely port and most everything was done via tendering in the open sea, you’re rolling, you’re going up and down and you have to handle this in a galley with roundabout 30 square meters. Not forgetting that within these 30 square meters you have the entremetier, the saucier, garde manger and pastry. It’s tiny. It’s amazing that in this galley food is prepared for 170 passengers plus 95 crew members. You really need to be aware of every step in the process way in advance. It was such an adventure, it really was. The jobs were for days rather than months as in cruise ships, and I wouldn’t want to do it for months because it is so extremely tough. The work on a cruise ship is also very difficult, but the clipper ships even more so.
Could you share some insight into your work on cruise ships for us?
Yes, I worked as a head chef on a cruise ship for their gourmet restaurant and also as a supervisor for their other a la carte restaurants, meaning the guests would have to pay extra. Normally the buffets and some restaurants were included in the cruise price, but there are restaurants that are not. Those that were outside of the scope of all-inklusive were under my management. These are really big ships, 250 meters in length and 36 meters in width, and you have stabilizers. So, these ships go straight as an arrow, there is a bit of movement but most of the time you feel like your moving straight and level. Of course, you can have rough seas and we call that “rock n’ roll”. When you have rock n’ roll you need to lash all the equipment down which is not screwed into the tables.
Has rough weather on the seas while cruising or sailing ever affected your cooking? Did you have to change a menu due to rough weather?
No, that has not happened yet. I like rough seas. Also, everybody knows what they are doing and knows what to do in preparation for rough seas.
What are your current projects at the moment?
After my last cruiseliner position about a year ago I made the decision to stay on land because I wanted to spend more time with my children and I wanted them to have quality time with their dad. So I was searching for a job as chef in restaurants, I try to avoid hotels at this point because I feel they are mainly chain hotels and they can be a bit constricting. I had an offer to be a project manager for a company that constructs professional kitchens. I had done that a bit before as a freelance advisor and with the experience I had I felt it was a perfect fit. It allows me valuable time to spend with my children. I always feel drawn to the kitchen, whether on land or sea and my feelers are always out looking for a place where I can feel settled, working creatively and with inspiration. I think a reason for that is in the last ten years I have really found my own style and line of cooking, purely doing my own things, discovering new things while I work. I don’t have the need to look at what anyone else is doing, I just focus on my own creations and my own fantasies.
“Harmony in a kitchen is the best thing that can happen to a chef.” -Daniel Schönberger
Ah, you brought up my next question, which is: What is your style? What is the driving force behind your cooking?
My style is heavily rooted in the classical French cuisine combined with regional products, modern and new techniques. I try to focus on infusing the “umami” taste in every dish, sour, salty, bitter and sweetness. Where the complete palate is represented. I love to take a local product and search for a way to give it an amazing kick. For example when I have venison with semmelknöddel I prepared it with a puree of celery and pickled vegetables served with a Madagascar pepper sauce. The pepper gives a subtle spiciness, you have the sour note from the pickled vegetables, the saltiness and hint of bitter from the sauce or the roasted component from the meat, you receive the “umami” effect. As the Japanese say, the full-flavored effect. That is what I strive for in every dish, it doesn’t matter if it’s a starter, a main course or a soup. Sometimes I even combine these flavours in a dessert. I made a dessert with hops, the same for beer. It was a hops Ice-cream, and the moment you tasted it, it was sweet and creamy. However after one second, you get this kick of bitterness. Also included were blueberries, apricots and oat crocants, which when you eat the whole dessert together with its components it gives the umami result.
I actually have some excel tables where I chart different ingredients and their interactions with each other. With my experience now over 28 years I have a good grasp on how each ingredient tastes and I can combine them on my computer, then in the kitchen and ultimately make combinations better and better. Sometimes it takes months until I feel something is ready to go out to the guest, and other times it works after one try.
These things are not done only on my own, it takes teamwork. Often, my cooks will come to me with ideas, and we focus on the specific points and I see if it fits my style or vision. In some cases it doesn’t fit, but the longer we work together their ideas fit with my style more over time. It’s amazing because the people I work with have incredible ideas, and they come from not only cooks but dishwashers. Everyone has good ideas. I only facilitate in bringing everything together, so we can grow and succeed as a team.
With 28 years experience what are your views on the industry?
Well, the best thing is that so many things have changed in regards to working in the kitchen. When I started in the kitchen the chefs were always shouting and had very oppressive attitudes. It was really a hard business. Today, you can also have these situations but for the most part the atmosphere is professional but lighter, as if the oppressive weight has been lifted. People are smiling and joking more and allowed to be professionals without having to push each other down. So, people are having fun. That is extremely important in this job. It’s such a huge variable.
I come from the days where things were thrown in the kitchen and screaming was normal, but I chose to work with positive chefs and am happy to see that those old ways are dying. You can’t get much done in the way of real progress when a kitchen is oppressed. Harmony in a kitchen is the best thing that can happen to a chef.
Sustainability and The environment, what is your approach and what do you think culinary professionals in general should be doing to make the current situation better?
When I started with professional cooking in the early 90’s not many people cared about organic cooking or sustainability because they just wanted to have the best food around… throwing Foie Gras on a plate whatever, without a care in the world. I was also like everyone, I was not concerned much with the production of the ingredients. Around the late 90’s to 2000 we started seeing organic products hitting the markets but they were also very expensive. I remember I bought 5 kilos of organic onions and we had to pay i think 35 euros. Of course today organic products are much less expensive than those times. I remember becoming more aware about sustainability around 2010 because I wanted to use more local products. My style was starting to focus on more regional products, I got my lamb from the Taunus, driving there every week to get my fresh lamb filets and necks, everything. So I got them directly from the producer, brought it back to the kitchen and made delicious things from the local lamb. I also found a local producer for Foie Gras, where these geese were not force-fed but free range their whole lives, he would just feed them a lot. You had a smaller goose liver but with the same texture and an amazing flavor that rivaled or was better than the “normal” foie gras. The guests felt better, I felt better, and the goose felt better for most of its life.
These are just small examples of how the idea of sustainability was brought into my kitchen. Vegetables were also to become more important as time went on for me. I had many problems with too much organic waste. I was wasting too much in my kitchens. So I started to think about what I could do with all of the things I normally didn’t need. Cauliflower for example, now I use everything from the cauliflower, including making a powder from the stalks. So in the end I made a conscious decision to change the way I cook and how I create dishes.
How does that affect your cooking today?
In the past I focused on the meat or the fish and then what would accompany it, but then came a time where my wife had vegan phase. I hated it… in the past. For the kids and myself we would have meat and so on and for her I would just cook vegan. At first I hated it it, but then I realized how fantastic it was, realizing more and more what I could do with all these vegetables that I had been overlooking, and their potential. My focus then became creating free standing dishes where the star was the vegetable, and getting to that point was inspiring and challenging. So I dove headlong into blogs, books and websites of the best vegan cooks in the world and what I saw were that most of the time everything was in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. I wanted to find a way to elevate it and bring it to a table where it could hold its own against gourmet food plated traditionally with a fork and a knife. Not every root vegetable needs to be peeled, there is room for rustical and there is no end to the complex purees that can be made in combination with numerous grains. With imagination you don’t miss anything.
Where do you source your products?
In the past when I worked as a chef in the Frankfurt area I looked for producers of quality products but with a focus on sustainability. That doesn’t mean I have only a 30 kilometer limit like some chefs are doing in Berlin. I get lamb from from the Taunus but also from the Rhon, I get rabbits from the Eiffel and venison from Bayern, so the distances are relatively short. I don’t work with Japanese Kobe beef because it has to come from the other side of the world.
Could you share with us one of your more recent creations?
Yes, it’s a variation of scallops. Served as a tartar, seared and as a carpaccio. It comes with various types of algae, chives, orange, caviar, chervil and yoghurt. It’s a very refreshing starter which also conveys the rich all-rounded flavour that I look for in all my dishes, sweet, sour, bitterness and salty. Here, you can see a photo of it. 🙂
Wow! That sounds mouthwatering. It looks like passion on a plate!
What do people often misunderstand about the job of a chef?
That all chefs are fat, or that they are screaming most of the time or they are all alcoholics. Of course that is rubbish, but people keep throwing around these stereotypes. Chefs are professionals just as in any other line of work and they prove it daily with passion and their heart and soul. Today, chefs are also endurance athletes both at work and in private. Many chefs are involved in high-performance sports as a balance to their everyday life in the kitchen.
Do you have a motto?
“Give your best everyday.”
But! Always question what you do. That is the only way to improve. Take all the criticism be it positive or negative, use it, and question yourself.
Last question Daniel! If you could travel back in time and only had two minutes to say something to yourself, what would it be?
Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t change a thing!
Daniel, we thank you for your time with us and wish you the best!
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