We have met Dan Koh, Executive Chinese Chef in Beirut, Libanon for an interview. You can see what Libanon is all about.With more than three decades of extensive, international culinary experience, do you remember the start of your career as a chef? Where did you learn cooking?

I started out as a trainee cook at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia at the age of 16, and I remember I took up the job as it was one of the few opportunities available for those of us that left school at an early age and that also meals were provided while at work. It was also there that I realised I had a passion for Chinese gastronomy and decided to pursue a culinary career that spanned more than three decades!

You are highly-skilled in authentic, traditional and modern creations of Cantonese and Szechuan fine dining cuisines. What are your favourite dishes our here?

I started out as a trainee cook at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia at the age of 16, and I remember I took up the job as it was one of the few opportunities available for those of us that left school at an early age and that also meals were provided while at work. It was also there that I realised I had a passion for Chinese gastronomy and decided to pursue a culinary career that spanned more than three decades!

You are also specialised in avant-garde Chinese / Pan-Asian fusion cuisines. Can you please give us some examples for it? Being a Singaporean, you are also well-versed with a multitude of tantalising local seafood favourites. What are the classic dishes you serve in a new way/ interpretation out of it?

I have included a few images showing this!

As chef you have been awarded in 2008 at the Culinary Challenge Singapore; with the Special Award for ‘New Asia Cuisine during FHA 2008 Culinary Challenge; the  CityGas New Signature Dish of the Year 2007 and the CityGas Singapore Chef Awards – Best Presentation Award. How important are awards for your work?

I believe culinary awards are a nice recognition of your skills, but I would say there are not absolutely vital in validating your career. To be honest, working as a full-time chef at the restaurant leaves little time to take part in these competitions. Furthermore, while many employers now increasingly seem to prefer chefs who have achieved Michelin-stars or Rosettes etc. and it is certainly good to have, it is in my opinion that such awards can be quite subjective as the taste buds of those assessing your food would be different from any other customer that visits your restaurant establishment. Therefore more imperatively, what would define a good chef would be his endeavour to elevate the restaurant/establishment in which he/she serves in to greater heights and to share his passion with those who enjoy fine Chinese and Asian gastronomy.

Already in 1986 you worked as Chinese Restaurat Chef at the Sheraton in Doha. At that time DOHA want that large and I assume there have not been many Chinese restaurant? So you enjoyed this time? In what sense was it different from today?

I believe it might have been one of the few Chinese restaurants in Doha then! In fact, everywhere surrounding the hotel was still desert! Now I look at images of Doha, I don’t recognise the city anymore! It’s bustling and so modern now!

After several international stations as chef; you moved back to Singapore in 2004 and worked their in several awarded places until 2012, before you moved 2012 to Mauritius. To be honest; working as a chef in Mauritius: the big dream; or just hard work as else where? As you had a brigade of over 50 Chinese kitchen staff across 6 resort properties.

For me, the move to Mauritius was really taking the next big step in my career to move into a more corporate level role that takes care of several properties across Mauritius. The country and its beaches are stunning, but I really did not have much time to admire the scenery as it was hectic moving from property to property and always being on the move. 

In 2013 you worked as Corporate Chines Master Chef at the Leela Palaces to Mumbai India. What was your first impression of the Indian kitchen? Indian and chinesies kitchen; what are the similarities? Is there a chance to combine both kitchens in sense of any fusion dishes? 

I would say although the Chinese restaurant kitchens in India were staffed by mainly Indian staff, you would be surprised to know that they are in fact equally as capable or even better than Chinese culinary staff members I have come across in my career. This all boils down to their willingness to learn and desire to improve their skills. It would be difficult to think, of the top of my head, about combining most Indian and Chinese dishes, but we certainly did offer Chinese cuisines tailored to certain Indian dietary preferences such as Zen (involving specific ingredients) that did prove quite popular.

In India you managed a brigade of over 200 Chinese fine – dining restaurant kitchen staff within the hotel group. Did you still feel like a chef; or more as a manager?

For me, I would always be a chef first, and a HANDS – ON one no matter how large my kitchen brigade. It remains a fundamental guiding principle for me that in order to lead my kitchen, I need to be a hands-on chef first, to show my subordinate staff how the kitchen should be run, how the dishes should be presented and more importantly, what they should taste like. I have moved up the kitchen ladder through being hands-on and doing the actual cooking. Hence, I am definitely not one of those “computer chefs” that only plagiarises recipes online using Google searches and just hands them out to the kitchen for them to make their own interpretation while standing around as ‘managers’.

You have been in charge for two fine dining restaurant concepts focusing on Cantonese, Szechuan and Asian fusion fine dining cuisines. What is Asain fusion for you; which menus did you create?

I think there are several interpretations of Asian Fusion: one is the usual amalgamation of different styles of Asian cuisines, like Japanese with Chinese for example. Another is really more of having a Westernised presentation of Chinese cuisines, with the use of certain ingredients that are more common in Western cuisines that would seem quite novel if used in Chinese cuisines.

Today you are working as Executive Chinese Chef in Lebanon. In what sense is Lebanon f- for you as a chef – different to work? Do you have time to discover the Lebanese kitchen?

It is certainly a welcome challenge to be working in Beirut and setting up one of the first authentic Chinese cuisine sections as part of a large restaurant establishment. I must say I am glad it has been very well received by the customers so far!

My Chinese section is just adjacent to the Lebanese cuisine kitchen and I must say it is very different. One thing for sure is that attitudes / mindsets / mentalities of Lebanese kitchen staff are certainly very different from what I am used to.

As China is large and the Chinese kitchen has so much differences depending from the regions; how did you set the menu? The typical classily dishes; or dishes from different regions?

I tend to focus on Cantonese and Szechuan cuisines as these are the two main types that cater to a wider customer audience across the world. It is also my true specialisation over the past 39 years in the Chinese kitchen. I would have to admit that it is also because there are so many different regional cuisines that it is impossible to know them all!

With so many of your experiences of the Chinese kitchen worldwide; do you see new trends at the international Chinese kitchen coming up next?

I would say styles of Chinese kitchen management might be starting to change as an increasingly smaller and smaller proportion of kitchen staff are those of little education. This would it is also less likely for them to have a similar background like me, in terms of working all the way from the bottom of the ladder up! I think more and more kitchen staff members are previously enrolled in culinary schools and courses. Whilst this does mean that more of them are well educated, it most certainly means they would have less practical, hands-on experience of being in an actual working kitchen.

If you would now open your own restaurant; where would it be and with which specialisation?

If given a choice, I would to make my restaurant unique and different from the rest by having a one-of-a-kind menu that offers nice mix of modern, authentic Cantonese and Szechuan creations together with famous Singapore delights such as the Black Pepper Crab / Chilli Crab etc for example. Of course, while these kinds of cuisines are my expertise, having these cuisines would also make the restaurant stand out from the usual, common Pan Asian restaurants like Novikov / Yautcha etc. or the traditional Chinese fine dining restaurants!

As for location, I guess it would be nice to have it somewhere where there has not been such a restaurant before so that I can share my passion for fine Chinese and Asian gastronomy with people across the world!

Thank you very much!