Starred chef Björn Panek : From Dubai to Hong-Kong
Michelin-starred chef and Executive Chef at Hong Kong’s Twenty Six by Liberty Björn Alexander Panek lives and works on the basis of Taoism. “Life’s too short to think too much – do what you think is right.”
He cooked up his first Michelin star as chef at the restaurant Gabriele in Berlin’s Hotel Adlon. This was followed by stints as a chef at Al Muntaha restaurant in Burj Al Arab, nine years as a chef in Shanghai and as a chef at Hong Kong’s The Mira.
What is Taoism?
Taoism is a Chinese philosophy and world view, and is regarded as an authentic Chinese religion. It originally meant ‘way’, ‘method’, ‘principle’, ‘the right way’… everything from the formation of galaxies to how people interact.
One of the most important principles of Tao is humility. The more you learn, the more you realise that there is so much more to learn. This makes you modest. Arrogance and egotism are the product of insecurity.
These are all things which Michelin-starred chef Björn Alexander Panek attempts to consider in his cooking. Respect for his ingredients and a profound understanding of other cultures.
Did you know from the start that you wanted to become a chef?
No, I wanted to study art and history, but it just never worked out for some reason, and then I had my wild days, which affected me considerably. I made a lot of mistakes, but they always made me stronger. So I know what it’s like to be at rock bottom and to have lost your direction.
That’s why I will give anyone a chance. We all make mistakes.
And then, I suppose, my vocation as a chef found me; it reflects everything from my past.
What do you like about the cooking profession and what do you dislike?
I don’t like how this profession often has a bad reputation. You hear about the long hours, the stress, the low pay; the list goes on. For me as a chef, though, everything is very simple. I wake up every morning and go to my job, which I love. Perhaps other chefs haven’t chosen the right career.
Did your Michelin star come as a surprise, and has it affected your work?
Yes, it was an enormous surprise. It motivates you to stay ahead and set yourself new goals. It didn’t change me personally. The pressure has been stepped up, but I think as you get older the pressure always needs to be there, for your guests who visit every day and for your staff, who work so hard for you.
What was your experience as a Michelin-starred chef at Al Muntaha in Burj Al Arab?
It was a fantastic time and helped me a lot. It was my first experience of working with another culture. That’s a challenge that demands a good deal of flexibility from you.
Burj Al Arab itself always fascinated me, as we were constantly busy all year round and full of energy.
What is your opinion of local ingredients?
I come from Germany and I only use local ingredients. Wherever you live, a country has so many wonderful products. I hear so many cooks moaning about how bad the produce is in some countries compared to where they come from. Maybe they just need to adapt their cuisine to the ingredients available to them. It’s easy to cook with foie gras and caviar, but preparing local pork or local seafood is a challenge that demonstrates a chef’s true skills. There are so many farmers who produce excellent ingredients. It’s up to us to use and support them.
At the moment I often travel to China, and am looking for more contacts at local farms for my vegetables, pork, beef, oysters, fish, caviar…
I think we need to help these smaller farmers, in order to show just how wide a variety of products can come from your own country.
China in particular doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to the food it produces. And yet China does have such wonderful products.
What about your respect for animals?
I’m a chef, so I know that my job involves death. For me, treating animals with respect is therefore my top priority. If everyone were to stop and think about what they eat every day and where it comes from, then perhaps some people would come to realise just how much suffering has gone into what’s on their nice little plate.
Your favourite dish?
I’m easy to please: I love a good Käseschnitte, which is a form of cheese on toast. What I miss about Germany are currywurst, decent schnitzel and decent bread.
What about your future?
I’m currently working on opening my own restaurant. After all the years with so many big hotel names, I’ve come to realise that I need a restaurant of my own if I am to keep developing and realise my potential. I want to finally be able to do things my way, with no rules and no outside control.
Your own restaurant? Where would it be and what would you do?
That’s a good question. It’s really hard to say where – it’ll be wherever I feel most comfortable, wherever that may be.
The style will always reflect my German roots, but also my love and understanding of Asian food. I would never offer dim sum or Peking duck, but would want to find other ways to reflect these in my cooking.
Given your respectful treatment of dishes and your aesthetic approach, shouldn’t you go to Japan and immerse yourself in that culture?
I travel to Japan very frequently and also have a lot of friends there, but the idea of living there doesn’t really appeal. Everything is too perfect in Japan.
If you could shadow a team for four weeks in absolutely any kitchen on the planet, where would it be?
Somewhere further towards China and Tibet.
Is there any national or cultural cuisine you wouldn’t feel confident cooking?
Arabic cuisine …
Apart from TV shows, how do you think Germany could do a better job of introducing youngsters to the cooking profession and whetting their appetite for it?
I think all that stuff on TV has caused a lot of problems. The way many chefs portray themselves, and the attention they seek when showing themselves off on television, has made our profession look too easy.
Our profession is a very difficult craft, which requires a lot of discipline and strong willpower. It’s not as simple as it looks on TV; you can’t cook a 4-course meal in 10 minutes.
On the other hand, it’s one of the nicest jobs in the world, letting you work anywhere on the planet, and if you’ve got the determination you can have a fantastic career.
What was different about working in a team in the Middle East compared to Asia?
I always say that if you’ve survived the Middle East and can work there, then Asia is open to you.
Asia is huge, every culture is different, and everyone says China is the biggest challenge. On the one hand you have the major language barrier (poor to zero English) and on the other you have to understand and accept the culture.
I never struggled with this and always had an excellent team.
In Asia, everything takes a little bit longer and you need to be patient.
In Asia there are a lot of cooks who come from really tough backgrounds/who have worked their way up from the very bottom, and who didn’t have the opportunity to train as a chef like you can in Germany. Do many of these people also make it to the top of the profession?
What do you call tough backgrounds – sharing a 1-room apartment with 6 people? That’s completely normal here. It’s not tough, it’s just the reality.
Some Asian chefs have a far better basis than we do. In Chinese cuisine, the art of cooking is incredible and so highly skilled.
Perhaps the desire to become famous isn’t so widespread. Some cooks have no interest in that whatsoever. They’re just happy to be a sous chef and wouldn’t ask for more. The way people think, and their goals, are often very different.
If you could spend a week cooking lunch with pupils at a school in Germany, what would be your focus?
[laughs] I’d make it two weeks ….
Week 1: Just fast food / burgers / soft drinks / anything that’s unhealthy
Week 2: Then healthy food / plenty of veg / fresh juices / light fare / small portions
Then they would notice how it affected their bodies and where there would be an improvement.
What about German cuisine in Asia? Apart from the Sühring brothers, are there any similar approaches to offering a modern twist on German food?
I think the Sühring brothers are fantastic at what they do, and they are also incredibly fortunate to have Gaggan Anand as a partner, which is always essential if you want to start something new.
I think at the moment they’re the only ones doing what they’re doing; they’re the first so that makes them unique.
At the right moment, in the right place, the right partners, the right concept: All done perfectly…
Back to Japan: People there attach great importance to the quality of the ingredients and dishes. Why are we still so far away from this in Germany?
I don’t think that’s the case. There is more diversity in Japan. I think Germany has done a good job of catching up with it in recent years and is on the right track.
People’s philosophy of life in Japan is so refined and so perfect in every respect, and the Japanese are passionate about their food.
Does it bother you that more and more of your guests are taking photos of your dishes?
No. I’ve heard that some chefs are so fed up that they have banned guests from taking photographs in their restaurants. For me, it all goes back to the Taoist approach mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. You have to be able to accept things. After all, it’s just one small picture out there on the vast internet.
What’s your opinion on fine dining?
I like that fine dining is slowly going out of fashion and being replaced by a growing trend of modern and affordable restaurants.