From fan to Marcus’ protégé
Danai Hongwanishkul was one of Marcus Samuelsson’s big fans.
He collected the celebrity chef’s cookbooks and basically “kept up with everything he did”.
So when a recruiter called looking to hire him as Marcus’ Bermuda’s executive chef de cuisine, he was over the moon.
“I felt happy, excited and a little bit nervous,” he said. “I normally do not answer recruiters but when the recruiters mentioned Marcus, I immediately answered. The style of food at his restaurants was my style of cooking.
“At the time I was working at Jackpot Chicken Rice in Toronto. I was at a place where I was making a name by getting Best New Restaurant in Toronto in a few publications, but I knew that this was the right thing to do.”
The 35-year-old moved to the island in May. He finally got to meet his boss in August.
“I spent four days working in his Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, New York,” said Mr Hongwanishkul. “I was there to work on menu changes [at Marcus’] and dish development.
“He is very mentoring and it was a thrill to meet him. I had a blast.”
He’d worked with other celebrity chefs in Toronto — MasterChef Canada judge Michael Bonacini and Patois owner Craig Wong — but particularly admired the way Mr Samuelsson combined cultures with his cuisine.
“He has a lot of influences from all over the world, which is how I cook,” Mr Hongwanishkul said.
He was born in Thailand. His father, Freddy Chew, was an industrial chemist from Burma; his mother, Julnee Hongwanishkul, was Thai.
“I have my mother’s surname,” he said. “My father fled from Burma into Thailand in the 1970s when the Junta started attacking intellectuals — I don’t know when exactly.”
He was 3 months old when the family went to live with his paternal grandmother in Paris.
“My father had been living in Thailand illegally, so we had to leave,” he said. “We were refugees in France.”
When he was 5, the family moved again. This time to Toronto, Canada.
“My father couldn’t get a job in his field so he worked in a textile factory from 6am to 7pm,” said Mr Hongwanishkul. “Now, as a chef, I know what it is to work those hours.”
Although his mother did most of the cooking, some of his earliest food memories are of his father making curry on a Saturday evening.
“On Sunday mornings we ate packaged ramen noodles,” he said. “That was a treat.”
He always loved eating, but didn’t really take interest in cooking as a career until he went back to France to visit his grandmother at 14.
“I fell in love with French food,” he said. “Cheese, crème brûlée, beef bourguignon, steak frites ... I gained 30lbs.
“As a kid I also loved the Japanese television show Iron Chef. My family loved me becoming a chef. When I was a kid I didn’t have any direction. I was hanging with the wrong crowd. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get into cooking.”
He started working in restaurant kitchens right out of high school, then joined a culinary apprenticeship programme at George Brown College.
“Ever since then I have been cooking and cooking and reading cookbooks and trying to be the best chef I can be,” he said.
When he was offered the job at Marcus’, he wasn’t entirely clear where Bermuda was.
“I thought it was somewhere in the Caribbean,” he said. “On further research I was surprised to find that while it is has a Caribbean feel it is not in the Caribbean.”
He and his wife, Kaori, are now settling in.
“We’re loving it,” he said. “The beaches are beautiful here and the people are so friendly.”
He has always loved the southern food that Marcus’ is known for but hopes to bring some consistency to the kitchen.
“Part of my comfort food is good barbecue, and corn bread,” he said. “And fried chicken is a staple in most cultures, especially Asian ones.
“There was a lack of focus. Now I am here and I am trying to make this the best restaurant in Bermuda.”
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