Danish Chef At Home On Samui Island

Stephan Oppenhagen is a man who found his true home in Thailand and he speaks with a passion of one devoted to his calling. He speaks with inner conviction of the friendliness and spontaneity of life in Thailand, compared to the stiffness and routine of life back in Europe. He is married to a Thai lady and they have a child so he will most likely be around for quite some time.
“I had the feeling that if I went to Asia, I might not return again,” Stephan adds. “I find people to be much more friendly and helpful. And you have all the lovely products. I can get anything here. OK, in Europe you can get it too, but there are certain differences in lifestyle. How can I ask for more?” he says looking out over the marvellous beach from the shade of the luxury hotel.
For Stephan food is art: “Gastronomy is the same as being a painter or artist. Some chefs are more creative than others, just as some painters are better than others.”
The Dane definitely had the gift from an early stage and the whole passion for ingredients and creating started as he helped his mother in the kitchen as a child. From then on his future was cast in stone: kitchens and cooking.
“I started as a dishwasher but was always focusing more on the food and what the chef and all the staff were doing in the kitchen,” Stephan recalls.
Later on he had the courage to ask for an apprenticeship at the Michelin guide restaurant La Cocotte – the best known French establishment at that time in Copenhagen.
Soon enough Stephan received many awards (Denmark’s Chef of the year in 1994) and during the 1990’s he was with the SAS Radisson Copenhagen, Restaurant Divan and Krog’s Fish Restaurant and Thornbury Castle Hotel in England, to name but a few. He also studied in France and worked in Parisian restaurants.
Then Asia called. “I always wanted to come here, fascinated by the culture. I went to England planned only to go there for a short time and then on to Asia.”
Asia is a popular market for chefs but not among Scandinavians, according to Stephan. Denmark, Sweden and Norway breeds many well-respected chefs but most focus their talents within the EU where Scandinavian chefs are very respected in Europe’s biggest cities.
“Out here it is different, you hardly see anybody. I have not met one Scandinavian exe-cutive chef out here in five years. What a pity.”
His first position in Thailand was indeed a challenge. As the Executive Sous Chef at Sofitel Central Plaza Hotel Bangkok, he was in charge of nine food and beverage outlets.
“It was a big operation, completely different to this. 600 rooms, a huge convention centre with banquet capacity, thousands of people. You never had a day with less than 3000 covers. Very rarely would you find such a day,” Stephan remembers, and he had 140 people working under him too.
“Here you develop the staff and follow them from an early stage and see how their performance is progressing. It’s very different.”
“In Bangkok more of the staff will have more background from four or five star properties; while here 70 per cent of them have only been on the island and never been outside. It’s harder here in a way, but makes the challenge even bigger long-term for you as a leader. And I believe that when you have done your time here on an island with local Thais, then you can go almost anywhere. Nothing can surprise you anymore,” smiles Stephan.
While in England he started experimenting with Asian flavours in his favourite classic French modern cuisine.
“Then, coming over here, first you find the produce to be much better than what you have in Europe. Overall you know what is working, which items and ingredients are going well together. I think sometimes you should also try to experiment a little bit and try to do some new combinations and flavours. Even if you thought perhaps ‘This is never going to work.”
Since taking the helm at Central Samui, Stephan feels he has changed the menus a lot: “In terms of modern style and also in terms of quality. This is important for me. You cannot do a dish one hundred per cent if you compromise. The products have to be of outstanding quality.”
From time to time he can also do what he loves here – cooking (more than just administrating and controlling and his next project is to develop a sort of ‘upper level sandwich’ lunch menu, where he will use his creativity to come up with some outstanding sandwiches.
Does he think Scandinavians will get curious enough to come here and try out his restaurants?
“I think so. From time to time when we have a Danish guest they are happy but I always offer something from back home. But 99 per cent say: ‘Chef, we are not here to eat fast-food, we want to try what you make,” he grins.

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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