Really, Finnish chefs are pretty rare (just as its cuisine is) and in particular to be found on Thai territory. So it is then even more remarkable that Centara Grand & Bangkok Convention Centre at CentralWorld has managed for the second time to recruit a chef originating from the Nordic region! This also makes the Finnish community very happy since they once again has someone who can properly prepare the Christmas dinner (which is a request he is happy to do, as an exception from normal duties.)
Mikko Kataja was appointed chef de cuisine of Fifty Five and RedSky in March 2012 where he is, 55 floors above ground, at the helm of two high-calibre kitchens with in total 21 chefs, and different dining concepts. This was an attractive new challenge for Mikko after over ten years in England, primarily London, and numerous openings of restaurants there, including a stint at a Michelin outlet.
“A woman behind everything”
For a natural reason, it was the Finn that had started looking for a position, having gradually realised that, yes, perhaps there was potential and need for foreign chefs on his level over here.
“I always say that there’s a woman behind everything and in this case it’s no difference. My partner is born Thai and we met in London 5 years ago and spent almost four years there together. It came to the point where I was getting bored of London. And at the same time she had difficulty in getting a job there within the financial sector as a new graduate and being foreign,” says Mikko.
For her a move to Thailand would be ideal, and as for Mikko he was looking for an entirely new challenge. He had just done, almost reluctantly, another opening, Avenue Restaurant, over two years and did not have anything definitive to do next, only that he needed a bigger change. That scenario opened up for new adventures.
“It was not necessarily London itself – it’s a great city – but more about the routine and the people that made me tired. London really squeezes everything out of you.”
He explains that regardless of sector people seem to be working longer and longer hours there.
“I did almost ten years with 15-16 hours every day. After so many years it really wears you down.”
Mikko and his Thai partner had been coming to Thailand each year for holidays and travelled around so he was familiar with the country. She suggested he should send out his CV to hotel brands in Bangkok.
It was not long before offers started coming in, some on even higher level than the position he eventually chose.
“To me it was really decisive that there were two kitchens. The idea of having two totally different restaurants, with two styles of food and two kitchen teams, was for me a new challenge. Then I did a bit of research, on the company. And Bangkok was a must for me – if moving to Thailand it would have to be city, Bangkok, in the middle of all the cuisines and getting to explore the new world.”
Mikko came over to Bangkok to visit the hotel and the restaurants and meet the other expats working for the hotel, and approved what he experienced.
In hindsight, it was a very wise decision to make, he thinks.
“I definitely needed something new. And here is a totally different lifestyle and my partner likes to be back in here home country and here she got position in a bank immediately. So we are both really happy.”
Brasserie cuisine and top-sellers
Literally at the roof of Bangkok, the concept of the two restaurants is a combination of view and destination dining to which guests come for the food, not only to marvel over the scene of Bangkok’s skyline.
“Red Sky is all about alfresco outdoor dining, and brasserie cuisine, meaning some influence of French brasserie, but with a much wider concept. Our customers basically represent the entire world – you have fifty per cent of Asians, and then you have people from anywhere.”
In this context there is quite a challenge for Mikko and his team.
“To create a menu catering to if the guests are, for instance French, Australian or a family from India. It’s not possible to please them all but what I’ve created is more likely components I know that works, then basing the dish around that. So I’m trying to create more the brasserie cuisine for people to recognise. We try to have a balanced menu of top-sellers – crowd pleasers – and then some other dishes.”
Seafood is also popular with most guests.
“It’s very different from what I’ve done before. Then we also have classics on the menu as well as nightly specials.”
Needless to say the venue is a great bonus in getting guests coming in.
“There’s no doubt that customers are coming here for the view, but we want them also to enjoy the food and the whole package and atmosphere. We want to see them coming back for the food and the service, not only for the view,” Mikko states the ambition.
Updating the menus is part of the method to always remain on top.
“We keep updating all the time; if we find that something is not selling, or if the dish is getting mixed feedback, it will be the next to go. What’s difficult depends on the type of customer you have. It’s very difficult, but it’s important to keep updating the menus on a chef basis to get your team trained, learn more and try new dishes.”
It’s all about the grill
Then, on the lower mezzanine of the 55th floor is FifIty Five, with its totally different décor and atmosphere and more formal in the service, pays homage to fine dining and high quality steaks.
Mikko has brought with him a wealth of knowledge about tradition and modern French (and British cuisine), which he can really utilize within Fifty Five.
“It’s simple but more refined, definitely much closer to pure French cuisine. So the customers at Fifty Five know what they are coming for. They know what kind of food we serve or they are just steak lovers,” he describes it.
Touring the kitchen he showcases what is clearly playing a significant role in their success: a high-tech charcoal grill oven which gives fantastic results for grilled meat, in particular steaks, which get a unique texture and juiciness.
“Cooking steaks in 350+ degrees Celsius in this closable grill is very handy and the smokiness and the crust that come on the steaks are amazing. It gives you something totally unique, an amazing piece of meat that is pink and tender.”
They even combined this with slow cooking in a Sous-vide [French for “under vacuum”], finishing off the meat in the grill to get what Mikko describes as an “unbelievable combination.”
Ending with his philosophy, he highlights the importance of flexibility for any chef to be great.
“You need to be the master of different techniques and combinations, cuisines, flavours and cooking methods. Of course four years on London I focused on British produce, clean flavours and locally sourced ingredients and produce. Before that it was all about French cuisine; classical and modern.”
“Now coming here to Thailand I can use many aspects I learned before, even molecular gastronomy, and some of the little techniques that make the food better but not something just for wow-impression. It’s the next step and level; to use what one has learned before. And it’s more my role here to teach the proper techniques of French cuisine, basic techniques, more about the flavours and combinations I learned years ago. I too have learned amazingly a lot since coming here – that is the fascinating thing working in a kitchen: you never stop learning! It’s all about yourself – you can always learn more and more.”