When a private chef is required by flown in wedding couples and their entourages, as well as famous figures frequenting Phuket, chances are high that their preferred choice falls on island resident, as well as Swedish, chef Daniel Isberg. If they can get him, that is.
It takes time to become part of the fabric but things have come a long way since this celebrity chef opened his first gourmet restaurant in Phuket back in 2010, and started building up his wedding and events catering firm. Some 700+ weddings later, and with a very jam-packed and long wedding season in Phuket/Phang-Nga for 2019/2020, it is clear that the Swede is enjoying great success.
His achievement is also a telling example of what it takes in terms of hard work, top-notch performance, quality, persistence, management, talent, and for an events chef also great charisma in order to be able to put on a show.
First, it becomes apparent that he has been at the right place at the right time. “When I started there were only a few wedding planners. But it has flourished and grown very big – you probably have around 50 of them now and I work mainly with the large ones,” explains Daniel.
“Some events I have done myself and for most events there is a planner, arranging flowers, the wedding dress, invitation cards, etc.”
He collaborates with 19 wedding and event planners spread out over the region: Koh Samui, Krabi, Bangkok – and in Phuket where 90 per cent of the weddings Daniel and his Phuket Gourmet Catering is hired for are organised (including Phang Nga).
Half of the weddings are arranged on the main land versus Phuket, for example at Natai beach, where, contrary to Phuket proper, the wedding ceremony can take place on the beach. Then the actual dinner party takes places in a villa by the private beach. If in Phuket, in for example Kamala beach, weddings often take place in an ocean-view villa up on the hill.
Very few weddings are locals; typically they are wedding couples and all their guests flying in from abroad.
“My best clients are highly educated Hong Kong and Singaporean Chinese, who are nice and friendly, have good budgets and like good food and appreciate what one does for them,” tells the Swede.
“Typically, the wedding couple comes here between six months up to a year in advance and book the villa, have a food tasting with me and decide what menu they would like to have, gets a cost idea and pay a deposit in order reserve the date. Then discussions on details can continue.”
“The event company works excellent. I am pretty slammed, so I must be very satisfied with what I have accomplished,” reflects Daniel. “It was four years ago I decided to go full throttle with catering and events. So I started promoting myself on the Internet, collaborating with all the event planners, being creative with packages for clients etc. So these days I am usually booked well in advance, and the collaborations work fine. Everyone is happy with my service, so that’s a joy,” smiles Daniel as we meet at his Cherng Talay-based restaurant The Mexican Boat Avenue.
Running restaurants is a side business these days, with focus on fast food. “I love Mexican food, but I stake mainly on catering and events. I think it’s fantastic; new places, new people each time, new menus, new challenges… I get a bit bored to be at the same restaurant all the time. I want some action and new things happening, so catering fits me perfectly, I love what I’m doing. So I will not start any new fine dining restaurant in my name, because it would mean that I would have to be there all the time.”
During weddings he takes care of bar service, serving and all cooking, as a one-stop-shop for food and beverage. A typical scenario looks like this: “Many guests coming have never been to Thailand before and then they want to have a touch of Thai. When they arrive around 4 pm and the sun is still strong we serve non-alcoholic refreshments, for instance a lemongrass ice tea, signalling: ‘Welcome to Thailand’. The drink is wrapped in banana leaves with an orchid in a lemongrass stick. Then, usually the ceremony takes place, often with a celebrant, or priest. After that canapés are served, usually Thai starters, again to give guests a bit of Thai flavours. Then one serves the bride and groom’s cocktails, chosen by the wedding couple. A four-course sit-down dinner then usually follows, and sometimes it can be a buffet. But I usually recommend that it should be a presented menu so that one can have beautiful presentations served on plates.”
“Then we do late night snacks and all kinds of things; it may be a dessert spread, candy table, ice cream station, and entertainment such as live band, fire show on the beach, various kinds of DJs, fireworks… so there’s a lot of action.”
Sounds easy? This operation entails plenty of preparation, such as ensuring that the supplier delivers directly to the site’s mobile kitchen the catch-of-the-day seafood.
“I want it to be super fresh, especially seafood and fish. And we have a vacuuming machine to pre-prepare things and vacuum pack and put in ice etc. It’s very important with the transportation that the food stays really cold.”
Normally all staff meet early in the morning in the catering kitchen, that may for a wedding with 100 guests include 12 servants, 4 dishwashers, 4 bartenders, 6 chefs, and handymen. Everyone gets the rundown for the day and a brief about the wedding and its guests. Then we pack the trucks and go through check-lists – it is incredibly important that you do not forget anything because then you’re screwed.”
Daniel checks it all himself but of course it still does occasionally happen that something important, like the griddle, is missing – 1.5 hours’ drive away.
“Then one must send a messenger at full speed to bring it – which takes, if we are in Phang Nga, 3 hours to go and back. But we have built up great routines so it normally these things run like clockwork.”
On site, a mobile kitchen is set up outdoors, with generators, ovens etc.
“We can serve 500 people in the jungle if so would be required! We have a lot of equipment and trucks to transport all this. So there is a lot with catering, many details – much more than one would think!”
Then, multiply this by four! Yes, four weddings in one day! But that is the extreme occasion. Daniel will now stick to no more than two.
Functioning as Sous-Chef and General Manager he, on such days, moves between the events to ensure that everything runs smoothly. “I pick one where I serve the starter, main course and dessert, and then continue to the next wedding.”
“We have great experience and routines on everything and I am supervising and checking everything all the time – nothing can go wrong. It has gone incredibly well in the last few years, so very few mistakes have occurred.”
What can go wrong is however the weather… “If rain sets it can become chaotic. Often weddings are outdoors, and then the wedding can chose to rent a marquise or not; it costs quite a lot for 100 guests for example. So it has occurred quite often that we have had to change into presenting a buffet, while we had planned for a 4-course dinner. But I have become an expert on finding quick solutions; there can be no panic. Everything can be solved as long as one stays calm and thinks fast.”
Part of the well-drilled entourage Daniel’s core team has worked for him for up to seven years already. “That means a lot because without my skilled team I would obviously not be able to manage this large operation.”
On achieving sustained success he says that it was what he expected from the very beginning. “I’m a doer, I don’t postpone until tomorrow, do not give up and work really hard for my product myself. I want to be best.”
Occasionally Daniel’s phone rings and on the other side of the line is the agent, or manager, of a superstar. “And we’re talking real superstars,” Daniel points out. “Then it’s usually with short notice, requesting private chef services. Then mobile phones are confiscated and one has to sign non-disclosure agreements about who one is cooking for and what happens. This happens now and then.”
Daniel has a background from working with Californian cuisine, in the glamorous world of Hollywood, and on superyachts. “I have a good reputation as private chef, so many know me.”
And these stars are now coming to where he resides on the famous Asian lifestyle island. Daniel explains that this is because Thailand is a country many love, with Thai style, the food, the climate etc. “And Phuket is very ‘chill’ and relaxing; they can be quite anonymous here. They wear sunglasses and a cap. I’ve been at the beach clubs with the largest actors in the world and they are left alone. Also, many own a house, staying here for a few months now and then.”
“It’s quite incredible actually; I meet many more interesting people in Phuket than in Bangkok and New York for instance. Should I meet these superstars in N.Y.C or in Bangkok they are usually stressed and have no time to spare, while when in Phuket everyone is more relaxed, chats and is happy – it’s an entirely different ballgame. I think it is fantastic to work and live here, in paradise.”