It’s one of our favorite times of year. The Four Seasons World Gourmet Festival just kicked off in Bangkok and eight highly lauded chefs from around the globe have descended upon the city with new ideas, ingredients and recipes. It’s an event unlike any other in the City of Angels, and a whole lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
Almost all of the ingredients are imported, and it can often take as long as 10 days to track down a single item. In one case, the chef requested seafood from one particular fisherman back in his country, in order to ensure that the quality was up to his usual standards. The Four Seasons staff also works with international embassies in Thailand to source the perfect wines.
Special indeed. The lineup this year includes names like Vito Mollica from the Michelin-starred Il Palagio in Italy, and Paco Pérez from the two-star Miramar Restaurant in Spain. With so many big names sharing a kitchen “it’s always a challenge,” according to Nicolas Schneller, the Executive Chef at the Four Seasons Bangkok. “Every restaurant goes through three chefs in a week. It’s enormous. But it all goes pretty smoothly in the end.”
Although a huge amount of effort is involved, the staff at the hotel feel they gain as much from the experience as the guests. The kitchen has a surprisingly friendly atmosphere and often becomes a kind of culinary think-tank where chefs swap ideas and recipes. When T+L took a sneak peek at the cooking stations, we saw a Portuguese bouillabaisse being prepared in one area, while Peking ducks were crisped and glazed in another. All the while the chefs laughed, talked and bantered in a regular Rosetta Stone of languages.
“In the end, we enjoy it very much,” says Schneller. “For my chefs, it’s very good to work with these guest chefs. They get to see something new. And I see the guest chefs taking notes too. It also gives them inspiration.”
Chef Roger van Damme, a television personality, author and head chef of Het Gebaar, a Michelin-starred teahouse in Antwerp, also sees the as a chance to learn about Thai culture and cuisine. “Everyday I see something. It’s about small things. For me, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I travel a lot, but Asia is something special.”
In between stocking up on favorite local ingredients like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, dragonfruit and pandan, van Damme, like the other chefs, has been working around the clock to adjust his complex molecular confections to Thailand’s conditions, and to train the staff at the Four Seasons. Along the way, he’s still innovating and trying slightly different techniques.
“I am always thinking, ‘how can I make my desserts special?’ So I do different things, always tasting,” he says. “I take chocolate nibs, maybe some flowers, maybe some sugar with fruit. I work with all of the elements.”
After nearly a week of preparation on the ground in Bangkok, van Damme says he is ready for his distinctive multi-course dessert tasting menu at the World Gourmet Festival. After nearly two decades in the business, he still looks forward to events like this, and the chance to delight new audiences with his cooking.
“When people love the things you do, you feel more in love with them too. Here, people love sweet dishes. You can see something truly special in their eyes when they look at the desserts.”