Stefan Trepp is no stranger to Thailand and definitely not to Bangkok. He was the Executive Sous Chef at the Banyan Tree Resort in Phuket, Thailand before moving to Bangkok to spend some seven years at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Prior to being appointed to his current position as the Executive Chef at Siam Kempinski, he was the Executive Chef at Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi, Kempinski’s flagship property in the United Arab Emirates.

Chef Stefan is a fan of street food and loves to adventure throughout the cities he lives in and visits on his bike.

What are the top 3 ‘Go To’ ingredients in your house?

One of my favourites would be homemade stocks and broths. If you’re including ‘have to haves’ in there, although it’s not my favourite, I would have to also say fresh chilli just simply for the reason that my wife eats everything with chilli.

We have fresh chillies, chilli in vinegar and I also make chilli oil so that my wife can have a variety of different spices that she can use.

Me being swiss, there must also be cheese. Anything I cook will generally have cheese.

How do you define your cuisine? How does your cooking differ from others’?

I try to cook what the guest wants to eat rather than what my ego wants to cook. Of course I could do fine dining and have exquisite presentation, but if there aren’t guests coming to dine in the restaurant then something is wrong. That would be the result of me forcing my cuisine on the guests and that would be wrong.

It’s important to know:

  1. Where you are and know what your clients want to eat;
  2. The price range that you sell your food for;
  3. Cook what the guests order;

I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago where I forced my foods onto the menu. In the end I had to concede defeat and I realized that there’s no point. You have to ask the guests what they want to eat. What market are you in? What’s locally available? You then cook it properly with the right techniques.

These days you see a lot of molecular stuff going on and new techniques, but at the end of the day you have to not forsake a solid base of fundamental cooking skills.

I’m hired as an executive chef, so not only am I hired for my expertise in cooking - and in my case specialising in western cuisine, but also in leading teams. In working with these local teams, I love being back in Thailand because I am learning from them too and I love learning to cook local food from them.

When a guest sends the food that you prepared for them back to the kitchen and asks you to ‘fix it’, does that hurt your ego?

Yes, of course it does. At the end of the day however, he is paying the bill. If for example the soup comes back and the guest has said that it’s over-seasoned and when I try it, it is indeed over-seasoned, then I will certainly try to apologise. If however, it comes back and the guest has said ‘The beef is not tender enough’, and I try it and the beef is actually tender, then I would have a problem and I probably wouldn’t go out to spend time with the guest and apologise and say ‘you know you’re right’ - because in my opinion he’s not right. At the same time, I definitely wouldn’t go out and say ‘you know, you’re WRONG’.

It does hurt the ego, but It’s our business, and we have to deal with it.

You’ve worked in the Middle East and now Asia twice. What are the differences between these three markets when it comes to dining and the general food scene?

When it comes to the Middle East and Bangkok, there have been many changes. I have been in Bangkok now for ten years and it has grown so much.

Ten years ago when I first came, it seemed that the Thai people were attached to higher end restaurants that were attached to 5-star hotels, because that spoke for quality and value for money. It was about seeing and being seen in places like that. Now, there is almost a kind of hype around free-standing restaurants.

For instance, there are these new pancakes that came from Osaka. It’s a new place and if you go to Siam Paragon, you can see a long queue of people who don’t seem to mind queueing for up to two hours to have those pancakes. I think this is something that shows that there has been a trend away from 5-star hotels and more into free-standing restaurants. That presents a challenge to us in 5-star hotels to come up with new concepts, pricing and value and obviously the Michelin guide being in town as well now has given Bangkok a big push. I left before the Michelin guide came out and came back afterwards and I can see a distinct change. If you had been awarded one star, you are fully booked every day.

There are a few hotels including us that have Michelin stars, but it is definitely a challenge for us to keep up with these free-standing restaurants.

As for the Middle East, I can speak for Abu Dhabi - it’s a beautiful city that is clean, has shopping malls and where I was - Emirates Palace, is a beautiful hotel. However, when I rode my bicycle back home each day, you would just see empty roads. Where are the food stalls? Of course I know that there aren’t any there, but after moving there from Bangkok, I really felt like I was missing out on something not having the food stalls there.

Coming back home to Bangkok, riding my bicycle back home, within a five minute ride I have noodle soup, sate, fish maw soup and everything else you could want right there on the roadside. That to me would be one of the big differences.

How does that affect dining habits?

Here in Bangkok, our biggest competitor is street food. For example, here in the hotel, I could make Khao Man Kai (Hainanese Chicken and Rice), but I would be charging five times the price. Is it better than the one on the road that is five times cheaper? I don’t think so. You see, there is one lady there on the side of the street that makes Khao Man Kai the whole day long. That’s the only thing she does. I wouldn’t dare to go and challenge her and say that I make better Khao Man Kai than she does.

In Europe and particularly in the Middle East, the competition are ‘hotels’. Kempinski Emirates Palace is competing with you name it - St. Regis, Shangri-La and the like. In Europe it’s similar, however yes, you have also always had free-standing restaurants too. When I grew up in Europe, we never went to a hotel restaurant because they were always considered to be expensive and you had to dress up. All we did when we went out eating is to go out for pizza, pasta and Swiss food - but would never go to 5-star hotels.

I do believe that the Middle East is missing out on these things, however you do have a small community of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan foods. They’re perhaps not right there on the streets - rather in little shops. If you’re not a local over there and you’re not particular interested in knowing where those places are, you won’t find them.

Given that you do have these competitors outside of the hotel on the street in Thailand, how will you compete head to head with them? - Or would you compete with them head to head?

In Kempinski in Thailand, when it comes to Thai food, I don’t believe that we’re competing with them as we have another approach. We call it a progressive, modern, Thai approach which is something that I love and am totally into.

I love cooking this and eating our version of something here, but then going out into the street and having a real street version of Pad Thai. We’re not trying to compete with them.

What we’re trying to do is attract those people who might have bought such food on the street to come to us and then we will win them with how we serve the food to them. I would never have the guts to say that my Khao Man Kai is better than the one on the side of the road where the lady has been selling it for years. That’s not what we’re competing against. It’s about service and overall product that is experienced.

Do you incorporate any CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in your kitchen?

Yes we do. The biggest change so far is that we are cooperating with a food donation agency. I don’t want to use the word ‘left overs’. It’s actually food that had been set up on the buffet, like the cakes and other food that had been cooling down. In the evening instead of throwing it in the bin, we pack the food in boxes and store it all in the refrigerator until the next day where at 3 o’clock this company will come and pick the food up and distribute it to people in need such as orphanages and homeless people. They decide where the food goes.

Like all other chefs are doing now, we are obviously looking to source fish from sustainable sources and sourcing our meat as much as possible, from as close by as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult, although now there are a few good places in Chiangmai and Chiangrai that we use. We have our own gardens and plant things such as sweet basil and lemongrass. We also work with organic suppliers for organic eggs and organic rice.

Honestly, sustainability in Thailand is a bit difficult. You might see some places here that claim that they have their certification as a sustainable supplier, but when you go and inspect the place, you would question as to whether or not they would actually pass the same type of accreditation against European standards. Sustainability is a big topic here and it is definitely up and coming and over time will evolve.

What is the percentage of food wastage for your buffet?

It is a fraction of what the wastage is in the Middle East. In the Middle East we had around six tonnes of food wastage every day. You must also keep in mind that we are talking about 14 restaurants there. This is perhaps because it is framed within the culture of excessiveness of the Arab world.

Here in Thailand, the food wastage is minimal. You need to keep some things in mind - for example fruit baskets going into rooms. If they aren’t eaten and come back, we can’t re-use that fruit for hygienic reasons. Much of this food now however can go to this donation agency and I can sleep much better at night knowing that it is going to people who need it rather than going in the trash can.

What is your advice for those who aspire to be a successful chef?

My advice is to work hard and seed your plans early so that you can harvest later on.

For example, when I left Switzerland I was 20 years old. I sold my car and I left for two years. My plan was to spend two years in Dubai - I went to work at the Burj Al Arab at that time. In those first four months, I called my parents every day and told them “I’m coming home - I can’t do this”. Perhaps I felt like that because I was working 12-13 hour shifts as an entry-level chef and my earnings were quite low compared to what I had in Switzerland before that. I had to share my accomodation with three different nationalities. All in all I had a very tough time, but after those first four months I got used to it and after those first two years, I decided to stay on another year. From then, I moved on to Asia.

It was very hard from the beginning, but should I have come home in those initial four months when I was homesick, my career would have evolved very differently. Maybe now I would have been just a chef in a restaurant in Switzerland. Because I put my head down and stuck around, determined to ‘do it’, a lot of doors subsequently opened.

From my CV at the Burj Al Arab, people wanted to hire me in Asia. I moved to the Philippines, which was a bit of a soft landing in Asia because everyone speaks English. The mindset is quite different to Thailand or Indonesia. In my head, I always wanted to be an Executive Chef in a big 5 Star hotel in Asia. That was my plan way back then when I left home bound for Dubai and I stuck to it. If you think you want to jump from home directly into Asia, nobody would take you. You have to be of a certain level and you must have appropriate experience abroad.

In a nutshell, head down, stick around and it will eventually push open doors. Hard work will always pay off.