Podcast episode 7

A Taste of Southeast Asian Cuisine with Research Chef Robert Danhi

With Robert Danhi | 42 minutes | July 20, 2021

In this episode we speak with Robert Danhi, a research chef, educator, TV show host, and award-winning cookbook author.

An expert in Southeast Asian cuisine, Chef Robert was the host of Taste of Vietnam, a globally-broadcast, 26-episode TV docuseries that highlighted culinary traditions throughout each of the provinces in Vietnam. He was also a judge on Top Chef Vietnam.

His book, Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore was also a finalist for a James Beard Award. Currently, Robert’s work is focused on Flavor360, a multimedia software platform for research chefs to capture the flavor experience of food.

Listen as we chat with Robert about traveling through Southeast Asia, eel soup, R&D, culinary education, and using technology to innovate in the culinary industry.

Video thumbnail play

 

Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hello everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode we are speaking with my friend, Chef Robert Danhi, a longtime culinary industry veteran, educator, award-winning cookbook author, host of Top Chef Vietnam, and a thought leader in culinary research and development.

An expert and lover of Southeast Asian cuisine, Chef Robert is also the host of Taste of Vietnam, a globally-broadcast TV docuseries that delved into the culinary traditions that are found throughout each province in Vietnam. Chef Robert is one of the foremost innovators in the world of food and drink, and adopts unique technology solutions in his product research.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Robert about R&D, Southeast Asian cuisine, and leveraging technology to innovate in the culinary industry. Robert, my friend, thank you so much for chatting today. How are you? You look great.

Robert Danhi: I’m quite well Kirk, thank you. I am happy, imagining I’m in these eel fields behind me in the middle of Vietnam. But in Los Angeles it’s a beautiful day and I’m happy. Thank you for having me.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. So I’m going to ask right off the bat. It’s becoming a theme. Motorcycles, music, cooking – so many of my guests are avid motorcyclists. And the same holds true for you, right? Motorcycle, moped, electric bike, what is it, a need for speed? (laughter)

Robert Danhi: Well, I think it’s a freedom, right? A chef is a freedom thing. But in all candor, I didn’t ride motorcycles until maybe 10 years ago, and I think it was all my trips in Southeast Asia. I would get one of the scooters. They call them a scooter, but it’s really a 125/135 and I’d ride around. Then I bought one for a house that we own in Malaysia because I wanted one for myself.

Actually if you’ve ever seen the streets in Vietnam, look that up folks, in the video. I ride through Saigon and then I came back and I’m like, “hmm” and so first I got a scooter. Then I upgraded to a normal Vespa but then I’m like, “Hmm..motorcycle.” Then I bought my Triumph and I ride that and yes, an e-bike. Some days, all three. A mile from the beach, right? Why not?

Making Eel Soup

Kirk Bachmann: I forgot about your frequent visits abroad. So that’s a beautiful reason to get into that. Maybe not as much speed there. Are you riding the Triumph faster?

Robert Danhi: Yeah, over there. It’s interesting, especially in Vietnam, where people look at the chaos that you see in the streets. But the reality is even on the freeway, that’s going from Saigon down to the Mekong Delta, people are going like 40 miles an hour. And that’s it. And you say, “Come on, come on,” but as a driver, if they exceed that they will be fired. It’s a slow path there. Although there are no rules. I go up one-way streets. I go just like everyone else, but it’s as they say in Vietnam: “Chum chum.” Slow, slow.

Kirk Bachmann: Slow, slow. I love that. You mentioned the background there. Fill us in. Did you say eels?

Robert Danhi: Actually, these are rice fields. And the thing about rice fields with wet farming, wet agriculture, they’re flooded with water at times, and eels like water. A local here took me through this field, and they take large bamboo pieces, they actually cut a strip in the back for air, they put a stick in it and you go into the water. Before you put it in there, you mash up some eels, because this is culinary right? We’re talking about food. So you pound with a mortar and pestle some eels. Excuse me it’s snails. You pound snails, grind them up, and worms. Then you take a bamboo, they fashion a bamboo cone, and they wipe it all on the inside of it, they stick that in the end of the bamboo, just like you think of most fish traps. You put that in the water. The eels go into this cone going after that food and get stuck in the bamboo. You can get five to ten eels, we collected all of them. And then there’s one restaurant nearby that makes this eel soup that’s served with Bánh mì or with Bánh hoi, which is a rice noodle that you dip in it. I got to see them making it and I think there’s like 30 eels in a bowl or something. It’s insane. Because they’re teeny. They fillet them and so you’ve just got noodles and eels and this and it’s so good. Nau an Vietnam.

Working as a Dishwasher

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. We’re gonna come back to that in a minute. I think it would be so interesting to kind of catch our listening audience up a little bit. Yours is an interesting story. Kind of traditional but kind of not traditional. Working your way up in the kitchen, we hear it, it’s a cliche. But you really did do that. Right? You kind of started in the back in the dish area. And then before you know it, you’re an executive chef. Walk us through that.

Robert Danhi: Yeah. Well, I’m 15, my brother, Dave Danhi, there’s another Chef Danhi.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my goodness.

Robert Danhi: Just last week or two weeks ago I’m like: “Dave, by the way, sometimes I realize… who am I to say I’m Chef Danhi?” My website, everything is Chef Danhi. And I’m like,”Dude, by the way, I’m kind of sorry about that.” He goes “No, no, no Robert. Before you launched your website, you came and asked me.” Which I was really proud to say that I went just out of respect. So my brother, also a chef even to this day, he’s working at the Chart House here in Redondo Beach.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh wow.

Robert Danhi: Oh, yeah. As like a cook at that point. And I’m 15, $10 a week wasn’t enough allowance. So I start at restaurants. People like that fun, right? Especially a teenager in Southern California. Hello, a bunch of surfers. So I started working as a dishwasher. Two weeks later, I become a prep cook. Then I do the salad bar. I was there for two years, setting up learning operations like, but I was barely a cook. Then I started moving up and working in restaurants and cooking. Then I’m 18, I’m a line cook. I meet my Malaysian-born wife, who… we’ll get into that in a second. And I realized this was a really important point that verifies, validates in what I believe why culinary education is so important in our business. I met two individuals, Kelly Malarney, and Terry Appleton, and they both had graduated from culinary school. And they were different. They were the first people I worked with.

I worked with several “chefs,” but I realized they were just kitchen managers whereas these two had prep sheets, and they had recipes that were tested. They mentored people, and they taught them and I’m like, “Ohhh.” Back then, remember, this is back in ’88-’89, there were only 14 culinary schools that did degrees back then – I think. Maximum. And they both graduated from the CIA. And so you do what you know. So I’m 18, I get a job, and I get promoted to sous chef in a new restaurant. American continental, shrimp scampi, prime rib. I’m 19 and I’m managing people that are 35 plus. I realized that “You know what, I need to step back. This isn’t the position I should have yet.” Right? I mean, what is a chef? Besides a cook. A cook knows “how,” a chef knows “why,” can teach others and manage the business. I realized I had no business being at that level yet. So I decided to go to culinary school.

I went back to culinary school, graduated and stayed in restaurants for another three years, something like that, worked my way up. Again, I started graduating from culinary school and went back to being a cook. A line cook in Hawaii.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, you went over to Hawaii. Okay, okay.

Robert Danhi: Never been there before. I’m at an externship. I’m here in Los Angeles at the Century Plaza. I met this one chef, I was impressed, I look back somewhat misguided, but his cooking skills were incredible. So I said I’d apply and he accepted. I’m like, “Honey, you want to go to Hawaii?” Came to LA, got married. Neither of us had been to Hawaii. As a cook, right? That’s the beautiful thing about being a chef. You can go anywhere in the world.

Kirk Bachmann: Anywhere, anywhere. Yeah, I love that. Where did you work in Hawaii?

Robert Danhi: It was called A Pacific Café on Kauai, before the wild chickens took over. I don’t know if you’ve been to Kauai, but if you ask anyone that’s been to Kauai, they’re like, “There’s chickens everywhere.” I was there when it happened, it was Hurricane Iniki in 1991, when the hurricane came and destroyed the island. Class 5, 130-mile per hour winds or something, just leveled it. No power, no electricity for over three weeks. And all the chickens got out.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow.

Robert Danhi: So since ’91, they’ve been breeding and you’ve got chickens everywhere now in Kauai.

Kirk Bachmann: To this day.

Robert Danhi: They’re everywhere.

Kirk Bachmann: What a story. I don’t know how many times we’ve run into each other, at conferences.

Robert Danhi: It’s been decades.

Kirk Bachmann: I mean, it’s been a long time. And every time… I’m just comfortable sitting here – I wish I had that cup of coffee – just listening. I mean, you’re a storyteller. That’s what you are. You’re a storyteller.

Becoming a Storyteller & Educator

Robert Danhi: And you know what Kirk, that’s interesting you say that because I think as chefs, we tell stories through our food, and cultures. A bowl of food is a story. It’s culture in a bowl. And it’s the history. It’s all these things that have come together. So at that point, I’m a sous chef at a restaurant. I go back, I go to CIA, I move out there and then I come to LA, and you’ll appreciate this as an educator, I take over a place called J’adore. I love it I guess and it was seven courses. The people that came, no menu was ever printed. They chose their appetizer, had a couple options. They chose their entree, we had like 12 tables. Some days, I do two people, some days we do 80.

And I was the chef and we made everything but the bread. Sorbets, desserts, three different desserts. I started working there with the chef. Then I gained his trust because as you know, in this business, it’s a competency-based business. I don’t care what your age is, I don’t care where you’re from. I don’t care if you’re male or female. Can you do it? Proof’s in the pudding, literally at times.

Kirk Bachmann: Pun intended, yeah.

Robert Danhi: Here it was in the souffle, right? So at that point, though, he said, “Hey, I teach these classes. Do you want to teach one with me?”

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, and so it begins.

Robert Danhi: I remember having six ladies around me up in Palos Verdes here. And you dice an onion and you’re a frickin hero, right? It was like, well, this is fun.

Kirk Bachmann: Do it again, do it again. (laughter)

Robert Danhi: And you know what, that’s what hooked me. Then my lovely wife, Estherlita Leong, or Esther as she goes by. She’s been just a pillar in who I am, personally and professionally. She says, “Well you like teaching? There’s the community center here in El Segundo. Why don’t you just start teaching, if you like it?” So I remember going around the laundromats, and putting up signs, “California Cooking”, “Simple Cuisine”, and getting six, eight people, and started teaching.

Because if you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher. And as a teacher, you’re a storyteller. So that is where it began. Then I moved down to be a sous chef somewhere, stepped down again. I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s the position, it’s the learning. If you just rise straight up in America, we’re notorious for that, is not taking the time.

Kirk Bachmann: You’ll miss some things. So this is early ’90s?

Robert Danhi: Yeah, this is ’95, ’94. Yep.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m gonna act like a student today so I’m going to keep making you repeat yourself. So you said California cuisine, super interesting. I don’t know if I’ve heard that term in a while. I’ve got a Spago menu over here on a frame that my wife made me take out of the house. But it reminded me, what was California cuisine back then?

Robert Danhi: Mango salsa and tuna, right? (laughter) I mean that was like cutting-edge stuff. Or like Oeufs à La Neige but instead of a crème anglaise you put it in like blueberry juice with diced fruit in it.

Kirk Bachmann: But it still sounds good, doesn’t it? I mean, it still sounds good, right? Mango salsa with tuna. Oh my goodness gracious.

Robert Danhi: It’s still food, right? Yeah it still works.

Kirk Bachmann: Early ’90s, right? Okay, before we got too far, I just had to have repeat: “Cooks know how, chefs know why.” Brilliant, brilliant.

Robert Danhi: And can manage it.

Takeaways from Malaysian Culture

Kirk Bachmann: So that’s one lesson. I was just gonna ask, so all these trips, you had culinary school on the East Coast, back to the West Coast and further. Esther is part of this. So the lessons, the takeaways. A lot of students will be listening to this recording, this podcast. Lessons and takeaways.

Robert Danhi: Well, lessons in that is… when I was 19, she took me, before I went to culinary school, to Malaysia where she was born. And I remember showing up at the airport. The first thing her brother-in-law said to me besides “hello,” and what have you and “What are those dreads? What is that your hair?” I had hair then. (laughter)

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my goodnesss, we’ll come back to that. (laughter)

Robert Danhi: That’s another day, another story. Offline. (laughter) But what was interesting is, he said, “What do you want to eat?” Like, “Aren’t we going home?” No, no, no… first we eat. And we’re eating dinner and we go for noodles. I remember him saying, “Okay, so what’s breakfast tomorrow?” and they start talking about breakfast. Oh, I like this place because it’s all about food and who you’re sharing it with. And really sharing. When you go out to eat there, I mean, it’s often “Hey, I got the bill.” And this is a simple example, I think is… here it’s like, “Oh, let’s split the bill.” And there’s apps and “What, you paid last time? What did I order? You had a drink?” I found over there, it was more of “I got this, the next time someone else gets it.”

It’s more of just the hospitality of taking care of each other and hosting them. And the true sense it’s, who’s the host? Generally, it’s the eldest or the most senior in the business. And yeah, you’re picking up the bill. That’s how it works. You rose up, these people helped you get there, personally or professionally. You pick up the bill, that’s your deal.

Kirk Bachmann: So a lot of those initial, let’s use some more culinary terminology, but that foundation helped shape you as an educator going forward.

Robert Danhi: Yeah and about respect. Respect for hierarchy in society. I don’t think I’m better than anyone but I’m different. And in a kitchen it’s the same thing. The chef may have more craftsmanship, they may be better at sautee, but they’re not a better human being. They’re a person. So to me, what I learned is also… going to places where financially, I was rich. I’m a cook, I’m certainly not rich.

But there, I had a lot more money because it’s multiplied by four. So I interacted with a lot of people that had much less money, but they were just as generous with what they had. Just showing that at every level, we’re all people. I think respect is the most important word I learned. Of respecting your family, respecting your profession, respecting people and I think that’s one of the challenges we’ve seen recently. Just respect. That one word, applied to every relationship, makes the world a better place.

Starting Research & Development

Kirk Bachmann: Beautifully said. So bring us back to Los Angeles. We can pop back, but I’m just fascinated about the consulting. We can come back to more education, but it was kind of the beginning of your focus on helping others in the industry. Research, product development… were you a little ahead of your time, maybe? I mean, early 2000s.

Robert Danhi: What happened was, just to answer that and digress slightly, because it answers that. Working in a restaurant, the school opens up here in Pasadena, the SCSCA.

Kirk Bachmann: Yes.

Robert Danhi: I was invited to teach there and I took that on, and then I had more flexibility in my time.

Kirk Bachmann: Perfect.

Robert Danhi: That’s when I got to, like, “Let me understand Thailand and go spend a month there.” Like really do that and learn. I started developing a unique knowledge base, is the way I look at it. It’s synthesis of experiences. I started to actually have experiences that my colleagues didn’t. I talked like them, I thought like them, I walked like them. Because I mean, what’s the best definition of education? Change. It’s the best synonym, especially in culinary arts. You change how someone walks, how they talk, what they do. So I had this knowledge base that was forming. Then people started asking me, because back then when I went to culinary school, they used to call me Mr. Lemon Grass or something silly, because I was so focused on that. I was nervous, like, “Oh, do I do this?” But it was who I was and I think that’s another lesson. Do what feels right and things will come later.

So consulting, I go back to teach at the CIA, I leave the school here in Pasadena after three and a half years of building the school, getting accredited, becoming the Director of Education. I’m 27, okay? I’m a kid. I’m like, “I’m too young for this again. Where can I be the small fish?” Went back to going to school where I graduated from, eight years later. That’s when I started to do consulting, because half of it, I taught in the degree program, half I taught continuing education. Then companies started to come in and say, “Hey, what’s the next Ritz?” What do we do with Ritz, and we come up with ideas. Chefs come up with ideas but the difference is, often chefs think of themselves: “what do I like?” And that’s a small section of industry. Well, “if this is what I like enough people will want it and they come to have it.”

But in R&D, it’s not about you at all. It takes not being as egocentric as most chefs are, and step back and say, “It’s not about me, it’s about what we’re trying to create to give someone an experience – of every sort.” That’s when I started doing consulting on the side. People were like, “Hey, you’re a chef at the CIA, can you help us with this?” We did it at the school and then I took my first trip to Vietnam, like behind me, and that changed my world into getting into R&D as a full-time gig.

Kirk Bachmann: So high level, R&D, super sexy title, right? It’s like, “I want to get into R&D.” So two-part question, what is that process like? Research and development. And when you’re in it, and you need to see the forest through the trees, what does innovation look like? Not just research and development, but fold innovation into that. Now it’s 2021. We’ll get to Flavor360 in a minute. But back then, what was R&D?

Robert Danhi: Well, you know what, back then there was a small group of people. That’s when the Research Chefs Association was formed. This was that same time, now that we look back. I was at the CIA, because that was 20 plus years ago, when a group of chefs that were part of the American Culinary Federation, great organization, was satisfying a lot of people, we were both members, but then this R&D thing came up. Well, there was Nestle and there was a couple of the big companies, but now it was trickling down and those chefs were just being asked to make food. They were being asked to consider the consumer. Because it used to be, we would just bring in chefs and say, “Hey, what’s the best paella?” But whatever, I can go to Spain and have the best paella. But what I need to understand is what is the paella? What are the building blocks of it? What are the ingredients? What are the techniques? And how is it presented? And what’s the kind of typical version now? What are variations of it?

So you started to think through iterations, versions, gold standards, which is something we use in R&D. It’s not the best, really important distinction. Gold isn’t the best precious metal. But it’s the one that’s used for rings, because it’s what everyone associates. So what is that? And so for R&D, it’s removing yourself and saying, “Okay, what is it that you need to know? And let’s bring it back to noodles or something.” I’ve done the research, because people usually get into development first. It’s R&D. What’s the background? And to me, that’s what I bring to the table, working with companies and why I started consulting. I didn’t know the process. I didn’t know scale up, manufacturing, etc. But I knew the content. And it was also reasonable to say, Campbell’s is going to make something that’s Thai. But I want to get in there and make sure it really respects the culture.

So they’d hire me to help them translate cultural identity of a region, a cuisine, a dish, through the R&D process with integrity. It doesn’t mean it’s authentic. No, it just means that we didn’t just start making something and putting lemongrass coconut milk in curry and say, “Oh, it’s Thai.” No, that doesn’t make it Thai. It’s the sensibilities, it’s the experience. It’s all of that. So I think with R&D back then, it was happening and it started to formalize when the Research Chefs Association broke off and formed, and it became this discipline. It was, what, 20 years ago, I think when they coined the phrase culinology, the blending of culinary arts and technology within the product development process. I think that was a really important step to formalize it, and codify it, like Careme and Escoffier.

Kirk Bachmann: And Escoffier… so beautifully said.

Robert Danhi: I’d bring up Escoffier all the time. They codified what was already happening and when they codified it, they said, “You know what, there’s a better way to put this together to systematize it and scale it.” And that’s what an R&D chef is. So Escoffier was one of the first R&D chefs, he R&D’d the operations of a restaurant. Did he not?

Kirk Bachmann: He certainly did. And I didn’t even ask you to say that. I love it. It was so natural. So natural.

Robert Danhi: But it’s true.

Importance of Getting a Culinary Degree

Kirk Bachmann: But so beautifully said. I’m thinking or I’m watching your passion, your animation, through the lens of a student. When they hear about the different pathways and journeys that they can take, once they understand the foundation. Once they know how.

Robert Danhi: Well Kirk, when you started cooking and I started cooking, there weren’t a lot of paths. There was “be a restaurant chef,” and there was a couple little things. But now and that’s why I still think culinary education, my brother didn’t go to culinary school, but think of the top chefs across the nation, Thomas Keller, a lot of them didn’t. But they generally went through an apprenticeship, which is a school. And if they didn’t, the thing is back then, it’s different than now.

It used to be “Oh, you went to culinary school. Wow.” Now it’s like, “Where did you go? What degree do you have?” So a degree is actually really important for the future. Not for now, you can go get a cook’s job without any degree. But you’re not going to culinary school to become a cook; you’re going to culinary school to become a chef.

So you need a larger knowledge base. And if you have a larger foundation, well, now I can stand up a whole series of houses with different rooms with different decor and live in all of them, as opposed to “Someone trained me to do this and I’m a journeyman butcher.” Hey, respect. I love that. That’s what they do in Asia. This is what I do. But I think… I don’t know if ADD is even a real thing, but if you’re OCD and ADD, welcome. Come to be a chef. We have a home for you.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh, the story continues, the story continues. So let’s talk about Southeast Asian cuisine. I have a better idea through your comments around your lovely wife, Esther, where perhaps the love of this cuisine and this part of the world comes from. I think I told you, there’s so many ways that our careers kind of cross. When I was in college at the University of Oregon, for reasons I forget, my dissertation was on the business potential in Malaysia. It wasn’t typed so I’ll have to print it and send it to you. I’ll have to make copies.

Robert Danhi: Love it.

The Cuisines of Asia

Kirk Bachmann: I still have it sketched. But it’s centered around food. There was a lot in my research around food. But I think we understand where your love and your interest for the cuisine came from. But in your words, Robert, what makes Southeast Asian cuisine or whatever region you want to go to so unique, appealing to you and maybe appealing to others?

Robert Danhi: Yeah. Well, that’s easy, actually. Because it’s something that took me years to suss out, realize, and experience. I mean, the last 33 years of traveling there, Thailand, 30-40 times, I can’t even count Vietnam, all these places. It’s a matter of what I noticed was different. I break Asia into Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, general categories. So Northeast Asia is where it began. China first, Korea, Japan, I’m going to create some enemies here if you’re not from China, I know. But the reality is, Chang Dong, that’s where fermented bean paste came from, all of it, period. End of story. That’s where it started 6,000 years ago, it came from there. But then Chinese especially, moved and migrated. You have Southeast Asia with this Chinese influence from the motherland and then you have India over here.

The thing about Southeast Asia, let’s say Malaysia specifically, is Malaysia is 60% local Malay, not indigenous, but from that region. Then you have 20 plus percent Chinese, like Chinese-Chinese, and you have like 10-12% Indian from India. So these distinct cuisines that in Malaysia and the hybrids were like my life. The Nyonya cuisine, the Peranakan cuisine, the Nyonyas are the women, the Nyonya food is a fusion, because all food is fusion. So when they fuse together, you have Chinese and Malay. They took Chinese techniques, thousands of years of food culture, and layered in lemongrass and added some other new local ingredients and did it more casually. I think that’s what makes Southeast Asia different. That’s Malaysia.

Vietnam, Thailand… and remember, Thailand’s the only country in Southeast Asia that wasn’t colonized. So they’re more open-minded. They’re a Buddhist-based society, and they welcome and they haven’t been oppressed the same as other places, so they’re more open and they’ve got all sorts of cuisines in there. Southeast Asia as a whole, though, because it’s not fair to lump all 14 plus countries in one. That’s why I’ve always said, the cuisines of Asia, not Asian cuisine. Big difference.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, beautiful. Yes, yes.

Robert Danhi: Because they’re not the same. India. Korea.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure.

Robert Danhi: Even Malaysia, even Vietnam, they’re all different. But my point is, I think what makes the cuisines of Southeast Asia unique is the diversity of flavor within one experience. What you see, what you feel, what you taste, what you hear – it’s all five senses. And then the context of it, they, like no one else in the world, build all those experiences into one bowl, one plate. Whereas most other cultures, let’s say, Korea, they have it, but there’s all these dishes that bring it together. It’s the banquet. French, there’s some great food in France. But in one dish, multisensory, doesn’t even touch Southeast Asia. Not better, different.

Kirk Bachmann: Different. I’ve got to segue, just for the record, there’s no way that we can get to everything today. So I’m already going to ask you to come back soon. I would love to get more into the weeds as they say. But let me throw something that’s really, really kind of cool. You’ve got some books, right? And look what I have right here.

Robert Danhi: Oh my baby.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s your baby, 2008, Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia & Singapore. Here’s the proud moment, I open it up: “Kirk, a chef can transport people around the world by cooking for them. I hope that you enjoy cooking some of the recipes, Chef. – David 11/02/2008.”

Robert Danhi: Oh my goodness.

Kirk Bachmann: Where does the time go? This was nominated for a James Beard.

Robert Danhi: Actually, it was a finalist, top three. That book and this is I think a testament you were saying for students listening, you can do anything you want. It’s usually a matter of time and money. And if you don’t have the money, you put the time in. If you have the money, you might truncate the time. This book, I published it, did all the photography and wrote it. The reason I say that is, I wanted control. Hello? I’m a chef.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure, sure, yeah.

Robert Danhi: So I put up the money, and I did it. I haven’t even broken even on that book. But my mission was to share those cultures because I was a teacher. How do you teach outside of the classroom? Book. How do you teach outside of a book in people’s hands? TV shows. How do you teach to a larger audience, internet-based? Hence, Flavor360. So how do you scale what you do, your knowledge, sharing of that knowledge? I think it’s been a natural progression of teaching some in the kitchen, then getting into publishing books, publishing videos, and now publishing a system for people to share their food cultures with the world.

Taste of Vietnam and Top Chef

Kirk Bachmann: You mentioned TV, we’ve got to get to TV. Then we’ve got to get a little bit to technology. Taste of Vietnam, Top Chef. I mean, it blows my mind. It’s a tagline that everyone knows, Top Chef.

Robert Danhi: Well, yeah, and that came second because Taste of Vietnam. I’d like to shout out to Martin Yan. A huge believer in education.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, absolutely.

Robert Danhi: He wrote the foreword of my book. He’s been a mentor of mine for years. He introduced me to a Malaysian director that helped me film some stuff casually, because I wanted to document cultures, with my friends and I doing research. And then they wanted to change the host. Martin Yan did Season One, and they reached out and said, “Hey, what do you think?” And I’m like… 26 episodes, 19 provinces, crew of 25 to 30. We filmed for half of 2014, I think. I mean, three weeks, five weeks, two weeks, back and forth. It’s funny, on Southeast Asian Flavors is a testament, there’s 30 recipes. They’re the heroes.

But I think what happens is we iconize. We say, “This is Thai food.” Green curry, red curry, etc. I had been in villages and I mean, people cook, and they’re not published recipes. Just like in America, there’s codified cuisine, and then there’s just food. And, “Well, that’s not Thai!” Screw that. What do you mean? They create food all the time and isn’t codified. So my point was, for the show, I was able to be the curator of their cultures. It’s not about what I know. I’m telling the stories and curating them, and putting them in context of an audience that would appreciate it and see the rice farmers and respect when you’re about to throw out a little bowl of rice. Whoa whoa, that was a few square feet in that little bowl. You know someone had to plant that by hand, and then the heart like, come on. It teaches you respect for food, culture.

When that show was broadcast in Vietnam first, they built it for local. It was on Friday nights primetime. Then one of the local production companies saw it and they’re like, “Wow, this guy understands Vietnamese food. He respects us, our culture, and can actually cook the food. Because every demo in that show, never saw it, never practiced it. I had to do it, basically in one take in that show. On a budget, sitting in the middle of that rice field cooking, being in the salt field, but my point was, Top Chef invited me to be a judge. I was one of three main judges every episode. And the reason they invited me, besides being bald and looking like Tom Colicchio for that reason, it was an American show, is they wanted to make sure I respected them as a culture as I told their stories. And judge these people…I’m not going to rip apart a chef. No, let’s just give them feedback. Help them grow. Evaluate. Don’t criticize.

Kirk Bachmann: So Taste of Vietnam, that was 2014?

Robert Danhi: Yeah, 2015. It went to 22 countries in English, all over, it was here for a short time. I’m trying to get the show back and get it on YouTube for everyone to watch.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, yeah. How did Martin feel? Chef Yan?

Robert Danhi: I called Martin when they offered it to me. I said, “Hey, Martin, awkward situation. Chef, they’ve offered me to take over your show. Are you okay with it?” And he didn’t know. They weren’t going to tell him, I said “No, no, no.” Out of respect, he brought me into the equation. It’s his show. He says, “Robert…” like Martin would do, he goes, “Robert, it’s a great opportunity for you, go. I think it’s great. Take it.”

Flavor360 Software

Kirk Bachmann: Such a wonderful person. Such a wonderful, wonderful person. A great educator. Really, really good in front of students. Okay, in our time left, innovation. I know a little bit about this, but Flavor360. It’s your most recent project, right?

Robert Danhi: And my final project.

Kirk Bachmann: Your final project. So fill us in. What’s it for and how does innovation live in this new dream?

Robert Danhi: It’s just an extension of that book. You see in that book, Kirk, it says go to southeastasianflavors.com. I had a website at one point because stories are not linear and stories are contextual. The book, what really petrified me in the true sense of that word, when I published it was like, “I only get to put four photos?” but I had 30. This woman told us about where she harvested, and the young tamarind leaves in the middle of the village that they used to sour. I always struggled with that, to tell more.

The challenge is, back then I became a photographer and actually got some training. I became a videographer, recording some videos. And as a writer, I started publishing and publishing, but the challenge was, it wasn’t scalable. I would take drives and drives, and I would go capture, capture, come back to my hotel room and like, “Okay, I got to sort through it. Oh but there’s a night market.” And I just kept more and more, and I didn’t utilize and share that knowledge. So there’s so much lost.

Frankly, we forget more than we know. So I had an idea. Why isn’t there an app for what we do in food and beverage? What about just for writers, etc.? But then I realized it costs millions of dollars to build an app. People think they should be free, they shouldn’t be. If the app is free, you’re the product, not the app.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure.

Robert Danhi: So remember that. What I did is say, “Hey, I want to scale food research and capture and save the world through cultures. Because right now, like never, never, never before in human history, we’re losing vast bodies of knowledge. Because our grandparents are the ones that used to pass it down on our parents. And it’s through observation, through practice, and through storytelling that we pass knowledge on. Just like chefs do. They tell you the story, then they show you, and then you practice. No different from culinary education.

What I wanted to do is formalize that so anybody can show up in the market, pull out their Flavor360 app, “I’m going to have a new experience” and then guide them and embed my knowledge of ways to ask questions, what to ask first, what to ask second, capture video here, capture photo, and then when you’re there, in context, in that experience, make a few notes – not over here, not over there – but as part of the media. Because I tell you Kirk, you’ve done it, you’ve traveled, you come back, and then you’re scrolling through your phone, “what was that photo?” and then you got to download it, then you got to take the videos, and then you got to put them together.

So I looked at it and said there’s a better solution. It’s not existed yet. It solves a problem for my colleagues in research and development, who will pay for it, because it solves massive problems in the innovation cycle from beginning to end. And then I can work with education, UNESCO, so that Sony and people that I want to work with, to sponsor, to give, to do scholarships, to share it, and take that expertise and give it to those people.

So really, it’s a content management system of a sort to capture flavor experiences with some basic structure. Give them the flexibility to do what they want and then automatically, no more downloading, no more uploading, that’s just a waste of our time, it just syncs into a multimedia database. So now I can say, “Remember, we were in that field in Nghe An, but when? Okay, let me just type it: Nghe An, eels, soup.” Boom, it comes up.

Kirk Bachmann: And there it is. Yeah. And the website is…?

Robert Danhi: flavor360software.com. It’s pretty straightforward.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go. Shameless plug. I love it. I’m so happy for you. When I’m listening to the passion and yet, your next venture, it all comes back to education. It all comes back to education.

Robert Danhi: And Kirk, to me, this and what we created for, to bring it back to that, is now what I’m working with, and we’re talking about is why doesn’t the chef have a digital portfolio of their life. We used to connect filmbooks, etc. So what I want is Flavor360 to be the standard in capturing your externship. Then when you go to the chef say, “Hey, let me show you what I did” and there’s a video of you actually cooking it. And then “These are the 12 dishes. Let me show you my top-rated dish.” “Oh, wait your seafood place specialty? Let me show you the different fish I’ve made.” Like, why don’t we have this?

Kirk Bachmann: It’s brilliant. Right now we’re gonna get a little personal, as we conclude.

Robert Danhi: I’m in.

Kirk Bachmann: The Ultimate Dish is the name of the podcast. So, Robert, what is in your mind the ultimate dish? Could be spiritual, could be in front of us.

Food Is Nourishment

Robert Danhi: I guess the way that I would approach that is… I’ll answer that question. To me, the ultimate dish is one that’s in front of me when I’m surrounded by friends and or family and we’re sharing a meal. And what’s in that dish is almost irrelevant to me. That’s not the point. Yes, I love great food, well prepared, was it seasoned, is it crispy, whatever. That’s kind of a given. To me, the ultimate dish is a dish that nourishes. It doesn’t provide just nutrition, it provides nourishment, and what food does, food and beverages, it nourishes your mind, body, and soul. And so to me, the ultimate dish is nourishment, not just nutrition.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely, beautifully said. I sort of sensed that’s where you were going to go. Especially when you closed your eyes, and you envisioned it, absolutely beautiful. The other thing I noticed today is probably a result of your travels and your love for the cuisine that you’ve been involved with for so many years. Throughout our chat today, you refer to the bowl of food versus the plate of food. And I absolutely love that.

Robert Danhi: Because it kind of holds things together. It’s kind of interesting. Well, if I knew one thing, sorry that I got to go on this tangent, is in Southeast Asia… so what makes Southeast Asia different? In most of Southeast Asia, you eat with two utensils, simultaneously, a spoon and a fork. And the spoon is in your dominant hand. The fork is your non-dominant hand, because the spoon is like a small bowl, and you’re able to assemble the perfect bite, a little rice, a little sauce, a little pickle. And then you bring that up, and you nourish your body with this total experience with all these things happening. I think it’s a perfect analogy to what we’re saying and I never thought of it like that.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. You are a storyteller, Robert. You’re a chef, and you’re a good friend. You’ve got to come back, because we have so much more to talk about.

Robert Danhi: Thank you and thanks for having me. This has been… it’s an honor. And I mean that in the true sense of that word to share anything that I know. And I can’t wait to learn from everyone that’s listening, because we all have something to learn from each person.

Kirk Bachmann: We do, we do. Robert, thank you so much, and I wish you only the best.

Robert Danhi: Pleasure. You too, Kirk, thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of culinary arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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