With his well-built physique he could be mistaken for an officer in the Army. With his brain he could work as a rocket engineer. Yet deep inside Christian Johann Kostner's mind, he knows he was destined for the kitchen.
Christian Johann Kostner : ‘I love to delight people with something I’ve created with my hands. Having seen what my dad (Norbert Kostner) does —making people happy with his food, I knew that was what I wanted to do.’
You may think being a child of a five-star chef means he would grow up amidst gastronomic discernment, dining on gorgeous cuisine and being groomed to become the next culinary master. But the son of Norbert Kostner, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and one of Thailand's most respected chefs, said that over the past 30 years he has enjoyed his father's highly esteemed cooking twice.
Now 32, the young Kostner, commonly referred to by his nickname "Oak", remembers growing up as a typical Thai boy who dined on his (Thai) mother's home-cooked food, hardly went into the kitchen and, just like most lads his age, wished to become a doctor, an engineer or a policeman.
Strong in mathematics, Oak pursued an education in civil engineering. After graduating with a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Engineering at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus, he embarked on his first job as a foreman running a construction project.
His father, Norbert, who has called Bangkok his home for the past 53 years, said Oak told him he wanted to be a chef while still at university. "I didn't know where he got the idea from, but I told him to at least try working in what he was trained for so that he could have a real taste of being an engineer before making a decision whether or not he would want to have a career in the field."
Oak said, "I really enjoyed the field work because I got to interact with many people. But you cannot be a foreman forever. My career fun was cut short when I was promoted to work in the office, with a computer as a silent and lifeless partner.
Norbert Kostner, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and one of Thailand’s most respected chefs.
"Deep inside I longed for working with people and delighting them with something I've created with my hands. Having seen what my dad does, making people happy with his food, I knew that was what I wanted to do."
Being a chef is no life of luxury, but a tough job that requires a lot of stamina and discipline. Hence, the worldly Norbert decided to put his only son to the test with a real kitchen task at his friends' restaurants to see how he would last.
"It took me 50 years to get where I am. If he wants to be a chef, he has to prove that he can endure the hard work, then we can begin talking about the future," Norbert said.
Over the following nine months, thanks to his father's connections, Oak worked as a trainee at two well-established restaurants _ the Italian restaurant Zanotti in Bangkok and Mossiman's Private Club in London, which boasts two Michelin stars.
"Those were really my first time working in a kitchen. Even though I had no background in cooking prior to that, I knew I had to achieve it or else my dream future would never happen," Oak said.
During the trial period, the then 25-year-old got to experience for himself that running a restaurant is no glossy business. He washed dishes, mopped floors and took out garbage before he got to learn how to properly chop vegetables and garnish dishes.
"I do believe one thing Dad always tells me: culinary wisdom shouldn't come from books or schools, it should be gained through hands-on experience," Oak noted.
After proving his determination, Oak received his father's full support and took on formal culinary training. He enrolled in a three-year apprenticeship at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, from which he properly learned the art and science of hospitality, including how to run hot and cold kitchens, master pastries and organise a banquet. His last position before finishing his apprenticeship course was chef de partie at the hotel's one Michelin star Foliage Kitchen.
After graduation, Oak improved on his curriculum vitae at three prominent restaurants in Italy, his father's home country, for two years.
The first five months saw him working as a chef de partie at the two Michelin star Restaurant St Hubertus at the Rosa Alpina Hotel and Spa in the Dolomites. The restaurant is set in the rocky, ski-resort village of San Cassiano on the Italian Alps near his grandparents' homestead. There he got to learn the simplicity of northern Italian cuisine in which Alpine ingredients such as venison, potatoes and cheese are prepared to fine regional recipes.
Packed with nine years of training at Michelin starred establishments in Europe, Oak comes home to open his own restaurant.
After that, he moved south to Naples to two-Michelin-star Don Alfonso 1980 in Sant'Agata. For another five months he built up his skills in Mediterranean cuisine, which subtly blends together different kinds of flavours while highlighting the fresh quality of organic harvests and seafood.
Oak nicely wrapped up his training at the three-Michelin-star restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. At the establishment owned and run by highly-acclaimed cook Annie Feolde and her wine connoisseur husband Giorgio Pinchiorri, Oak was offered the position of chef de partie.
''At Enoteca Pinchiorri, I came to realise that to be highly praised is not about offering innovative menus but rather to maintain your consistency and high standard _ not only in terms of the food taste but also the service quality and hygiene which is never easy. It requires a lot of systematic administration, as well as people-management skills,'' he said.
Was another value he learned from Italy authenticity?
''In Italy, they don't care about cooking fads in other parts of the world. They always stick to the classic techniques which their ancestors used some 100 years ago, yet their food is still popular nowadays across the globe. That's really inspiring and has shaped up my style of cooking.''
Packed with nine years of training at establishments with a total of 10 Michelin stars, plus a lot of confidence, Oak came home earlier this year with a plan to open his own restaurant.
Johann Bistro, which opened a week ago in a small sub-soi off Thong Lor Soi 5, is named after his grandfather. The 50-seat eatery is Oak's pride and joy where his years of culinary achievement is displayed through bistro-style cuisine that celebrates the quality of the ingredients.
''For me, the name Johann is a blessing from both my grandfather and my dad for my first venture in the business,'' said Oak. ''Grandfather Johann is a role model for my dad when it comes to working hard and being a responsible man. I learned from my dad who learned from his father to 'give the best you can in what you are doing, be patient, listen and learn, and change for the better'.''
As for his cooking style, Oak explained: ''Dad always tells me to respect Mother Nature and to bring the best out of natural materials. And to do so, I have to keep my food updated _ according to season, not trend. That's why my menu is quite small and simple, to offer what is best in the market at the moment and not much else.''
Following his father's footstep, the young and extremely passionate man said the relationship between them has become closer.
''When I was young, the only times I got to have a conversation with my dad was during my ride to school and that was made through the phone because Dad usually left home before I woke up and came home after I went to bed. Now we share the same interests and talk to each other much more often.
''Dad always let me and my younger sister make our own decisions but at the same time he's a great advisor and supporter. I never thought of my life as being inspired by him. Yet coming to think about it, I believe having a great chef as my father must have influenced me in some way,'' Oak said.
Was there any wisdom the master chef gave to his son that cannot be found at a culinary school?
''I always tell him to remember that if he wants to flourish in his career, he has to cook what people like to eat. It's nonsense to offer food that satisfies only your enthusiasm and tastebuds and not others,'' said Norbert. ''You have to offer food that makes people feel comfortable, and not overly excited, when they eat. You don't need to make your dishes fashionable by adding foam and jelly, it's not art but a chemical thing anyone can do.''
About the author
- Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter