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(11/15/2010) Born on the island of Java, but raised in Germany, Indonesian chef Degan Septoadji is equally at ease preparing Continental fare or the succulently spiced specialties of his archipelagic homeland.
His first professional assignment was as a lowly apprentice at a family-run hotel in Pflaz, Germany, where he paid the mandatory dues of proving his acumen by working his way up the gastronomic food chain.
Degan's youthful decision to pursue a culinary career is linked to his Javanese-Germanic grasp of basic practicality and a strategic mindedness to pursue his in-born wanderlust. "The fact that eating is a universal affair makes the chef profession in demand endlessly, anywhere in the world," says Degan. "Bringing with it the prospect of travel, it opens the opportunity to work with people from different countries, race and cultural backgrounds sharing a common passion….food."
25 years later and with a cooking pedigree the equal of any in Bali, Degan remains a passionate chef uniquely able to appreciate the opportunities and nuances of both the Eastern and Western kitchens.
He has honed his culinary skills over a careers that has included stints at The Jakarta Hilton International, Grand Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton Bali, Atlantis Royal Towers in the Bahamas, Melia Bali Villa & Spa Resort and Banyan Tree Group. Before opening his eponymous establishment in Bali, Degan served as Executive Chef of Banyan Tree Bangkok and Group Manager, Culinary Development for Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts where he was responsible for all culinary aspects and openings within the group. Very much in demand for his cosmopolitan weltanschauung when it comes to food, he has led opening teams and set up new kitchen operations in Bali, Malaysia, the Caribbean, China, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Laos.
Determined to absorb all that he can of both the culture and cuisine of every country in which he cooks, his quiet competence earned Degan a prestigious role in the one-million Baht dinner held as part of the 2009 Bangkok Chefs Charity Event, where he cooked alongside top chefs from three five-star hotels. He was also crowned Hotels & IHRA's "Young Hotelier of the World 1997", and in 2000 served as Chairman of the Bali Black Box Culinary Challenge.
Café Degan opened in Bali in February 2010 to rave reviews.
Set in a traditional Javanese joglo house, Café Degan emphasizes popular Indonesian specialties, and a carefully chosen assortment of Thai favorites.
Featuring Thai and Indonesian dishes authentically prepared and presented, highlights from the menu include: • sop buntut - Javanese oxtail soup with potato, carrot, fried shallot and nutmeg; • ikan panggang kemangi - slow simmered fish of the day with ginger, chili, tamarind and lemongrass; • daging sambal hijau - spicy beef in green chili, tomato, lime leaf, lemongrass; • gai hor bai toey - chicken wrapped in pandan leaf with tamarind sesame dip; • tom yum goong - hot and sour prawn soup; • pla neung manao - steamed fish with chili lime dressing; • gaeng kiaw wan pak - assorted vegetables in Thai green curry; • som tam - spicy green papaya salad with lime, chili, tomato and peanut.
Taking an uncompromising approach to ethnic cuisine, you can confidently bring your Thai or Indonesian relations to Café Degan without fear of disappointment.
Balidiscovery.com recently caught up with Chef Degan at his restaurant where we conducted the following interview.
The Interview: Chef Degan Septoadji, Café Degan, Seminyak Bali
Balidiscovery.com: When and what was the first meal you cooked?
Degan: "When I was 9 years old, my mom went back to work so I had to warm up my lunch, which she cooked in the morning. The first thing I learnt was frying an egg."
Balidiscovey.com: You're the man. The Chef. The guy in white. How did it feel wearing your first chef's jacket?
Degan: "I first jumped into this culinary journey during my apprenticeship back in my early teenage years at a family-run hotel restaurant in Germany. It wasn't so much the white jacket back then, but more the color of the buttons that set the status apart. As an apprentice, only plain white buttons were allowed until we reached the higher position and given the recognition were we then allowed to wear a black-buttoned chef jacket. That was when we felt we may have achieved something greater!"
Balidiscovery.com: What's your most precious kitchen tool?
Degan: "It depends on which section I am working at: a small set of tweezers at the pass; a small Chinese wok ladle at the stove; or a Santoku-style kitchen-knife during prep."
Balidiscovery.com: What's your recipe for success in opening a restaurant?
Degan: "Patience, passion, dedication and ownership."
Balidiscovery.com: If you have to cook for yourself, what's on the menu?
Degan: "Most of the time it would be simple dishes, such as a steak and a salad, or simple cuisine, such as Mediterranean instead of most Indonesian and Asian cuisines, which requires more preparation and time, and, in any case, is this cuisine I am working with everyday anyway."
Balidiscovery.com: What do you consider your perfect meal?
Degan: "Having traveled to many places in the world and tried many different cuisines, I realize that the perfect meal to me is any dish that is prepared with heart and passion. We usually say that the best meals are the dishes that Mom cooked for us and this might be because most Moms cook with heart, as they cook for their loved ones."
Balidiscovery.com: In modern times chefs enjoy celebrity status. What's your take on that?
Degan: "Cooking was simply a daily affair in the past. There wasn't so much of a culture or an opportunity to eat out, as people normally ate at home and thus many households had to be able to prepare their own proper meals. These days, with changes in lifestyles, home cooking has become something of rarity. Mothers often don't have time to cook at home; packaged pre-cooked meals are easily available; and fast food and convenience stores have become part of our daily routines. Today, to enjoy a good meal, one often has to go to a special place where there is a Chef cooking and preparing the food. This has created opportunities for people like my wife, Nike, and me to bring our skills and view on food to our restaurants."
"When I'm working hard with my team in the kitchen, frankly, I feel like anything but a celebrity."
Balidiscovery.com: We've heard stories where chef-owners "kicked out" restaurant critics from their restaurants. Am I in any imminent danger today?
Degan: "You're probably safe. Most good chefs work with lots of passion and energy to create their dishes, most of the time hard work and long hours are put into preparing their dishes, so the dishes created become somehow ‘personal.' When guests/critics comment on these meals based on solid reasons such as burned, overcooked, under-cooked, most chefs agree and accept such feedback. But when people complain purely because they don't like a dish as it is not to their taste or sometimes cannot even explain why they don't like the dish, that can sometimes drive a chef mad."
Balidiscovery.com: That's a relief. By the way, the food's excellent. Degan, let's suppose the Indonesian President, the Thai Prime Minister and the German Chancellor arrived tonight for dinner at your restaurant, what would you cook?
Degan: "Hmm…I'd try to find out what they like to eat. Ideally it might be their favorite meal, the way their mothers used to cook! Given my solid grounding in Indonesian, German and Thai food I will hopefully be able to please them both individually and on a combined basis. I would probably showcase all three culinary traditions and serve everything family-style, encouraging them to sample each other's cuisine. Who knows, maybe my cooking would stir childhood memories that they could share with each other over dinner and become better friends and neighbors in the process?"
Balidiscovery.com: Any advice for young chefs?
Degan: "Be open to learn new things; show interest in the job; be patient and realize that one cannot become a master chef overnight. Most importantly: cook and create with your heart, go out and eat…try, try try.
Balidiscovery.com: Right. Speaking of trying, what's for dessert?