By Susan Malovany - December 2018
If you want to be politically incorrect with Chef Robert Danhi, just say “Asian cuisine.”
“I don’t over-generalize as ‘Asian cuisine’ since that is implying that 48 countries have the same flavor profiles, ingredients, techniques and presentations,” he said. “I prefer to state the ‘cuisines of Asia,’ often brushed off as semantics, yet isn’t that what defines different people and cultures?”
A past culinary instructor with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Chef Danhi is currently the owner of two Los-Angeles-based consulting businesses, Chef Danhi & Co. and Flavor360. “Over the last 13 years with Chef Danhi & Co., we primarily have worked with food manufacturers, national and global restaurant chains, marketing associations and educational organizations,” he said. “My company works with both foodservice and retail groups in the innovation stage, leads R&D on recipes and formulas, and supports sales and marketing efforts.”
He said he remains a teacher in this role, too, because his company partners with organizations to inspire and teach individuals to achieve their personal goals and professional objectives.
Culinary and cultural crusade
Exploring not only cuisines but also their cultures defines Chef Danhi. The proclaimed “curator of cultures” wrote the renowned James Beard-finalist cookbook Southeast Asian Flavors — "Adventures in cooking the foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore." Chef Danhi hosted "Taste of Vietnam," a 26-episode television show broadcast in 17 countries (but not in the US, yet) and was a judge for the show "Top Chef Vietnam," which aired in 2014 and 2015. He also was invited to be the curator of Southeast Asia for the recently opened Pacifi c Food and Beverage Museum in the Los Angeles-area.
The chef began his career as a dishwasher in Southern California, and worked his way up the culinary ladder. Upon earning his degree in culinary arts in 1991 from the CIA in Hyde Park, NY, Chef Danhi worked at various restaurants from Los Angeles to Hawaii. “I soon realized that I enjoyed teaching my kitchen staff as much as leading them, so I made a transition into teaching the culinary arts,” he said. By 1997 he was the executive chef instructor and director of education at the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, and in 1998 he returned to his roots as a faculty member at the CIA.
In his current role as a consultant, his work varies. For example, currently Chef Danhi & Co. is consulting for the American Egg Board on education, research and promotions for colleges, universities and contract management companies. His company is also crafting an education program on fermentation, umami and sodium reduction using Asian sauces for Hong Kong-based food company Lee Kum Kee as its culinary ambassador. He has also been working with Google on ideation sessions and Tyson Foods to expand one of their brands into different categories and dayparts, he said.
His company Flavor360 was created out of the need for doing research and helping food companies document and archive their flavor experiences and place them into a database. “Our company has a family of Flavor360 apps that are used to curate, capture, code and share their R&D documentation,” the chef said. “The Research Chefs Association (RCA) members, for example, have found the most value in Flavor360’s methodology and technology for food tours [at various restaurants,] capturing application recipes, guiding and archiving tastings and cuttings, and consumer insights studies.”
Having his own businesses allows Chef Danhi the freedom to travel, which he described as “priceless,” and now totals about 36 countries visited. “Being an entrepreneur also gives me a platform to impact a larger audience as I can interact with dozens of companies in one year,” he said. “I am a problem solver. As a consultant I assess situations, identify opportunities for change, develop plans for improvement and implement strategies to improve their businesses. Recipe development has become only one part of what Chef Danhi & Co. does and this year, with the launch of the Flavor360 app, we are able to provide tools for others to use.”
His interest in the cuisines of Asia is a result of meeting his wife of 27 years, Malaysianborn Esther Leong-Danhi, when he was 18 and a young cook living in Southern California. His passion for the woman he loves prompted him to pursue his passion for the cuisines of Asia.
“My wife is my soulmate, best friend and business partner, and we met taking a cooking course at a community college right after I graduated high school in Los Angeles,” he said. “She is the reason I began my research in Southeast Asia, has always been my partner in our consulting [companies] and still plays a major role in our R&D at Chef Danhi & Co. She first brought me to Malaysia when I was 19 and I fell in love with it there.”
The Danhis own a home in Malaysia and an R&D kitchen there, but live in Los Angeles, where they also have an R&D kitchen. Chef Danhi visits Asia several times a year. One of his favorite Malaysian foods is Kuala Lumpur-style Hokkien Mee, a noodle dish that has its origins in the cuisine of China’s Hokkien province. “I love the dish and it has a ‘bite’ to it,” he said. “One version I like enriches the noodles in a rich pork fat-soy gravy with garlic and pork cracklins, and I eat it with a sambal belacan and pickled green chiles.”
Chef Danhi’s most recent book, "Easy Thai cooking: 75 family-style dishes you can prepare at home in minutes," showcases simple recipes that result in the fl avors of Thailand. Chef Danhi has made more than 30 trips to this country throughout the years and his interest in Thai foods has evolved over three decades. He also leads culinary tours to Southeast Asia for food and beverage industry personnel.
No matter which Asian country Chef Danhi visits, he remains passionate about the emphasis locals place on the food they eat and the variety of fl avors they use. “Food is the central part of Malaysian life, for example, and they treat it with a lot of respect,” he said. “It’s what you do, it’s what you talk about, and at breakfast you talk about what you are going to have for lunch. I also like the fact that even in a bowl of noodles you will have 12 different textures and eight different fl avors, and this is just in one dish, and you don’t often see this in the cuisines of Europe, for example.”
Chef Danhi has remained involved with the RCA. He moved into the R&D world after being invited by longtime RCA members Lori Daniel and Eliot Swartz to be the executive chef of custom food manufacturer Two Chefs on a Roll (now owned by Bakkavor). This is where he was introduced to the RCA, as it was an ongoing essential resource for the founders and team.
He was a volunteer on the RCA’s Education Committee in the past, and became its co-chair for a few years. He was voted onto its board of directors in 2008 and 2009, and was honored with the association’s President’s Award. “The RCA’s members have become some of my closest friends in my life,” he said. “Quickly I got involved since any organization is only valuable to you, its other members and the industry if you participate, contribute, volunteer, learn, teach, share and grow together.”
When Chef Danhi is not busy in his field, he enjoys travel because “it changes people,” he said, and remains active by surfing, biking, snowboarding, motorcycle riding and cruising for miles down the beach on his skateboard, a handcrafted longboard.
“I am inspired by everything around me. The next big idea may come from a street vendor in Vietnam, the way a flatbread is folded at a fast-casual restaurant or the layers of color in a cocktail,” Chef Danhi said. •