A German chef's culinary journey in China
By Kang Caiqi  ·  2024-03-04  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 7, 2024
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Daniel Leibssle embraces organization, structure and precision, three features often associated with German culture. He applies them to his career, stating, "I want my dishes to be executed to perfection."

He is currently the executive chef at Beijing's Kempinski Hotel Yansha Center, overseeing the hotel's four restaurants, an acclaimed bakery and delicatessen, and two lounge bars, as well as its extensive events and banquets.

Leading a team of 130 culinary professionals, Leibssle focuses on food quality and authenticity, and strives to revitalize the entire hotel dining experience with new food concepts and menu designs.

The recipe for good food

He has a solid background in the profession. After 10 years of studying culinary techniques, he earned a master's degree in culinary arts from the School of Hotel Management in Heidelberg, Germany. With more than 30 years of experience cooking at several Michelin-starred restaurants and world-class luxury hotels in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and China, Leibssle describes his cuisine as "authentic flavors with modern twists inspired by diverse food cultures."

Despite his qualifications and extensive experience, he still sees his role as more of an "assistant." To him, the recipe for good food starts with good ingredients; a good chef only comes second.

"As a chef, my duty is to arrange the ingredients in the right way, according to their own characteristics; strengthen and amplify the quality of each, and make them complement each other," he told Beijing Review. That being said, being a competent "assistant" is no easy feat given preparing good food is a multi-step process that requires a lot of time and effort.

"I'm a product-driven chef. I think the product speaks for itself," Leibssle said. "Taking making a sauce, for example. If you make a sauce in 10 or 15 minutes, it will actually taste like it was done in 10 or 15 minutes. But if you really put your mind to making bone broth, roasting vegetables, and using wine as a base, and are willing to spend more than 24 hours on the whole thing, it all shows up in the flavor. You can actually taste your efforts."

Infinite patience aside, according to Leibssle, a chef must possess many skills and be extremely careful when it comes to taking care of the ingredients. They need to really understand the material. "Like handling a vegetable, a qualified chef should know how to cut it and how it will change with temperature and time. So the chef needs to bring enough passion with them," he continued.

Passion can be worn down, but it can also be rekindled. Whenever Leibssle encounters a fellow chef who shares his enthusiasm for cooking, and creates a quality product, and most importantly, a positive experience for guests, he feels motivated again.

"I believe good food has the power to bring joy, creating lasting memories that stay with people for a long time," he said.

The icing on the cake

Recalling his culinary adventures in China, the chef couldn't help but laugh. These, in his own words, were "wonderful memories." "I've always loved traveling, working in different countries and exploring new continents. I am open to different cultures and always excited to find authentic local food in whatever country I'm in," he said.

As a professional chef, being willing to try a wide array of foods is an essential part of the trade.

"The memories of trying stinky tofu, roasted worms and balut (a fertilized duck egg boiled and eaten in the shell while still warm) for the first time are still vivid in my mind," he reflected.

The ongoing sensation of new flavors and textures inspires him to create innovative dishes. Throughout his more than one decade of working in China, he has endeavored to integrate Chinese culinary elements into Western dishes and vice versa, infusing Western influences into Chinese cuisine.

For instance, he introduced the concept of a gluten-free diet, valued by Westerners, into guotie (potstickers, a type of traditional Chinese dumplings) by using gluten-free flour and all vegan ingredients, and incorporated tofu and walnut sauce into salads.

In his observation, diners are becoming ever more discerning about their food. "I often receive questions from my customers: What's the origin of this food? Is it organic? Were excessive pesticides and fertilizers used? Today, people would rather eat less than consume food with poor quality," he said. As a result, he pays special attention to these concerns when preparing dishes or creating a new menu.

"As my understanding of Chinese cooking and local ingredients deepened, more and more new ingredients came into my view. But things were very different when I first arrived in China. At that time, people were very enthusiastic about imported food and we also had to rely on the Western market, like the most important ingredient for the main dish served during Maifest (May Day, on May 1, a day when Germans celebrate the arrival of spring): white asparagus," Leibssle recalled.

"Now I tend to use local Chinese ingredients. Not only to avoid the loss of freshness caused by long-distance transportation, but also because of their high quality, such as sturgeon caviar from Thousand Island Lake [in Chun'an County, Zhejiang Province]; wild mushrooms, black truffles and seasonal white asparagus from Yunnan Province; wines and fruits from Xinjiang [Uygur Autonomous Region]; and snow dragon beef from Dalian [in Liaoning Province]. In the last decade, the quality of these local ingredients, which are more commonly found in Western cuisine, has improved significantly, especially white asparagus, which is now comparable in taste to that produced in Germany," he added.

Daniel Leibssle prepares gluten-free guotie (potstickers) in the open kitchen of Via Roma, an Italian restaurant located at Beijing's Kempinski Hotel Yansha Center, on December 19, 2023 (ZHANG DONGHONG)

Food for thought

Throughout his journey of learning about food, tasting different dishes and creating culinary experiences, the significance of the stories behind the food has grown for this chef.

In Leibssle's perspective, food represents the essence of a location's geography, customs and culture. Just as the climate of a place influences the character of its inhabitants, so does the food. Therefore, by understanding the cuisine of a place, one can comprehend its people as well.

"Consider the cuisine of northeast China and that of north Germany; they bear striking similarities," Leibssle explained. "The pork dishes, pickled fish, sausages, dumplings and smoked foods taste remarkably alike. If you locate these two regions on a map, you'll notice that they are situated at roughly the same latitude. Both areas experience long, harsh winters, resulting in limited available ingredients and the development of similar culinary traditions."

"Contrast this with Guangdong Province in south China, which is often bathed in sunshine, leading to a wealth of rich and fresh local ingredients. As a result, the seasoning used there is relatively light, allowing the natural flavors of the food to shine through," he added.

The insight gained from his exploration of foods has in turn deepened his appreciation for his career. "It's safe to say that after more than 30 years in the industry, I still love my job," he concluded.

(Print Edition Title: Dig In!)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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