GBA Lifestyle News
Travel Outside HK Section
By Gayatri Bhaumik | November 6th, 2019
  • Asia, Bangkok, Thailand

Growing up in a farming community in Queensland, Australia, Michael Hogan has always been around food. After honing his skills in standalone restaurants throughout the Gold Coast and New South Wales, he finally made the jump into hotel restaurants with Marriott International. 15 years later, he’s leading the charge for food sustainability and minimizing food waste at the Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park hotel with a range of innovative solutions. He talks to The Loop HK about produce, cooking and why sustainability matters.

How did you get into food and cooking?

My family is one of the pioneering families [in Tweed, Queensland, Australia] so we basically settled the area and had a lot of land, sugar cane, beef cattle, tomatoes, small crops, zucchinis, pigs…you name it, we had it! So I was always surrounded by food, but at that point it was all about farming for me. As I got older, maybe around 10, I started to take this produce and cook at home. I had some disasters, of course, but it kept me going. And when I would crack something good and everyone would just be loving it, I just kept that going.

When I was about 16 and my teachers were asking me what I was going to do [when I finished school], there was one thing I knew I loved doing and that was cooking. So, I did a few trainings while at school, with different chefs and restaurants around the Gold Coast, and began looking at apprenticeships. Eventually, I left school and started working with a British guy, Ian Fillmore. He was super passionate about food and regionality and back then, he was probably doing a lot of things right without knowing it. I was pretty much in standalone restaurants until my early 20s because I had always looked down on hotels for not having much freedom.

What do you think are the most important attributes for a chef?

That’s a really debatable question. I really feel ego has a big part to play in it. It’s super painful, but if someone has a little bit of ego then it’s going to drive their passion and they’re going to do good things. But it doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader, and when you get to a position where you need to make decisions and lead a team, the ego has to be pulled in a little. I think leadership is probably more important for me today. For a chef in general, obviously, cooking skills is number one. Everything falls apart if you don’t have those basic skills. But if you don’t also have the passion, it’s hard to do anything good.

To you, what makes a great dish?

First of all, it’s product. My old British chef used to say to me, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and it’s absolutely true. Today, you can buy a lot of enhancers and use molecular cooking to mask or change a product. But at the end of the day, a bad tomato is a bad tomato and you can’t do much about that. So many places just forge ahead and continue cooking their great recipes with poor quality products and it just doesn’t work. Knowing what to do with that product is a very important factor, too.

What are your favorite ingredients to work with?

I like fresh fish. Seafood is something I love, I think because of my Gold Coast Heritage. It’s something I love and am comfortable working with. I love cold-water fish from Tasmania, as well as lobsters and crays. It’s a beautiful party of the world and it produces great seafood from pure waters. I also love beef, I think that also stems from my childhood.

And after 9 years in Bangkok, has your cooking changed? How?

I love playing with a lot of the fresh herbs. The Australian way is to take a green curry and turn it into a salad or something weird like that…we do a little of that here, too, but I prefer to take the base ingredients and come up with creative ways to blend them into a comfort dish from home. I hate the word fusion, but essentially, that’s what I do. For example, I’ll take the beautiful little green peppercorns of Thailand – you don’t see that in Australia – and crush it up to do a fantastic peppered steak.

What does food sustainability mean?

That’s a great question. I struggle with this as well. Sustainability, to me, just means being able to maintain something. I always say to my guys that whatever we set up, let’s make sure we can maintain it. Let’s make it sustainable. But it changes all the time. What works today can have a negative effect over time. It’s like microplastics – for awhile we thought it would breakdown in the environment, but now we’re finding it in our food chain. For me, sustainability is just being mindful and really coming up with ways that will help reduce the negative impact on the earth, not just today, but for the future.

Why is food sustainability important?

I’ve travelled a lot and seen quite a bit, particularly in countries like India and China, and to be honest, in Australia, too, in the early days. When you see what we’re doing to the environment, it touches the heart. My father grew up in an era where there was no thought for sustainability, but as I became more aware, I did a lot of reflecting. I guess I found an internal drive to focus on sustainability. Of course, there’s the whole global movement as well. Some countries are doing an amazing job. India had just banned all plastic and I think that’s fantastic. If India can do something like that, I don’t think there’s an excuse for anyone else.

Michael Hogan showcasing My Second Love.
Michael Hogan showcases how a “My Second Love” menu works.

What measures are you taking with food waste management at the hotel?

We’ve done quite a bit. We’re doing some exciting stuff around food waste. We’re working with local farmers to take back a lot of our non-edible waste that would normally go to landfill, like oyster shells. We send those to a rice and chicken farmer – he mills them up for chicken feed and uses them to make filtration blocks.

Surprisingly, we had pineapple skins by the ton, so we turned that into a vinegar to make cocktails and dressings out of this. We also make a sorbet, which I love…it’s not to everyone’s taste but I think it’s great!

One of the things we have issues with is trying to make guests aware of food waste. We have a big buffet at Goji Kitchen where you can come in, pay one price, and eat as much as you want. Trying to tell a guest to be mindful of how much they eat and waste is tough. We’re working with Thammasat University to study human behavior and create an action plan for how to educate our guests. Right now, we’re doing clever signage and QR codes throughout the buffets. People can choose to read this to get the message we’re trying to convey.

We’ve also changed our order system to minimize wastage. We get orders coming in from all over the hotel, from the restaurants to the events and banqueting, which is massive. So, we now consolidate all our orders and cut it down. People tend to over order so this system works – we’ve never run out yet!

What about dealing with leftover food?

We have a concept called “My Second Love,” which is where we take our leftover edible food and repurpose it in new dishes. For example, in our events and banqueting packages, we offer a “My Second Love” coffee break option. You won’t know what you’re eating until the day before, but we will create a coffee break menu that we guarantee is 100% edible, delightful, and looks good. That’s been really successful.

We also work with third-parties to repurpose food. Again, this is strictly controlled. We work with a company called Scholars of Sustenance. They pick up our leftover food every day and they give that to families in the community that need support.

What steps can a home chef take to ensure food sustainability and minimize food waste?

They can buy the ugly vegetables. Our mindset is so wrong. We’re always looking for the most perfect looking carrot. I think people need to understand that this is nature, and it takes a course of its own so things aren’t always going to be perfect. They need to be a little more openminded about this.

I also think the day of the big should just disappear because this is what generates a lot of household waste. If people could plan a little better and go shopping every few days, that would be better. Buying organic is good too, though it can be challenging because it’s that much more expensive. But I think if more people do this, prices will come down. From a consumer perspective, we also need to be asking a lot more questions about our seafood and demanding traceability.

Want to see more interviews with cool people in travel? See our Travel Talk profiles for more! 

Note: The author travelled as a guest of Marriott International.