His career at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok spanned more than four decades, making Norbert Kostner this city’s longest serving Executive Chef
Born in an Italian mountainside village and later trained in Switzerland, 73-year-old Norbert Kostner came to Thailand as a young man of 22, not even speaking a word of English let alone Thai. After spending four years at the historic Dusit Thani Bangkok hotel, he moved to the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok—one of Thailand’s most iconic properties—as Executive Sous Chef under Michel Grange, who retired in 1980. Norbert went on to become the hotel’s celebrated and much-loved Executive Chef (he is still called “Papa” by many of the city’s younger kitchen talents), and although retired since two years ago, he remains a presence in Bangkok’s culinary scene.
What did you know about the Mandarin Oriental before you started working there?
I really knew nothing about it at all. It was only later I learned that it was Bangkok’s first luxury hotel—it opened in 1876—and that it had a fantastic history behind it. In the early days it was inspected by King Chulalongkorn, who deemed it to be fit to host visiting royalty. And since that time royal families from around the world, movie stars, famous authors, and heads of state have all stayed there. I am happy to say that during my time there it was voted ‘Best Hotel in the World’ for several years running.
From your 42 years at the hotel, what are your stand out memories?
There really are so many, but the most unforgettable, unique experience has to be the State Banquet for the 60th Anniversary of His Majesty’s accession to the throne. The seven-course banquet was held in the Chakri Throne Hall, and they had constructed a state-of-the-art kitchen for us. There were 400 VIPs, including 39 crowned heads, so everything had to be immaculate and orchestrated perfectly. We had many rehearsals, and I am so proud to say that the banquet was a great success. In my career nothing compared to that!
What are some of your favourite places in Bangkok?
When I have visitors I take them to the Emerald Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, and I also like to take them on a boat trip on the Chao Phraya River and surrounding khlongs (canals), to see how the people live there. We who live here should not forget we are living in an exotic country, and an exotic city. People coming from abroad for the first time are amazed at what they see. We look for an air-conditioned place to sit in, but visitors love to sit outside and watch the riverboats and goings-on around them. For myself I still go back at least once a week to the hotel, to see my friends who I worked with. I like to sit on the terrace by the river, followed by afternoon tea in The Author’s Lounge. This is something everyone should try at least once. You can feel the history seeping into you.
How have you seen Bangkok change, for good or ill?
In my 48 years there have been a lot of changes. When I first arrived, in 1970, there were no traffic jams, and there were still pedal rickshaws. There was also no Patpong or Nana Plaza, no real red-light district. Those bars were located all along Petchburi Road. But I have grown up with Bangkok, and as it has changed, so have I. The biggest changes I think, though, are the traffic and the people. The people in Bangkok don’t smile as much as they used to, and they don’t interact with each other. It all feels a bit more impersonal here than it was when I first fell in love with the place.
Do you think Bangkok does enough to preserve its old buildings?
I am aware that many beautiful old buildings have been lost, such as the teakwood Hemingway’s, and this saddens me. I visit Penang sometimes, and all the beautiful old Chinese and British colonial era buildings are still there. It’s a wonderful place to spend time in. Thailand needs to keep its old buildings, or maybe tourists will have nothing to see anymore.
Do you still engage in any culinary activities?
Yes, I am still involved with a few food-related functions from time to time, such as the annual Bangkok Chefs Charity Dinner, of which I am proud to be one of the founders. HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn kindly agreed to be patron, and the first one made 3 million baht, while the most recent, held on March 3rd of this year, made 30 million—bringing the total now to over 100 million over nine years. And, of course, the chefs are happy to give their time for free. Thailand is my home, and although I try to visit Italy about once a year, I always feel happy when I come back; and happier still when I can help charities such as this to do something for the less fortunate in my adopted country.
Interview by Robin Westley Martin