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July 24, 2009

We thought you might enjoy reading about some of the chefs and restaurant owners that ply their trade around these parts. The first subject in our monthly series of interviews is Daniel Vencker.

Daniel Vencker: veteran of Edinburgh restaurants
Daniel Vencker: veteran of Edinburgh restaurants

A founder member of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs’ Association, Daniel has been a well known face on Edinburgh’s restaurant scene since he arrived in the city from his native Alsace way back in 1974. Previously the chef owner at L’Auberge, he has run Daniel’s Bistro in Leith for the last twelve years. Traditional French cooking forms the backbone of the menu with beef bourguignon, Provencal fish soup and tarte tatin all temptingly prominent on the menu.


What is your favourite ingredient to work with?

My favourite ingredients are beef and lamb to make casseroles. You want cuts like the shin of beef which contain a little gelatine. By playing a little with the ingredients you can have endless variations on a beef casserole. Each one is different and that is fascinating to me.

What do you like to eat on a night off?

Something chunky and full of flavour like pork knuckle a la Alsacienne. We serve it in the restaurant. It’s quite an involved recipe with the pork being first salted and then desalted before we cook it very slowly for about four hours. It seems very popular with our Chinese customers in the restaurant.

Which chef has inspired you?

Raymond Blanc. Legend has it that he started out as a waiter and then one night the chef didn’t turn up. Raymond offered to cook for the shift and that is how it all started. He was talented and he liked food. It’s a bit like me. I’m not at his level but I can walk around a market place, see a vegetable, say, asparagus and I know what it will taste like and what will go well with it. He has the same natural instinct for food.

Is there anything you don’t like cooking with?

Brussel sprouts.

What has been the most exotic thing you have eaten?

It’s not hugely exotic but it would be Singapore noodles. I like the consistency of the thin noodles and the spices. To me, it is heaven. I’m fascinated by Chinese food. They have one of the oldest food cultures in the world.

What gadget/utensil can’t you work without?

A few years ago, we purchased a Combi Steamer which does wonderful things. You can put different dishes in different parts of the oven and they cook beautifully. It cooks seafood perfectly. It’s a war horse of the kitchen and it helps relieve some of the stress that chefs sometimes suffer from.

Ketchup or Maldon sea salt?

Ketchup? Pffft! There is no point even asking a Frenchman that!

You can get anyone in the world to cook you a meal. Who will it be?

It would be Raymond Blanc or the young Novelli. I like his style. I like Jamie as well. He is the best thing that ever happened to food in Britain. He’s young and passionate with a real feel for food. I’m sure he has inspired a lot of young people.

Apart from your own place, where do you like to eat out?

I like the Kweilin Chinese restaurant which is just a couple of streets away from where I live. The owner is an old friend of mine. When I go there he doesn’t give me a menu. He knows what I like and just makes me try all sorts of different things.

I also like the Champany Inn because I do like a good steak.

Denis and his brigade
Denis and his brigade

What is the best thing about being a chef?

I don’t cook in the kitchen anymore. I have a wonderful chef called Denis Guilloneau who has been with me for years. When I did cook, continuously creating new dishes was always very exciting. There are no limits. To be able to combine different ingredients on a whim is a great freedom. It may not always work out but it’s good to experiment. That can be more exciting than sex.

And the worst?

The stress. It doesn’t matter how well you plan your day. Sometimes something will go wrong and things can back up very quickly. When a customer sends something back then that hurts.

Have celeb chefs been a good or bad thing on the whole?

They have been a breath of fresh air for this country. Britain is changing fast and the public are much more aware of good food and cooking technique. There are so many good chefs creating wonderful food now. All my young chefs talk about the celebrity chefs. Ready Steady Cook is one of my favourite programmes. I’m always in awe of how quickly they can come up with dishes from random ingredients.

Who cooks at home?

I do. Even if there is just an old courgette banging around the back of the fridge, I would rather rustle up a little ratatouille or something then call out.

Chefs are well known for drinking in moderation but what would you cook for a colleague who was suffering from a hangover?

Crushing chilli into someone’s omelette might revive them. They might not thank you for it though. A light soup might help.

You have a hot date coming around. What’s cooking?

That is a difficult one without knowing what the other person likes. You have to research their tastes first. Having said that, at the restaurant, we do a chocolate terrine recipe that a friend gave me. It’s dense chocolate with an orange coulis and a little bit of Cointreau. I’ve yet to come across someone who doesn’t like that.

What is in your fridge at home?

I have nothing in my fridge apart from some apples which have been there for three months already and which look as though they are going to stay there for another three months. I keep my fridge bare.

What has been your most memorable meal?

Some years ago, I was back home in Alsace and I took some friends to a famous three star restaurant called L’Auberge De L’ill. It’s been there for a long, long time. The restaurant overlooks a river that has swans floating on it. Everything there is always perfect.