Weekly Local Biography

  Dirk Wunnenberg

What does a Formula 1 driver eat before his race? The new executive chef at the Amari Rincome can tell you what ex-F1 star and now German Touring Car ace Jean Alesi eats - a bread roll with Nutella spread, as in his varied career Dirk Wunnenberg has led the catering arm of DaimlerChrysler’s DTM winning race team. International chefs are a very interesting group of people. They are certainly not just stuck in hotel kitchens behind bubbling pots and pans.

Dirk is German, born in Ludwigsburg, and neither his mother nor father had any connection with the catering or hospitality industry. Wunnenberg Senior had an electrical engineering business and his mother was a secretary; however, by the time Dirk was 14 years old, he knew that he wanted to be a chef. His father tried to steer him towards being an electrician, but Dirk wanted to be in the kitchens.

Unfortunately he was too young to go directly to the kitchens, but was eligible for a three year apprenticeship as a butcher, which he completed and then was able to move into cooking, which he completed in two years. I asked Dirk whether being a butcher was advantageous for him in his career, but he said no. “These days accounting would be better,” said Dirk.

When he came out from his apprenticeship, there were no hotels lining up clamouring for his services; rather it was the German Army who took their compulsory 15 months of his time. There, for the first three months, he learned which end of a rifle you pointed at the enemy and then for the next year how to cook stews for 3,000 soldiers.

He had already found by this stage in his life that he enjoyed travelling and by becoming involved with a hotel chain that had many properties throughout the world he was able to indulge himself as he came up the culinary ladder, spending some time in Tunisia, Senegal and Greece.

However, after four years, a new challenge was to present itself. His father retired, closing the electrical business, and the building was converted into a small hotel and beer garden which Dirk ran for the next four years, but when an offer came along that he couldn’t refuse, he was off again, returning to Tunisia to the Club Aldiana Beach Resort.

The GM at the resort transferred to the Club Aldiana Beach Resort at Hua Hin and Dirk was invited to come over to Thailand for a ten day holiday. After one week of his vacation he was offered the job as executive chef there. “I thought about it. Thailand was a long way away (from Germany). I didn’t know how many chances I would have to work so far away. It was a new challenge, so I took it.”

During the 18 months he was there, he became involved in another challenge. This was a pilot project run jointly by the German GTZ group and the Thailand Vocational Education Department, where they took young Thais, men and women, and put them through a German style kitchen/cooking training course. These groups came from the North, the South and another group of homeless youngsters. “I even taught them some English and German, so they could speak to the guests when standing behind the buffets,” said Dirk. “I never thought I would be a teacher,” he said with a laugh.

His next posting was another kind of challenge. He took on being the opening executive chef in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. “It was in the desert. I looked around and there was nothing green anywhere, other than the shirt on one of the guests, and I thought to myself, what the hell am I doing here?”

After a couple of months, that feeling was reinforced by a terrorist attack that left many tourists killed or injured and the hotel company moved him out of that hot kitchen and into another of their hotels in Greece.

Not long after this ‘exciting’ challenge Dirk was contacted by the German owner of a five star luxury hotel in Sri Lanka and he returned to Asia. While there, he married his Thai girlfriend, a chef he had met at a Thai Food Fair at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre in Bangkok, showing that attending conventions is good for you.

After a couple of years in Sri Lanka he was asked to return to Egypt, where he won a very prestigious award, the Robinson Gourmet Trophy, an accolade of which he is very proud. However, the terrorism situation in the world was again going to drive him out of Egypt. This time it was the 9/11 horror in New York that produced 21,000 cancellations immediately afterwards. Egypt did not need an international gourmet executive chef when they had no guests.

He returned to Greece (Crete), but he and his wife were now looking to come back to Thailand. In the interim, he worked for DaimlerChrysler, in their catering department for the German Touring car team. This was something Dirk enjoyed, as following motor racing had been a hobby of his for many years.

This was a chance to get right to the heart of the action, but was no dream run down pit lane. The team had 350 members, with all the mechanics, support and logistics staff, drivers, VIPs and assorted hangers-on and they were fed by five cooks. Whilst some of the drivers, like Jean Alesi, were fun to be with, there were others who were totally demanding.

In addition, six hours after the race meeting finished, Dirk’s team with deep-freeze trucks and kitchen trucks had to be on the road heading towards the next race meeting. A logistical nightmare.

But he is now back in Thailand, and his immediate aim is to stay in the kingdom. “It’s difficult to make long-range plans in this crazy world,” said Dirk, but in the short term, Chiang Mai is the winner. Welcome to Chiang Mai Dirk Wunnenberg!