Interview with Harlan Goldstein by Mike Fowler
From starting out at 14 years of age as an after school dish washer for 50 Cents an hour at a Chinese Restaurant, to becoming the Celebrity International 2 Star Michelin Chef we know today, it’s been quite a journey for Harlan Goldstein.
Born in New York and raised in Miami Florida by his single parent mother and sister, he had a tough childhood and ended up hanging out with the wrong people. Luckily his family intervened and sent him off to study an apprenticeship at the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland.
MF – Tell us a memorable story from your time at the Montreux Palace Hotel?
HG – Switzerland was an expensive country to live in. I was earning 50 Dollars US a month. My favourite part every week was when my mum used to send me 100 US in an envelope with a letter.
The Concierge used to come into the kitchen and say in an Italian accent “America, America, letter from Mamma!” But I never opened the letter in front of him, because if he had known there was money in there I would never had got the money.
Mum was sending me 100 US a week just so I could survive.
Upon his return from Europe Harlan became a Fine Dining Gourmet Chef at just 22 years of age, but realised he wasn’t really learning anything new. So he took jobs working for 2 and 3 Star Michelin Chefs to further his culinary understanding, working 16 to 18 hour days. This tested him both physically and mentally.
HG – To work these brutal hours, you really got to love what you do. It’s all part of learning the craft, the money comes later!
MF – Your first cooking adventures in Asia began at the Shangri La’s China World Hotel in Beijing, after which time you travelled to Bangkok to study Thai cuisine. Tell us about your first impressions of Asia and Thailand in particular.
HG – China was a little bit rough when I first went there in the early 90’s, but a great experience.
I stayed around 2 and a half years in Beijing before taking up an offer to go to Thailand working for the Swiss Hotel Group. Thai food was always on the map for me to learn. I enjoyed the culture, the food, the traffic and the mayhem!
I never thought one day I’ll be back here, but here I am.
MF – What happened next after your time learning Thai cuisine?
HG – The Shangri La called me back to go to Hong Kong and run the owners’ private club, which is called The Aberdeen Marina Club. This is a super elite, prestigious club, which I was pretty much given a Carte Blanche to do what I wanted.
Out the back were about 400 yachts worth 2 to 6 million US a piece. The customers were super elite and the garage was filled with Lamborghini’s, Porsche’s and Ferrari’s. It made me think, maybe one day I’ll have a car like that.
Ten years later I had a Ferrari and a Bentley! I bought them after my first restaurant, Harlan’s, which opened in 2004 was so successful in the first year I purchased a second hand Ferrari and a second hand Bentley. I thought I was on top of the world. But, you know that old expression, I got the tee shirt and I wore it well.
I’m happy that I had an opportunity to go big, fall down, get back up again, fall down, get back up and fall down, because that’s what life’s about. It’s not how you get knocked down that counts, it’s how you get back up again!
MF – Since opening your first restaurant in 2004 and around a dozen since, you became quite the Celebrity Chef. What’s different about Comfort by Harlan here in Pattaya compared with Hong Kong?
HG – Everything I’ve done has been different. I don’t like to follow, I like to lead. I love when people follow me, it’s the biggest compliment in the world.
What I wanted to create more about this restaurant is that it’s about my history, my life, my experience and to have a casual feel when you come in. Well, you know people think like when they walk in, “wow this is kinda different, especially for Pattaya.” You could find this restaurant in London, New York, Hong Kong or Chicago, but it’s not usual for here. This is the type of restaurant with a cool atmosphere and the team I get to work with are phenomenal, very outgoing. They all communicate, they’re not shy and they like to have fun, which is to the customers benefit. I play cool music and have adjusted to the whole style here. Most of my customers are mixed European and I have about 15% Thai customers right now, and they really enjoy the food and I think my reputation too for being such a visible restaurateur.
What I’m creating here is real hearty rustic food that people want to come and try. Plus, I can speak Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, which helps with communicating with my customers and I am currently learning Thai, which seems fairly easy compared to learning Cantonese!
MF – Tell us about the menu and your kitchen style.
HG – It varies from being a little bit Peruvian, Mexican, Spanish, Italian and American. It depends what I feel like. I keep the menu very small and easy because I want to keep it fresh. I have a kitchen that I can see everybody and everybody can see me. I cook with techniques like slow cooking, or smoking, or braising, or grilling and I have found some really good products that I have delivered from Bangkok that have been imported from around the world. I don’t concentrate on lunches, I focus on creating great dinners and food for friends, although we do have a ‘Black Out’ Lunch and dinner on Sundays.
Looking around the restaurant there are many pictures, photographs and even a large wall painting of a hip hop style Cuban cigar smoking King Kong style gorilla. He’s holding a young lady drinking wine on the Pattaya beach, with hints of Miami. Every image tells a story here, some don’t need explaining, whereas others will leave you feeling a little curious as to their meaning. Even the toilets are an artist’s dream, where customers can express their feelings on the walls with marker pens!
MF – The restaurant here is very colourful, which complements the menu rather well. You mentioned about Comfort by Harlan in Pattaya being more about you and your history. Tell us about how the restaurant came about and what inspired the theme and décor.
HG – The restaurant here is a part of Club House Condominium on Kasetsin Soi 2. It’s a very good deal for me and creates a good image for the building and great status. I was very hands on with the design and met with the artists personally. I’m a concept to completion guy, I pay attention to detail, and I remind myself, “An entrepreneur is someone who isn’t afraid to wash the dishes.”
MF – Creating and enjoying food is often associated with music – what music inspires you?
HG – I like a little bit of everything, I like Jazz, I like Blues and I like Hip Hop. My tastes are very diverse, I love the 80’s. I love Latino music, I think that is so cool!
One of the reasons I opened Mamasita’s Cantina in Hong Kong was because of the Latin based concept, it was Cuban and Mexican mixed together with really cool Latin music, some Tequilas, some Mezcals, Cocktails and Mexican street food.
I have travelled the world, music is the rhythm of life and food is the fuel to power our journey along the way.
MF – After many decades of cooking around the world, what’s your No.1 experience?
HG – No.1 experience in the world? You need jealous people to envy you and hate you, because that is going to keep you motivated to stay on top. If you’ve got everybody who loves you, your competitors especially, then you’re not doing something right.
Harlan clearly lives life to the max and his liking for bright colours and say it out loud slogans and clothing brings us to my last question for now.
MF – I can understand why you painted your Harley Pink now I have visited your restaurant, but what made you choose the Pink Panther theme? Is it because he’s the one and only truly original, panther pink panther from head to toe?
HG – Say what you want to say, as long as you say my name!
Harlan Goldstein’s Comfort Food for Friends Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ComfortByHarlanGoldstein
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