“I have 4 ways to describe myself. I’m old, decrepit, overweight but still full of life.”
Chef Michael Strautmanis speaks the same way a grandfather would tell his grandkids bedtime stories, warm and comforting. Full of life is a perfect description of the secretary of the Historical Committee of World Association of Chef Societies. He laughed and teased and joked around as he told his life story that started with an orange.
Chef Michael was brought into this world in the heart of World War II. Born in 1945 to Latvian parents in Germany, his childhood was spent among the settling dust in the aftermath of the war. For the first few years of his life, Chef Michael lived in an almost constant state of hunger, without any natural food resource he lived on a diet of powdered food. However, on his 5th birthday, young Chef Michael received a package from his grandmother that contained an orange. Before that point in his life, Chef Michael has never known what an orange is; so, the bright color, the scent and the sweet and sour taste of that one orange are permanently embedded into Chef Michael’s brain. And it changed him.
“All of a sudden I realized, even at the young age of five, that there were other foods apart from the canned pea soup and the powdered eggs that the American care packages contained. This was actually real food. To this day I can still remember the taste of that orange.”
The road to Culinary World
From that moment on Chef Michael’s bedtime stories started to revolve around the taste of foods that he never got to eat. His mother patiently explained the intricate experience of eating real food without actually being able to provide them. But little by little, young Chef Michael made up his mind that one day he was going to be a Chef; a dream that is fueled by a simple motivation, “to never go hungry again.”
“I did an interview once for a local radio and they asked me ‘what was my motivation to become a chef’. I said ‘I never wanted to be hungry again’ and they laughed. A lot of people these days cannot understand the sheer pain of hunger when there is no food around. I’m one of those people that cannot bear seeing things thrown away or not used because I know what hunger was, I know what poverty was. It’s so difficult to get that message through to other people they just look at you strangely and say what is that guy talking about. I think we have a responsibility as culinarians to make sure that we don’t cook wastefully that we preserve as much of the natural food items that we’ve got around this planet so that more people can get food.”
Life goes on for Chef Michael; around 7 years later, at the age of 12, Chef Michael made a new friend who was as interested as he is in food. The circumstances were not as severe as it used to but it was still far from proper. As their own version of early teenage mischief, they would save up their pocket money to buy ingredients, went into the forest and cooked their own strange recipes that would either be successful or went up in flames. Either way, this habit only drove him further and further into the world of culinary.
A few years later Chef Michael would eventually move to Australia where the abundance of food finally made him feel at ease. He was working from one kitchen to the next as a young apprentice, seeking knowledge from different master chefs. But unlike many chefs out there who feels at home in the kitchen, Chef Michael prefers the life of competitive cooking. Started in the 1980s, he went to the 1984 Culinary Olympics and won the gold medal in the hot foods kitchen.
“Competition expanded my horizon by discovering that there is a universal language in cooking which is the love for food. I still have a picture on my wall from the 1994 Culinary Olympic where all of the Australian Chefs are sitting and holding their medals, we have one in every color. But what I also remember was the graciousness of other teams that had lost but they still came to us and congratulated us, or the fact that during competition even opposing teams would still try and help out if they can. Everyone was a good sport and those memories I will remember forever.”
Changing a person’s life
Even if Chef Michael doesn’t compete anymore he still lives in the world of culinary competition, but this time as a judge. Even until now, he still travels all over the world to judge various cooking competitions. His love for judging however is not just driven from his competing days but also his desire to share knowledge. The latest competition he judged was in Hanoi during the first week of December and Chef Michael shared with TasTao a story of a young chef.
“Whenever I judge a competition, I usually try to give feedbacks for young Chefs on things that they can improve. I met a young man last week and as always after the competition, I gave him a feedback about his sauce and how he could improve his chicken but I also told him that his plate looks great and he has a good eye for color. He won the bronze medal in the end and on the last day he raced up to me while holding his bronze medal with such pride and he said ‘Chef you have changed my life, to win this bronze and received your feedback, I know for sure that I am on the right path’. So this young man, from the feedback and from winning the low medal has decided that, yes, he is on the right track and that he actually has a future in this industry. These are the times where you feel so humbled that a competitor recognizes that you as a judge and have maybe put him on the right track to continue what he does with passion.”
World peace and a piece of bread
The world of culinary had changed since Chef Michael’s days in the kitchen. The growth and the acceptance in food diversity is something that Chef Michael welcomes wholeheartedly. Chef Michael thoroughly agreed with TasTao’s philosophy that taste and food can connect the world. Many people in the world are more and more curious when it comes to other country’s cuisine and he believes that food could be one of the factors that could bring peace to the world.
“I think it’s hard to hate someone of a nationality or color or race if you’re eating their food. Food is such a wonderful leveler, food unites, and food does not divide. To me that is such a wonderful thing, the world united through food. What better way of promoting peace in this world than eating together. You know the old phrase ‘breaking bread together’, I think it’s a good analogy because when you are sharing a meal with someone you can’t have them as your enemy anymore.”
Other than his culinary expertise Chef Michael also have many experiences in education. He even got a Master degree in adult education. Many years ago, Chef Michael was the founding principal of The Blue Mountains Hotel Management School; a school that adopted a unique teaching concept which was a “lived in campus”. The school worked as an operating hotel where students from different fields served each other as they would in real life. Culinary students would work in the restaurant of the hotel and hospitality students would work as staffs that serve fellow students. They even implemented a salary system called the “Blue Mountain Dollars” where students can use it to buy any necessity.
“We used to do room service and part of the service was delivery to the various officers including myself. I’m a coffee fanatic and so every time they would send down a pot of coffee to my office. They would always make sure that my coffee was okay because I kept saying to them that ‘life is too short to drink instant coffee’. One day I was wandering through the school, I used to be one of those principals who would wander through the campus, and I walked into the pantry where a young man was working. For some reason, he was blushing because he was trying to hide a sign which was pinned to the wall of the pantry. So I asked him to stand aside and I looked at the sign and it said ‘instant coffee to the principal means instant dismissal from the Blue Mountains’. I was just laughing because apparently the students understood my philosophy and tried to warn people not to take shortcuts.”
Chef Michael shared a little bit about his personal life especially about his late life-companion, Wendy; a great medical doctor who unfortunately couldn’t cook. For years Chef Michael cooked for her even whenever he was on duty to go to another country he would still fill up the refrigerator with food so that she could still enjoy his cooking. Every night they would eat dinner together at 7 pm, and even though Wendy has been gone for nine years, Chef Michael still eats dinner every day at 7. While sharing about her, it was not grief that laced his words but love and care. And Chef Michael couldn’t be happier to share a story about “the love of his life”.
“I’ll give you Wendy’s definition of my specialty. We would be traveling somewhere maybe overseas and when arrived home Wendy would look in the cupboard or in the fridge and she would say that we have nothing to eat at home. But by seven o’clock we would have a wonderful meal and she would always say “I don’t know how you do it”. So I suppose my specialty is creating something out of nothing. Unfortunately, it’s a thing that happens in life, you lose people. Wendy is the love of my life and you know I still talk to her every day.”
Chef Michael is a living proof that anybody can have a beautiful life even when they were born amongst the dust of war. His beautiful soul shines through his comforting words and warm personality. During the interview Chef Michael preached of the importance of Passion, not in just cooking but in life. Chef Michael continues to this day to live his life the best he can, inspiring young chefs and many other people all over the world.
Yes, Chef Michael is definitely still full of life and he had lived his life to the fullest.