In the kitchen with…

Chef Daniel Haag of The Flats Bistro

Story by Jamey Bradbury
Photography by Rusty Swan

If you watch the Food Network’s popular show Chopped, and you have even a little skill in the kitchen, you’ve probably wondered how you would stack up next to the contestants who turn “mystery basket” ingredients like beef tongue, kumquats and collard greens into a palatable dish. But as Kenai’s reigning “Culinary King,” Daniel Haag doesn’t have to wonder.

Tandoori Inspired Halibut
Click here for recipe >>

Daniel, executive chef at The Flats Bistro in Kenai, defended his title this April at the 2nd Annual Clash of Culinary Kings, a fundraiser for Kenai Peninsula Food Bank that challenges local chefs to whip up an appetizer, entrée and dessert from a mystery box of ingredients. Faced with cold French fries, nacho cheese powder, pineapple and baby food, Daniel wowed the judges with cheese-powder caramelized pineapple and an apple puree for the dessert round.

Improvisation comes naturally to this self-taught chef. “Trial and error was a big part of learning to cook for me,” Daniel shares. He spent his childhood in Washington state cooking with his father and grandmother, whose Spanish roots worked their way into recipes and gave Daniel an inclination toward experimenting with spices.

He also learned to work with what he had. “I grew up in a family that’s low income,” Daniel explains. “We would go to our local food bank. It was motivation to be creative – you might not know what you’re going to get when you open the pantry, but coming up with something that’s going to be delicious is part of the challenge.”

Along with his work ethic, Daniel’s willingness to approach any ingredient with positivity helped him work his way up the restaurant food chain quickly. He first came to Alaska to help his aunt and uncle, Diane and Vic Hurst, who own and run the Burger Bus in Old Town Kenai. While flipping gourmet burgers, he was scouted by Luke Thibodeau, owner of The Flats Bistro.

There, he started on the sauté station – the “most chaotic station in the kitchen” – but worked his way from line cook to sous chef to executive chef in just a year. Daniel credits his self-taught ability for his rapid rise.

“Not going to culinary school, I know there’s certain techniques I don’t have. But being self-taught, you’re a little more passionate about it. I practiced a lot at home. I read a lot of cookbooks. When you’re doing something just because you love it, there’s always something more you can learn.”

He excels at creating offerings that emphasize local produce and fresh seafood, like the tandoori halibut that became one of the first specials at The Flats Bistro. He manages the fast pace of the restaurant kitchen by starting his day with Cross-Fit training, which he says helps him de-stress and focus.

“When you work out, you’re not thinking about anything else, and that’s how it is in the kitchen, too,” he says. “You have a lot of things going on, so you have set a lot of small goals throughout the night.”

Daniel encourages home cooks to experiment and not be afraid of failure. Opening up the spice rack is a great place to start, he says, for the amateur cook who wants to play around with flavor. “You can take cardamom or cinnamon and mix it in a dish that has duck or fish, and that can change the orientation of how that dish comes together.”

While most cooks tend to emphasize the entrée of a meal – typically meat – Daniel likes to give his attention to sides, especially vegetables. “Anyone can ‘get’ meat, you know? But learning how to cook your side dishes correctly, that really makes the dish as a whole stand out.” His favorite side ingredient to work with is corn because, he says, it can be both sweet and savory.

Daniel looks at food as opportunity, no matter what the ingredient.

“In the cooking competition, we had canned chicken,” he recalls. “I looked at it and I was like, Well, what can I make of this? I make the most of what I have, and I think that’s what differentiates me from others.” His food philosophy is helpful to every cook: “If you can’t get the best, you should make what you have work for you.”