Danny Deng (鄧有癸) started his career in the unpromising circumstances of Taiwan in the 1970s when the country was still locked into conflict with China and was being used as a base for US troops fighting in Vietnam.
“Jobs were hard to come by,” he said in a telephone interview with the Taipei Times. “Apprenticeship was the only way to go at that time, and I was apprenticed to a Japanese teppanyaki chef,” he said.
Deng has since been christened the “steakhouse godfather,” pushing ideas and trends, and aiming to create steakhouses of international standard that still maintain their link with Taiwan.
Deng attributes his success, and his decades-long dedication to refining his methods for the preparation and serving of steak, to the particular nature of his early career. “As a teppanyaki chef, you cook directly in front of the customer. Everything you do can be observed. You also interact with the customer directly, and you build up a relationship of trust. You want to give the customer the best product available.”
Forty years on, this is still what Deng wants to do, and with the recent opening of Danny’s Steakhouse in Taipei, he has sought to turn his extensive experience, both in the kitchen and with the customer, into a memorable dining experience.
Deng recalled the early days of his career centered around the US military PX on Zhongshan North Road Section 3 (中山北路三段) and the teppanyaki restaurant he worked at on Longan Street (龍安街), an area that continues to cater to a large Japanese clientele.
“A major component of teppanyaki is beef, and Taiwan does not have much beef. The only place we could obtain beef was from the US military PX, and even this was frozen. An important part of our job as a chef at the teppanyaki restaurant was to find ways of making this relatively poor-quality product taste better.”
Tenderizing the often-tough meat was the main challenge, and because of this, Deng said that Taiwanese have developed a taste for very tender beef. In 1991, Deng said chilled (as opposed to frozen) beef came into Taiwan, and now, dry aged and other premium meats are easily available, so tenderizing the meat is no longer a major issue. These days, Deng is focused on aroma.
Speaking to the Taipei Times at the opening of Danny’s Steakhouse, Deng proudly showed off his latest bit of kitchen equipment, a wood fired stove over which a huge adjustable griddle hangs, the height of which can be micro adjusted with the use of a pulley system.
“This is a return to a primal ideal of what steak should be,” he said.
Deng has selected a mixture of white oak, walnut and cherry wood to provide fragrance to the meat as it cooks, and local longan wood (龍眼木) to provide continuous heat. The oven can achieve temperatures of up to 500 degrees Celsius, and the continuous adjustment of the grill plate to get just the right amount of heat is a test of the chef’s instincts, as well as endurance, as he or she must stand at the mouth of the blazing oven.
“Smell is one of the strongest types of memory,” Deng said. In experimenting with ways to maximize the aroma of the steak, Deng said he wanted to create a truly memorable meal for his guests. The high temperature also creates a beautiful grill coat on the streak, a crusty exterior that perfectly complements the tender meat inside.
“When people go out for a meal, they want something they will remember, something outstanding,” Deng said. “People have always been willing to pay extra for the best.”
As a result, Deng continues his tireless search for the perfect steak, and the perfect dining environment in which to enjoy it. Compared to the tough frozen meat he once got from the PX, he now has a huge selection of meats to choose from.
“I like to give my customers variety, and one table might have a filet mignon, and dry aged New York cut and an Australian Wagyu. This way they can enjoy and compare different types of meat,” he said.
Now with ample resources behind him, Deng continues to push to make the simple steak something that is both a primal experience of meat eating, and a special gastronomic treat.
While there are plenty of international brands in Taipei specializing in steak, Deng has earned his title of the “steakhouse godfather” for pioneering a Taiwan tradition of steakhouses that operate at the highest international standard of service and innovation.