Chef Daniel Bunker, Lillie’s, Golden Nugget Lake Charles
By Karla Wall
Ask most professional chefs when and how they learned to cook and to love food, and they’ll talk about standing at the stove as a young child watching their mother or grandmother cook.
Chef Daniel Bunker, executive chef at Lillie’s in Golden Nugget Lake Charles, was something of a late bloomer.
Though he says he always loved food, particularly “how food brings people and family together,” he didn’t think of a culinary career until he was out of high school.
“I was into sports in high school,” says Bunker, adding that as a kid he always saw himself as an athlete when he grew older. Like most parents, however, Bunker’s wanted him to have a back-up plan in case fame and fortune in sports wasn’t in the cards. Someone told him about Sowela’s culinary program, and it sounded interesting. But instead, he found his way west.
A SWLA native, Bunker graduated from Sam Houston High School. After Hurricane Rita, he moved to Houston, where he completed the Art Institute of Houston’s culinary program, specializing in Southwestern cuisine and fine dining. He then went to work for renowned chef Robert Del Grande at Café Annie in Houston. He says he loved working with Del Grande and in the restaurant.
“It was high-end fine dining all the way,” he says.
“I love that Golden Nugget allows me room to grow,” he says.
And he’s wasted no time making the most of that opportunity. He started Lillie’s as a sous chef and quickly moved up the ladder to executive chef, a position he’s held for four month now.
“I love the high energy here at Lillie’s,” he says. “And I love the team we have here. It’s my family away from family.”
That team consists of 30 to 35 people, he says. Three of those, he proudly tells me, are Sowela students who’ve just started in Golden Nugget’s cooperative program with Sowela, in which students can work while earning credits toward a culinary degree.
While Asian cuisine is a far cry from Café Annie and a premier steakhouse, Bunker says he’s enjoyed the novelty and the challenge.
“I’ve always been interested in Asian food and the techniques involved.”
Asked whether his executive chef position means giving up most of his cooking opportunities, he says that’s not the case.
“I’m not ready to be a paper chef, and I cook a good amount in this job,” he says. “The position is about 20 percent paperwork, and 80 percent prep and cooking.”
Though being executive chef requires late nights that are hard on his family, he says the payoff is doing something he loves and being with his team.
Bunker says that outside of work he and his family — his wife, Andea and their three children — love grilling, spending time outdoors and watching Saints football. As for the future, Bunker says he’s going to continue to grow and climb the ladder at Golden Nugget.
“I have the drive and hunger to succeed. I want to keep growing with the company,” he says.