Few purists of Italian cuisine could have expected that the German chef Heinz Beck would become one of Italy's most famous chefs. But few could argue with his credentials. It could be said that a talent for hospitality runs in the family -his twin brother Hermann is a hotel manager in Sheffield, England. But Heinz took a slightly different career path in which he attained a chef's qualification in Passau, Germany, when he was 20.
He gained a wealth of experience in a variety of top hotels and Michelin-recognised restaurants in Germany before he took the challenge of a job in one of Spain's finest establishments. And it was at the two-star Michelin restaurant Tristan in Mallorca that he began to develop a passion for Mediterranean food. It wasn't until 1994 that Beck made the move that would essentially shape the rest of his career. He went to work in Rome's La Pergola restaurant at the Cavalieri Hilton hotel, where he was to win critical acclaim for his cooking, and eventually three Michelin stars. Not content with mere cooking, Beck has written several best-selling books on such subjects as pasta and finger food, and his stock has risen with each one. But reading recipes in a book is one thing - tasting them is something entirely different.
When the line-up of master chefs appearing at Gourmet Abu Dhabi 2009 was announced, Beck's was one of the names that really stood out. It was a chance for gourmands in Abu Dhabi to see what all the fuss was about. So it was with palpable excitement that an expectant crowd of diners assembled at the Al Qasr ballroom at the Hilton Abu Dhabi for Beck's special dinner. Beck was introduced to the guests before the first course was served. He appeared to be every bit as excited as his audience, nervously shifting from foot to foot before dashing back into the kitchen to add the finishing touches to the starters.
The scampi cylinder with powdered olive oil presented the first sign of Beck's undeniable talent, not to mention some exquisitely soft seafood and a lively tapioca vinaigrette that glistened on the plate like soft pearls. It was followed by a faultless tuna tartare with an infusion of veal, herbs and tonka beans and a prickly green tea sorbet, which had several diners asking the question: what are tonka beans? (Technically they are seeds with a soft beanlike interior.)
The wholemeal "maccheroncini al ferretto" that followed may have lacked the visual impact of the previous dishes, but the red shrimp and smoked aubergine coulis offered a range of rich flavours to complement the al dente pasta. Beck is clearly a man who likes to surprise his diners, and the poached eggs on amaranth did just that. I found the smooth, runny egg yolk to be in perfect contrast to the grainy amaranth in a dish that was the epitome of comfort food. This pairing and preparation of simple ingredients was so good I almost forgot about the shavings of white alba truffle.
Time seemed to fly as the courses kept coming, and much of the conversation was about the food. The wild sea bass with turnip tops offered a rectangular block of moist fresh fish, but the accompanying powdered fish stock, which - as we later discovered - had apparently been frozen with liquid nitrogen, certainly set tongues wagging. We were still trying to work out what exactly it was that we'd eaten when the lamb crepinettes arrived in flushed pink slices of tenderness that gave my mandibles the rest of the night off.
Like the grand finale at a firework display, the dessert offered one last hurrah with a splash of bright colour. The orange gelatine had a smooth texture that was enriched with the tart freshness of bergamot ice cream, while the scattering of delicate flower petals had me reminiscing about childhood frolics in summer meadows. Having never tasted Beck's food before, I was surprised at the sheer range of preparations and flavours on this special menu. A cynic might say that he was trying to cover all bases, but it's more likely that the diversity of the evening's food was designed to evoke different responses with each course. One minute we were enjoying the familiarity of comfort food, the next we were plunged into uncharted territories that few of us expected. After all, confounding expectations is what Heinz Beck does best.