DUBAI // In a steamy kitchen, Matt Pickop is at the stove cooking up another culinary delight. The executive chef at the restaurant Verre in Dubai certainly has the experience to withstand the heat in the kitchen, having worked with the notoriously hot-tempered chef, Gordon Ramsay, whose vulgar tirades on television turned him into a celebrity. Mr Pickop, 29, survived eight years working under Ramsay as he was primed as the famous chef's international protégé. So it is no surprise that he developed a thick skin.
Now he is to pass on some the skills he has learnt with a series of public masterclasses - and he promises not to lose his cool. "When you are with someone like Gordon who strives for perfection, you strive for that too, right down to making sure every single onion is chopped to the same size," he says. "When you are working in a kitchen 18 or 19 hours a day, of course tempers are going to fray. If someone has spent hours chopping vegetables and then whoever is cooking them overdoes them, no one is going to be happy about putting Dh300 in the bin.
"The bits which are edited for television typically only show Gordon sounding off and while everyone thinks of him as a celebrity, to me he is my boss. "If I don't agree with him, I will say so and vice-versa. We are all taught by him to an amazing standard." Ramsay's dining empire includes 10 restaurants in London and 11 others worldwide that have been awarded 14 Michelin stars, and several television cookery shows such as Kitchen Nightmares. When he launched the Gordon Ramsay Experience in Dubai, he chose Mr Pickop to head his first venture in the Middle East.
Mr Pickop moved to Dubai four years ago. The move changed his life in more ways than one. After meeting Gigi Tajdeen, 28, an Egyptian-born Muslim, he decided to convert to Islam in September last year. They are engaged to be married. He adopted the Arabic name Ali. Since he moved to the UAE, he and his team of 35 chefs have seen business in Verre in the Hilton Dubai Creek hotel double to 50 diners a night while simultaneously overseeing the operation in the hotel's Glasshouse Brasserie.
"Dubai is like London at the beginning of the fine dining scene," he says. "There is still some way to go but the competition from other restaurants raises the bar and keeps you constantly refreshing dishes. "I have 20 nationalities among my chefs team, including Indians, Filipinos and Australians, and all of them contribute something from where they're from.'' Mr Pickop's masterclasses will give novice chefs an insight into the secrets of his trade.
"Cooking is about three things: preparation, enjoying the process and plating. If you break it down to those three steps, you will have a great time cooking," he says. "Everyone can cook. Even if you have made toast you are still effectively cooking? What you will learn on this course is how to cook better so when you do work in a kitchen, you can actually enjoy a whole evening with your guests and make the event a lot more relaxing."
His culinary students will learn dishes such as risotto and hot chocolate fondants. When he is not in the kitchen, Mr Pickop admits, he tucks into more basic fare than his restaurant serves. "When I'm not working, I'll often opt for a Dh3 shawarma from the Lebanese Village rather than cooking myself." Abu Dhabi will get its own culinary festival with Gourmet Abu Dhabi, which begins on Thursday. The 10-day event, organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, will include Michelin-star master chefs, including Annie Feolde, the first woman in Italy with three Michelin stars, and Atul Kochhar, the first Indian Michelin star holder.
*The Verre masterclasses begin on Feb 17, from 9am to 1pm for groups of up to eight, Dh950 per person. firstname.lastname@example.org