Chef Uwe Micheel on nuturing young chefs and the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek’s soon-to-open Emirati restaurant
It’s a rare thing for a chef to spend most of his career in the same place. But for the past 22 years, chef Uwe Micheel has walked through the same doors into the same kitchen in the same city at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek. His official title is director of kitchens, but he could just as easily be called the father of chefs. “Our hotel is a family,” he says. “Some of us have spent 20 years together. I know more about some of the guys’ lives here than I know about my own mother’s.”
Micheel is a well-known star in the UAE’s culinary world. In addition to running nearly a dozen restaurants at the Radisson, he is involved with nearly every food festival and food event in the UAE. He’s also the president of the Emirates Culinary Guild, an organisation that nurtures the UAE’s culinary talent – transforming young, inexperienced cooks into notable, respected chefs. The Emirates Culinary Guild hosts the country’s most prominent culinary competitions including Emirates Salon Culinaire, La Sial and the Dubai World Hospitality Championship, among others.
Micheel, 56, is quiet and composed, a gentle giant among men. He has a commanding presence in the kitchen; there is no doubt he is universally revered by each of the 100 chefs working in his hotel. Growing up on a farm in a small town in northern Germany, Micheel knew at an early age the kitchen is where he belongs. “When I was 11 or 12 years old,” he says, “I started to cook with my grandmother. When I was 13, the girls in my school had cooking classes and the boys had woodworking classes. I went to the girls’ teacher and asked if I could join the cooking class. Everybody laughed at me. To convince the teacher to let me in, I cut the grass in her garden. I got in.”
Micheel did a three-year apprenticeship after high school, followed by two years cooking in the German Army. While working as a chef in London, he met his wife, Annette. They have two sons, Paul, 25, and Max, 22. After stints in Bahrain, South Korea and Japan, Micheel moved to Dubai in 1993 and knew he would stay. “I would have not been able to do what I’m doing now if I had moved around,” he explains. “I turned down many offers. I made the decision on what way I wanted to go. This is what I wanted. Money has never been the most important thing. For me, respect is more than money.”
Micheel’s respect is well earned. He is a beloved mentor to hundreds of young chefs around the country, especially those lucky enough to land a job in his hotel. He’s not necessarily looking for skills when hiring new chefs. “Attitude is the most important thing,” he says. “Knowledge, I can train. Attitude, I can’t.” Micheel builds those young chefs up, develops their confidence, listens, teaches and shows them how to improve. He’s a comforting presence, too, giving support and advice to chefs who have left their families in other countries. He says: “I always ask them: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ If the passion and your heart are not there, it won’t work. It has to come from the heart. You have to enjoy it. You have to be able to say: ‘I’m working.’ And put everything else aside. If someone pushes you down, you have to get up and get up stronger.’”
It’s advice Rahil Rathod, 24, has taken to heart. He’s worked with Micheel for three-and-a-half years. Last year, with Micheel’s guidance (and hundreds of hours of practice), Rathod was one of the final seven chefs in the Global Young Chefs Challenge, hosted by the World Association of Chefs Societies. He and Micheel flew to Norway for the final, where Rathod placed fourth in the world. “Chef Uwe has always been my centre point,” says Rathod. “He’s played a very important role in my development. He inspires me.”
Is he tough? “Of course,” Rathod says. “He has high standards. That’s the reason I’ve grown as a person.”
Micheel is tough on his chefs, he says, because that’s how they get better. “Somebody kicked my butt a long time ago. That’s why I’m here where I’m sitting,” he says. While working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in a London hotel at the age of 23, Micheel left work five minutes early to watch a football game. His work was done but the next day, the head chef pulled him out of the restaurant and made him cook burgers from 10pm to 4am in the hotel’s nightclub. “It was a defining moment for me,” says Micheel. “I realised, if I want to grow, I have to put the other things to the side.”
That often meant missing out on time with his wife and kids. For 25 years, he worked 15 hours a day, at least six days a week. “My children always called this papa’s hotel,” he says. “If they wanted to see me, they came here to eat lunch.” Since his youngest son has left home, he’s had to cut back. “I had to make a decision,” says Micheel. “I come home and have dinner with my wife or I come home one evening and my wife is not there. So I have slowed down. I’m only working 10 or 11 hours a day, six days a week. There’s a plan to step back a little more.” And then, with a smirk, “but not tomorrow”.
Micheel’s focus now is Aseelah, an upscale Emirati restaurant that will open in the hotel by the end of the year. Aseelah will offer authentic Emirati cuisine prepared and presented with a five-star touch. Micheel has also organised the country’s first culinary scholarship programme, one he spearheaded with the International Centre for Culinary Arts in Dubai. The programme, which started last month, has enrolled 28 young chefs in a one-year, once-a-week schedule of free culinary classes that they couldn’t afford otherwise. The chefs are already employed in restaurants across Dubai and, always thinking of the chefs under his wing, Micheel arranged with each hotel management team to ensure the chefs would not be attending the classes on their only day off. It must be a working day and they must get paid for it.
Micheel is quick to give credit for his success to his family’s influence and life on the farm. “We always had good food to eat,” he says. “The most important things were food and shoes. And a sense of being there for each other. It helps when you grow up this way. You carry it in you. We work as a family here. We are there for each other. That’s important.”
Updated: May 31, 2015 04:00 AM