The trials, tribulations and triumphs of some of the UAE's top chefs.
Kitchen triumphs and tragedies
From earning Michelin stars to dropping a wedding cake in front of 300 guests, chefs experience a wide array of highs and lows. Feargus O'Sullivan talks to some of the UAE's most acknowledged restaurant veterans about their battle scars, and why the pleasure of customer satisfaction keeps them returning to the combat zone of the kitchen.
Great restaurants always look so effortless and calm when you're sitting in their dining rooms. Admiring the smiling maîtres d'hôtel, the sleek décor, the sparkling glassware and the soft lighting in one of the Emirates' top dining spots, you'd never dream that the kitchen's excellence is often forged through the proverbial mix of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Behind those swinging doors, such setbacks as power cuts, staff absences or simply an accidental fall can quickly turn calm into chaos.
Luckily, the UAE's great chefs are a seasoned lot. They seem not just to take such things in their stride but also to thrive and even outdo themselves among the daily challenges of a busy kitchen.
"Disaster is always around the corner, however much you prepare," warns Francesco Guarracino, 35, head chef at the hugely popular Dubai Italian seafood specialist BiCE Mare. "I have worked in kitchens when they suddenly flooded with water one metre deep, I have worked in kitchens where the power broke - I am in the darkness plating pasta, asking myself: 'Is this a carbonara? Is this a Bolognese?'"
According to Liz Stephenson, 33, pastry chef at Dubai's British haute cuisine outpost The Ivy, such mishaps are far from uncommon.
"Every once in a while there are days when nothing works: power failures, someone calling in sick, deliveries not showing up on time, or someone burning themselves, all in the space of a few hours," she says.
Fortunately, safety systems generally ensure that disasters such as kitchen fires have a low risk of getting out of hand - but those systems can also create mini-disasters themselves. The award-winning chef Hugh Sato Gardiner, 30, of Dubai's elegant Japanese cuisine emporium Okku learnt this the hard way one night when his culinary creations were accidentally garnished with flame-retardant foam.
"I recall one night when I was working in New York, one of the chefs, who used to be very obnoxious, decided to use way too much sake in a dish while sautéeing something," he says. "Let's just say it was not good - the fire-suppression system triggered, and suddenly there was foam everywhere. This was in the middle of the night's service and it forced the restaurant to shut down immediately. All I can say is that it was not an easy clean-up job."
A mishap in the kitchen, however, is still less embarrassing than one in front of the guests, as Guarracino can testify.
"The most embarrassing event in my career happened eight or 10 years ago at a big hotel in Rome," he says. "It was a wedding party, which in Italy is a big, grand event with very many people. The real climax of the banquet is when the wedding cake comes out - the lights go down, music goes up, and all the waiters stand and look, it's like a ceremony. It was my job to come in with this massive, two-metre-high cake. Somehow I tripped, and in front of 300 people the cake fell down on the floor and broke into pieces, on both the floor and me. The wedding couple came after me like they were going to kill me! I can laugh about it now, but trust me, when it happened I was not laughing. Now whenever I see a cake I walk the other way!"
Such lows, however, are invariably balanced out by major highs, whether they be successes at awards ceremonies, the crossing of professional milestones or simply receiving grateful compliments from satisfied customers. For Juan Amador, 43, the multi-Michelin-starred German-Spanish chef opening his first Abu Dhabi restaurant at the Park Rotana hotel this month, it was the moment when he became his country's most acknowledged chef.
"In 2007, I received the maximum three stars in the Michelin Guide for my restaurant Amador in Langen, and at the same time a star for my other restaurant, Tasca in Wiesbaden. With four stars all together, that made me the most decorated chef in all of Germany, which was absolutely awesome."
Like many chefs, however, Amador resists the idea that such awards represent a career pinnacle. Asked when he first realised that he had "made it" as a chef, he replies curtly:
"I hope it never comes. If you think 'I'm good', you stop getting better."
It's customer satisfaction that seems to be the real prize. Okku's Gardiner has had an amazing 12 months, scoring a remarkable three gongs at the 2011 Caterer Middle East Awards (for Best Stand Alone Restaurant, Best Chef and Best Bartender) as well as making plans to export the Okku concept to London. But while he's proud of all this recognition of his team's hard work, he says that one of his greatest moments of validation came from an experience that was outwardly more humdrum.
"My family, who are very conservative and traditional, came to visit me from Japan and ate a meal at Okku," he says. "During the meal they just kept looking at me and tasting the dishes I was bringing out, not saying anything - elder Japanese people are very steeped in tradition and can be very judging and particular. I was very nervous, thinking that somehow I had let the family and the traditions down.
"Then on the way out they just looked at me and smiled. My father-in-law shook my hand and took some pictures of Okku. If you understand our culture you'd realise this was a special and very meaningful gesture that spoke volumes."
Family of another sort brought Olivier Biles, 30, chef at Dubai's Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, nearly to tears at an event he feels marked his culinary coming of age.
"You know that you have made it when you are asked to cook for the boss," he says. "At 26, I was already in the spotlight because Pierre Gagnaire [the Michelin-starred head of 12 top French restaurants worldwide] had just chosen me to head his new Dubai restaurant at a really young age. Then I got this amazing request: to cook for 350 people at the wedding of Pierre Gagnaire himself.
"There were so many famous chefs there, including the heads of all the Gagnaire restaurants, so it was very intimidating. We cooked for two days non-stop, with so many different menus - one for the kids, one for the musicians, and so on - all in this very specific Gagnaire style, with some lobster or foie gras here, a bit of truffle there. When I finished that wedding, I had tears in my eyes, not because I was tired but because I knew I had really made it as a chef."
For many chefs, just the everyday pleasure of exploring their passion for cooking and good service is more than enough. Wolfgang Fischer, 47, the award-winning executive chef at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel, may regularly serve some of the Middle East's most powerful people, but insists it's the small things that drive him.
"I feel a lot of pride when I get a thank you letter from one of our important guests saying how happy they were," he says. "But on a normal day, just coming home knowing that our 300 staff have worked to the best of their ability is hugely satisfying."
If anything, the Emirates' chefs come across as a surprisingly good-tempered lot, showing a calm at odds with the image of the shouting, bullying chef cultivated by the likes of Gordon Ramsay. Aren't chefs supposed to be firebrands who torture their staff until they're perfect? The Ivy's Stephenson seems to have experienced the type herself, though she's understandably coy about naming names.
"I used to work for a very famous and successful chef in London," she says. "The kitchen environment was very hostile and some of the kitchen staff would often poke fun at me for being too nice. That did cause me stress, but on a positive note it drove me to work harder."
Things seem to be different out here in the Gulf, though - or so many chefs claim - as if there's something about year-round sun that mellows even the harshest taskmaster. As Biles says, the Emirates have changed him into a kinder, softer boss.
"When I was younger, I was quite excitable at work, but never violent of course," he says. "In our work there is a lot of pressure so it's natural. I totally changed my philosophy when I came to Dubai, however. When you have colleagues from, say, Indonesia or the Philippines, who are sending 95 per cent of their salary back home, you simply cannot be cruel to somebody like that. You need to give them more confidence, more love and respect - and they return it in their attitude and their work."
Indeed, finding a chef who has a bad word to say about the UAE and its vibrant food culture is difficult. Guarracino takes a stab at it, jokingly saying he misses "the rain, the rubbish in the streets and the petty crime" from his native Italy, before launching into lavish praise.
"Dubai was a big surprise to me in a very positive way," he says. "I had been working with a restaurant group that has a presence in Kuwait. They are 20 years behind there - they eat what we ate in Italy two decades years ago - and I was afraid it would be the same situation in Dubai. But it's so international and open here - we are cooking exactly the way we do in Italy. And the produce here! You really have everything - in some ways it is better than in Italy. In the north of Italy, for example, it can be hard to get ingredients for food from the south. Here there is absolutely no problem, either for variety or quality."
Still, that sheer abundance of food can be hard to manage, according to Cyril Jeannot, 29, head chef at Brasserie Rostang, the top Parisian chef Michel Rostang's Dubai outpost in Atlantis the Palm hotel.
"The thing that is especially stressful here is that the ingredients come from all over the world - the lobster is local, the mustard is from France, the vegetables are from the Mediterranean," he says.
"I have to ask myself: 'Will they come on time? What will be the quality?' Just co-ordinating that can be problematic. At the same time, the great thing is that working with a big hotel like the Atlantis, so many more things are possible than in a small restaurant - they can get so many more ingredients, no problem. If I want to make something like a really huge croquembouche [a candied choux pastry tower cake the French make at Christmas], I have staff that can do it - anything is possible."
The cake sounds delicious - let's just hope none of Jeannot's staff fall over once they've made it. But do the Emirates' chefs have any message for us, the dining public?
Invariably, the chefs we spoke to all showed a typically professional but genuine-sounding fondness for their customers, glowing about how appreciative, open-minded and sophisticated their guests are. Stephenson reminds us that, while we diners might forget faces, restaurant staff - like elephants - never do.
"If you are kind, you are remembered," she says. "If you fuss and complain, you are remembered."
Gardiner, meanwhile, lets out a subtle word to the UAE's diners that his restaurant's high standards aren't necessarily shared by all of the competition.
"Five-star hotels in Dubai are not supposed to use any MSG," he sniffs.
MSG at the top of the market? Who are the culprits of this culinary crime? We'll leave it to your appreciative, open-minded and sophisticated taste buds to work it out.
A day in the life of the king of the Palace
The Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Fischer has worked in top hotels across Europe, the US and Asia and has been executive chef at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel since 2006. Among five awards this year for the Emirates Palace restaurants, Fischer, 47, was declared Executive Chef of the Year at the Caterer Middle East Awards 2011.
7.30am It's a 20-minute drive to work for me, where I start out by checking our breakfast venues to make sure everything is running perfectly. I inspect all the produce we have coming in for the day - if anything isn't up to standard, I will have it sent back.
9am The Emirates Palace hosts many heads of state, members of the Royal Family and VIPs, and at morning briefings we check that their needs are being met. A week before every VIP visit, we get a list of each person's favourite and least-liked foods, and there is no form of diet or preference that we can't cater for, be it gluten-free, no eggs, no sugar, whatever. We make some exceptions to accommodate people - Britain's Prince Andrew, for example, likes smoked bacon for breakfast, and while we don't usually serve pork, we will get some in for him.
11am Our menus change quarterly, and after we have our daily staff meeting, I often meet chefs one to one. We discuss their restaurant's direction, look at what dishes are selling and what's coming into season over the next few months.
Noon The Emirates Palace has 19 places for guests to eat and drink, and my daily lunchtime tour of them takes 90 minutes. I trust my staff but I need to make sure everything is perfect - spotless uniforms, impeccable hygiene - and that our food is unbeatable. During any given week we can cater for 1,500 guests or as many as 5,000.
3pm Staying ahead of food trends is essential, and during afternoons I taste new products. One recent addition to our suppliers is American Kobe beef from Nebraska. It has Japanese Kobe's richness and marbling, but it's slightly firmer and less fatty and so you can grill it. The result is completely out of this world. I also sample new dishes around this time. We have chefs whose food is sublime, but sometimes I need to encourage them not to go too far - this part of the world does not want to be like Spain's elBulli for example. What we look for is food that is elegant, sophisticated and contemporary but that also has a certain simplicity.
8pm On quiet nights, I leave after checking the evening service, but some big weddings we host don't even begin until 10pm and I will always stay for them. When I'm home, my wife and I usually take our two Pomeranian dogs for a very long walk. Later, I'll exercise or lift weights for an hour before some reading and bed.
As told to Feargus O'Sullivan