x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Guilty by ingestion

Certain junk foods are simply too tempting to resist, even for chefs in some of the UAE's most respected restaurants.

Just some of the things that even the best culinary minds cannot resist.
Just some of the things that even the best culinary minds cannot resist.

Whether it's cheeseburgers or chocolate, pot noodles or potato crisps, we all have our guilty pleasures. We might appreciate the intricately layered flavours and textures of the gastronomic creations at Michelin standard restaurants. And we may wholeheartedly embrace the health and environmental benefits of good, wholesome locally sourced organic produce. But that packet of microwave popcorn in the kitchen cupboard is calling us, and it won't go away until we've slathered it in butter and snaffled the lot.

It's the same for most people, regardless of their appreciation of fine food - and that includes chefs. So I chat to a few of the UAE's best to find out more about the foods they probably shouldn't admit to loving, but nevertheless do. Ryu Sato Gardiner, the executive chef at Okku, makes no bones about his weakness. His restaurant is at the cutting edge of contemporary Japanese cuisine, importing authentic ingredients from Tokyo and catering for some of the most discerning diners in the country. But when I explain that we'll be talking about the food that many would consider a crime for top chefs to like, he just holds up his hands and confesses on the spot. "I'm guilty, then. I have to say, er, cheeseburgers," he says sheepishly. "There's a chain in California called In-N-Out Burger, and that's really my guilty pleasure. I moved from Hawaii to California in the early 1990s, and my brother and some friends took me to In-N-Out Burger. I was amazed by it. They have the regular cheeseburger and they have the Double Double, which is double meat, double cheese. Then they started making these 3x3 and 4x4 burgers, if you can imagine how big they are. Then you can have the burger Protein Style, where they replace the bun with lettuce. They're trying to make a really unhealthy food item a little bit healthier by removing the bun or making it carb-friendly," he says.

Gardiner makes a brief attempt at justifying his craving. "In-N-Out burgers are made on the spot," he says. "They never freeze their meat. They have their produce delivered twice a day. And most importantly, their taste is always consistent." But when I remind him that there are no In-N-Out Burger outlets in the Middle East, his weakness betrays him. "Oh, any burger joint's fine," he chuckles. Hervé Courtot is the chef de cuisine at Nobu, the renowned contemporary Japanese fusion restaurant at the Atlantis hotel in Dubai. "I love sweets," he says with a penitent voice over a crackly phone line. "This is my problem, you know. Chocolate. I'm crazy about chocolate. I can eat 250g of chocolate a day. And it's always the bad stuff - milk chocolate. Any kind of chocolate will do, and this is the problem, good ones, bad ones..."

It sounds like a confession at Chocoholic's Anonymous, a plaintive admission from the heart of a tortured soul, beleaguered by the nagging temptation to binge on anything and everything containing cocoa solids. So it's hard to believe it's the voice of one of the UAE's best and most respected chefs, a man who presides over a talented team at one of the country's most famous restaurants. For chefs, these guilty pleasures usually occur when they are far away from the gourmet kitchen - when the service is over, when they are done with the demi-glace and finished with the foie gras.

"After the service, I come back home at 12 o'clock," says Courtot. "I watch the TV for an hour and eat chocolate. But in the afternoon I eat chocolate. Anytime - anytime!" I'm interested in why this rather base craving strikes such a cultured chef with an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of flavour profiles and complicated cooking procedures. I put the question to Courtot, but he appears to be temporarily lost in a chocolate daydream.

"I love chocolate mousse," he muses, drifting off. "All kinds of desserts with chocolate. Chocolate ice cream..." Suddenly he's back in the room and answers my question, revealing that perhaps it's the flavours we grow up with that are so difficult to dispense with in later life. "When I was a child I was eating chocolate all the time, I kept thinking I would be sick, you know? Crazy about chocolate."

It's not just childish hankerings that make us return to trashy foods. The lifestyle of a chef doesn't always lend itself to getting three square meals a day, which can lead to some indulgences that are far from nourishing. "I won't have lunch or dinner, so I eat fruit and sweets instead," he admits. "It's not good. In the kitchen it's so easy to grab fruit, or grab any stuff and eat it. When dinner time comes, you don't feel hungry so you don't eat. It's the biggest problem for all chefs. You are in the kitchen, so when you cook you will try your dish, you'll try the sauce and by the time you take your proper lunch or dinner, you're not hungry anymore."

The demanding work schedule of a chef is something that Yoann Grillet, the chef de cuisine at the Capital Club Dubai's Signature Kitchen, understands only too acutely. "If I'm working all day, sometimes I'll eat in my kitchen," he says. "But if you're working, working, working, you become too lazy to make food. So, sometimes on my break time I go downstairs and go to Subway. It's perfect for me. I remove my chef's jacket, of course... otherwise people would say: 'Look at the chef - he can cook in his kitchen but he prefers to eat Subway.' They question it.

"It's just convenience," he adds. "You become too lazy to cook after a day's work. My wife waits for me at home. She thinks: 'My husband will come home and cook for me.' No way! I buy the Burger King on the way home and I bring it for you, my darling! "What I really like is Thai food, but with my wife and kid - although chefs don't like to admit it - we go to Burger King, Subway or things like this. My guests sometimes ask me if I eat Burger King or McDonald's. I say: 'Me? No. I never eat these things. I cannot touch it.' But in the end, you can see me there."

Availability is a key factor when a craving strikes, and it can often lead a discerning epicurean down a dark path, as Gilles Perrin, the chef de cuisine at Bord Eau restaurant in Abu Dhabi, confirms. "If I know that something is not good, I will not eat it," he explains. "But I will still go from time to time to get French fries from McDonald's. I don't force myself to do it because it's not too good, but if you don't have a choice, you don't have a choice. If I can choose between McDonald's and a proper burger, I'll go for a proper burger, even though it may be Dh20 more expensive.

"I love a burger," reiterates the man whose menu contains a range of dishes inspired by the father of modern French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier. "If I go and watch a football game I will buy a burger and I'll be the happiest person in the world. But my biggest guilt is chocolate. It's something I can really wake up to, grab a whole packet and eat it. "It has to be milk chocolate," he says. "And the brand is Milka from Switzerland. I don't think you can find it here, but usually whenever anybody visits from Switzerland they will bring me one. Actually, any kind of chocolate will do, but this particular one I like because it reminds me of my childhood. But in Abu Dhabi, I can grab a KitKat, a Mars or Snickers - I see, I take, I eat. Like everybody, when you are queuing for the cashier at a supermarket, there's a whole tray of chocolate in front of you. So I just grab something and I eat while I'm waiting."

Perrin's longing for food that reminds him of his homeland is hardly surprising - absence does make the heart grow fonder, after all. The executive chef at the InterContinental Dubai, Christian Knerr, is a proud Bavarian who has a particular guilty pleasure that helps to keep him in touch with his roots - and he's prepared to go to any lengths to ensure he gets his fix. "It doesn't matter where I work, but I have to have one kind of curry ketchup from Germany that I import to all the countries that I've worked," he says with only a hint of shame. "It's called Hela Curry Ketchup. I grew up with this stuff. I get it every time someone visits me from Germany. It's always the thing I want. But when I was working in Turkey or Tunisia, I actually imported the bottles.

"It's the taste," he declares. "In our business, normally we shouldn't eat this stuff, but it's a special taste. In the fine dining restaurants I have worked at, we cooked Michelin-star food, but after work we went all together to McDonald's. It's a little bit funny - the better you cook, the more nasty food you eat when you are off work." For Lionel Boyce, the Australian executive chef of Desert Palm hotel in Dubai, the lure of simple, homestyle food proves equally as strong. "When I get home late at night and I can't be bothered cooking, I'll probably dig together some baked beans and cheese jaffles (Australian toasted sandwiches). It's an oldie but it's a goody. With a little bit of chilli sauce to tart it up, yeah."

A chef like Boyce has years of experience, a cultured appreciation of cooking for all occasions and an instinctive understanding of how ingredients work together - surely he can rustle up a tasty and nutritious meal with a minimum of effort. So why does he resort to toasted cheese and baked bean sandwiches? "Plain greed," he jokes. "No, I think it's maybe childhood memories. The simple things in life are good. I think everybody's grown up on beans and cheese. It was always a standard affair, and you always go back to your heritage, your roots. I think the twist there is the chilli, just to give it a little bit of a lift.

"I'm more of a sweet tooth," he confides. "I try to make it a rare treat, but when you're working in the kitchens it happens more often than not, if you know what I mean. Definitely it's a temptation when you're working in a kitchen where you've got a full pastry section. The guys are producing some pretty good stuff - every day. So the temptation to just pop in there and grab a freshly baked cookie or some ice cream just oozing out the machine is sometimes just a little bit too much."

One man who is tested daily by the lure of the pastry section is Sebastian Vauxian. That's because he's the head pastry chef of Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, which recently made the San Pellegrino list of the world's 100 best restaurants. But instead of raiding the restaurant's supply of chocolate, his particular dubious indulgence involves getting as far away from the kitchen as possible. "I enjoy the desert in Dubai," he says. "I ride a motorbike for two or three hours with my friends and then have a barbecue in the desert. We have sausage, lamb rack, different things. It's not healthy food, but we do bring some tomato salad. Then we make marsh mallows. We put them on the skewer and heat it on the barbecue."

The image of a top pastry chef dressed head-to-toe in biking leathers, toasting marshmallows in the middle of the desert is a surreal yet reassuring one. It confirms that no matter how much we know and understand about highbrow, high-quality and highly nutritious food, we often succumb to lowbrow junk foods stuffed with E-numbers, sugar and fat. More often than not, they are cheap and convenient to snack on. In many cases they remind us of our childhood. And since most people in the UAE are expatriates, they are a welcome taste of home. But the most important reason why we can't resist those guilty pleasures is the simplest of all.

We like them. A lot. jbrennan@thenational.ae