x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A hunger to be the best

A fortuitous French connection in the culinary world pays off handsomely for two Pakistan-born brothers.

The Pakistan-born chef Sylvestre Wahid in the kitchens of the restaurant l'Oustau de Baumaniere, for which he is hoping to recapture the third Michelin star.
The Pakistan-born chef Sylvestre Wahid in the kitchens of the restaurant l'Oustau de Baumaniere, for which he is hoping to recapture the third Michelin star.

As they played cricket on the streets of their old fortress town in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, the Wahid brothers never imagined they would one day be creating exquisite dishes for royalty, rock stars and A-list actors. But a dramatic change of life caused by their father's impulsive decision to sign up for the French Foreign Legion, during a first visit to Europe far from his wife and four children back in their native Kohat, has led to two of those children matching the French at their own game: haute cuisine.

In a country where culinary excellence continues to be cherished despite the march of the fast food revolution, the names of the brothers Wahid are firmly on the lips of gourmets. Now both in their 30s, they have graduated from apprenticeships in the kitchens of great chefs to use their skill and flair to please the palates of the prosperous clientele that graces one of France's most celebrated restaurants, Jean-André Charial's idyllic l'Oustau de Baumanière in the village  of Les Baux de Provence, north of Marseille.

So determined was their father to follow his own father's advice  - "if you are set on going to Europe, remember when in Rome to do as the Romans do" - that he changed his own name to Henry and his sons' to Sylvestre and Jonathan. One sister became Céline but the youngest remained Nadja, easy enough on French ears. As a young man in Kohat, Mr Wahid had been increasingly drawn to the Europe portrayed in one of the town's few sources of entertainment, its cinema. War films such as The Great Escape and Where Eagles Dare may also have given him a taste for a military career, though he remembers Robin Hood as vividly.

"There wasn't much to do, but when that's all you know, you don't think about it," said Mr Wahid, now 60 and retired, sipping coffee on the terrace of l'Oustau as his sons prepared for another working day. "But I was more and more attracted to Europe. Everything I did once here was guided by my belief that when people move to another country, it is for them to adapt, not the other way round. "I was lucky. I fell under the influence of a wonderful French officer who pushed and pushed to get the best out of me."

Six years after a chance conversation in a cafe about finding work in Europe led him to enlist in the Foreign Legion, Mr Wahid had risen sufficiently through the ranks to be able to bring his family to France. "My little sister had been born just after dad left Pakistan and when we reached Orly airport in Paris, she kept asking who was the man hugging her mother," said Sylvestre, 34. "For us, it was a big cultural shock. It was hard: new country, so different from ours, new home, new school, new friends. But when you are young you just get on with it."

That was 1984, when Sylvestre was nine, and his career ambitions formed quickly. Although a fully trained soldier, his father spent most of his career in Foreign Legion catering services. During holidays working with his father in the kitchens and officers' mess, Sylvestre decided his working life, too, would be devoted to food, a path his younger brother was also to follow. To his mother's initial dismay, Sylvestre left school in the south-eastern city of Nimes at 15. But he went on to refine his talents under some of the world's most illustrious chefs in New York and Paris, including Alain Ducasse and Thierry Marx, before being given a chance to show his worth as the chef de cuisine, leading a 30-strong team at l'Oustau de Baumanière.

Jonathan, one year younger and having more of a sweet tooth, concentrates on desserts and is M Charial's chef pâtissier. Sylvestre is a two-star Michelin chef, his brother has won a national patisserie championship. "M Charial turned convention upside down in appointing us," said Sylvestre. "We were not of French origin but here we were in a restaurant of such great tradition. It was hard for the staff, too; some had been here 20, 30 years and then this young Pakistani-born chef was in charge."

Together, the brothers have prepared food for the British actor Hugh Grant, the rock star and former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, the Franco/American film couple Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp and numerous stars whose names are household knowledge in France. A glance at the 64-year history of the restaurant reveals an impossibly long list of earlier guests from Winston Churchill and Gen Charles de Gaulle to Queen Elizabeth of England and the Aga Khan, from Clark Gable to Edith Piaf and Sir Mick Jagger.

Sylvestre, now aiming to recapture the third Michelin star previously held by l'Oustau de Baumanière, has also been flown to far-off destinations to provide private meals, once for the wife of Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president, and once for the South African explorer Mike Horn on an iceberg drifting in a Greenland fjord. Both brothers have chosen French partners. Jonathan is married with two children, including a month-old baby, while Sylvestre has a girlfriend who works at a hotel on the Mediterranean coast.

"Food is my life and I cannot imagine working in any other field," Sylvestre said. "I am proud of my achievements but I have had some very good people to learn from." Jonathan added: "Coming to France was easier for us as children because it was like an adventure, and meant seeing our father again. Back in Kohat, we were too small to have ideas of what we might become. We certainly knew nothing about gastronomy."

Neither has returned to Kohat since the family's departure, but both still feel strong Pakistani identities and hope to visit one day M Charial, grandson of the restaurant's founder and reputedly a rigorous boss, plays a hands-on role, with frequent visits to monitor progress in the kitchen and an attentive manner with guests. But he speaks highly of the brothers. Both had to learn Provencal culinary customs, he said, after their previous experience in more modern forms of haute cuisine. "We have clients who come back year after year because they know they can still order a favourite dish and it is important that we uphold the long tradition of the establishment. They had to learn, and they did."

Of his chef de cuisine, he said: "To be a great chef requires both the military definition, the ability to command, and the creativity. It is not easy to combine the two but Sylvestre does. He is an extraordinary technician." crandall@thenational.ae