As Eric Pellen takes the helm as Executive Chef at the Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski, we sit down with the hotel veteran to get his thoughts on running a kitchen, keeping up with changing palates and shaking things up at some of the city's finest restaurants.
by Noha Mohammed
Consistency is one of the biggest challenges for any hotel kitchen. How do you guarantee consistency?
I have been lucky to have a fantastic team. We are very selective about the people we bring on board, especially for the top management for the kitchen. Some of my senior chefs went to Dubai, so they already saw what’s happening on the market and they are aware and have a quality-focused mind which I will say is much more developed than 15 years ago when I arrived. You have an evolution of the market, the new generations are getting much more passionate about it, very talented. Times have changed. Fifteen years ago we had very few Egyptian executive chefs, now we have calibers that are better trained with more exposure to and more understanding of the food, which is important. I am here to ensure there are people who can take my place.
Is it difficult to keep the team on board?
We take care of our people, we support them, grow them, work with them, praise them. People want to join us because they know we’ll take care of them. It’s more about being a big brother than a father. A big brother who leads by example and who can give feedback and share information. Our team is happy and committed and this comes through to the guest. Obviously if your team takes care of your guests then the wheel turns smoothly.
How has the market changed since you first arrived here?
The market has moved. Over the past 15 years new properties have emerged and now they are key properties. From the guest perspective, people are more willing to look for quality which obliges us to meet their expectations. The competition is getting fierce to get the right teams and the right guests as well. And the more competition the faster things move forward. Competition creates opportunity and opportunity creates competition. It’s a continual search of perfection.
Have palates changed?
The market has changed but some classics like Italian are always a favorite. French is down a bit, steakhouses have grown, Asian too. You see more and more sushi — 15 years ago you didn’t see sushi. Egyptian as well, you see Vietnamese so you have a growing understanding. Guests are traveling a lot, to Paris, to London to Dubai. They definitely have a better understanding of what’s happening and request more quality.
You’ve worked in the Far East and the Middle East in Qatar and Oman. How different are these areas in terms of your work?
Everything is different. Cuisine obviously is a bit more Mediterranean in the Middle East while in Asia it is based more on a Confucius principle where there is a bit more control on self and dedication to seasonal food. Here you have two seasons: winter and summer whereas in Jakarta and the rest of Asia you have either four seasons (like in Korea) or no season at all (like in Indonesia). Climates are different and people are different. The time of eating is also different compared to others where it is a bit later. Indonesians and Koreans on the other hand will eat very early, around 6:30 or 7pm max. So you have a lifestyle difference. Whenever you travel to a new country there is a new culture to learn. It’s important for understanding the food and learning different techniques and recipes that each country has. Do you have to change recipes to suit palates? Does that make it less authentic?
Definitely. You need to adapt the plate based on guest preference or food items. For example in Asia they eat lots of spices and you can’t do the same food here for an Egyptian. Another example is pizza. Egyptians prefer thicker dough whereas Europeans and Asians will go for more thin and crispy.
You have to adapt the recipe to the guest. It’s not less authentic, just different. The products available on the market are not the same. You can’t do French food with French cuisine everywhere for the unique reason that importing ingredients is getting more and more expensive. You need to use local raw products or farm products, fishing products and then you readjust using a French technique, a French recipe and French presentation.
How difficult is it finding ingredients?
We have some specific products that we’re getting and we have no problem in local supply. But there are certain products that you have to import and some other products you can find locally. For example there is a company that is doing Italian cheese and is based in Egypt that we work with and it produces very good quality. We import ingredients like mascarpone for tiramisu, but it is dependent on quality rather than price.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of Egypt Today.