Recipe for suc­cess

Three lead­ing chefs tell Matt Pom­roy what it was like to start at a young age and work their way up in the kitchen – from 15-hour days and sac­ri­fic­ing time with fam­ily to deal­ing with pres­sure and de­vel­op­ing lead­er­ship qual­i­ties

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Gior­gio Diana was lead­ing restau­rants that earned Miche­lin stars while still in his 20s. While his Mediter­ranean food with a molec­u­lar touch has wowed din­ers and judges, it rep­re­sents a life of sac­ri­fice.

To reach such high stan­dards at a young age re­quires not just in­nate tal­ent, but dis­ci­pline and some big life choices.

“I lost my fam­ily,” says the Ital­ian, who is cur­rently guest chef at L’Olivo Ris­torante at the Rixos ho­tel in Dubai. “I have two kids in Ger­many but lost my fam­ily be­cause I don’t have time for any­thing but work. I didn’t have time for Christ­mas so I haven’t seen my mama at Christ­mas for 22 years, I haven’t gone out for my birth­day in 15 years and I for­got my girl­friend’s last birth­day – I only fo­cus in my kitchen and on my job.” De­spite this, Diana has no re­grets – but is quick to dis­pel the im­pres­sion some young peo­ple have about be­com­ing a chef.

“Now it’s like a trend with peo­ple want­ing to be a chef, but they have no idea what it takes,” he says. “For young chefs, I’d say don’t work for money – the hours are too much. We work a min­i­mum of 15 hours ev­ery day and you don’t have a so­cial life. You ei­ther do it 100 per cent or you change jobs.”

Other chefs based in Dubai have also reached high stan­dards at a young age. Gré­goire Berger, the head chef of Os­siano at At­lantis The Palm, who rep­re­sented the Mid­dle East and Africa at the global 2016 San Pel­le­grino Young Chef com­pe­ti­tion, tells a sim­i­lar tale of sac­ri­fice.

“At the age of 16, I was do­ing 16 hours a day,” says the French­man. “You don’t ask for any­thing, you just work and learn and you need to be men­tally strong be­cause the pres­sure is high. You don’t see your friends, you don’t earn lots of money – I wouldn’t go as far to say I sac­ri­ficed my child­hood, but you do com­pro­mise on your life. Even to­day, I com­pro­mise with my daugh­ter and my wife but at 30, I’m still young.” Amer­i­can chef and writer An­thony Bour­dain con­firmed the no­tion that culi­nary ex­cel­lence comes at a cost.

“In Europe, most of them started cook­ing in their teens, at an age that would be com­pletely il­le­gal in the States,” he says. “These are abused chil­dren ... they worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of their ca­reer.”

There is, how­ever, no short- age of young peo­ple want­ing to be­come chefs – but again, Berger warns there is no overnight route to fame and ac­claim.

“Pa­tience,” he says. “Peo­ple think be­cause they are do­ing three slashes of sauce on a plate ev­ery­one will say it’s ge­nius, but to be a chef you have to learn how to clean the plate, learn how to cor­rectly clean, cut and cook a potato, learn the ba­sics.

“It’s what I tell all the young chefs com­ing into my kitchen. Don’t take short­cuts be­cause it’s not go­ing to work. You need to know it’s go­ing to be painful and the first four years you will just learn the ba­sics.”

For Ma­rina So­cial’s head chef Tris­tan Farmer, it would ap­pear he too k a more glam­orous route, hav­ing worked at Gor­don Ram­say’s Lon­don restau­rants where he be­came a head chef at the age of just 26, and then with Ja­son Ather­ton – but like oth­ers, he had a tough start.

“I first stepped into a kitchen when I was 14 at a fam­ily-owned ho­tel and I was wash­ing pots for al­most two years,” he says, but in­sists he does not see it as a sac­ri­fice as he has no re­grets.

“I did what had to be done to get where I am – and by that I mean a lot of hard work. There is no end to the num­ber of hours you have to prac­tise to be good at some­thing and good is never enough – you need to be the best and that does not have a limit.”

One thing Berger iden­ti­fies as a key driver for young chefs is a will­ing­ness to take on re­spon­si­bil­ity – some­thing he has done through­out his ca­reer.

“In Morocco, I opened a restau­rant from scratch when I was only 20, and the head chef was not on the scene in Casablanca, so I had to take re­spon­si­bil­ity my­self, from hir­ing staff to buy­ing fur­ni­ture,” he says. “At a young age you need lead­er­ship, ma­tu­rity, and the abil­ity to drive your­self.”

There have been some changes in the past decade. Diana points out that there is more and bet­ter kitchen equip­ment to help young chefs, when “10 or 15 years ago you have only the oven and two pans”.

Berger has no­ticed a soft­en­ing – in some coun­tries, at least – of how young chefs are treated.

“When I went to Morocco, I was typ­i­cally French, and swear­ing at peo­ple, just like peo­ple swore at me when I was learn­ing, be­cause you’re strong and can’t have time for drama,” he says. “But af­ter one week, no­body came into the kitchen. So I re­alised that I had to change my­self be­cause you can’t change oth­ers, and you can­not be­have in Morocco or Dubai like you be­have in France. I had to learn to drive dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties, es­pe­cially when they are young chefs.”

Sun­jeh Raja, the di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Culi­nary Arts, sheds some light on what is needed for a young chef to sur­vive in the in­dus­try.

“In the f irst few weeks of train­ing, we can see what that per­son is like and if they have the re­quired traits,” he says. “The most im­por­tant thing is a per­son’s at­ti­tude be­cause that is what will help sus­tain them through the chal­lenges they will face and help them ex­cel long term.”

It’s tra­di­tional, es­pe­cially in Europe, to start in a kitchen as a young ap­pren­tice but Raja be­lieves this is less com­mon in this re­gion and the mod­ern world.

“Pre-train­ing helps a lot, from learn­ing about reg­u­la­tions to neu­rolin­guis­tic pro­gram­ming to help them adapt to the chal­lenges of work­ing in a kitchen en­vi­ron­ment,” he adds.

Berger has only just turned 30, which is still young, but by the time a chef hits that age they will have ded­i­cated most of their life to cook­ing – and if you have not al­ready started young, some say it is too late. Bour­dain wrote in his book Medium Raw: “No­body will tell you this, but I will: If you’re 32 years old and con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer in pro­fes­sional kitchens, if you’re won­der­ing if, per­haps, you are too old? Let me an­swer that ques­tion for you: Yes. You are too old.”

So start young, be pre­pared to work long hours, sac­ri­fice your so­cial life and don’t ex­pect to get rich. But if you still have not made the big time by 30, do not worry, most chefs don’t reach their peak un­til later in life.

Con­sider the case of Jiro Ono, one of the great­est sushi chefs in the world, who is cred­ited with many of the in­no­va­tions in that cui­sine.

He be­gan cook­ing in restau­rants at the, prob­a­bly il­le­gal, age of seven and opened his own restau­rant when he was 40. That restau­rant – the famed Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo – didn’t re­ceive its third Miche­lin star un­til 2008, when Jiro was 82 years old. He’s now 91 and still works.


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