People sometimes have the impression that Germans are generally dour, rigid and humorless; fortunately, this cliché regarding Germans is exactly that – just a cliché, as the new Executive Chef at Movenpick, Udo Gross undeniably proves.
Just two weeks into taking up his new post, Chef Udo sat down with The Times Kuwait for an exclusive interview, which was liberally sprinkled with hilarious anecdotes and topped with insightful observations from his nearly three decades in the hospitality industry.
Chef Udo who has traveled widely and worked at some of the most prestigious hotel kitchens around the world, before eventually deciding to call Sri Lanka his new home, says in the course of his career he has received his share of weird orders, including once for “spaghetti well done.”
How did you start out as a chef?
Somehow, I got the idea to be a chef at 14. You hear all these stories about chefs; how they learned from their grandpa or how they took after their mother who used to cook. I think basically you need an interest in cooking and then training. At 15, I started with an apprenticeship in Germany. There you have three-four years of apprenticeship where you learn just the basics. So I started and then I gradually learned how to cook. If you learn the basics, you develop yourself. Some chefs go in the pastry direction, some go to core-kitchen only and they develop their focus on that; say hot food. Me, I went into everything and I eventually wanted to lead the kitchen, I wanted to go into doing things, making menus, and making innovations and stuff like that.
How did you end up in Middle-East?
There are a lot Germans in the hotel business. A friend of mine, Uva Michele is in Dubai… he is now there since 25-30 years, in same hotel… he is also president of the Chef’s guild in Dubai. He introduced me to the region; Kuwait is now my ninth Middle-Eastern country and the total is about 25 countries over my 25-30 years as a chef.
I started first in Syria with Sheraton Hotels when I was a young boy. Then I moved to Abu Dhabi, Sheraton. Back then, at 29, I was the youngest executive chef at Sheraton Middle-East chain. After that, I moved to Australia, Sheraton; then went back to Germany for a couple of years for family reasons.
I then returned to the Middle-East with a stint at Sana, Sheraton and after Yemen, I went to Bahrain – Gulf Hotel. From there I moved to Qatar, Sheraton and then on to Egypt as a Corporate Chef. I went to Pakistan for a total of three and a half years in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi; then I moved to Sri Lanka and from there to Dubai.
From Dubai I went to Iraq. I know… it was tough. We used to have a lot of Kurdish customers; they don’t speak English and they don’t speak Arabic.
It was very challenging in Iraq; there was no proper hotel industry in the country with all the goings on. Then I took a break for two and half years and came back to the business again. Before that, I have also worked in South Africa, Switzerland and Germany.
What does the role of executive chef here involve?
Role of an executive chef, basically everywhere is same. It is the principles; to ensure the quality of products are up to mark; any product, from salt to caviar, the vegetable, fruit, meat, everything. Like for example, I worked at a place where the salt was biting, so just by changing the salt, I immediately changed the quality of the food. It is what you can improve by changing or simply looking at the basic products, and then other things will automatically fall in place. As I said, it could be the salt, the vegetable, the potato or whatever and then to maintain the consistency.
A one-step after that is to have every day the same quality of tomato, the vegetable, the rice, the cereal or for example olives or the olive oil. Especially here, in this part of the world you have this challenge: today you have excellent Italian olive oil, virgin olive oil, and then supplies are running out of stock. So, then, in many places they use any kind of oil that is available. But you have to search in the market until you find the decent oil, and this is a challenge here, especially with regard to olive oil.
Eventually, you do not have many choices over here; unlike in Dubai, which you could say is the Rolls Royce or Maybach of kitchens, with all that competition from the hundreds of five-star hotels out there. There you find everything, here also you find a lot of things but as I said, maintaining consistency is a challenge. Then, of course, there is the quality of cooking and hygiene which are very important; I cannot make the best tomato if they do not know how to cook it, or the best meat if they cook it wrongly.
But coming back to your question on the role of an executive chef; they have to be innovative, in presentation, in creating some new dishes but with certain limitations. At the end of the day, the customer or my guests are judging if it is good or not. I can have the greatest ideas or I can put fantastic dishes but if they want roasted potatoes, then that is what I would give them. Yet, you try to be innovative, as an executive chef, you see something moving; today they might not accept something, but in a year or two the trend catches on and then people go zing. Like, I used fresh pumpkin for the salad and then realized that people are not into it but in other places they are into it.
How do you find the customers and your staff in Kuwait?
I am only two-weeks old here but I’ll tell you my philosophy: I believe I am old enough to be philosophical. People everywhere, you find good people, you find bad people, and in the Middle-East and Asia, people are friendlier, not like Europe where it is usually – “Good morning! What time you coming? What time you going?“ This is one of the reasons I am not happy to stay in Germany. You find different kind of people everywhere; you find a good one, you find a good chef, you find a chef who is just doing his job, you find a chef who is interested in job.
How do you tailor to specific requests from the customers?
Well, last week, a group had a meeting here for five days. I met them on buffet everyday… 18 or 20 people. So, then one lady requested for Pasta Alfredo… very simple thing. I do not put it on buffet since it gets sticky in the hot serving dishes. So when they came back for lunch, we served Pasta Alfredo for them and they were happy with the servings.
I place emphasis on individual preferences and I also emphasize to my chefs and other staff members to always talk to customers asking what they want, what they need. But general comments like “no variety” do not help me; maybe you are looking only for Nutella and then the food gets downgraded.
Take for instance the Pasta Alfredo, you have peas, you have chicken, prawns, fish, you see the variety. Of course, at the end of the day, if you go to Mango, you pay KD100 for a pullover, if you go to H&M, you pay maybe KD80 and if go to Carrefour, I could probably get it for KD5 – you get what you paid for.
I also emphasize on simple things; like an omelet made and served on time. If the waiter is busy to serve up the omelet to the waiting customer, the cook himself should show up with it to the table and serve their omelet or Pasta Alfredo. Also, make sure the plate is clean and things are set properly, so as to avoid embarrassment.
Also, I suggest paying attention on the size and heaviness of food – less oil, less cream, less butter. Now that it is getting cold people tend to eat more but yet, if the guest wants an ice-cream, we serve it. There are so many things that we can put on the menu but we do not for practical reasons and finance.
Do you read food-books and have you written any?
Oh, of course. I used to read books but nowadays, there is internet. Years ago, I used have maybe 200-300 kilo books, carrying them everywhere I went, but companies do not pay for it. So, now there is internet, anything you need, you go to the internet.
With regard to writing a cook-book; well, my daughter always tells me, “Papa, you should write a book.” But I haven’t gotten to do it as yet.
What is your signature dish?
There are so many. I love making soups, sauces and hot food. Pastries, well I have ideas, although it is not my specialization. You see, you go to a tailor, you have the idea, you have the picture you want the dress. You do not know how to do it, but you have the idea. Sousse is the same thing; you have the basic knowledge of pastry; what and how. Same like biryani, I know how to make biryani, how it tastes, how it has to look, but to cook… I could never do it better than an Indian chef. Same with other Asian food or Arabic or Chinese, this kind of stuff you need to specialize in to make it.
For example, to be a professional sushi chef, it takes years. For signature dishes, I have had a few things like ‘carrot-ginger-orange soup’. Then there is tomato soup with mint. There is some combination that is wow. When I make a sauce, or meat, or chicken or fish, I make it very light. If you ask me about favorite cuisine, I would say Italian, since it is close to my technique, and I know how to cook it and Chinese food; of course, I love sushi.
And then there is German street-food: the German ‘curry wurst’; the curry sausage, they are seen in museums in Berlin; the sausage and some German-style curry is very popular in Germany. They place these slices of sausage topped with sauces. Germans have around 600 to maybe 800 types of sausages. they have some really innovative ideas there.
Tell us of any amusing incident that you had as a chef?
Oh, there have been many. Recently, I was in Jeddah where they have a new burger recipe; taste-wise I believe it was the best in town. You know what is the secret in it? They put meat in it, real, good meat. So, we make a burger for this order. Then we receive a complaint that the burger is “juicy”. I thought they are pulling my leg but the guest actually complained that the burger is juicy.
So I thought, simple thing, let us make another one, a well done and let us squeeze all the juice out of it like at McDonald’s. The thing is the guest probably never had a proper burger. She is used to this tough burgers of other fast-food joints. My burgers taste like meat, they have meat in it. And I said, “Holly-Molly, I am in this business for 45 years and this is the first complaint I have ever heard that a burger is too juicy.”
Then, there was this young man I met, about 25, who told me he could make sushi. I said, “Make”. I wanted to know from where he learned and trained. He said he saw it on YouTube a day before. Of course, the sushi was a complete disaster; I do not know what he did.
In Japan, it takes eight years to train in sushi and call oneself a sushi chef! The rice has to be cooked properly, cooled down properly, proper rice-vinegar has to be added, then it has to be mixed and molded properly… and then there is the fish… which fish and how it should be cut and served; and of course it has to be very fresh, it takes a lot of attention to detail; but looking at YouTube and making sushi?
When you are back at home, is it you who usually cooks?
Many times, yes. It is simple, you work together, and you do things together. My wife, back at home in Sri Lanka, is a patisserie chef too. I married a Sri Lankan; I have a house in Sri Lanka, with a big garden with papayas and bananas.
While living in Sri Lanka, I grew my own lemongrass; I love lemongrass, very versatile and not used much. There is enough space here in Kuwait, so I’ll see how it goes, probably try to grow my own herb garden, own basil, my rosemary, my thyme, and you know whatever goes.
By Ghazal Praveen