Event Review: Chef & Ingredients conference

All the key talking points from the Caterer Middle East event
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Delegates debate the importance of training in F&B at the Caterer Middle East Chef & Ingredients Forum.
Delegates debate the importance of training in F&B at the Caterer Middle East Chef & Ingredients Forum.

Over 150 food and beverage professionals from across the Middle East’s respected restaurants gathered to attend the second annual Caterer Middle East Chef & Ingredients Forum.

A host of panel discussions and workshops comprised the event where experts passionately discussed the state of the industry, and how important ingredients are for a chef to whip up a storm.

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QUALITY MATTERS

The first panel session entitled ‘A Taste for Quality’ was moderated by Gates Hospitality CEO Naim Maadad. He was joined on stage by Christian Gradnitzer, group culinary director, Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts; Michel Jost, executive chef, Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi; Cladys Magagna, executive chef, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr; Tomas Reger, chef for hire; and Amrish Sood, speciality chef, Rang Mahal.

“The food component is losing its edge,” said Maadad to start off the conversation. Gradnitzer said he thought 2014 will bring stabilisation in the industry. “What I strongly believe is people creating consistency behind their brands, and that consistency will lead them to create destinations which create credibility to create a customer base that is loyal,” he added.

Jost said: “Most brands are growing very fast and guests are loyal. It means on a training level there is a great foundation. Once you have a training culture, you can attract the kind of people who are aligned to what you want to deliver.”

Magagna said the ‘farm-to-table’ trend has a very strong impact on the customer. “Another trend is the gluten free. Ten years ago, we did not have any option or it was just for celiacs. It’s a new way to dine so we need to consider that,” he explained.

When talking about whether diners cared about the food or the overall experience, Gradnitzer from Jumeirah reminded the panel that “the magic of every restaurant is the atmosphere it creates — food is not always the first priority”.

Jost agreed and said: “The guest experience is only going to be wow if every team member understands they have a role to play.”

But where does food sit in with all of this, wondered Maadad. Reger said that ingredients should be the first thing on a chef’s list. “I don’t think casual places should have worse ingredients than high end places. The way you put them together is what makes it more elaborate.” Sood said that ‘farm to table’ is not a trend for him, rather a message to communicate to diners.

There is a lot of love from the panel for international casual brands, with many admitting that they frequent them regularly, and held up the success of The Cheesecake Factory as an example for the market.

THE CHEFS STRIKE BACK

The next panel moderated by Ultra Brasserie executive chef Emily Herbert was called ‘Food Wars’. Her panellists included Okku executive chef Hugh Sato; Capital Club executive chef Cyrille Troesch; chef-for-hire Paul Frangie; The Act Dubai head chef Roberto Segura Gonzales.

Troesch admitted there is a lot of confusion on the market with organic food, and it is the chefs’ responsibility to educate. However, organic food won’t be able to drive the market because it is not yet daily available and too expensive; it is priced at around 65% cost at his outlet. “Now how many will accept a cost like this?” He further pointed out that Dubai doesn’t have the right costs for organic food on a daily basis right now.

Frangie said for the short-term, locally sourced, medium-sourced sustainable, and in the future organic products is the aim.

The most important thing for chefs is to “be aware when things are in season and build our menus around that”, according to him.

Gonzales said that customers, and in some cases, staff members are not educated on what ‘organic’ really means. The question we need to ask, he said, was how much of organic was really used on menus touting that concept. Frangie agreed and said a really small percentage of the market can tell the difference, and that organic food definitely looks, smells and tastes different.

The consensus of the panel was that if you have to fly food from outside the GCC then it loses its benefit. Frangie said: “It’s great if 80% of your menu is organic but if you’re flying it from South Africa or Asia the footprint is huge.”

Talking about experimental food, Sato declared this trend will always be there “but it will never be more popular or important than the flavour for food. Customers want their food to taste good; they’re the ones paying the money. If the chef forces his or her taste on the customer that will create problems for the business, what the customers wants, you have to give”.

Frangie said chefs have a duty to experiment, countering Herbert’s query about whether this spoils food. He said: “We are artists, we are taste curators. It’s our job to experiment. Maybe not with our customers, but in a test kitchen.”

However, Troesch warned: “Creativity is like a horse, you have to hold it back. If not, a good dish can get away from you, like a horse running too far.” Gonzales agreed and said sometimes simplicity is the best option for chefs.

Sato added: “There will always be those chefs who break the barriers, and there will be chefs who are cooking from the heart.”

GOING BIG

Large-scale catering is an important aspect, often overlooked in the F&B industry. But with the DTCM looking to double its exhibition industry, this aspect should be carefully considered. Moderated by Caterer Middle East editor Devina Divecha, the experts were Radisson Blu Dubai Deira Creek director of kitchens Uwe Micheel; Abela & Co corporate chef Colin Campbell; and, Dubai World Trade Centre director of kitchens — F&B production Harald Oberender.

A lot of interesting issues were dealt with including keeping the quality of food high while catering to a large number of people. Campbell said: “We prepare close to 12,000 meals a day and the budgets are always a concern — this business is very cost driven.”

Challenges are the name of this game, and Micheel said one of the biggest concerns is location, where a central location is easier to work with than a remote one. “Food safety is an issue as well. It’s about two key things: flexibility and planning. But in planning, the biggest challenge is to get the right people.”

Oberender said they face similar issues to restaurant chefs like ingredients and the supply chain. “Another thing is hygiene — this is dealt with quite differently across all Emirates. So the unification for this is on the horizon for next year; there was an announcement made about this, which would help us quite a lot.”

Transportation was a concern said Campbell. “There are always specific challenges with each client, but there’s always transportation. When you get to the premises, what do you have access to — the appliances and kitchen facilities, and the distance between kitchens to the end user, for example.”

Oberender said large-scale catering has to move up a notch. “We have to raise our standards with the support of the government, and our community. This will lead to an increase of business.”

Micheel agreed and said that the market will grow. “The expectation is growing, and leaning from each other, we will improve the standards and quality.”

STAFF CATCH 22

Discussing empowerment, engagement and retention, Maadad returned, and was joined by Atlantis the Palm vice president culinary Sascha Triemer; The Crystal Group area operations manager Patrice Gouty; and, SCAFA programme director Francisco Araya.

One of the early points that came into focus was the difficulty with finding trainers for employees at the moment. “Getting teachers is very difficult. The world is full of chefs but it’s difficult to find a trainer,” said Araya. He pointed out that there’s a gap in training staff inside hotels.

Triemer warned ambitious chefs in the Middle East, saying that sometimes people get put into a position too early, which doesn’t help them, rather it destroys their career. “You don’t help them by promoting them, you’re setting them up for failure,” he said grimly.

Gouty added: “What scares me — some of the best brands are coming to Dubai, sometimes it looks like a mini-Mayfair springing from the ground in six months. So people give you a Ferrari to drive but they don’t provide you the technician, or even the driver. But then we look at the place where so much money has been invested, and it’s empty.”

He said some people like to take shortcuts but condemned this type of thinking, and added: “You don’t become a chef when you are 22, there has to be a progression. Someone wanted to ask my waiter to become his operations manager. I cannot sanctify this attitude.”

MAKING MONEY

The next session investigated whether restaurant’s operations and ingredients are keeping them open to maximum profit.

Figjam managing director Sanjay Murthy moderated the panel which included Capital Club Dubai general manager Emma Cullen; Reform Social and Grill Dubai head chef Ryan Waddell; Fine Dining Ltd (Ruth Chris’ Steak House) general manager Ghazi Azzabi; Conrad Dubai’s Marco Pierre White Grill head chef Jenny Lorenzo; and Cavalli Club head chef Ernesto Tonetto.

Cullen pointedly said that retrospect is a wonderful thing when dealing with cutting costs, but that consistency and quality is on everyone’s mind. Waddell agreed and said that as chefs, it is important to produce the best food possible. Lorenzo said she tries not to look at value of the ingredients, but what can be done with it.

Can costs be cut though, without cutting quality? Azzabi said that as a settled operation, his firm can deal with suppliers en masse and arrange prices for its outlets for the next six months, and is able to predict what it might need. “Sometimes we have to forego our costs to ensure the consistent taste for the consumer.”

He added: “Because we have a brand people are prepared to pay for that.” However, he admitted that he has had to absorb rising meat costs of over 35% from last year in order to ensure they provided the same quality to customers.

Lorenzo added: “If we are very careful minimising wastage, then we don’t have to pass that cost into our guests.”

Cullen admitted menu prices are up, but they are still not as high as 2007. “That is because there are a lot more suppliers in the market than in 2007,” interjected Azzabi.

Murthy asked about the use of special offers to save costs, and the panel was adamant they would never run a special item on the menu to shift an oversupply of certain ingredients. “We don’t do deals or specials,” said Cullen. Waddell admitted that while specials can be a way to get rid of oversupply, they should be used to enhance the menu rather than to shift bad stock.

REINVENTION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME

Jason Myers, GM of Jumeirah Group (Restaurants & Bars) & MD of Jumeirah Restaurants LLC and Dubai Golf culinary director Max Grenard discussed reinvention, moderated by The Cutting Agency founder Duncan Fraser Smith.

Myers came out firing by stating that ROI is “one of the worst things to be associated with F&B” and is an insufficient method of judging the success of a restaurant. However, Grenard said restaurants in Dubai are expected to make a ROI in three years, compared to five in Europe.

The trend of copy-pasting international brands in the region was debated, and Myers said Dubai is almost a mature market. Grenard said: “Here they put exactly the same team, the same name, the same decor, copy paste and at the end of the day it doesn’t work. You need to know about the Dubai market, the customers are not the same as in Paris, so you need to adapt to them. Definitely you have to be able to recognise the brand, but if you copy 100% it is not going to work.”

Myers agreed with Grenard and added: “However, what we all forget is that there is some really cool F&B in this city, which has grown here and been developed here. I believe that we’ve got a lot of talent now in the city, and we need to be convincing owners to bring in less brands and we need to innovate our own concepts and new things.”

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

The first workshop hosted was the Red Meat masterclass by Tarek Ibrahim, executive chef for Meat & Livestock Australia. In his class Ibrahim brought an impressive cut of meat and demonstrated how it can be cut, prepared and cooked to maximise a restaurant’s menu. He also informed the crowd about the benefits of ageing, vacuum packing and how to tell your marbling from your connective tissue.

After a really hands-on session, it was time for the HACCP Hygiene and Food Care Workshop from Dr. Rafiq Al Khatib, managing director of RMK — The Experts.

He outlined basics of an HACCP hygiene workshop, and the real benefits of the HACCP system and managing staff food safety habits.

With that, the Caterer Middle East Chef & Ingredients forum came to a close, with attendees revealing it was an informative day, and one saying they noticed the “interest has increased from last year”.

Email devina.divecha@itp.com for feedback and any talking points for the next edition in 2014.

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