Chef interview: Evangelos Liakouris
Formal fine dining has made way for personalised casual dining at Al Dana restaurant in an effort to win more customers and appeal to Qataris.
“I am not a fan of fine dining,” confesses Evangelos Liakouris, the chef de cuisine at Al Dana. “People might go on special occasions, maybe one or two times a year, so how can that be successful here?
“It was an amazing restaurant. But when I came here [about a year ago] I tried to put myself in the positon of the guest — to understand what kind of food and taste that the local people want. For this 74-cover restaurant I had to focus on a completely different way of cooking.”
Liakouris, who comes from the Greek island of Icaria, says that Al Dana had remained popular with European expats, but had lost its local clientele.
“Now we are starting to change this. Slowly, I have built relationships with them and they are coming here every week as regular guests,” he shares.
Al Dana certainly has many factors in its favour. Housed in a characterful stand-alone oceanfront building within the low-rise, Arabesque-style Sharq Village & Spa resort at the south end of the Corniche, with views over Doha bay and its own al-fresco terrace — now called C-Lounge — it is an appealing spot for dinner and drinks, or just light bites and shisha.
“C-Lounge now gives us an opportunity for people to come more regularly without having to spend QAR700 (US$192) for dinner. But then they will know about our food and service so they will come and try also the brasserie. Guests can come here for dinner and go outside for dessert, shisha and beverages, and enjoy this amazing view. It’s something unique; most hotels here are towers,” says Liakouris.
But Al Dana’s real USP is the seafood market that now greets diners on arrival with a colourful array of fish and shellfish on ice and fresh vegetables. Liakouris explains: “Usually we walk with a new guest to the seafood market, and we explain the philosophy of the restaurant and about the healthy side of food. We have so many vegetables, and we guide the guests that fast food is not the perfect way.
“They will leave here having enjoyed the best food — perfect taste and straight to the point. I cook with a lot of herbs, vegetables and a lot of freshness — everything is from scratch; nothing is taken ready-made. Quality cooking is last-minute cooking for me.”
While he has his own strong views on how it should be done, he is adamant that the chef should try to balance the expectation of the guest, not himself, stating: “Many guests here want food that is full of taste and cooked well-done. Sometimes chefs hear ‘well-done’ and get upset. But I have to put myself in the position of the guest and make something perfect for them. So I will provide for them the perfect ‘well-done’.”
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Liakouris says making recipes “in the measure of the guest”, as he describes it, is all about trust.
He adds: “After the first one or two times that I meet the guest and guide them, now they trust me 100%. Our beautiful seafood market is something new, and every time you create a different recipe, they don’t get bored.
“A gentleman from India had dinner here one evening. And then he came for dinner four times in two weeks. Every time he came he brought somebody different — friends and business contacts. Now he says: ‘Make for me whatever you want.’ Some of my guests simply say ‘chef knows’.”
Liakouris likes to use global influences to make a twist on traditional dishes, saying:. “I love the Peruvian kitchen, the basics of French cooking, the simplicity of Italian cuisine, the techniques of the Greeks — and then combine all this for the guest. I love these combinations, but also respect local traditions and local products. Guests are surprised in a nice way.”
Liakouris says he dedicates time every day to the creative process of trying something new and improving recipes: “I was not 100% happy with the batter on our fish and chips, so I would not stop until it was perfect. Our fish tagine was more like a stew and I was not happy with it, so I made a smoked tomato syrup and now we cook it in the perfect way. I have even made experiments with potatoes — if I told you our technique for the perfect crispy French fry you would laugh. But we will try one thing, then another thing.”
Al Dana’s chefs operate out of a half-open kitchen, so not only do guests choose their produce, they can also see them cooked — taking the theatre of dining one step further. As Liakouris remarks: “Theatre is a Greek word.”
But the guest experience is about more than the food and its creative proces; Liakouris is equally passionate about customer service. As a Ritz-Carlton resort, Sharq Village & Spa, and its outlets, are expected to abide by the brand’s three steps of service:
• A warm and sincere greeting, using the guest’s name;
• Anticipation and fulfillment of each guest’s needs;
• A fond farewell and a warm goodbye, using the guest’s name.
“I want my team to use customers’ names, not because it’s a rule, but because it is a habit. I want it to be natural — real relationships and a personal touch,” reveals Liakouris.
That extends to communicating any delays or problems immediately to guests. “If you have an issue and you leave the guest without information you will lose the guest. Mistakes will happen, but if you look after the guest he will come back to you,” he comments.
This is a cross-cultural phenomenon, according to Liakouris, whose restaurant employs staff of many nationalities, which is something he describes as “a positive challenge”.
He comments: “I just try to keep them excited and give them knowledge about the ultimate taste, nice presentation and exceeding our guests’ expectations with both the food and with the personal relationships.”