Interview: Sebastiano Spriveri
Kuwait wasn’t exactly on the cards for Sebastiano Spriveri. However, general manager Didier Jardin had his eyes set on the Italian chef and, when the time came for the Four Seasons 23-year veteran to leave the brand’s Istanbul property, the prospect of joining the pre-opening team in the tiny oil-rich country was an attractive one.
Speaking about his appointment, Spriveri says: “A new chapter of life began here in Kuwait. I’m hungry for learning and knowledge, and find inspiration every day walking the city. I want to bring all my experience to inspire myself in creating new ideas. I like to change things, and what is important for me is to apply my personality and creative way of doing things.”
As is often the case with people who find themselves in professional kitchens, culinary inspiration came early for Four Seasons Kuwait’s executive chef: “I was inspired by my mum’s food. She was a great cook. If I close my eyes I still remember when the family would get together for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Then gradually, I started to think about becoming a professional.”
Spriveri left home, went travelling and worked in restaurants before enrolling in culinary school. It was a challenging time for the young chef: “When I started to go to work, I preferred going to work than school because what I was learning at work was not what I was learning in school. I wanted to be a chef. I didn’t want to be anything else. When my friends were having fun, I was at work. I didn’t have time for a social life or friends. I was working, working, working but at the end of the day I reached my goal. That was really important.”
Spriveri’s introduction to Four Seasons came when the brand opened its Milan property in 1995: “I dropped my CV. They called me and I went. I started as chef de partie and spent almost five years in the hotel. At the time, Four Seasons in Milan was one of the shining stars in the city. It was the example, the path to follow. I was very proud to be a part of that team. Now, when I look back after 23 years, each one of them has a position with Four Seasons all over the world. We are spread all over five continents. That was a school preparing us for the future.”
After five years in the Milan property, Spriveri was called upon to be part of the pre-opening team at the first Four Seasons property in Egypt (Four Seasons Cairo at the First Residence). A stint in London’s Canary Wharf and a return to Milan followed before his move to Turkey. Spriveri recounts: “One day the phone rang and it was a good call. I moved to Four Seasons Istanbul in February 2013. I spent four amazing years there with great people, a great team building something different. When you join a hotel that’s already open it’s completely different than when you join a pre-opening hotel. In a pre-opening hotel you have to start everything from scratch. So you set everything as you want, as you like but when you join a hotel that’s open, it’s different. It takes at least six to eight months to input your mark, and your philosophy. It’s much more complicated.”
Perhaps it was the prospect of being able to start something from scratch that drew the chef to Kuwait City. Not one to shy away from challenges, Spriveri was able to identify early on that this would be a rewarding one: “This project is something unique in every sense. It’s something completely different. The building, the city, the owner, the expectation.”
When it came to actually implementing his vision, it wasn’t all smooth sailing but Spriveri was experienced enough to know that any obstacles were part and parcel of the pre-opening process: “You can come with a specific point of view but when you start to go into the project some of your thoughts have to change according to what they people, logistics, location of the restaurants, spaces. Sometimes you design a menu on paper. You don’t design the menu based on the space you have in the kitchen or how feasible it is to prepare such kinds of dishes, so we’re adjusting the menu according to what makes sense.”
Comprising Dai Forni — Italian, Sintoho — pan-Asian, Al Soor — lobby lounge, Elements — all day dining and Al Bandar — the pool-side restaurant and lounge, the menus for the venues were created six to eight months ago, before the kitchens or the dining areas had been completed. Having a concept in place is all well and good but if practicalities of implementing them in the finished space don’t add up, there has to be a plan B: “We designed the menu for Al Soor but we had to review because the space we have back-of-house is tiny so we can’t really do a proper menu. We can’t implement the pasta or the soup so we have to do something else. We’ve had to review the menu three times. Make sure this one works, make sure that if we don’t have a heater for the plates that we have another solution,” he says.
As an executive chef for this level of hotel, Spriveri’s list of responsibilities is susbtantial. There are five restaurants plus banquet facilities and outside catering, and the chef is heavily involved in each project. The testing and fine-tuning is constant. A menu or a concept might work on paper but not in reality and the decison to change must be made quickly.
Spriveri recounts that the decision of how to curate the property’s F&B mix was a heavily researched one: “There is a study behind it all. A French restaurant or brasserie in this part of the world might not work.
“An Italian restaurant with this kind of concept is a first for Four Seasons and Sintoho is the second which is why I’m putting a major effort here because we set the tone and the standard. We need to give an identity to the restaurants, which is what we are doing.”
On the cusp of the official opening, the F&B teams seem to be on course. Spriveri affirms: “We’re doing great. There are lots of places where we need to perform better but again it’s a matter of time. It’s the guest who will tell us ’You’re on the right track’ or ‘You need to look at it’ and that’s human. We need to accept that people make mistakes and we need to learn.”
Italian concept Dai Forni is the first dining concept in the property to be up and running. He says: “As the first concept we are very proud because what we’re doing here is that we’re focusing on the taste. Maybe it’s not a ‘wow’ presentation but you know when you stand up from the table, many people remember the flavours. That’s important. That’s what you want. This is the Italian taste and culture.”
A scan of the menu indicates that Spriveri is a supporter of a return to a back-to-basics approach to Italian cuisine: “Nowadays we need to step back a little bit. Not to exaggerate and not to manipulate the food too much. That is the secret for me. The more we manipulate it, the more we alter the taste. And such extreme methods don’t work. We do a few things here but there is a limit. We don’t want to go too far. We want to keep the fundamentals of taste, which for me is my main purpose.”
Taste relies on using the right ingredients which aren’t readily available in the region at the height of summer but the chef has been resourceful: “Here it’s quite challenging but again it’s a matter of work and making the right effort at the right time. It’s almost six months that we are working on research, on talking to suppliers in Italy and seeing how easy and feasible it would be to import from Italy — especially for those items which we need to make our signatures like the flour for the pizza or the flour for the pasta, the rice for the risotto and the olive oil.”
The chef admits that he’s moving away from fine dining as a concept. He explains: “It’s not what people want. Maybe they travel outside Kuwait and go to London, and Paris and go to a three Michelin-starred restaurant where they don’t have a problem paying whatever it costs. In this part of the world, fine dining doesn’t work. People want to be free at the table, sharing their food. Put the fork there and grab a piece of beef or chicken or whatever and enjoy. We started to build an à la carte menu and then we realised that it didn’t work. We changed the menu and said ‘ok, let’s do all sharing’ so that was the right move because it allows people to dine family style.”
Current dining trends favour a back-to-basics but for Spriveri the thought process behind the concept was a nod to tradition and nostalgia: “That’s what they want. People like that in this part of the world because it’s in their culture. If I’m looking back to when I was a child and I have that Sunday supper at home, it was the same thing. My mum used to prepare a big platter, put it in the middle of the table and each one of us was picking up meatballs, cutlets and eating from there. Simple. So there’s nothing new but there’s a little bit of perfection. There’s a little bit of adjustment to the 21st century but there are roots.”
Once the menu and the approach for each venue was settled upon, they had to be implemented. This is what Spriveri currently spends his days doing: “My responsibilities are for the overall hotel. So I’m coming here in the evening, checking with the guys, the latest things that we need to check together, and then spend my night on the floor meeting with guests and talking to them. Getting feedback from local people helps us a lot. If we get a comment today, tomorrow it needs to be actioned. We don’t want guests to return and find the same mistake the next time they come. I want to always go forward.”
The hotel’s five outlets need to resonate with guests but they also need to deliver financially. Profitability is something that the chef has had to be conscious of at every turn: “That’s part of the job. Yes we need to have profit. Each outlet is responsible for its own profitability but in this part of the world where everything is imported, it’s a challenge. You cannot go over what is set by the market, you can charge a little bit more but the percentages are marginal. You need to know how to manage the whole picture.”
Importing produce is expensive and necessary in this part of the world but the chef plans to incorporate local produce in the menus wherever possible and has laid some groundwork with a Kuwaiti producer. He says: “We found a farm in Al Wafrah which is about two-and-a-half hours from here by car. You wouldn’t think it exists in Kuwait. It’s a beautiful place especially in the winter. They have a factory at the farm where they produce milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt.”
When the weather improves after the summer, the plan is to source the majority of the fresh produce locally. “In winter we have the possibility to source more vegetables. Right now, 50 or 60% of the production of vegetables and fruits has stopped because of the weather conditions. In the winter it’s completely different. In the winter, they have fantastic strawberries that they grow in the greenhouse and then they have cows, sheep, goats and camels. It’s really something,” says Spriveri.
Spriveri is passionate about raising awareness of Kuwaiti produce among the country's chef community: “I am part of the Kuwaiti chef association so I will bring that up in one of our meetings just to raise awareness among the chef community here in Kuwait because it’s important that they know what the country is able to produce.”
Though Kuwait City’s dining scene is renowned in the region, the chef is confident that the F&B offerings at the latest property in the Four Seasons portfolio have what it takes to stand up to their existing competitors and impress their discerning Kuwaiti, expat and tourist clientele: “I would say that this is set to become a dining destination. There’s nothing like this in the country. The level of the products here is very elevated. Nothing to complain about but it’s very difficult to make a comparison with competitors here in Kuwait because we’re talking about a big difference.”
“Now we’re here and we want to build that reputation. We have a beautiful view on the 21st floor over-looking the city and the Gulf area. We just opened Dai Forni, and Sintoho will be a completely different concept. It’s a blend of three different cuisines from Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong, blending the signature dishes of those three cities,” explains the chef.
The effort and expertise that has gone into the hotel’s F&B operations is evident and so is the care and thought. As he gets up to leave and get ready for service, Spriveri says: “You need to be passionate. The heart and the brain are two things that need to be connected. At the end of the day, it’s the people who make us successful. And that is the simple reason why we are here.”