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Sun 1 Apr 2007 03:27 PM

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If you can’t stand the heat…

The kitchen is no place for those that can't stand hard work. The region's chefs discuss the various day-to-day challenges they face.

What are the main challenges of running a kitchen?

Christopher Stephens

:

Keeping your team focused and motivated, consistent availability of quality products, and trying to establish consistent product pricing, which requires consistent recipe food costs.

We have a firm focus on the training and development of team members to keep them interested and focused, and this ultimately results in a smooth, efficient operation.

Geoff Haviland:

At our new development in Dubai Festival City, we will actually be opening nine restaurants, and two staff cafeterias, so the range of challenges faced by our team will be quite varied, as each venue will have its own identity.

However, some of the more general challenges are things like remaining true to the original design concept of each restaurant, while still maintaining budget parameters and without compromising the end product.

In addition, sourcing all the relevant operating equipment, paying particular attention to price versus quality, and finding tableware items not used in too many other venues around town will be a priority.

And of course, a challenge inherent within our industry is finding all the great staff that are perfectly suited to the venue.

We spend a great deal of time and effort trying to match people to particular positions because, at the end of the day, people are the biggest differentiators between restaurants.

Evdoxios Doxis Bekris:

The important thing is always the design of the whole kitchen and how functional it is operations-wise.

Another challenge is to identify and find the proper equipment to put in it - equipment that fits the needs and food concept.

However, at Kempinski, we believe that it's all about the people, so the key to our success is to find the right people for the right positions.

Once you do that, then everything will fall in to place and any challenges that might come along will be manageable and minimal.

Uwe Micheel:

The main challenge of running a kitchen is keeping up team motivation and overall good spirit, but sourcing the best quality of food products is also a challenge.

Andreas Kurfürst:

The main challenge in running a kitchen is the short turn around time we have to prepare the food.

Even though we know our restaurant meal timings, the food has to be prepared fresh, so there's always pressure around that time.

Another challenge we often face is that sometimes we are given a very limited time to prepare food for a function that has just been confirmed, as these are often booked right at the last minute in this market.

Patrick Boucher:

Ensuring kitchen staff produce and present dishes consistently. Also, for front of house, the challenge is informing and educating servers on the menu so that they understand the make-up of each dish and can clearly communicate these offerings to our guests.

Andrew Joyce:

Dubai is a very demanding city when it comes to last minute changes and last minute events, unfortunately, however, the supply chain is not the same.

What is your average food cost percentage and how can you minimise this?

Stephens:

Currently we are running at 34%. In order to better results, we try to consolidate certain purchases for dry and frozen goods, and we source discounts on fresh seasonal produce through bulk buying.

This is over and above the good kitchen practices, correct recipes, minimising wastage and proper rotation of stock that we try to practise on a day-to-day basis to keep costs down.

Bekris:

Our average food cost is between 27% and 31%.

You can minimise food cost percentages by proper food handling, minimising food wastages, and with proper staff training regarding maximum usage of ingredients.

Micheel:

We are pretty much in line with the average hotel market in terms of food cost, with approximately 32.5%, however it varies from one month to another.

In general, minimising food cost could be achieved by purchasing products at the best available price in the market, and by minimising operational wastage through staff training.

However, minimising food cost should not be the key driver in a hotel operation, as keeping high revenue and quality automatically result in a balanced food cost.

Kurfürst:

Our average food cost percentage is 31%.

Minimising food cost is always tricky, as you either need to compromise on quality - buying cheaper items that are not of very good quality - or on value for money - where the final cost of the food item is high to balance out the cost.

I believe, however, that your food cost can be stabilised by simply reducing wastage and utilising an item to the maximum.

Also, another thing to keep in mind is that buying good quality items can actually work out to be more cost effective than buying cheaper ones, as they last longer and taste better.

Carlo Cirone:

For me, the quality of what we present to our guests is far more important than my food cost.

Of course, we are here to do business, however, and it is necessary to achieve a reasonable balance between cost and quality, but we do not compromise on our quality standards.

Joyce:

Our average food cost is 26%. Any lower would be damaging to the food quality.

Do you manage to use organic food supplies in your menu?

Stephens:

We have a limited number of organic supplies at this stage, but as we move forward we will try to increase our repertoire.

Haviland:

Having spent quite a lot of time in Australia and the UK, where organic food is becoming increasingly prominent, both on restaurant menus and on the supermarket shelves, I can fully appreciate the benefits offered by these foods.

Organic foods have many benefits, with no hidden ingredients, no genetic modification, an authentic taste and, because of intercropping or mixing crops, they minimise the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Therefore, I can say that featuring organic produce on our menus is a priority for me.

Of course, one must also take into account the cost factor introduced when using such foods, so each menu should be balanced to offer the diner a choice.

Bekris:

If you want to run an operation with organic products, this needs to be marketed ahead of the restaurant's opening in order to create some awareness in the market.

Failure to do this will affect food costs very badly, as organic products are really expensive and you cannot afford to buy them if you won't be able to sell them.

In our property, we do use some organic products but those are limited to certain meal periods, when we know our guests will appreciate them.

For example, we use organic honey for the breakfast buffet, some types of organic flour for bread and even some organic olive oil as a salad dressing.

Micheel:

Organic food is still very much in its infancy in the catering industry, especially in the Middle East.

Kurfürst:

It depends on the request, really. At the Renaissance we try to recognise the need of the hour, and all of our menus feature a separate section called "Eat, Drink, Balance", which comprises low fat, low cholesterol and low carbohydrates.

If people have a certain dietary requirement, we adjust our recipes to satisfy their needs where possible.

Joyce:

I like to use organic produce wherever we can.

For me it's important, as I used to be involved in organic produce in Scotland in a huge way. However, the Dubai market is still a little slow on the uptake in this area.

What dishes present the most challenges in terms of preparation and ingredients sourcing?

Stephens:

I would say sourcing consistent and good quality Asian ingredients. This needs a little time, as our requests have gone further than some standard ingredients that are used everywhere, in order to give us a broader menu selection with appropriate and authentic items.

Bekris:

Nowadays, everything can be imported from all over the world. However, the biggest challenge I have faced here in Dubai is in having consistency in the delivery of imported fresh seafood and meat cuts from Europe or America.

On the other hand, in terms of preparation, fish and seafood are very easy ingredients to cook. Although, having said that, because they are very delicate, the slightest mistake in undercooking or overcooking can lead to a total disaster.

Micheel:

Any authentic dish made from an ingredient that is sourced from a specific region is a challenge.

The fact is that the simplest dish can be challenging.

Even just getting the right tabbouleh or spaghetti bolognese can be difficult because every city, every village and every household has its own way of cooking things.

Kurfürst:

Preparing ethnic and traditionally styled food is definitely more of a challenge. We usually have a stock of vendors from whom we can source these ingredients.

Cirone:

Fresh products are obviously a challenge to source. It takes time, energy and effort to find the kind of products we are happy to present to our guests.

What culinary trends have you seen developing in the region recently and how are you trying to incorporate them?

Stephens:

I cannot speak for the Gulf region, of course, but here in Syria I see a greater interest and demand for Asian food beyond the very basic Chinese fare currently available locally.

This can probably be attributed to the fact that a great number of our guests travel frequently.

There is also the perception that healthier eating habits, coupled with well-advertised lifestyle trends, have seen people beginning to ask more questions and becoming more aware of their health.

As a result, we use more steaming, poaching and dry grilling in our cuisine. Apart from the health factor, this also means that, with a lot of our dishes, the finished item is more aesthetically pleasing.

Haviland:

I think that one of the outstanding trends we are experiencing in the region is the modern Arabic cuisine - a fusion of Arabic cooking techniques and flavours, presented with a western approach.

This is very exciting, especially from a banqueting perspective, as it allows more finesse in our presentation, without compromising the beautiful flavours and textures one finds in Arabic cuisine.

The average traveller is better educated and more food-savvy than before, so we as restaurant operators need to offer authentic cuisines that focus on real flavours .We need to employ chefs who specialise in their national cuisine, and offer greater guest-chef interaction to accommodate the guests' wishes.

The guest wants quality dining where diversity and value are offered side by side. Our all-day-dining venue will feature an à la carte and buffet menu highlighting eight regional cuisines, each one true to its heritage.

Micheel:

An ongoing trend still seems to be the healthy choice of dishes, but I'm sure that my colleagues in the industry would agree that this trend is more words on paper than it is practiced in real life.

The simple reason for this is that the majority of people's perception is that a really healthy dish is not usually tasty enough.

Kurfürst:

The trend is moving towards "back to basics", serving a food item as naturally as possible to maintain its natural flavour and nutrients.

Cirone:

I have noticed some trendy enhancements in terms of buffet design - it has become more contemporary and modern, taking into consideration the diversity in the population and the demands of the clientele nowadays.

Boucher:

Despite being relatively new to the region, I am amazed by the volume of dining options in Dubai and how quickly hotels either renovate or implement new outlet concepts into their F&B programmes.

Joyce:

There seems to be more demand for new-style Asian concepts, similar to the Hakassan restaurant in London. People in Dubai are looking for trendy restaurants.

How many people work in your department and how often do you conduct training with them?

Stephens:

I have a brigade of 87 people and we conduct scheduled weekly and monthly training, and at present, we have some chefs at the hotel from other properties within the group to further enhance our training and to help us achieve our goals.

Basically, our kitchen-related training is directly focused on product improvement, development and consistency and of course we also have Four Seasons' corporate in-house training, which is very thorough and educates staff on the Four Seasons' culture, ethics and core standards.

Haviland:

When we are at full strength, the kitchen department will number a total of 200 staff, with around another 80 stewards. I am currently working on the induction and training plans for my team, which will incorporate menu content, recipes, standard operating procedures, food hygiene, equipment safety and cultural awareness.

Bekris:

In total at the property we have around 650 people and, of this number, 120 are chefs and 35 are stewards.

This is a large number of people, and for that reason, training plays a big role - we conduct monthly training in many different subjects for all the kitchen staff, from food safety and basic cooking skills to customer satisfaction and cost saving practices.

Micheel:

My department consists of 130 cooks and 50 stewards. On-the-job training is conducted on a daily basis by the respective supervisors and team leaders.

I believe that training is very important in any operation, but I do not favour large group training sessions - smaller groups are more effective.

Kurfürst:

My department has 56 chefs and 18 stewards.

Training is conducted twice daily, which is a Marriott requirement. In addition we also have a monthly department meeting.

Cirone:

I have a 50-strong team of cooks. The training goes on every hour of the day, and twice a week we hold organised training on certain culinary areas.

Boucher:

We have 33 staff and have about five more positions to fill.

For our outlets that aren't open yet, we're working through the menu training, trial feedings plus taking advantage of an assortment of human resources training programmes.

Joyce:

I have approximately 400 staff and they have daily training sessions of 30 minutes each.

How does working in the Middle East compare to other places you've worked?

Stephens:

Personally, I believe that working in the Middle East is great for building character - it is very unique and changing rapidly.

From a culinary perspective, a chef can add a great deal to their repertoire here, as there is a great deal to learn.

For me, it has been a great experience. Working with Arabic people has given me a first-hand insight into the area and its challenges.

I believe the depth of the talent in this region is remarkable and needs further nurturing. You can't really compare this area to anywhere else, as it's so special in terms of its product, atmosphere and, most importantly, its people.

Haviland:

In terms of the sense of urgency and constant change, the Middle East reminds me a lot of Hong Kong. This feeling of energy, vitality and growth seems to permeate every project in the region, as if things cannot be done fast enough.

In terms of food and beverage, I think that this region still has a way to go before it can match London or Hong Kong, but to be fair, astonishing progress has been made in a relatively short period of time here.

The affordability of labour in the Middle East means that we can still do most of our food preparation in-house, whereas in Australia and Germany, where I have worked in the past, the high price of skilled labour has forced many commercial kitchens to outsource a lot of their food production. This in itself has resulted in a "dumbing down" of the kitchen workforce, because there are no establishments that can afford to employ the necessary people to perform the basics of cookery.

Bekris:

The Middle East is a very unique place to be. It has its own cultural approach, from the people in the street markets to the working mentality of each company.

The rhythm of life and work is very fast, and if you fail to keep up then you are probably not cut out for this market. However, if you can make it here in Middle East, then you can make it anywhere.

Micheel:

One of the biggest differences between working in the Middle East and abroad is the very long working hours.

As well, employees in the Middle East tend to need more training and development, but I see a stronger commitment here then anywhere else I've worked.

Kurfürst:

I definitely find it more challenging compared to Europe, as here you have to be very innovative and improvise more in order to survive here.

People are getting more savvy and cautious about food quality and, due to globalisation, exotic food and more creative and innovative concepts are in demand.

There is also a greater flexibility in working hours here. People are more accommodating when it comes to getting the job done compared to the European market.

Cirone:

Dealing with different nationalities and different tastes gives Dubai its originality.

Working with so many different nationalities in the kitchen is more exciting as it creates a fusion of ideas and different cooking styles.

Moreover, unlike Europe, Dubai offers diverse types of restaurants within the hotels.

Boucher:

I am amazed at the cultural diversity of the work force we have here. It makes for exciting, creative dynamic kitchens.

Joyce:


I have worked in slow moving countries, and very demanding cities, but here, anything is possible. And so it should be - if Dubai wants to be a market leader it should only have the best people, who are prepared to push the boundaries in order to put the city on the map.

What do you feel could be improved in your department to help things run more smoothly?


Joyce:

More skilled labour.

Stephens:

I have found that here, more personal ownership, initiative, and responsibility from the local senior chefs would help us to establish more consistency and a better quality of product, as well as with mentoring the younger staff.

Instilling a sense of personal responsibility and accountability for all operational aspects will inevitably help us improve.

Bekris:

The biggest challenge we have is the language barrier when we try to explain something to our team members from other countries.

In our property, we are proud to say that we have 49 different nationalities and in my kitchen there are 23.

Commitment and dedication is a must for our team members, and for us, and we try to make people love the work and do it from the heart, not just because they have to.

Micheel:

There is always room for improvement but, like most of my colleagues, my wish list is simple. It includes constant updates of our equipment, better quality food products, and more holidays.

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