By Lubna Hamdan
Three-Michelin-starred chef Heinz Beck talks Dubai's dining scene, economic challenges and retirement.
Heinz Beck likes to have the last word. That is what has helped him to acquire a total of three Michelin stars, become one of Europe’s most prominent chefs and stretch his gastronomic footprint to encompass seven restaurants across the world — including two in Dubai.
But the 53-year-old German Italian almost never became a chef.
“When I came to Italy in 1994, I was thinking of quitting cooking and taking over the family jewellery business," Beck says. "My father had multiple jewellery shops. He thought his only son would become an economist and take over the business. Today, 23 years have passed since I decided to become a chef instead."
“My father would have preferred for what he created to have been followed up," he continues. "A parent who was working all of his life to build a very beautiful and successful company only to discover that the one who could take over the reins could not, will never accept what the son is doing — even if he is successful. [But] I’m happy with where I am, because it was his company and he would have always had the last word if I had worked with him. And I’m not someone who likes someone else to have the last word.”
Resting his elbows on a table at a lavish suite in the Waldorf Astoria on Dubai's Palm Jumeirah, Beck says he has not exactly been working for himself.
Instead, he started and continued his career as an employed chef with Hilton Hotels and Resorts, beginning by heading up La Pergola restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri. Under Beck’s supervision, La Pergola became one of Italy’s first restaurants to acquire three Michelin stars and Rome’s only restaurant to hold the accolade for over ten years. Undoubtedly, the partnership worked well for Beck. But the chef insists it was beneficial for both parties.
“The work I was doing —being able to motivate my staff so I would not lose them every year, being in a luxury property, and [Hilton] investing in a food & beverage (F&B) idea — it was a win/win situation,” he explains.
“If you are hinging an international, privately-owned company on one individual, it’s very risky because this person very often becomes crazy or leaves you before you arrive at a situation where all investment has returned. It was very risky. But after 23 years, I’m still there. And if you look around the world, there are no Michelin-starred chefs who have been working in a company as an employed chef for 23 years,” says Beck.
Considering the success he has garnered, it is no wonder Beck stuck with Hilton. In 2012, the chef opened three restaurants in Italy including Heinz Beck Seasons at Ristorante Castello di Fighine and Casciano dei Bagni in Tuscany, as well as Café Les Paillotes in Pescara.
Also in 2012, he opened Gusto by Heinz Beck in the Algarve, Portugal, and took to the other side of the globe two years later to open Heinz Beck and Sensi by Heinz Beck in Tokyo. That same year, the chef again travelled far from home — this time to Dubai — to open fine dining concept Heinz Beck Social in 2014 and casual dining Taste of Italy in 2016.
Undoubtedly, he went the whole nine yards. But Beck almost never left Italy.
“I was working in Italy and had some restaurants in and around Italy. And the first 15 years I didn’t miss one service in the restaurant. I was always present. And something like seven years ago, an opportunity came up to open a restaurant in London. Initially, I didn’t want to take the opportunity. Then I thought, where am I going to go in the future?”
“Seeing a lot of my main competitors being globally present, in the end I said, let’s give it a try, what happens if I go abroad? And this was before the [global financial] crisis. Destiny is very important and I believe very much in destiny. There is the right moment to make the right choice, because after a few years the crisis came.
"In Rome, a lot of the restaurants, especially fine dining, were suffering a lot. And the fact that I was more and more present and had more restaurants in international markets during this period meant that I could get restaurants fully booked every day by having fewer Italian clientele. Normally, we had 70 to 75 percent local Italian clientele but there were periods when we dropped down to 65 percent. So if I didn’t open internationally, for sure I would have suffered very much during this period,” he says.
Beck threw caution to the wind when he decided to open not one but two restaurants in Dubai. But the chef says it was his partnership with Hilton that assured him the move would not be an mistake. Still, doing business in Dubai was not a piece of cake. Some of the challenges facing Beck included sourcing raw materials such as food. His biggest concern, however, was retention of staff. How does he manage to keep staff loyal?
“I give them something to believe in,” he replies. "A lot of people believe increasing salaries is a good way to keep staff. No — staff have to believe in a project with you. This is the best way to keep staff. Because today you might increase the salary and in a few months they might want another increase. And then you increase until the business is not working anymore because salary increases don’t necessarily bring benefit to all. In the hotel business, everybody has to win.
"One of the most important things I say to my chefs and what I have believed in since I started doing restaurants is that a restaurant is not a private home. It’s a business model and at the end of the year, it has to bring profitability,” he says.
With or without a staff issue, Beck’s restaurant business has undeniably experienced the wave of global economic downtown brought about by low oil prices, falling stock markets and slow worldwide growth.
“Generally, consumer spending has the biggest weak leak. There will always be moments when people are more willing to spend or are less willing to spend. So [the suggestion that spending drops in a downturn] is not necessarily true. This might be something exacerbated by the media. Because a person coming in a restaurant for social purposes is normally someone who is arriving with his salary, at the end of the month,” says Beck.
“Of course, if we are living in a moment where there is an [economic] boom, people are thinking less about saving and they will spend money more easily, whereas if you are hearing about Brexit, Russia down 50 percent, the Euro being weak, and fighting left, right and centre, people might be more scared of spending and they might spend a little more carefully,” says the chef.
Cooking a nice meal is the easiest part of weathering the storm. However, as Beck says, skills such as choosing the right people to put in the right places are much harder to accomplish.
At 53 years old, the German Italian has proved he can do a lot more than cook a decent dish. With three Michelin stars, a global presence and a reputation that precedes him, Beck has done well, and beyond. So where does he see himself in ten years’ time?
“On the beach taking sun, wouldn’t that be great? " he smiles. "No I’m joking. I don’t think that I will ever retire. Because I’m not doing this for glory or money. I’m doing my work because I love my work. My most beautiful moment is when I’m in the kitchen.”For all the latest gourmet news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.