Font Size

- Aa +

Sun 8 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

The fame game

Executive chef Matt Pickop may count the Beckhams as his customers but he’s more interested in getting his braised onions just right, says Madeleine Collins.

Executive chef Matt Pickop may count the Beckhams as his customers but he’s more interested in getting his braised onions just right, says Madeleine Collins.

Interviewing Matt Pickop is giving me a guilt complex. I'm ten minutes into quizzing him and I can't stop asking about someone else.

The truth is, Pickop is famous by association. Not that the amiable Brit isn't interesting in his own right. At just 29, he's risen to the prestigious rank of executive chef of Verre by Gordon Ramsay at the Hilton Dubai Creek hotel. But truth be told, I'm here to dig about his boss.

"So has Gordon ever sworn at you?" I enquire. Pickop just smiles and shrugs. Ramsay has of course gained worldwide fame thanks to his show The F Word.

"He's been getting a bit of a lashing from the UK press hasn't he?" I say in reference to the recent kiss and tell tales of women who've claimed to have had an affair with the married father of four. No response. I'm getting nowhere, and fair enough. Pickop obviously doesn't want to lose his job and he is professionalism personified. I change focus slightly.

"Any interesting celeb stories?" I ask calmly, knowing he has fed the palates of a galaxy of A-listers in his eleven year career at some of the world's most glamorous eateries. To this I get a lengthy response about how celebrities are just the same as any other customer, which could be translated to "dream on".

And then a breakthrough. "There's the Beckhams, of course," muses Pickop, all of a sudden. Aha. I can't believe I missed that one. Beckham was recently in Dubai training with AC Milan with Posh in tow, and they're close friends with Ramsay and his wife Tana.

"Did they dine here on that trip?" A pause. "Maybe," he answers, with a sly smirk. He's good.

Pickop's culinary journey began by chance. At age 18, he was studying film and photography at London's Guildhall University but was feeling disillusioned. "I was a year and a half into my course and I hadn't even set foot in a dark room," he explains.

"I'm a practical person and when I got there it was all books." Back then there were no university grants or loans, says Pickop. "It was the gap year when Labour took over and they stopped everything."

He paid for his accommodation by working for a catering agency at major events. "I was expected to copy what others were doing - plating food for thousands of people. It was pretty simple but I enjoyed it. I gradually realised I enjoyed it a lot more than university, which I was putting money into and not getting anything out of it."

Pickop's first full time job was at the London celebrity haunt, Teatro restaurant, so it's little wonder that he harbours no giddy feelings for such entities. Next, he joined Ramsay himself at Claridges in London where he became the junior sous chef.

Three years later he was on holiday in the UAE when he fell in love with the local culture and climate, and he made the move to senior sous chef at Verre, Ramsay's first signature restaurant outside of the UK.

Pickop was promoted to executive chef at the Hilton Dubai Creek at the end of 2007, and today oversees all three restaurants in the hotel.

He may be at the top of his game but he's eager to spread his knowledge, which is why he'll be hosting masterclasses at Verre starting this month, in which he'll teach cooking enthusiasts the tricks of his trade as they master a ‘three-course Gordon Ramsay meal'.

"So, do you shout and swear at your staff?" I cajole. "Never. I don't use foul language," he responds, with a hearty laugh. I'm not sure if he's having me on.

"Ten years ago it was the norm of an angry chef - the persona of chefs to scream and shout. A lot of that has faded away, even with Gordon. It's become a great TV thing, but viewers don't see the work leading to that. You can spend all day grading onions so they're all exactly the same size, and braise them off so they're all exactly the same colour, and then you leave the pan on the stove and burn the leeks."

He pauses as the mere thought seems to momentarily stress him out. "They mostly film the last five minutes when you can mess everything up," he concludes.

The menu at Verre is based around European seasons and there have been challenges. Three years ago, sourcing local produce was a "bit shaky", but Taste of Dubai and the Gulf Food show have helped, says Pickop.

"There's an amazingly large lack of a food culture here. When I arrived, dinner was either fast food dining or your local schwarma place on the corner. Great restaurants have blown up out of nowhere, but we were the first seven years ago."

Today his regular customers include Sheikhs. "It's quite an accolade," he says, with obvious pride. "When you come to someone's country and cook your own food and have them congratulate you and tell you you've changed their mind about European food - that's important to me."

As I depart Verre, I take a stab at the rumour that the Ramsay clan are moving to Dubai. "It's a distinct possibility," he says, to my surprise. "They'll probably move next door to the Beckhams." You heard it here first.

For all the latest travel 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.