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Sun 6 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

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Time to eat

Chefs from across the region swap hot tips and the recipe for success in kitchens across the Gulf.

Chefs from across the region swap hot tips and the recipe for success in kitchens across the Middle East.

What are the main challenges you face running your kitchen?Steven Benson-Flower:Staff shortage continues to be a problem in Dubai, and like other hotels, we too are affected. However when we recruit we are careful to choose the most qualified staff to ensure that we maintain the hotel's high standards, even if we are a team member down.

We also spend a lot of time on training and development as this is of prime importance when delivering consistency in quality.

Then there's the other ‘s' word - suppliers. Due to the high demand in Dubai, food items are often limited or unavailable, so as a hotel we consistently review our menus to ensure that we can always deliver what we have listed in our restaurants.

Ernst Frank:We do have a large F&B operation at the Beach Rotana, which includes 165 chefs in 14 kitchens. Therefore the shortage of readily available skilled staff is an ongoing problem.

Secondly we often face inconsistent supplies of food items, as many suppliers do not keep sufficient stocks. One of the main challenges in the banquet operation is the short-term planning of functions and constant last minute changes, which at the end of the day affects the quality of our products.

Luigi Gerosa:One of the main challenges that we are facing today is the consistent supply of high standard food products. We tend to spend a lot of time finding the right products, as well as making sure that the products we receive are of the best quality.

Hazem Arabiyat:General kitchen ‘know-how'. It is highly important that all kitchen staff, no matter their role within the kitchen, must possess basic kitchen knowledge. At Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea we ensure all staff receive training and hold qualifications from recognised hotel training colleges.

Shankar Paramasivam:Due to the flourishing hospitality industry in Dubai, one of the core challenges that I have faced is the quality of kitchen staff and manpower shortage.

As Angsana Hotel and Suites Dubai is at a pre-opening stage, there are not enough opportunities for the kitchen staff to obtain real-life experiences, compared to an operational hotel where they are able to learn on the job.

In addition, with the lack of established culinary schools in Dubai, there is a void in the pool of suitable recruits from the local market.

Geoff Haviland:One of the main challenges we currently face concerns equipment maintenance and replacement. Our hotel F&B outlets feature several open plan kitchens, where the operational equipment actually plays a major part in the overall identity of each restaurant.

Consequently, if any of these show kitchen items break down, it has a much more dramatic effect on the guest experience than if it occurred in a closed kitchen outlet.

Another of the major challenges affecting the whole kitchen operation is the continual price increase of all food items, both local and imported, which are driving food costs higher.

Also, with so many new and exciting projects coming on line in this region, we need to constantly challenge the quality and authenticity of the product we deliver daily.

And of course, the ever-present threat of staff being poached by other new opening projects is a challenge we deal with regularly.

What is your average food cost percentage, and what are you doing to minimise this?

Frank:Our food cost is quite different from outlet to outlet. It ranges from 27% to 42%, depending on the operation and position of the restaurant. We are aiming to close the year with an average food cost of 32%.

We are constantly monitoring the cost by having regular meetings, controlling wastage, stocks and portion size. Our philosophy is that besides the percentage number, the contribution margin is equally important.

I would like to first set the quality of the product and then see how to sell it, than let a set percentage cost dictate our quality.

Benson-Flower:Our food cost is 30.5%. We do several things to keep food cost percentages in check, one being smart purchasing - ensuring purchases do not go above the necessary levels to avoid wastage. We also evaluate our costs against daily revenue, ensure our stock is well maintained at a level according to business and communicate rising food costs to staff.

Paramasivam:Being at this pre-opening phase, where the emphasis is focused on quality of food rather than the bottom line, the average food cost ranges between 30% and 32%. However when the F&B outlets open, my kitchen team will gain more experience and hence more knowledge in pricing and the products available in the local market, which would contribute towards lowering food cost.

Haviland:My average overall food cost percentage is 35% year-to-date, but the increasing prices of raw ingredients and the lacklustre dollar exchange mean we are constantly under pressure to remain price competitive, while simultaneously offering a superior product.

Our commitment to our guests is to not compromise on the quality of the raw ingredients, so we must be clever in the way we manage our stock.

Of course, one of the best ways to prevent food cost blow-outs is to ensure your operation wastes nothing, so we hold regular training in waste prevention.

We also use a materials management system which allows me to look at each outlet's purchases individually, as well as giving a bird's-eye view, so I can look at overall expenditures and compare them to numbers of guests served.

What is your position on organic food? Would you like to see more of it in the region, or has it been over-hyped?

Arabiyat:Organic food options for dining are becoming quite popular, however many items aren't always available within our region. We are working with new suppliers to obtain organic products and creating new ways to incorporate various items within our menus.

Benson-Flower:Organic food is meant to have more flavour and be better for your health; however, it is more expensive and as it has a limited shelf life we cannot really carry organic produce in our hotel. In order to see more of it in the region, the prices need to be considered to make it more affordable for all.

Haviland:Whether you are a fan of organic food or not, it is much more than a fad, and it is growing in popularity worldwide. Personally, I am a fan of the processes involved in the production of organic food, in that they use creative farming techniques designed to encourage soil and water conservation, and reduce pollution. The use of weed killers and fertilisers is replaced with crop rotation and manure, for example.In today's climate-sensitive environment, I feel it is important we investigate methods that are not harmful to our surroundings. One of the biggest drawbacks associated with organic food is the inflated price, but if the farming techniques were used more extensively, then the prices would come down.

Frank:I believe that organic food is not a fashion, it is a reflection of a growing consciousness towards healthier living and cleaner environments. We need to distinguish between the commercialisation of the phrase "organic" and a genuine attempt to grow healthier food. So I personally would like to see more of it in the region, going hand in hand with the willingness to pay higher prices for it.

Gerosa:I would like to see a consistently better selection of fruits and vegetables with a great taste. When there is a good overall supply then we will be able to think more of organic food, especially fruits and vegetables.

Paramasivam:Personally, I believe that the usage and consumption of organically produced food products is fantastic, as it is all about flavours.

In India, there are major farming communities established so that organic produce is easily and readily available on a large scale - you could buy directly from the farmers.

However, the idea and practice has definitely been over-hyped in this region, as the prices charged for serving organic food is extremely high. In order to help further develop this lifestyle choice, larger farming communities need to be created, so that it becomes sustainable. What dishes do you find the most challenging in terms of sourcing ingredients and preparation?

Benson-Flower: The Argentinean government stopped exporting Latin American meat three months ago, so at our Latin American restaurant, Pachanga, we are now using the best quality American and Australian meat. Availability can be an issue.

Frank:In general it would be the dishes that are not "common" to this region. We do a lot of food festivals with other chefs and use their recipes. Quite often it takes us a while to get all the ingredients together. For these occasions I put a lot of pressure on our suppliers to come up with the right sources. Gerosa:The most challenging aspect is to actually source the basic nutrition. Sometimes the simplest thing is the most difficult to find. Arabiyat:For various food promotions showcasing international cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese and Mexican, we sometimes have to source ingredients from various locations outside of our region, however with forward planning and coordination with suppliers we can easily obtain the various items to ensure quality in all our dishes.

Paramasivam:In this region, the most challenging ingredients to find would be non-halal produce. For example, kobe beef from Japan could never be imported here, as authentic kobe beef does not meet the requirements for halal certification.

As such, whenever you see a menu advertising kobe beef, the truth is, a similar type of beef - but imported from another country - is being used. The challenge lies in being able to source substitute ingredients.

Haviland:We find it difficult to get many European dairy products, such as quark, clotted cream and crème fraiche in small quantities, which means we run the risk of wastage if we order in larger amounts.

We also find it difficult to source certain authentic Chinese ingredients to prepare traditional dishes. What trends are you witnessing in the industry at the moment? What are you doing to ensure that your offerings stay up to date?

Benson-Flower:I've noticed a development in cooking stations in all-day dining buffets across Dubai. Whilst the concept isn't new, show kitchens in restaurants have been redefined to become more exciting, colourful and modern because people enjoy interacting with chefs and watching their food get prepared.

At Hilton Dubai Jumeirah we strive to maintain the highest food standards in all our outlets by shopping around, picking up on other trends, developing new concepts and most importantly, paying close attention to our guests and their tastes.

Frank:There are different trends like focusing on fresh produce, organic, molecular gastronomy and "back to basics". We are not promoting any one of these trends, but of course they do have an influence in what we are doing.

We conduct guest surveys almost constantly and change menus very often. That will ensure that we are up to date for the market in Abu Dhabi.

Gerosa:Today's trend is definitely "back to basic"; it is definitely passé to have superb looking restaurants with the most expensive concept and average food and service. Basic does not mean easy or boring, it means a proper foundation and top execution.

At Burj Al Arab we focus on food quality; therefore we attract and hire the best chefs and we want to ensure that we give an excellent experience to our guests. I travel quite a lot in Asia and Europe to see what is happening and to spot the trends.

I think that we have done a great job in adapting the latest trends to our kitchen, and we have good feedback from our guests.

Last year we successfully launched Junsui, an authentic Asian restaurant, and we have several new chefs that have joined our team helping to ensure the food quality at our restaurants has become even better than it was before.

Arabiyat:We keep up-to-date with advances in the food industry, researching latest trends and adapting innovations to our menus. Organic food is becoming quite popular, along with healthy food options such as low-fat recipes and nutritious meals.

Guests are tending to focus on well-being and are becoming more health -conscious diners.

Paramasivam: There is a recent trend towards modern gastronomy, which essentially refers to food packed with flavours but constructed and presented in a minimalistic way within a limited space.

It is a new approach towards refining food, where the focus is on the science of food preparation rather than the pleasure of dining.

However, it may not be wholly embraced on a commercial level as it is difficult to reproduce at home, since it is almost like cooking in a laboratory.

At Angsana Hotel and Suites Dubai, aside from the new and exciting concepts we are developing for our upcoming F&B outlets, our primary focus would be on time reduction for food preparation to serving in order to ensure the maximum freshness, and hence taste of food ordered by guests.

It is basically about adapting the concept of modern gastronomy with full flavours.

Haviland:Every new property seems to be embracing the concept of interactive dining, where the guest is able to liaise directly with the chefs, and therefore provide an enhanced dining experience.

Food travel [is also a trend]. Tours and trips planned around food experiences, a country's cuisine or cooking lessons were once just for dedicated foodies, but now they are attracting ordinary vacationers.

Local, fresh, natural and organic influences are also a trend. The focus on these factors is affecting every level and aspect of food, from farmers markets to convenience stores, even fast-food chains.

We at InterContinental are offering our guests "In The Know" experiences, where we focus on local knowledge, products and experiences that can be incorporated into their stay.

For example, one of our outlet chefs will take them to the local market, then prepare a meal with them of their choice. Our guest amenities and coffee breaks also follow this theme. There has been talk about a high-profile hotel in Cairo going "dry" recently, at the owner's insistence. If your outlets became alcohol-free, what impact would that have on your menu selection?

Benson-Flower:I think we would have to adopt a slightly different approach to dining by offering more of an Arabian experience at one of our outlets. Pachanga for instance offers mainly meat and seafood dishes, which go best with wine - this concept would perhaps need revisiting. The menus across our outlets may also have to adapt accordingly. Frank:We do not use alcohol in too many of our dishes, just if it's necessary for the recipe. Therefore it would have no impact at first. However, some of our outlets are upscale and exist with wine and food paired together.

I assume that these concepts would not work any more and it would also change the menu selection.

Gerosa:If that happened then we would definitely change some of our menu concepts, but I'm sure we would adapt quite easily to any requests.

Arabiyat:From a food preparation point of view, we are already preparing food without the use of alcohol.

Paramasivam:It all depends on the type of food that the restaurant serves. For example, for French cuisine where wine pairing is part of the dining experience, this would have a heavy impact.

Furthermore, for dishes that require cooking with wine, they may be excluded from the menu. In addition, without wine the full flavour potential of a dish may not be realised and tasted.

Traditional cuisine such as Thai, Indian or Middle Eastern where alcohol does not play a role, would fare better.

Haviland:It would actually not affect our menu selection too much, as we are able to substitute white wine with verjus, and we can use a balance of vinegar and fruit juices to replicate the effect of red wines in various preparations.

Having said that, we feature two French restaurants, so it would definitely affect the authenticity of some dishes.

What impact would going dry have on your bottom line/profitability?

Benson-Flower:It would mean lower revenues and therefore reduced profits. It may also have an affect on staffing levels.

Frank:Certainly [it would have] a big impact. We have beverage outlets like the Brauhaus and the Ma Tai bar that would not work without alcohol.

Paramasivam:Generally, as beverage sale accounts for 60% of restaurant billings verses 40% for food sale, going "dry" would see a lower profit margin.

Haviland:We currently have three very busy bar operations, and considering that 40% of our guests are from countries that are alcohol-friendly, it would have a major impact on our overall F&B profit margin. What has been the most unusual dish you have had a guest request?

Benson-Flower:I can't think of anything here at Hilton Dubai Jumeirah, however back in South Africa, I had a strange request from a food scientist regarding a 400-person Scientology gala dinner.

Everything we made was unusual - blue sushi for example, made out of blue rice! Also as a main course, we prepared a chicken and noodle dish that was wrapped in a cellophane bag and popped in the oven for a brief amount of time and at a certain temperature.

When it was served at the table - the bag puffed up giving the dish this funky sort of look. The noodles tasted normal though!

Frank:Just a few weeks ago I was asked to provide seal meat - a request which we declined.

Gerosa:I have been asked to prepare eggless "Béarnaise" sauce and a "well done" Carpaccio. Arabiyat:[I have been asked for] tramazini (round flat bread) stuffed with apple wood smoked salmon.

Paramasivam:The most unusual request that I have ever received was from a guest in Cambodia. A Russian businessman who was staying in the Presidential Suite wanted an exotic local dish prepared specially every night.

For the next 10 days, my team and I created dishes using ingredients such as stir-fried crickets.

Haviland:We recently had a guest request a burnt black toast sandwich, totally carbonised. Apparently, it makes your teeth white.

What changes (if any) are you planning for your menu in the next six-12 months?

Benson-Flower:We will soon be adding more rustic, South American dishes to the Pachanga menu. At Oceana, our international all-day dining restaurant, we are currently working on changing the daily theme nights; we will be introducing new themes whilst retaining some of the old favourites such as the steak-night and Arabic-night.

We are also adding a new kitchen to Wavebreaker, our beach bar and grill, which will allow us to offer even more variety, including light and healthy options.

Frank:All menus will be changed at least once every six months. We will go through the process of evaluating guest feedback and menu engineering to decide on new dishes.

Gerosa:We change our menus three to four times a year, according to the guest feedback we receive and the season. In addition to that, the chefs' skills and style help us to create impressive menus.

Arabiyat:We aim to update our menus every six months. We start with a menu analysis, which assists us to gauge our more popular dishes, and then we commence menu engineering. It's an important process to ensure we continue to evolve as our guests evolve.

Haviland: Iwill review all the room service menus over the next three months, and make appropriate changes based on sales figures.

Instead of just offering food items, I would like to incorporate our "In The Know" experience into the room service, as well as look at more regular cooking class options for guests. We are also planning a guest chef calendar for our outlets, so we will adjust all menus according to the highlighted cuisines.

We also plan to introduce special one-off customised menus for individuals, to be eaten in all sorts of different areas around the hotels, which would offer the guest a unique dining experience.

What could be done at your hotel to make your daily work easier?

Benson-Flower:I could get a personal secretary!

Gerosa:I guess that most chefs would answer the same: to have additional kitchen facilities. Regardless of how many facilities you have in your kitchen, you always need more.

Arabiyat:Communication is the key to success within any line of work; hotels especially require clear lines of communication, as there are so many departments working together to reach overall success.

Paramasivam:I would not change anything, as I believe that easy work is a state of mind. However something to make my job more efficient, would be the establishment of a website or guide on the best produce available in the local market.

In the US for example, a web portal - working very much like the stock market - was set up where food suppliers could upload data on what was in stock and buyers, primarily chefs, could enter to purchase whatever they required.

Haviland:There would be no more unnecessary emails; a larger receiving area and sanitising room, with extra large receiving chillers and freezers; and better coordination between our receiving department and suppliers to ensure regular delivery times.

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