Questions of Taste: Benoît Witz

Benoît Witz takes over the reins at the world’s first organic Michelin-starred restaurant

Monaco might be famed for being a favourite playground of the world’s elite, but scratch below the glossy surface of the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel and it’s surprising to find that sustainability is at its core. The five-star property has spent more than ten years developing and promoting what it calls “green luxury”, from reducing its water consumption to purchasing clean energy. It’s made further strides this year with the implementation of two new policies to preserve the local wildlife; an underwater positive biodiversity reef dyke has been created 100 metres from the shore to protect the beach and allow the development of marine life, and the Pointe de la Vigie and its pine forest has been recently classified as an LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) bird refuge and is home to 15 protected species.

But it’s organic restaurant Elsa which remains the hotel’s best known example of its sustainable work; international interest piqued when it gained a Michelin star back in 2014, making it the first 100 percent organic restaurant in the world to do so. As well as the produce being wholly organic it is also locally sourced, mainly from the Jardin des Antipodes in Menton, which supplies Elsa with aromatic herbs and fruit, and the team at the Domaine d’Agerbol in Roquebrune Cap Martin, who take a farm to fork approach by delivering fresh produce directly to the restaurant. The arrival of Benoît Witz comes at a time when the hotel is looking to push Elsa further forward, not only with a new menu but also by expanding the restaurant’s circle of local producers – including converting Chef Witz’s own vegetable garden to organic standard – to showcase even more of the region’s seasonal produce, wine, and local specialties.

Here, Chef Witz speaks to Port about what Monaco has to offer gastronomically, the challenges of a sustainable kitchen, and why Michelin stars are still important.

One of your first tasks at Elsa has been to launch the new summer menu. What seasonal ingredients do you enjoy working with at the moment?

The launch of the menu for the summer season began on July 3 and so during this period vegetables from the kitchen garden were in the spotlight, such as courgette, aubergine, fennel, and especially tomatoes. We have different varieties of tomatoes with some unusual names such as the Green and Red Zebra, the White Beauty, Andine Cornue (also known as Horn of the Andes), La Cœur de Bœuf (beefsteak, or literally, beef heart tomatoes), Pineapple, Black Crimea, and even Red Currant tomatoes.

What local dishes can we expect to see on the menu?

The local dishes are variations of tomatoes, such as a cold tomato fondue flavoured with basil, and quarters of differently flavoured and coloured tomatoes which are decorated with a brunoise and shavings of peach and nectarine. There is also squid stuffed with a gamberoni from San Remo known as viola, which is accompanied by melting fennel, grilled tomato and served in shellfish juices, without forgetting the sea fennel shoots. For dessert, we highlight our seasonal fruits without using added sugar, for example red fruits served with a biscuit of pain de gènes and a rocket and Roua honey sorbet, which is made with honey from the Société des Bains de Mers’ beehives (the group which owns the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel) in Guillaume.

What did you learn working under Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse?

I started with Monsieur Paul when I was very young, maybe too young to understand really; it was very difficult for a young man of 17 to keep up with the pace and demands of the three-star level. What I remember from this period in the kitchen is the great classics of French cuisine, working in a team, and having a respect for the hierarchy. Then came Alain Ducasse, who is very innovative, and this is where I discovered Mediterranean cuisine and a refined but surprising selection of dishes; lobster, Mediterranean sea bass and caviar were being offered alongside rabbit porchetta, stuffed pig’s trotters, hake, and stockfish. In addition to all of this we already had a very popular garden menu to prepare, to the despair of the team in charge of vegetables!

You will be working with nearby farms and vineyards to supply Elsa’ with its organic produce. What is the surrounding region good at growing, rearing, and producing?

We work with artisans close to Monaco, in particular fruit and vegetable producers, fishermen, and winegrowers in Bellet. The Nice hinterland also supplies us with various products from the region, such as cheese from the Vésubie valley and Mercantour. For rearing, it is more difficult, but we do have lamb from the Pré Alps.

And your own vegetable garden in Beausoleil will also be one of the suppliers for Elsa, is that right?

Yes, the Beausoleil vegetable garden is currently in organic conversion, so for this year we’re not lucky enough to be able to cultivate it, but it won’t be long.

Has getting “hands on” and growing your own produce influenced your cuisine?

Definitely. Having my own garden increases the inspiration to elaborate on the menu. Using seasonal products from the surrounding area really affects what is being cooked, and it helps me to innovate and offer clients the best dishes with simple and tasty produce.

The current global pandemic seems to have encouraged us all to think more about sustainability in our own daily lives. Do you think it will have any long-lasting impact on gastronomy?

I think Elsa is the perfect example of a Michelin-starred restaurant that is more invested in reducing its impact on the ecosystem and focusing on sustainability. Here at Elsa we have already realised that any action we take has an impact on nature and we’ve been focusing our efforts on sustainability for seven years; now the pandemic has highlighted the importance of it all over the world. So for example, we try to limit transportation by buying locavore, which also helps keep the local economy going. We try to make as little waste as possible. We pay attention to the environment and respect the product, working with it from head to toe. And above all, we make sure to listen to the organic artisan producers that we work with. We’re lucky here because we’re in a beautiful region rich in produce, but it’s up to us to promote these products and help our clients appreciate them.

Do you think other Michelin-star restaurants will start making the move towards working only with organic produce?

Yes, other restaurants are becoming increasingly involved in offering responsible cuisine, and have also been awarded stars. Offering food from farm to fork or from producer to consumers is definitely the trend right now, and more and more common.

Do you think Michelin stars are still important?

I think the stars are very important for a clientele seeking an experience, an emotion. At Elsa, combining the art of the table, gastronomy and well-being in an exceptional setting for guests is part of our heritage.

What would you like to achieve at Elsa?

For restaurant Elsa, I would love to go to the guests’ table without a menu, to show them and talk to them about the exceptional products that we have, and then using these products and what the guests like, compose an exclusive menu for them. But it’s a real challenge. I have in mind the idea of a casino table, with the starting stake being the produce and where the “stake” increases according to the guests’ choices of wine and food. But more concretely, I would love to delight all the guests at restaurant Elsa with Mediterranean cuisine.

montecarlosbm.com

Questions of Taste: Anthony Heard

The founder and cheesemaker-in-chief at Kupros Dairy discusses design, dialect and the challenges of making Cypriot cheese in London

Hand made Anglum cheese

An industrial estate. A densely populated suburb in North London. It’s not the natural habitat of your typical artisanal cheesemaker. Pop down to your nearest deli, and you’re more likely to find wheels of cheddar and soft, herby pats of goat’s cheese than you are a pack of Anthony Heard’s blancmange-looking Anglum cheese.

But then Anthony Heard is not your typical artisanal cheesemaker, and he has no interest in being so. Half Cypriot, the cheeses he makes have been passed down from his great-grandmother. Sure, he’s London born and bred, but his calling in life is to translate his great-grandmother’s largely anecdotal recipes into delicious, award-winning, every day cheese. 

You left university as a qualified graphic designer. Now you’re a cheesemaker in London. What lead you here? 

It is an interesting mix of wants, needs and desires. I graduated back in 2011 and quickly found myself in an internship, but I couldn’t live off it. On top of that, I felt the creative industry in London had become a bit flat. I worked for a few years in these hostile conditions, but then thought what is the point: I can’t afford rent, and I’m putting a lot of time and effort into other peoples projects. At the same time, I was making sourdough at home, and really enjoyed the process. One afternoon I overheard my Cypriot relatives talking about old village recipes, and eventually we got onto discussing my great-grandmothers cheese.

Did you know you great-grandmother was a cheesemaker? 

Not at all. At first I couldn’t understand why we’d not talked about it, but back in those days, making cheese was not at all exceptional or glamorous. It was just a necessity. I realised I had something in my family that I was very passionate about. The British food scene was gaining momentum, and people were starting to talk about stuff being made properly once more. So I cracked on with trying to make it – not to sell, just because I was curious.

Anglum cheese


Where did you find the recipe, if it’s not written down and it’s hard to get hold of? 

I tried to replicate word of mouth recipes from my family, but they made absolutely no sense to me. The Cypriot dialect is complex, and it doesn’t conform to the language of mainland Greece. The number of translatable recipes is tiny. It was only when I bought some dairy science books to understand the principles of cheesemaking that the anecdotes people told me started to make sense.

How many goes did it take to get right? 

Countless. I started off with milk from the supermarket (pasteurised and homogenised) and it was atrocious, so I travelled the country to get enough raw sheep and goat’s milk. Some people said I should make with cow’s, but I was adamant that I use sheep or goat’s as that is what my great-grandmother would have used.

Sheep curds

Most people’s experience of Greek and Cypriot cheese is the industrially produced feta and halloumi found in supermarkets. How do you get them on board?

In the last 20 or 30 years we have gone from having limited, seasonal food to having anything at our disposal, any time of day or year. You have big discounters and industrial scale producers, and it has really skewed our idea and knowledge of how food ends up in the fridge. That needs fixing. Food is the cheapest it’s ever been if you look at the price tag – but there are other costs beyond that. For example, one of the reasons my cheese is a few quid more than that in the supermarket from Greece or Cyprus is because I pay my staff more than two quid an hour, and I pay a fair price for locally, ethically sourced raw milk.

The cheeses you make started life as an everyday ingredient, made by hand in a tiny village of subsistence farmers. How important is it that your cheese stays true to those origins?

I’m not looking for total authenticity, but I think certain sensibilities can be authentic. In my grandmother’s village each household had a couple of goats or sheep, and at the end of the week they would pile the milk together and make cheese or yoghurt in a collective, collaborative effort. They weren’t special occasion cheeses, they were just good cheeses, to be eaten every day. So I don’t want our cheeses to be perceived as a luxury product. Of course, we want to be able to make a livelihood out of it, but we’re producing at the minimum we can afford to. It’s not expensive – it’s just more expensive than what people are used to.

A fresh batch of London Fettle

What are the pros and cons of being a cheesemaker in London? 

On the one hand it’s incredibly satisfying: I see chefs every week, they call up for tastings, there are restaurants and cafes which have my cheese on the menu and I can eat in them. The downside is that we are in one of the most densely populated cites in the world. This means all the wholesalers and distributors are situated in and around London, making our food even cheaper than it is in the rest of the country. Add to that we are the only artisanal producer of this type of cheese and we have given ourselves a pretty high mountain to climb, but I think we’ll get there.

kupros.london

Questions of Taste: Gary Foulkes

Gary Foulkes, head chef of Michelin-starred London fish restaurant Angler, explains why British seafood is the best in the world  

The British have a strange relationship with their island. Separated from the European continent by 20 miles of sea, the concept of Britain as something different and other has done much to define the current political atmosphere. And yet, unless you live near the coast, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s towns and cities are locked within a vast landmass, such is the diminished status of the sea and, in our diets, of fish.

The national preoccupation with meat is something that Michelin-starred chef Gary Foulkes struggles to understand. As the head chef of the fish-dedicated restaurant, Angler, he is naturally convinced of the culinary potential just off our shores – as he tells me, with a certain degree of pride, British fish is among the best in the world. And it’s this passion for local, sustainable and high-quality seafood that is manifest in the food served at Angler, on the top floor of the South Place Hotel in the City of London.

Having taken some time out from preparing the lunch service one morning, Foulkes and I sat down to discuss the seasonality of fish, his life changing round-the-world trip and the world-beating quality of British fish.

What was your earliest memory of food?

My nan was a terrible cook, so my granddad used to do all the cooking – stews and pies mainly. Just tasty, delicious, home-cooked food.

How did you go from there to being a chef?

I’m not sure, really. I got sent on work experience to a hotel and did a day in each department: in the restaurant, with the porters, on reception. My final day of the week was in the kitchen, and I remember everyone enjoying what they were doing. At that age, fifteen, sixteen, it’s all about having a good time, so I thought: “Yeah I’d quite like to get paid to go to work and have a good time.” That’s how it all started.

And then you went to Manchester?

Yes, I worked for Gary Rhodes in Manchester. Rhodes is a fabulous cook, his food is very ingredient-led, and he treats ingredients properly and cooks them properly. That was quite a big thing for me. It’s something I learnt when I was young, and I still think that’s the best thing to do.

You’ve said before that it was at The Square in Mayfair that you really started to understand food. What was it that made you feel that way?

It was the whole ethos of it. It is very seasonal and everything’s based around the ingredients, and cooked correctly. If it wasn’t good enough, it didn’t get used. It’s a huge thing when you see, day in, day out, the passion that goes into producing the dishes, and the work in sourcing the right ingredients for the dishes.

While working at The Square you took some time out to travel – what was the motivation for this?

About a year and a half before I went travelling properly, I took six months out and went to Asia. While I was away I came to the realisation that it wasn’t long enough to do it properly. I came back to London, married my wife, and decided to do some real travelling. We took three years, and off we went.

How did that develop your work as a chef?

You see so many cultures and different ways of life, as a person, and as a chef you see so many ingredients you haven’t seen before, and how people treat those ingredients. You see things and think, “I could use that in my cooking, I quite like that technique.”

What initially drew you to Angler?

I’ve always enjoyed cooking fish and shellfish because fish is so seasonal. There’s so much you can do with it – especially turbot, for instance; you can steam it, you can roast it, you can cure it, you can have it raw, you can serve it on the bone, it’s very versatile. So there’s always something constantly changing. I’m also quite impatient, so if something’s been on the menu for a couple of weeks I feel like I’ve seen enough of it! It’s constantly changing and developing.

Tartare of yellowfin tuna with hass avocado, wasabi and shiso

I didn’t realise fish were so seasonal

It’s really like vegetables or fruit. For instance, red mullet is better when the water’s slightly warmer, so they’re at their very best during the summer. Then when it gets colder in the winter the red mullet will drop off, and you’ll get something like monkfish coming in, because that’s a cold water fish and it’s best in the spring tides when they’ve been feeding. Turbot goes into summer and starts to roe, so it makes the fish a bit smaller and it isn’t as good as it was before. I only use Cornish lobsters, and they’re at their best in the summer, so that’s when I use them – I don’t use lobsters outside of June, July and August.

Has the quality of British fish always been of a standard to serve in Michelin-starred restaurants?

Since I’ve been cooking, yes. I just think that more people are aware of it now. Obviously things like peaches are not going to be as good in Britain as they are in Italy, and you’re never going to grow mangos here, but Britain has some fabulous produce. You go to Orkney and the langoustines and the scallops are the best in the world.

We’re fortunate in that we’re close enough to use it and appreciate it, but I think a lot of it has come from British people being more interested in where their food comes from and how it gets used then they were a decade ago. Today there are farmers markets where you can find produce you’re not going to get in a general supermarket, and foraging has become a big thing, with people getting into wild garlic and elderflower. I think the ingredient quality has always been there, but people are now more aware of it.

What’s next for Angler? Do you have your eye on a second Michelin star, perhaps?

Everyone says: “Oh it would be nice, but I’m not chasing it,” but of course everyone’s going for it, they just don’t want to say. I’d love to get two stars, but I’m fully aware of how much hard work and dedication goes into getting to that point and maintaining it. So we’ve got hard work in front of us but it’s definitely something I’d like to achieve in my career.

anglerrestaurant.com

Questions of Taste: Tong Chee Hwee (Hakkasan Group)

As Chinese New Year celebrations begin, Michelin-starred chef Tong Chee Hwee talks to PORT about the importance of competition, using tradition to create contemporary Chinese dishes and learning from a master

Set up by Alan Yau OBE, the Hong Kong-born restaurateur behind the successful high-street chain Wagamama and the Yauatcha dim sum eateries, the Hakkasan brand has become synonymous with high-end Cantonese fine dining around the world, having first taken root in London’s West End 16 years ago.

Although the commercial accomplishments may be attributed to Yau (who sold Hakkasan and Yauatcha to Emirati investors in 2008), Hakkasan’s reputation for crafting modern interpretations of traditional dishes from southeast China is surely owed to the ongoing efforts of executive head chef Tong Chee Hwee.

After working for 18 years under “master of Cantonese cuisine” Cheng Hon Chau in Happy Valley Singapore and Malaysia, Chef Tong came to London to set up Hakkasan in 2001, and quickly earned a Michelin star within just two years. Building on this, Hakkasan has since ballooned into something of an empire, with outposts in New York, Mumbai, Las Vegas, Doha and beyond.

Today, Chef Tong bases himself in HKK, the group’s City of London restaurant whose mission is to “celebrate the true diversity of Chinese cuisine”. It’s in HKK that Chef Tong and his team experiment with new creations which, if successful, are rolled out to the other restaurants in the Hakkasan network.

Here, we sit down with Chef Tong to discuss how he created the Emperor’s Feast menu to celebrate Chinese New Year, competing with top international chefs and why he’s passionate about using Western ingredients in his cooking.

Inside HKK, Worship St, London
Inside HKK, Worship St, London

What memories do you have of celebrating Chinese New Year from your childhood? What food would have been around the family table?

I remember the delicious meals my Hakka grandmother used to cook during Chinese New Year celebrations. She had such a talent, and she passed that talent on to my mother.

Prosperity toss salad with raw fish, Pen Cai or Big Basin Feast, roast duck or chicken and dumplings are the most popular and traditional to commonly serve during Chinese New Year. My grandmother always cooked them for family. Now I always cook for my family, I am most happy when cooking for them and watching them enjoy the food when everyone is gathered around the table.

What sets HKK apart from the other restaurants in Hakkasan Group?

Hakkasan focuses on modern Cantonese cuisine, whereas HKK is modern Chinese cuisine; the reason behind HKK is to further improve the standard of Hakkasan. I found that Cantonese and Chinese cuisine in London lacked the individual fine dining standard, and HKK is a restaurant that combines quality Chinese cuisine and French fine-dining service.

What are the biggest challenges of creating Chinese fine dining for a diverse London palette?

I think the biggest challenge for me during these 15 years is that I’ve seen lots of international cooking, with international chefs coming from all over the world with new dishes and new cuisines. We as chefs and restaurants are now forced to offer something new and interesting to meet consumer’s needs. They expect it. But, for me, it’s a great improvement and I look forward to this continuing in the future.

' Touch of the heart' from the Emperor's Feast: lobster and pickled Chinese leaf dumpling, king crab with XO sauce dumpling, sea bass and shrimp dumpling
‘Touch of the heart’ from the Emperor’s Feast: lobster and pickled Chinese leaf dumpling, king crab with XO sauce dumpling, sea bass and shrimp dumpling

At what point in your career did you feel that you had mastered your craft?

I began working under my master Chef Cheng Hon Chau. He was known as a master of Cantonese cuisine, and it was under his mentorship that I honed my own skills and techniques. After four years, I became a master chef to run the restaurant [Happy Valley]. It is hard to find the point in my career because I am always learning and improving.

What are the key lessons you’ve learned in your career, which you often pass on to your junior chefs?

First, the UK is a highly global society; you can find food from all over the world very easily. Therefore, positive competition can definitely encourage people and help people to improve their ability to create a better restaurant with a unique style. Second, change your [perspective] and consider yourself as a guest – would you be experiencing well-prepared hospitality and concepts? No matter where they are, in the UK or anywhere else in the world, if customers receive the best service and best quality food what is not to like?

Cherry Wood Roasted Peking duck I
Cherry Wood Roasted Peking duck

HKK’s Peking duck has often been recognised as a standout dish from HKK’s menu. Can you tell me how you adapted it for the Emperor’s Feast menu for Chinese New Year?

For this special Cherry Wood Roasted Peking duck I presented it with the combination of imperial caviar, foie gras, and kumquat as a bite of the soul for the menu. We have plated the dish beautifully to make it feel even more luxurious and with the background of the jade and gold emperor banners I think guests have really enjoyed it.

What is your process for finding the right drink pairings, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, for your tasting menus?

We have a very strong beverage team to find the rights drinks pairings. Our cocktails and wines choices are definitely superior. The beverage team all taste the menu and work together to build a drinks flight that not only works with the [usual] menu, but also the entire Chinese New Year campaign.

How have you integrated Chinese ingredients like sea cucumber and yu fungus into your food?

We are always trying to introduce authentic Chinese ingredients and add innovative elements into our newly designed dishes. We want to offer guests a new experience and surprise them with new flavour combinations that they haven’t tasted before. I used sea cucumber in the Chinese New Year dish ‘Monk jumps over the wall’, which is one of the culinary dishes for Chinese people and dates back to the Qing Dynasty.

This dish contains 18 kinds of main ingredients including sea cucumber, abalone, scallops, dang ginseng, mushrooms, ham, chicken stock and more. Rather than a clear soup, I blended the ingredients to form a thick soup which makes the flavours more balanced. Moreover, the scallop noodle dish with yu fungus featured in the Chinese New Year menu uses a jade coloured chive sauce symbolising immortality.

Chef Tong preparing 'Eight treasure chicken', with guinea fowl, ginko nut and mangalica ham
Chef Tong preparing ‘Eight treasure chicken’, with guinea fowl, ginko nut and mangalica ham

How important to you is using local British ingredients?

It emphasises the point that with HKK we are taking guests on a culinary journey. I like to use lots of Western ingredients to have a nice combination of Chinese food with Western cultures. There are lots of different cultures surrounding food in northern and southern China, and also for Chinese people in different countries as well. That is why I think using local ingredients is a part of culinary culture.

We get most of our ingredients locally. We’re really lucky in the UK, as we have such a variety of local producers. For example, the Dingley Dell Pork we use is from a rare breed of pig originating from Suffolk; the lamb is from the Welsh Rhug Organic Far; and we use local seasonal shellfish and vegetables too.

Can you explain the reason for the names behind some of the dishes, including ‘Emperor’s bite of spring’ and ‘Monk jumps over the wall’?

Spring rolls are hugely variable in today’s Chinese cuisine but the actual story of the spring roll comes from the season of the spring where it was traditional to welcome the arrival of spring and pray for good luck at the start of the new year. They gathered a variety of different spring vegetables and seasonal ingredients to be placed on one plate and rolled into a pancake. The spring pancake has also been used as one of the royal dishes, which emperors offer to his ministers as a reward in the beginning of the spring to welcome the season.Our ‘Emperor’s Bite of Spring’ takes this inspiration and uses authentic ingredients such as sea cucumber but also black truffle.

The reason why the other dish you mentioned is known as ‘Monk Jumps over The Wall’ is there was once a scholar was cooking and preparing this dish next to a temple. The strong aroma of the dish spread over to the temple and one of the monks of the temple, who was meditating, was tempted with the nice aroma and jumped over the wall just to try this dish.

For more info on the Emperor’s Feast tasting menu, visit hkklondon.com/our-menus

Questions of Taste: James Baron

We meet British chef and Fat Duck alumnus James Baron to discuss how he went from being a waiter in his hometown to a head chef at a top Austrian hotel

James Baron in is kitchen at Hotel Tannenhof

The dining room at Hotel Tannenhof, where British chef James Baron has recently come to reside, looks out onto a panoramic of mountains. It is located in the scenic St. Anton – a dichotomous ‘town’, which balloons to a city of 25,000 in the winter for the ski season, and shrinks to a village of 2,500 in the summer. The location is ideal for a creative chef: the mountains are not only beautiful themselves, but provide immediate access to traditional Tyrolean ingredients. Alpine herbs are easily foraged from within a 20-minute radius, and the cowbells from the local dairy can be heard clanging from the hotel’s reception desk.

James Baron began work at Michelin-starred JSW in his hometown, Petersfield, England, before completing work experience at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck (his job was assembling a dish of oysters, passion fruit, and black pepper). Encouraged by a desire to travel, he turned away from the London restaurant scene and worked his way up in Michelin-starred kitchens across the Continent, and learning both French and German along the way. In late 2015, he was announced as head chef at Hotel Tannenhof, a five-star residence in the Tyrolean Alps that contains only seven suites. Within his small team, Baron is responsible for providing consistently excellent and imaginative services for the hotel’s diners, whether that’s a barbecue on the mountains or an eight-course evening menu. The hotel insists that no returning guest can be served the same dish twice, meaning Baron must often come up with menus on a quick turnaround.

Here, we sit down with James to discuss his local suppliers on the mountain, the benefits and challenges of running a kitchen in a five-star hotel, and why he gave up a potential career in architecture for food.

Fried oysters, leek, and potato Photography René Riis
Fried oysters, leek, and potato Photography René Riis

When did you start cooking?

I had a position at university to go and study architecture. I was working at a Michelin-starred restaurant, JSW, when I was doing my A-levels as a waiter. I decided out of the blue that I didn’t want to go to university, much to the shock of my parents, and that I wanted to be a chef. I had a year out and started as an apprentice at JSW, then stayed there for almost four-and-a-half years.

The first time I worked there was in the kitchen, because the head chef, Jake Watkins, was on his own. He didn’t have a Michelin star at the start, and on a Friday and Saturday night, he just had a student to help him out – I was that student. I got the bug from that, but I was always interested in cooking… how my parents cooked, how my grandparents cooked, etc. I suppose that was the real thing that lit the fire.

What did you do after that?

After that, I knew I wanted to travel. I had a few choices of where to work in London – there was a place in New York, but I knew I wanted to do something completely different, and learn a language. That’s why I ended up in Switzerland. As a chef, you have a great opportunity to travel and learn new languages, because it’s a craft you learn with your hands. If you can’t speak the language at the start, people are patient. And you can still do the job.

Black pudding, celeriac, and tomato Photography René Riis
Black pudding, celeriac, and tomato Photography René Riis

How do you find communicating with suppliers?

When you talk to suppliers, then it gets hard. You really have to speak the language. We only use local suppliers. My German is now perfectly fluent, and I’ve got a very good relationship with them. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to the top of the mountain here to meet the man who makes cheese. He supplies us with our cream to make butter, which we churn at the table when serving. We have our own cow up there too: Liza.

We have a guide who does a tour of the mountains. She knows all the herbs that grow around here, or, she says she knows 90 per cent of them because there’s so many. It’s impossible to know them all, there’s so much to learn.

From left to right: Lime, crayfish, chicken skins and piri piri, Eel, apple, radish and horseradish. Sourkraut chip, lardo and juniper Photography René Riis
From left to right: Lime, crayfish, chicken skins and piri piri, Eel, apple, radish and horseradish. Sourkraut chip, lardo and juniper Photography René Riis

How do you create a dish?

I start with a blank sheet of paper – I draw, I write notes. I don’t think anyone could understand it except me. It goes up, down, round the other side, then back again. I think everyone has their own unique way of working. You can be creative anywhere. Sometimes it just comes to you, and you take advantage of it.

Often, I start with an ingredient or two. The tortellini dish is a good example, as it began with a walk on the mountains and I wanted to have one dish that represents the mountains rather than the whole menu. We got everything from within a 20-minute radius, so the idea of that dish is that it’s everything from here.

Sea buckthorn, melon, and Char macaron Photography René Riis
Sea buckthorn, melon, and Char macaron Photography René Riis

What specific Tyrolean influences can you see on the menu?

We try and use a few traditions. In winter, a big tradition here is a doughnut filled with sauerkraut. Sweet and sour, basically. I had one at the Christmas market in St. Anton – I think the owner here gave it to me – and at first I thought, this can’t be good. And then I tasted it, and it was great! We made our own version, a mini one. We used our own sauerkraut, and made a vinegar powder which we rolled the sweet dough in. It’s a classic thing in this region. With what we create in the kitchen, we want to evoke memories for people eating here, relating moments to when they were at a Christmas market.

We try and use products from here, but I believe that we need to have broader sources – so we can keep the consistency, and keep surprising people. I feel a responsibility to deliver something quite special every evening. I don’t want to just say, ‘it’s herbs again’, so it’s a challenge. We try to use the Alps – from Nice to Vienna. That’s the area we try to source a majority of our products from.

james baron 8

How do you think taste and visual senses work together?

I like art and design, but at the same time, there’s a happy medium to be found. My food has got to look nice, but it’s got to be warm too. There’s no point having three chefs round the plate with tweezers putting different herbs on a dish. I’d rather it look rustic, but still in an interesting way.

I really admire a few Swiss architects, particularly Valerio Olgiati – I’ve got lots of books of his. Photographers, I had a really good photo shoot recently with Rene Reiss. He’s also a big influence on me – his work and his person. We spoke for hours, and it reaffirmed my feeling of not too much fuss around the plate. The most important thing for me apart from the taste is that it’s hot as well – sometimes people forget the basics.

Sole, courgettes, lime and tarragon Photography René Riis
Sole, courgettes, lime and tarragon Photography René Riis

How do you find working in a hotel kitchen as opposed to a restaurant?

There are so many five-star hotels you can go to, and they’re so big that the head chef cannot see everything. Here, everything is in my line of sight. It’s easy to control and we make fewer errors.

We try to have a working environment where it’s friendly: we want creativity and we need creativity. We want to be innovative in what we do too. I think it’s really important not be shouting and screaming, because there’s no one who’s going to want to be creative in that atmosphere. Of course there’s times where there has to be discipline, that’s very important in a kitchen. But discipline can be achieved through normal methods.

It’s strange working in a hotel so small. There’s only seven rooms, so there’s a massive personal feeling and a personal touch. When the guests arrive, I talk to them directly, ask what their preferences are. One evening they might have the full eight courses, the second or third, I might ask if they have any special wishes. That’s all part of the challenge. Someone might ask for a barbecue on the side of the river, and we think, okay, let’s do it! It’s all part of the planning and the execution. We enjoy it and look forward to it. There’s not many hotels of this size and this standard around, so it’s a very unique place.

James Baron’s seasonal eight-course tasting menu is available from the Hotel Tannenhof restaurant in St. Anton, Austria

Questions of Taste: Virgilio Martínez Véliz

We meet Virgilio Martínez Véliz, owner of the ‘Best restaurant in Latin America’ and the first Peruvian chef to win a Michelin star in Europe

Virgilio Martínez Véliz
Virgilio Martínez Véliz – Photo by Jimena Agois

Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz has garnered many accolades from his fast-paced career. His flagship restaurant, Central Restaurante (Central), opened in 2008. In 2012, it became the ‘50th best restaurant in Latin America‘, but by 2014, it made a significant jump, being named the ‘best restaurant in Latin America’, and the 4th best in the world. His popular London-based endeavour, Lima London, was awarded a Michelin star the same year, making him the first Peruvian cuisine to achieve the honour.

Véliz’s menus reflect the diversity of Peru’s cuisine. Next to each of his dishes he prints the ‘altitude of origin’ for the ingredients used, which, due to the geographical variance of Peru, can range from the highest point in the Andes, to the depths of the Amazonian forest and down to sea-level of Lima’s crystalline coast.

In addition to running his award-winning eateries, Véliz also oversees a side project Mater Initiative –a research organisation dedicated to registering all indigenous Peruvian ingredients, in order to communicate their value to chefs and their guests around the world.

We sat down with Véliz to discuss his unique career in a conversations spanning his passion for skateboarding, cheffing in kitchens around the world, and finally, his decision to return home to Peru.

virgilo extreme stems - tallos extremos
Extreme Stems – Tallos Extremos

You almost became a professional skateboarder until you were injured. How does one go from skateboarding to cooking?

I truly wanted to become a professional skateboarder, however the injuries convinced me otherwise, and made me realise there were other ways to escape from conventional Lima in a turbulent ’90s Peru. In those times I felt I needed to experience other things; I wanted to travel, and cooking would allow me to do so. So I started studying and then working for a living.

One day, I stepped into the kitchen of a fine dining restaurant in London and I just knew – I felt the same positive feeling I felt with skateboarding. Quickly becoming obsessed with this world, I started reading a lot and practicing all day after my working hours… And I loved it.

dining room salon
Dining Room –Cental Restaurante, Lima, Perú

After your experience working in restaurants run by Spanish chef, Santi Santamaria, you went back to Peru to open Central. What prompted you to branch out on your own?

I actually worked for great Peruvian chefs before this, for example Lutece in New York, travelling around the world cooking for different chefs such as Gastón Acurio. And then, feeling mature enough to do so, I opened my own restaurant in Lima.

I am still learning how to grow and how to maintain the same passion of my early training years, and to inject that into my team, with Pía León (my wife and Chef de cuisine at Central).

virgilo green highlands
Green Highlands – Alturas Verdes

On your menu, you show the altitude of origin of your dishes, some as high as 14,000 feet. What are the benefits of using food that’s farmed at high altitude?

We felt the need to state altitudes when talking about ingredients, to show how diverse our country is. Also, in this territory, you could be at 200m above seal level and be in a coastal valley, or at 200m above sea level and be in a surreal Amazonian forest. As a result, much of the food is reflected in the ecosystems as well.

When you go higher, up in the mountains of the Andes, you find ingredients that won’t grow anywhere else because they belong there. Only at these altitudes do some of the potatoes, ocas and mashuas develop. They say in the Andes, the higher you climb, the deeper you have to dig for precious things.

virgilo harvest and collection - cosecha y recoleccion
Harvest and Collection – Cosecha y Recolección

What is your relationship with your suppliers? How do you go about finding new ones?

Our team at Mater Iniciativa plan trips according to seeding and harvest seasons. Also, they look for sources of ingredients to collect (ones that are somewhere specific with no human intervention as algae, cushuros, wild plant species, etc).

We believe in the idea that every ingredient becomes richer when a community nearby the origin tells you about it. So we have been working on making these communities our suppliers. Even with the difficulties it may represent, such as access routes, logistics, and preservation of products, we still think it’s totally worth it.

Photo by Jimena Agois
Photo by Jimena Agois

What are your main culinary influences besides Peruvian food?

There is traditional Peruvian food, of course, and also Peruvian ingredients. Both types have received influences from various immigrants: Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, African, Arab, among others.

Peru’s natural resources have been diversified thanks to our geography, and those cultures, as well as our own cultural heritage. When I travelled, I learnt more about other civilisations’ food, but always kept connected to where I belong.

Lake Floor - Suelo de Laguna
Lake Floor – Suelo de Laguna

What makes Latin American cooking stand out and how do you tailor it for a British audience?

I think all Latin American food has an identity of its own; every country has something special to offer. Peruvian chefs talk a lot about our ingredients and I guess London is a great example of how it is possible to achieve Peruvian flavours outside the borders of this country.

Using our main ingredients, and some other local fresh products, Peruvian food can be made beautifully.

virgilo pseudo cereals - pseudocereales
Pseudo Cereals – Pseudocereales

Why did you set up Mater Iniciativa?

Mater was created to register Peruvian ingredients in their origin, and to showcase our diversity, which responds to all things I mentioned before. There is a human intervention that has been fundamental and so Mater tries to gather stories, and offer inspiration and information.

virgilo river scales - escama de rio
River Scales – Escama de Río

Peru has an abundance of fascinating ingredients. Can you tell me a little about cushuros, tuntas and some of your other favourite indigenous Peruvian ingredients?

Cushuros are cyanobacteria that collects in altitude lakes and ponds, and have been consumed for a long time in communities of our Sierra. These blue and green pearl-like spheres have been part of dishes that incorporate ingredients form highest altitudes, like potatoes, wild aromatics, roots like mullaca, etc.

Tuntas, on the other hand, are one great example of a preservation method taken from an old Andean tradition. Freeze-dried by intercalating cold river water immersion with sunlight exposure, these potatoes may be kept for years to be used rehydrated in soups or other hot preparations.

the sixty miles fish - pesca de 60 milas
The Sixty Mile Fish – Pesca de 60 Millas

In early August 2016, you will be hosting a banquet at Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire, which brings together food and music in a very unique way. What part does music play in your life both inside and outside of the kitchen?

I think it is great how artists get inspired and create in every possible way. I am guessing music, as cooking, integrates elements to create a finished result. I am very much looking forward to be part of this event.

What will your next venture look like?

We have been working extensively in Mater to build a structured team that continues to search and inform. And we want to list more producers as suppliers, not only for one restaurant, but to help expand their markets.

We have a cookbook about Central coming up that will show our work and details of some trips this year. And we have more projects in parallel, but it may be too soon to report on those…

Virgilio Martínez Véliz will be preparing the Long Table Banquet at this year’s Wilderness Festival

Interview Cécile Fischer

Questions of Taste: Fernando Pérez Arellano

PORT visits Zaranda, the only two Michelin-starred restaurant in the Balearic Islands, to meet Fernando Pérez Arellano and discovers how hard work can trump talent

Fernando_B&W1

I’m sat in the kitchens of Zaranda, the two Michelin-starred restaurant at Castell Son Claret, a hotel on the Spanish island of Mallorca, half way through an eight-course, four-and-a-half hour long dinner.

Framed by the kitchen’s surfaces and the row of heating lamps, the scene playing out before me is one of a precisely controlled chaos. It’s an organised, frenetic rush from fridge, to stove, to plate; the chefs only relenting to carefully place each ingredient on the plate with long-handed tweezers.

Earlier that day the restaurant’s head chef, Fernando Pérez Arellano and I had been sitting on the terrace of hotel, discussing his career and how he worked his way up through kitchens at Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin, Le Gavroche in London, and Can Fabes in Barcelona, before setting up Zaranda in Madrid in 2005, earning a Michelin-star just one year later.

I had asked him what, above all else, he had learned from over two decades of experience. “A discipline and a drive to find perfection,” he tells me.

Here, Arellano discusses how he came to haute cuisine almost ‘by accident’, his unceasing search for the perfect dish and why, even after his second Michelin star, he won’t be resting on his laurels.

Left: Arellano in the Zaranda kitchens – Right: Filet of John Dory, calamari, onion and spring garlic allioli
Left: Arellano in the Zaranda kitchens – Right: Filet of John Dory, calamari, onion and spring garlic allioli

How did you first get into the kitchen?

I used to go to Dublin as a teenager to study English and, when I was 18, without having a better idea of what I should do with my life, I decided to move to Ireland and started washing dishes to get me by.

It was meant to be only for a few months but I liked the place. I was living alone, cooking simple things for myself, so started asking the chefs around me how they did certain things, recreating them at home, and that’s how it all began. I also felt that I had to find a job that didn’t mean I had to go home and that would also make my mother proud. I never did convince her…

Bone marrow, other hidden secrets of beef and Jerusalem artichoke
Bone marrow, other hidden secrets of beef and Jerusalem artichoke

If you hadn’t gone to Dublin, do you think you would have become a chef?

Probably not: I don’t believe in such a thing as talent. I had passions for women, for music, for going out and I always liked to eat well, but it was never crucial for me – it’s not like I was raised in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

I’ve seen a lot of people who think they have a passion for cooking, but they get in the kitchen and it’s clear they’re better off staying at home, because they don’t like the environment and the atmosphere. So I don’t really see talent as being particularly important; in the kitchen, there’s a lot of things you put up with that are far from any talent or passion.

Majorca oyster, beetroot, caviar and pearl
Majorca oyster, beetroot, caviar and pearl

You were only 27 when you opened Zaranda in Madrid…

Yes, but I had been in the trade for about 10 years by then and, at that moment, I had the chance to open a restaurant, so I did it. We managed to get a Michelin star pretty quickly. To win a star in one year and to have come from nowhere… It’s not that we weren’t very good, but we were very lucky – that first star was key.

When you start in this business in a place like Madrid, it’s not easy to keep an operation open without winning a Michelin star.

Chilli Crab – spicy crab broth and croquette
Chilli Crab – spicy crab broth and croquette

How much of your produce is sourced locally?

We source as much as we can locally, especially when it comes to fish. With the exception of the oysters and the mussels, which you can’t find here, we try not to use any fish that come from outside the island of Mallorca. I don’t pretend to be a flagship of local produce or local cuisine – partly because I’m not local – but I believe in what we have here, especially when it comes to fish. I honestly don’t think I have seen better fish markets anywhere else.

That said, if the local product is not great I prefer not to use it. Some people might compromise on certain flavours or the quality so that they can stick to using locally sourced food – especially if this is a marketing tool for them. I simply try to develop a menu without losing the bond I have to this place.

Burrata Zaranda – creamed goat’s cheese, strawberries and basil coulis
Burrata Zaranda – creamed goat’s cheese, strawberries and basil coulis

What does the future hold for you and Zaranda?

I think I am at a moment in life when I still have a lot to say and there’s still room to grow, especially from the creative point of view. I would love to have three stars: I dream of three stars, and I will always work for that.

Fernando_Hand_Web_Feature

So you’re not going to rest on your laurels?

Of course not, I’m forty years old, and it’s silly because I don’t see these laurels. It’s always so easy to say the word ‘success’, but what is success? I don’t really believe that having two stars is success… It’s certainly very good for someone who has been searching for two stars, but I have drawn a road that I want to follow in my life and two stars is only one of the stops.

Zaranda is located at Castell Son Claret, Carretera Capdella – Galilea, Km. 1,7, 28010 Es Capdellà, Mallorca

Questions of Taste: Kurt Zdesar (Bouillabaisse)

Inspired by low-key coastal dining from around the world, restaurateur Kurt Zdesar’s latest venture, Bouillabaisse, is a paean to all things piscine

Bouillabaisse Restaurant 6

Kurt Zdesar is a difficult man to pin down. These days, Zdesar is running numerous restaurants worldwide, splitting his time between Europe and the Middle East; the last time we were scheduled to meet he had to make a last minute business trip to Dubai.

The celebrated restaurateur moved to the UK from Australia when he was 14, working his way up from McDonald’s to establishing the first European outpost of Nobu in London, earning a Michelin star within a year of opening – the UK’s first for Asian cuisine.

When I did catch some time with Zdesar, we met at Chotto Matte, his Nikkei (Japanese/Peruvian fusion) restaurant in London, and discussed the difficulties of operating in the British capital, the role of the modern restauranteur and his latest project: Mayfair fish restaurant, Bouillabaisse.

Kurt composite 1

How did you come to be a restaurateur? Is it something you always wanted to do?

If I look back it was always on the cards and I didn’t know it. I’ve always loved different types of cuisine. When I was younger, I used to pick which friend I would see on the weekend depending on whether their mother was a good cook or not. Then, as I got older, I imagined marrying a Chinese or Italian woman because of the food they would have cooked.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial. At first I was a chef, but then I saw the waiters getting their tips every night, so I went out on the floor and was walking around with wadges of cash. I was motivated mostly by money in a business I loved, and I got to eat well. Then I became management and I ate even better.

Bouillabaisse Private Dining Room

Could you explain the role of a restaurateur? What skills you need?

As a restaurateur I come up with the concept, I provide the vision. When I first design the menu, there’s an image bank that I will start to draw from; if you look at my phone, it’s all food from years of eating in restaurants around the world. What I can’t do, however, is describe flavour, so I have to work closely with a really talented chef and bring them on a journey with me, which is what I did in the case of Bouillabaisse.

You also need an attention to detail… everything speaks. If we use a black napkin or a silver tray or crystal glasses, it all sets a perception of what you’re about the experience. Then there’s a service standard. When a customer comes in. are we topping up the glass or not touching the bottle? Is the waiter saying ‘yes sir, no sir’? It’s about understanding these differences and knowing they can make a big impact.

Bouillabaisse Market Catch Table

What was the idea behind Bouillabaisse?

It’s more a passion project rather than anything else. I’ve always been passionate about seafood. At the same time there’s so much controversy surrounding meat, and fish is becoming ever more present in our diets.

Were there any specific influences with Bouillabaisse?

A lot of what Bouillabaisse is, is inspired by these romantic experiences of eating in fish restaurants around the globe. One of my favourite restaurants is in Mykonos, for example. They have no electricity, no reservations. They open at 1pm but you queue from 12pm. It’s rustic – wooden pillars with vine leaves over the top, cats coming to you for scraps, communal seating – and the food is so good, it’s pure and honest. I was like, ‘why can’t I get this in the UK?’

I’ve had these great experiences around the world and I wanted to bring them to Mayfair, where everything is slightly formal, put on these big trays of fish and encourage everyone to relax and dig in.

Bouillabaisse 029

How do you source the fish?

It’s a tough job, actually. When I was in Antigua there was this place I went to so frequently because everything was so fresh. The fishermen came off the boat, struggling with these ice boxes because they were full of fish, and it went straight up on the blackboard. The fish I ate I couldn’t have had fresher. That was the biggest key: how to get it fresh.

With Bouillabaisse, we had to go and meet the fishermen. Not knowing where the fish came from made it hard for us to ensure that what we were giving our customer was the best we could find, that it was the most sustainable and that we could get it in the restaurant the same day as it was caught.

Bouillabaisse Percebes (3)

What trends are you observing in London’s restaurant scene today?

I’m seeing more and more single-concept restaurants. If I had one product and 10 chefs producing it, I could probably feed as many people as we feed today with a team of 45 chefs because they have to handle such a massive menu, with all these ingredients.

How do you, not running single concept restaurants, balance the quality of the food you put on with the reality of what you can afford?

You have to find that balance, but we simply have to create the best product we can because the customer is getting more and more discerning. Everyone’s getting more informed. On TV you’ve got chefs on every channel – a morning kitchen, a Saturday kitchen, etc. – and everyone’s a chef. We eat out more than we ever have and fewer people are cooking at home (although on average, kitchens are getting bigger). There is a demand for good food and we have to meet that demand.

Photography courtesy of Bouillabaisse