CONFESSIONS OF A CHEF
Posted On May 29, 2020
For myself, the lock down has inspired me towards some deep introspection, hence these confessions of a chef.
Far from an autobiography, only snippets of my successes and failures after more than 40 years behind the stoves, working all over the world.
In the best of the best as well as the worst of the worst
The sole purpose of this article is to share a selection of my experiences with fellow chefs.
Some I am sure will be able to identify.
Reflections in time-failures and triumphs
Meteoric rise fame:
My work with Elton John was the beginning of my spiral to a celebrity chef and the birth of my Michelin star restaurant “Patrick” in Caracas.
This was the “golden era” of Venezuela, that is, if you were on the right side of the fence, There were only poor or super rich, little or no middle class. The poor went largely unnoticed.
As one of my wealthy clients quipped “Chef, please don’t get emotional about the poor; the poor are poor, we are sorry for them but that’s just how it is”
What is behind the success? Well that’s a no brainer….. billionaire partners, guaranteed clientele!
This was a clear case of “It’s who you know not what you know that counts”
Tell me Jaime Oliver just stumbled into fame by mere chance? No sirree, right time, right place
My life was super yachts, private jets, fame, fortune, conducting gastronomic festivals throughout South America and the Caribbean as a celebrity chef.
Greeting Madame Mitterrand-first lady of France at Patrick Caracas
All the good things come to an end;
And so it was with the arrival of the socialist regime under Hugo Chavez.
With him the total destruction of the economy.
The rich packed up and left the country
I followed suit, returning to South Africa
Now here is where I question whether I chose the right path or was I just plain stupid?
This has to do with the old phrase “jump on the band wagon”
This idiom originated in the USA probably in the 18th century when musicians were carried in a bandwagon ahead of everyone else when going to a parade or a political rally. The phrase suggests that people will follow any event for the excitement of it or for what benefits them most.
This was not my case; I left Elton to seek further adventure. I had the opportunity to follow my billionaire Venezuelan partners to New York or Miami
But not like a puppy!
I took my own road and returned to Cape Town
Now in hindsight I am beginning to believe that I probably was just plain stupid!
New challenges new chances-it new day new dawn new life!
I took up a new position as executive chef to Cape Towns most famous 5 star hotel “The President”
Psychologically for me this was a downgrade from my former glory
However, be this as it may, thus ensued 15 years or so of great professional fulfillment, culminating as group executive chef of 7 top restaurants in the Cape.
Turning of the tides.
South Africa had long since abandoned the apartheid regime, embarking upon the formation of the “rainbow nation” that Nelson Mandela had dreamed to construct.
Increasingly disillusioned by the dismal failure of this concept, I was ecstatic to receive an offer of opening a new fine dining restaurant in Cyprus. This after traveling to Oman to interview for an alternative offer. But just too “Arabic”, so sorry!
I packed my bags and left with my wife and two cats for Cyprus, kissing the ground and thanking God for rescue from what I knew was a doomed country
Viva La Vida-The highlight of my career and happiness!
Vadym Gruzyn, my boss met me at the airport and took us to a magnificent little penthouse apartment that he had rented for us in central Limassol.
Vadym is by far the most sophisticated, knowledgeable restaurateur that I have had the pleasure of working with.
Vast experience in the industry, a gourmet and a true gentleman.
Together we embarked on the planning and logistics of Viva La Vida.
The goal without a plan is just a dream?
This may be true, but there are often mitigating circumstances, errors made are easy to dissect in hindsight
Did I have a crystal ball to see the downfall of Venezuela and South Africa?
At the time of my arrival in Cyprus in 2012, everything was rosy in the hospitality sector. Everything was booming
Vadym and I were on common ground, only the best would do
A dilapidated 100-year old building was converted from the ground up to a magnificent restaurant, that very soon after opening gained the number on position on TripAdvisor for best fine dining on the island, rivaling even the many five star hotels.
Then came disaster;
Soon after the grand opening of Viva la Vida came the major financial crisis and collapse of the banks in Cyprus made even worse by the interference of Angela Merkel who confiscated all funds of those that had more than 100.000 euros in deposits.
Needless to say, many felt that Cyprus ceased to be “home” and left. Bingo…goodbye clientele!
We were overstaffed, over extended, and on the downward spiral to doom.
Should we have planned for an opening team of this size?
No….. but then again- hindsight!
While considering my next move I was appointed as head of culinary arts as a lecturer at an hotel school in Cyprus.
There is nothing more satisfying than mentoring the younger generation
Arrival and departure Spain-British expats living Spain
My stupid boss full movie
I was contracted to move to Spain to take up a position as executive chef for a fine dining restaurant in Sitio de Calahonda on the Costa Del Sol.
The owner, an expat Brit, failed to achieve the residence permit promised, so one fine day out of the blue, he just said goodbye to Patrick and family.
Before the goodbye I worked illegally for almost a year during which the restaurant received rave reviews.
I was now stranded in Spain with my wife and three cats!
At great expense we retreated back to Cyprus, cats and all. Add to this the expense of coming to Spain in the first place and no compensation. To add insult to injury, on the way to Spain, at Gatwick, the criminally stupid ground staff of “Easy Jet” refused us boarding saying that residence permits for Cyprus were not valid as Cyprus was not part of the EU! No amount of arguing helped and the flight left.
In desperation, I ran to British Airways for a solution. My three precious cats were already due to land in Spain on a different flight. with no one to collect them. Reviewing our documents BA said that Easy Jet “must have been on drugs” and immediately issued tickets to Barcelona. Only one problem- $1200 out-of-pocket!
2 years later I successfully gained compensation from Easy Jet. Regrettably no one fired!
At any rate, the restaurant on the Costa Del Sol went through at least a dozen chefs after my departure, culminating in its eventual closure. So just a lot of hassle, grief, stress and expense. It must be obvious to you that these owners did not have a clue and absolutely no concept of any responsibility towards those that they had roped into their net.
Why do clueless people come to Spain and embark on ventures that they know nothing about?
A new break in Spain:
Whilst twiddling my thumbs in Cyprus and pondering my next move I was invited, once again to return to Spain. This time as executive chef to a then fledgling restaurant FRENEZY in Alicante city.
A consortium of 3 partners, all remarkable people, true salt of the earth. What you saw is what you got. No bullshit. The senior partner is a highly knowledgeable gourmet. Residence permit was immediately obtained and after almost two years we moved the restaurant into the gastronomic spot light from position 220 out of some 1300 competing restaurants to as low as position 3 on TripAdvisor.
Today FRENEZY is at the very top of the game easily rivaling Michelin star establishments in the city.
To this day I remain in close, almost daily contact with the owners that have become lifelong friends
Why did I leave?
My stupid boss full movie sequel
Now comes the most stupid decision I ever made.
After all these are confessions!
One evening, a British expat couple came into FRENEZY for dinner. At the end of the meal they asked to see me, raved about the food and said they had a proposal for me. An appointment was set at their hotel for the next day.
They lived in Cuidad Quesada, about a 40-minute drive out of Alicante and were busy putting the final touches on their new fine dining restaurant. So convincing was their pitch to me; huge salary, great future, part of the family and so on, that I tendered my resignation at FRENEZY.
During the ensuing months, I commuted to Ciudad Quesada on a daily basis, taking charge of the kitchen design and installation of equipment. I was also the official translator as the couple spoke not a word of Spanish. This never ceases to amaze me and seems typical of Brit expats that after years in Spain never bother to learn the language.
This due to the fact that they tend to form whole communities of “little England” from which they do not venture out. This I soon found out was Cuidad Quesada!
I have to say that what added to my initial conviction was that no expense was spared. The restaurant per se, was magnificent with great attention to detail.
However, there was some disturbing writing on the wall so to speak, The restaurant had a formula 1 racing theme, decorated with racing memorabilia including whole cars. The owner was a formula 1 fanatic and knew many famous drivers personally.
He also had more money than sense!
What disturbed me from the outset was that this formula 1 theme may have been apt for a Hard Rock Cafe type concept…but fine dining?
But let me cut to the chase and avoid a long-winded story.
A grand opening was held for some 200 invitees, most of whom never returned after the freebie.
The dream of the restaurant being a “destination venue” that would not need to rely on a local clientele was totally off-key. The place was in the middle of nowhere.
The average age group of the clients was 70 plus, all doddering and with very deep pockets and short arms.
The moaning and groaning about price over quality was an endless nightmare.
Very soon the fine dining concept morphed into quiz nights and bingo, awful live entertainment with mediocre acts.
In short, a total disaster.
Owners clueless, rude and non communicative.
Thus ended the worst saga in my career. I left not being paid a months wages as did my sous chef who left a month later, also not paid
I was very far way from former glory. Bad decisions, entirely myself to blame.
It’s no use crying over spilt milk
Good things come to those that work hard-if you do this, no one can point a finger at you regardless of circumstances
Admit your errors and try to learn from them
Think before you leap. Make sure that perspective employers are not clueless.
Chefs (or anyone else for that matter) please leave comments.
You are welcome to say I’ve got rocks in my head!
Related articles on my background and training with these links:
As a culinary lecturer
Elton John times
Restaurant Patrick Caracas
Working on a wine farm