CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with ALEXANDER STUMPF
Right from the name to the smallest details within the restaurant, Toko oozes Japanese charm (except for the sheesha they serve which I guess is the Middle Eastern influence). As they say, it’s all in the details and Toko takes this premise seriously. From curated artworks adorning the walls to the light fixtures, from the food and drinks to the dishes they are served on, it all comes perfectly together in this contemporary Japanese setting. Offering diners the experience of the informal style of Japanese “izakaya” dining, this restaurant is extremely popular – and I don’t say this lightly. It was busy even on a weekday in the afternoon – you had a mix bag – with a ladies birthday get together, business lunchers and families. I also loved the umbrella shaded outdoor seating area; I just wish it wasn’t getting so hot so soon!!!!
So here goes!
Name: Alexander Stumpf
Restaurant: Toko Dubai
From (Country): Thüringen, Germany
Culinary School: Staatl. Berufsschule Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No, not really. I did not like vegetables except for peas and carrots and red cabbage.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I guess like every kid, I too wanted to be a pilot. But when the time to make decisions came, there wasn’t really a clear direction. Both my parents are from the restaurant business and they said that I could be a Chef. But I refused saying that I would have to work on bank holidays, weekends, I won’t see my friends etc. At some point my father got me a trial with a metal factory for 2 weeks and I enjoyed it and then a month later we were cooking at home, and just like that, I said I wanted to become a Chef. I was about 15 or 16 years old. My father at that time was designing kitchens and knew a few restaurants and got me a job for 2 weeks in a restaurant and then he had a connection with a restaurant in Bavaria. I thought it was as far away from home as I could get and I went there for a couple of weeks and really loved it – there were people from the region I came from (the East German part) and being away from home you felt at home because of the people. The kitchen was welcoming.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
It was at Geisels Vinothek in Munich. The high-end restaurant concentrated on wines but we also served Italian food, about 60 people on average a night. I worked there for one year, and we made everything, like mayonnaise, ice cream, pasta, from scratch except for the bread. It was here that I learned how to turn a basic product into a fine dining dish. It is also where I met my best friend.
I was at Sass Café at DIFC for a food tasting, so I was cooking (Chef Alexander is also Executive Chef for Sass Café) and tasting.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Our lives revolve around Dubai Mall as we live in the neighbourhood and when it comes to choosing a restaurant we try and go to places which my daughter Sara would enjoy. My son, Adam is a couple of weeks old, so he just comes along. My daughter loves Japanese food, so you will find us at Katsuya in Dubai Mall quite often. Or at Eataly in Dubai Mall.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Sriracha Chilli Sauce which is available in the market for the last 20 years It was created by this main in Hong Kong using this specific type of chilli which would be roasted and ground and mixed with other ingredients. It’s available all over the world. It’s a sharp sauce and there is no artificial colour and the taste is natural and smooth. It is an ingredient that does not change the flavour of the food, but enhances it. It’s a very balanced sauce.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
It would be Tskuchi Market which is a fish market in Tokyo, Japan and I would be eating fresh sushi maybe with squid and tuna. The sushi here is not as sophisticated as we know it in Dubai. There the sushi is more raw cut and is so fresh and tasty even at 6am. It’s amazing.
If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living?
I most probably would have ended up somewhere doing metal fabrication, probably staying in my home town until now. How depressing (laughs). I also liked horses, so I guess my father would have found me a job and put me on a farm.
Your best vacation destination?
The best holiday was in Sicily, Italy but I would like to go to South America maybe Peru or Brazil.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
It would have to be either Spain or Italy. The origin of produce is in these countries and I love the culture. But even in these countries I will still stick with Japanese cuisine or at least the Japanese cooking methods.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Today I would have loved to have cooked for my Dad, but he passed away 8 years ago. He was a chef and I remember him making me cry in the kitchen when I was cooking with him. He was very strict. He was not into fine dining, but more the traditional East German 1980s kind of food. I am where I am today because of him helping me and I have achieved what I have because of him. He pushed me always. He came to Zuma in London (Chef Alex worked at Zuma in London and Dubai before joining Toko Dubai) a year before he passed away and he saw what I had achieved so far.
I would make him either a homemade pasta with tomato and burrata (fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella so when you cut it the mozzarella and cheese just come out) or sushi.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Temaki spicy Salmon Roll which is like a maki roll but it’s a nori (seaweed) which is shaped into a cone.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Clean (simple), simple flavours which will enhance the food.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
That would be in Fukuoka in Japan where we were served fresh squid which was cut and served. When it arrived at our table the nerves are still throbbing.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
This would be cherviche which I had in Miami at Chervice 105. Cherviche is a a South American salad of raw fish mixed with lemon juice, onion, corn and coriander.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Milk chocolate in any form.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
A nut. Because I am a hard nut to crack (smiles). I have a hard exterior but a soft core.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
The best advice given to me was by my wife, Shabnam, who told me to ‘Listen to people’ – listen to what people have to say, their opinion. This advice has been useful in my professional and personal life. On the food front, the best advice I was given was when I was young. I was told to change kitchens to learn new skills, techniques, products and cuisines.
Most underrated ingredient? Onion. Everyone has onions but not everyone knows its value to a dish.
Best culinary tool? A Knife
A chef that inspires you? My father, Ingo and Austrian celebrity chef Eckert Witzigmann. He is one of only 3 chefs in the world to have received the ‘chef of the century’ from the Gault Millau Guide.
Favourite cuisine? Mediterranean because it is light, fresh and simple.
One dish you can’t live without? Bread. Simply because I am German (smiles).
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Molecular Gastronomy because I don’t consider it cooking. I would say its an art but it’s not real food.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Braised German Duck with potato dumplings made by my grandmother, Ingeborg.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Penne Arrabbiata a few weeks ago. Usually at home my wife does the cooking or we have takeaway.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!