CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with DIRK HALTENHOF
I always knew I was a chatterbox, but I met my match when I met Chef Dirk. He never had a straight answer to any of my questions, but there was always an interesting story that I knew would unfold as soon as I asked one. An Engineer. An Army man. And now an Executive Chef at one of the leading hotel chains in the world. Life has indeed dealt Dirk an interesting hand and he has played his cards well. I always knew food would taste better when there was a little ‘sense of humour’ added to the mix and with Dirk that is one ingredient he has in plenty. Right from our first hellos, I instinctively felt that I would like the man (I am sure he has this impact on everyone he meets) and when I left after interviewing him, I felt like I had known him all my life.
Name: Dirk Haltenhof
Hotel: Oberoi Hotel, Dubai
From (Country): Northern part of the Black Forest, South Germany
Culinary School: Apprenticeship at Bad Hotel in Bad Teinach, Germany
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @OberoiDubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I was a horrible eater until I was 22, until I started my apprenticeship. My problem was that I was born and brought up in a hotel/restaurant business, so I was surrounded by food my whole life. We still have the restaurant and it’s still run by my grandparents and parents. So when I was young, I would just walk into the kitchen and say, “I want something to eat”, at any time of day and when my grandfather would ask, “what do you want to eat?”, I would say I don’t know, make me something.” I could eat the same dish for the whole week, every day. If there were 100 dishes on the menu, I may have eaten only 10 of those. If there was mushroom in a dish I would not touch it, if there was asparagus in it, I would not eat it. But now I am a master of cooking both and eating both. Any food that was gooey, slimy or the texture felt off or if it felt flubber-y I could not handle that. I had a lot of green peas, I love green peas. We are big meat, fruit and then vegetable eaters, in that order. So now if I cook you a salad I may skip the vegetables and add fruit instead. Now I take any challenge in cooking vegetarian food because there are so many cool things one can do with it. Now I cannot live without vegetables.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I still don’t really know what I am going to be. I think I wanted to do the usual stuff like be an astronaut, I loved space. I loved under water, loved exploring, something like Jacques Cousteau discovering the world. I wanted to make money through sport and travelling. Even today, when I see a parachute I am distracted, I see a motorbike I get distracted, if I see an underwater presentation somewhere, I can’t let go, I’m a diver. I have realised after living in cities for almost 10 years, I am a nature lover. I love showing my family nature back home.
I studied engineering and had a genius mentor who taught me there is no way of saying ‘’Can’t do”. Then I joined the Army, and while I was there when I used to be off on the weekends, I used to help my parents in the kitchen. I always helped them in the kitchen even as a kid, I enjoyed meeting guests and sometimes when there was a mistake, my parents would send me out to speak to the guest and usually they would not be upset anymore. My mom suggested I try the hospitality industry as I had a thing with guests, or people in general. I thought about it and realised that I knew everything about the hotel business but I did not know how anything about cooking. I used to spend a lot of time with my mother in the laundry, making the rooms as that was the only time I could spend time with her and we could chat. When I wanted my dose of psychotherapy that is when I got it from her. Then I thought if I had to start in the industry then I would have to start with the area which I don’t know at all – the kitchen. It was more the need to the logic than the passion for it. In the end I fell in love with it.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I think the most memorable was when I first got a restaurant under my wings. That was perhaps the one with the biggest impact because I left Europe for the first time, I had to speak English with 5-6 nationalities, I had to write a menu in English. So I left Switzerland as a chef de cuisine and became the Executive sous chef of the Pacifica Grill & Bar at Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It worked with my skill set as it served European cuisine with an Asian touch. For me that was the best thing that could happen. I was able to cook the way I cooked in Europe. What was special was the super warm welcome of the team, I am still connected to almost everyone on that team. I used to cook in Europe surrounded by mountains and lakes and although it would sounds very fancy to many, it was boring but with very good food. I met a lot of people from different countries who regaled me with stories of their countries and I thought, that is where I want to be. I was eager to travel. The first time flying to a different place which is so exotic.
My cooking base is European based, traditional French/European cooking and now I was slow roasting a duck but I did not have orange, but I had calamansi (mandarin); so instead of white asparagus I had to use the Thai asparagus, instead of bay leaf I would use an Asian green.
The country did not have alcohol as it was an Islamic country, so it was challenging. For example how do you make some dishes without alcohol? A lot of things I learned there I could use here. I learned about halal cooking, about halal meats, I flew to Australia to learn about halal beef production and making things creatively with what I had. For the first time I had to produce my own menu, I had to motivate the team, to convince them that my food is now their food. So in my world it’s not only about cooking, but how can I get the best out of my team members I had never met. First we have to bond with them, appreciating each and every nationality, learning from them, going for meals with them, trying to understand and respect their culture and then applying my cooking skills and that is all I did. I was very lucky with the team, we won every single award.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had an interesting lunch yesterday. I had journalists from a Swiss magazine and they lived in Hamburg. There were here to interview me and see the hotel and the culinary side of it as they had heard that we are a little different with our culinary offering. They were vegetarian but they ate fish. So we had small little tapas – Tomato fusilli pasta with burrata cheese (that is locally made in Dubai by a local Italian family), Fattoush salad with compressed watermelon which is one of our own creations. And we had a German apple cake which is mama-style that Mathias Herbarth (Speciality Sous Chef Western Cuisine) made with vanilla whipped cream, which is how you would eat it in Germany.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I go anywhere! In the first year in Dubai, in the pre-opening of the Oberoi Hotel, I visited over 100 restaurants in a period of 8-9 months. I needed to get to know the hotel restaurants and individual restaurants, just comfort food places in Dubai. My wife often asked me if we were going on a romantic dinner or homework dinner.
But the places we kept on going more often, if it was not our own backyard with our Chef friends having a barbecue, it would be at my good friend’s restaurant Sicilia at the Moevenpick Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel. They make the best Italian food at a very high level. They make the best pizzas I have ever had. I don’t look at the menu when I go there, I don’t know what’s on the menu. I go there and I eat something different every time. I love their gnocchi which they make from scratch. I don’t know anyone else who does that. Chefs like to go to places where the food is easy, simple and where we don’t have to bother looking at the menu unless it’s for homework. I also love Fumé and Qbara – for me they both are really really good, comfort food. If I was opening my own restaurant it would something like them because both these restaurants have my kind of common sense with something interesting. What I like about Qbara is, when I look at the time when I was working in Kuala Lumpur, I had the task to serve my food with an Asian twist. At Qbara they serve European food with an Arabic twist. So we had similar approaches just different spices.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Tomato because it’s easy to grow yourself. It has a lot of story to tell, it has a sweet and sour flavours. So it can be found in multiple cuisines from Indian to Asian to European and you can eat it as is.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I think I would be in Japan having a family meal, it would be a bento meal on the coast of Yokohama. In that meal you have everything from raw to grilled, seared, baked, sushi, maki, desert. In this cuisine you have the best of it all. It’s as good and fresh as it gets. Whatever is served to you, the person who makes it is a specialist in only that. If you have a croissant in Japan it will be outstanding. It’s always good.
Most exotic vacation destination?
While I was working in Macau, I took my family on a trip which went from Macau, Hong Kong through to Sanya, which is considered the Hawaii of China. And in Sanya we had multiple meals from all over the world which were may be very very exotic. Because this holiday had it all – it had Asia, it had England or Europe in Hong Kong and China with a Hawaiian touch, that was very exotic for everyone. I would like to take a South American tour which is definitely Peru, Chile, Brazil in one go. It’s the culture, the nature and the food and wine.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I think I have a hard time going back to a place where I have been. I would go maybe to Japan. There is a lot of discipline for the product and the way it is cooked. The client is very educated, there is a high demand for an amazing product; there is just no place for failure. Every dish has to be just perfect.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
There is nothing really embarrassing; it’s just how you sell it. Even if you fall on the floor, you can make it funny. I don’t really get embarrassed, I sometime embarrass people. It’s not really embarrassing, but it usually happens, it’s a general thing which is the truth – You don’t really make a mistake until the Executive Chef of whoever your boss is, is looking over your shoulder. I remember a really cool chef who was at the restaurant I was working in after my apprenticeship, who I am still very fond of and I thought I knew how to cook as I was just promoted as a Commi and then the Executive Chef told me to cut three boxes of brunoises (small little mini cubes) of red peppers, carrots and celery root. The Chef told me that once I was done with it, I could go on my afternoon break. So I quickly got down to doing it and I told the chef I had finished within 15 minutes. And he looked at me and asked me to go with him with this very sarcastic tone of voice which told me that I was an idiot. So he took the three containers and threw them in the waste and then asked me to follow him while he showed me how to cut brunoise. He then said that it was his fault that he had not shown me how to cut brunoises as I was just learning.
If you are holding a tray nothing happens, but when your Executive Chef is standing there you will spill it, drop it, burn it, you cut your finger. This always happens when the Executive Chef of the guy in charge stands next to you. So these are embarrassing moments which every chef will tell you this is the truth.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I had get the chance, I would like to cook at the Oscars and then have a table of filled with George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Will Farrell and Chris Pratt and just have a chat with them. I would cook whatever is in the fridge, that’s my cooking. Maybe I would involve them in cooking and have a laugh. I tend to be a funny person myself, that is how I go through life, rather with a smile than being too serious about things. But I think there would be interesting conversation with those guys. I would have loved to have cooked for Robin Williams.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
At Umai I would eat a combination of California Roll and Ramen Noodle Soup which is comfort food in Japan. At Ananta I would definitely have the Dal Makhani and Chicken Tikka with a Biryani and Raita. At 971 I would have the Eggs Benedict.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
It’s like a book full of thoughts. If you heard what I said over the years to some of the team members, you have to try to visualize and fast-forward what the guest would like to have and then you have to strive with whatever you have cook for that person, not only does it have to be good, but it has to be memorable. If you don’t create the memory you have not succeeded whether it’s for al a carte, a wedding, a banquet event or even room service. When people ask me what is my cuisine, I’m still finding it, but I think always say its emotional cuisine.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I have eaten a bunch of weird stuff. I think the weirdest might have been in Thailand. It was on a street and since I am very curious I had a bunch of insects in lollipops, I think it was a honey lollipop which was dipped in dried ants – they were a little spicy, crunchy, pickle-y, popcorn-y. The honey lollipop had turned into caramel sweet. It was not really bad, but it was more about overcoming that ‘eek’ moment.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
If you are having a meal with the person you love and you have a moment, it could be pancakes. For me I think it was the first time I was in Yokohama Japan in 2007 with my wife, Eri, and my parents-in-law at a roof top restaurant which was a Teppanyaki restaurant and the Executive Chef created a meal on the teppan. The way he cooked, was the way I would cook with pans. He cooked Haima beef, which was the first time I learned about this meat. The way he prepared the meat, he had it all in harmony, with all the ingredients from raw until it was put on a plate, he plated it the way he felt. It was simply elegant, perfectly cooked. This sensory overload for a country boy in a city, beautiful harbour view of the city. At the end when the dish was plated he gave me a small little soya dish in which there was a small twig of thyme and he said, if you want you can just season your meat a little with this twig. He said you just have to crackle it as its crystallised salt which was from the Okinawa salt caves and once you crackle it smell your hand. I was licking my fingers. That was one of the most thought through and the nicest meal I had which was so much of storytelling. It was just simply perfect in the way it was cooked and presented. What was special was that he connected with the people even above cooking and serving it. If I can create a memory like this with my guest, I will think I have done a good job.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I would say Caramel in several shapes. Caramel, toffee and chocolate in that combination. If there is a packet of Toffifee in front of me I will not be able to stop. You can play with caramel, you can add it coffee, you can add it to a savoury dish, I can add it to foie gras, I can play with it in a venison dish, a lot of vegetables can also work with caramel.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
They called me Asparagus before I got a little bigger. Because, if it’s German asparagus then it was because I am tall and big and tasty and detoxifies people. Sometimes people come to me with problems and I try to solve them.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
Never stop getting better, or else you have stopped being great. It was printed on a t-shirt on an Officer in the Army. You have to keep getting better. Forget your awards from yesterday, create new awards for tomorrow.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would be a Top Gear presenter or I would own a dive shop.
Most underrated ingredient? Nutmeg. People generally don’t know how to use it. They usually only add it to potato dishes as a seasoning but it so awesome in many other dishes, even desserts.
Best culinary tool? Tweezers to arrange food on the plate or better still a tasting spoon so I can taste the food.
A chef that inspires you? My Grandfather, Kurt Umbeer. What I appreciate about him is that he is a very classic ground European and French based chef and his taste when cooking is very sous-vide. He uses cooking techniques that were talked about many years ago. He is a master chef and he got an honourable degree of a culinary professor of having done more than 50 years of judging culinary graduations.
One dish you can’t live without? I would say pizza. It is like comfort food for me. Maybe because when I was growing up whenever we were at home, we always ate European, French or German food. So whenever we were off work, we would go to our Italian friend’s Italian restaurant. For me it meant eating with the family on an off day without other guests – I would have my family to myself.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Buffets. Because they are wasteful and usually the quality of the ingredients is not as good as it could be because its bulk. Bulk generally does not get the attention as compared to if I cook only one meal would get. And there is a lot of food that gets wasted. It’s not contemporary. It is wasteful. We have to take care of our resources; we should focus more on how I can make this thing.
Sometimes it’s a necessity when you have 1000 people but I think there are always different ways to do it, being more conscious. I just can’t live with the idea of throwing away 1.5 tonnes of food every Friday.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Maultaschen. It’s a German ravioli. It’s like a noodle dough and wrapped inside it is minced meat, spinach with a lot of herbs, parsley and soaked bread in milk, so a bit like a meat patty, and then cook it by boiling it and when the stock become like a soup which you then have to clarify it so it becomes like a beautiful consume of meat broth. It’s something like a German dim sum. You then serve the Maultaschen with the broth with roasted onions on top with chopped chives and German potato salad which you would eat as a side dish. Its homey comfort food.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Kombu. It’s a fermented green tea broken down into a powder to season food with a savoury-sour-ish note which they call the 6th flavour. It’s basically a Japanese seasoning which is used in many salad dressings or soups or dishes. Sometime they are missing a bit of savoury and sourness, to give it a round flavour, and this could be what gives you that.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Barley risotto with white asparagus and seared sea bass.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Contemporary European with a sense of place (by this he meant, he has to find and identify and develop a taste or flavour for the place, city, region and twist his cuisine to what is necessary) and Emotional.
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!