CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with MALCOLM WEBSTER
Chef Malcolm is a man I have to literally look up to – he is after all easily over 6’2” (over my closer to earth height of 5’), has a frame built for rugby but is one of the gentlest and funny people I have ever met. Chef Malcolm moved to the region 18 months ago having worked in Scotland and England – oh and how can I forget – he has to his credit the title of being Team Chef to the English Rugby Team while they were on tour in 2012. With no other dream than to be a Chef since he was 13 years old, Chef Malcolm has chartered his course through the dales to the dunes and I know there definitely will be a beyond.
I have to give credit for this interview where it’s due –Thank you Debbie (from Geordie Armani) for suggesting and putting me in touch with Chef Malcolm.
Name: Malcolm Webster
Hotel: Sheraton Grand Hotel, Dubai
From: Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England
Culinary School: Northumberland College of Arts & Technology (NORCAT)
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @chef_webster
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yeah, I was a very good kid to be honest. My mom, Christie, will always say that even as a small child cauliflower and cheese was my favourite. I used to always make that umm *happy child sort of noise* sound when I saw it. My mom was a trained Chef, so she always used to do balanced family meals. We always had a roast Sunday lunch and there were always vegetables. My mom was from the old school of meat and two veg was the staple meal. So yup, no problems eating my vegetables.
I have two children, Bennett who is 6 years old and Taylor who is four years. My daughter Taylor eats everything. I used to take a mid-week off on a Wednesday when I was in the UK and we would have Caesar Salad for lunch. So at 3, Taylor would have a bowl of salad with me and Bennett does not touch anything green, he doesn’t eat it. It’s all about pasta and carbs for him – we just can’t seem to get him out of it. We are now starting to get him into a little bit of vegetables – he eats carrots but cooked only in one way and we call it – Nana’s Carrots – my mom basically cooks the carrots in water and then uses the water to make the gravy – basically well-cooked carrots that is about all that he eats to be honest.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was younger we used to live on a farm and then we moved and my parents owned a Pub called The Black Bull Inn in Bowsden. That is how I got into cooking. My mom was a cook and she always said that people got to eat and it’s a good trade to go into, people always spend money on food. I was helping prepare food at the pub since I was 13 years old and from there on working with food – from Home Economics in school, one of the very few boys in the class and then straight to catering college after school. I can never remember to aspiring to be anything else, or wanting to do anything else. Ever since I started cooking I have never thought of doing anything else and I have been cooking professionally for the last 20 years.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I worked in a seafood restaurant in London called Chamberlain’s which is in Leadenhall Market. It’s a beautiful restaurant in a beautiful old fashioned covered market in the heart of the City of London’s financial district. London and I worked there for three years. It was such a unique experience. Because Chamberlain’s was in the city, there was no business on the weekends, so we closed for the weekends, we were very busy at lunch and we also closed for Christmas and New Year. So as a Chef we had Christmas and New Year off for three years and bank holidays off – it’s not a normal Chef kind of lifestyle to have all of those days off. At Chamberlain’s, because it was in the City, we could serve up to 130 people at lunch, 90 of who had the same lunch hour so it got very very busy.
Chamberlain’s was where I moved from being chef di parti to sous chef level and it really transformed me into a better restaurant Chef. It helped me understand the nature of the two sides of being a Chef of a restaurant as compared to being a Chef in a hotel which are two completely different things.
If you are a Chef in a restaurant, you probably don’t have a breakfast operation so your first piece of business could be lunch. If you are a Chef in a hotel, whether it’s a hotel restaurant, you have breakfast going along and different requests during the day especially with in-room dining. The mentality and the needs is different and as a Chef you have to have a more open mind and a lot more to focus on whereas if you work in a restaurant that only serves lunch and dinner you have to focus on only those two services.
Chamberlain’s was just an amazing experience.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Yesterday I had lunch in our staff canteen which I like to do a couple of times a week. It was salad and some grilled chicken and some vegetables and carrot soup. It’s always nice to share a meal with the team.
Place you eat most often on days off?
There are two places to be honest. The first is Social House at The Dubai Mall . I like the laksa soup and the salads and also the carpaccio beef. The food is very tasty and fresh and that is what I like about it. Service is generally ok.
The other place I like going to is a Japanese restaurant called Creekside at Sheraton Dubai Creek in Deira with a sushi, teppanyaki and a wok station. I always get very well looked after and they always have a good offering. Generally it’s a great place to go. I like Japanese food, but my daughter loves sushi and the teppanyaki lamb chops cooked on the grill. They also have an outdoor seating with a great view.
We did a bloggers event with Noreen Wasti (from Noni’s Place) where we did a cheese board and she told me about roasting grapes with honey and thyme. It’s really nice. We now use it a lot – we use it with our cheese boards. We actually make a seafood Umm Ali for our brunch. So we take the traditional dessert and make it savoury with vanilla, seafood, shallots and we use puff pastry with za’atar and we put in roasted grapes instead of sultanas. We put in roasted grapes in two or three things around the hotel. We roast the grapes gently on a low temperature with thyme and honey so they dehydrate a little bit and the flavour intensifies.
So at the moment I would say my favourite ingredient to work with is roasted grapes.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would not be in a city, but in a village called Cartmel in the Lake District (England) at Chef Simon Rogan’s restaurant – Rogan & Co. He forages, grows his own vegetables, has his own farm and I would have the 19 course tasting menu which starts with canapés all the way through with cheese with wine matches for the different courses. The menu just flowed; it takes you through a journey of different flavours and textures.
I visited this restaurant with my wife and it was a 3.5 hour experience. You get your course and after you have finished you think how amazing it was, and then the next course comes out and you think it was even better than the previous one, each course just took you to another level – it was really great food, great cooking, great experience using local British produce, home grown and that the sort of meal and experience I would go back to. It was just amazing.
Most exotic vacation destination?
I suppose it would be Australia – Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. It’s beautiful and I’d love to go back. I loved the people, the food, the lifestyle and weather. I would like to go to Bora Bora or somewhere in French Polynesia and stay in one of those huts you see over the water. It just looks amazing.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I was doing a Pad Thai demonstration at some foodie event in the hotel I worked at in Edinburgh once and I couldn’t get the brand of noodles I normally used for my Pad Thai. It was a case that you soaked them for 2-3 minutes and then you could stir fry them off. But the noodles I got, I was soaking, and soaking and they just weren’t getting soft enough and it was really embarrassing. I ended up cooking up a stir fry Pad Thai dish, with time running out, with noodles that were a bit raw. It was just really embarrassing. I now make sure I don’t change the ingredients.
Oh! I must tell you a funny moment that occurred when I was working at Chamberlain’s. Although it was a fish restaurant, we also cooked meat as well. We were in the basement 3 floors above us all connected through an intercom system. One evening we had our Head Waiter comes to the system and he goes, “Chef I’ve got a vegetarian in the restaurant. He’s asked if you can take the parma ham off the chicken for him.” The guest vegetarian guest was willing to have the chicken if we took the ham off. It was just really funny.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I would have loved to have cooked for my grandparents. I would cook them something that shows what a good Chef I have become. I would cook them a classic French dish – a roasted Scottish beef with a bourguignon sauce – a nice red wine mushroom, bacon and baby onions and beef sauce.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
At Feast I eat a Duck Congee. Congee is mainly an Asian dish which is rice, very well cooked where the grain falls apart. It’s a bit like porridge but cooked with rice. At Feast we elevate this dish – a simple street food, humble breakfast item into a flavoursome lunch and dinner dish. We take a whole duck, and take the legs and breast off and we roast the bones to make a duck stock. So we cook the rice in a duck stock, so adding duck flavour in from the start. We take the leg and French confit (duck cooked in its own fat) on a low heat so it become tender and then we flake the leg meat off and sauté it crispy. The breast we vacuum pack down with Peking duck flavour marination and we cook sous-vide. We add a little bit ginger and garlic to the rice and then we soft poach an egg and then we serve it with shallot rings, fresh chilli, spring onions and a little bit of chilli oil. It’s a wonderful rich dish, full of technique and flavour. It’s a complete dish and it really encompasses what the restaurant Feast is all about – we take traditional food and we try and give it a modern twist.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is – taste is paramount. If it does not taste nice, but it looks like art on a plate – then it’s not food. That’s it – taste, flavour and texture – food has got to have those elements to it. And if it looks good too, then that’s a bonus. I want my Chefs to respect the ingredients and to learn and understand the ingredients. Understand the uses and minimize the wastage.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I will tell you what I haven’t eaten but have been offered it. It’s the Pilipino eggs with a fertilized chicken egg – it’s called Balut. It’s a Pilipino delicacy which I have been offered it but I won’t eat it. It is boiled and eaten. You have to crack the top of the egg open once boiled and then they add salt and vinegar and then suck the broth around embryo and then you peel the egg and eat the yolk and young chicken. I was offered this in Scotland a couple of times and I turned it down.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
My mom is a phenomenal Chef – I love her roast dinners. She always makes me a roast dinner whenever I go home.
But the best meal I can remember is going to Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Royal Hospital Road in London about 15 years ago when he only had that restaurant. He was behind the stove cooking when I and my friend went. We were both Chef di Partis and we saved up money to go and have this amazing tasting menu – I think the tasting menu was about 5-6 courses. I chose to go to the restaurant because Chef Gordon Ramsay was someone I admired. He was probably the top end of dining experiences in London back then. I even had to buy a suit to visit the restaurant. It was a phenomenal experience, 3 Michelin stars, service was immaculate, great wine list
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I just love food – can’t you tell? But what I love is éclairs and Profiteroles – choux pastry and fresh whipped cream. Actually I should keep off the pastry – it’s no good for my diet!!!
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Habanero Chilli – I’m a bit fiery. I could also be similar to mint – it is very domineering and it takes over.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
To a young Chef, you have got to put in hard work and learn as much as you can – some people don’t like it but you have to work the extra hours. When you finish your shift in the main kitchen, go up to the restaurant kitchen for a few hours and learn, or go into the pastry and learn. The more effort you put in and the more you try and learn as a younger Chef it will help you later on in life. You have to work hard and really learn and develop trade – money comes later in life as a Chef – it’s not there instantly. This piece of advice was given to me by one of my old Chefs with whom I worked with in three hotels, Chef Ralph Porciani.
Tell us a bit about your involvement with the game of rugby.
A few years ago, when I moved to Edinburgh we used to cook for the Scottish and Welsh rugby teams and I always wished I could cook for the English team. So at the hotel where I was working in Edinburgh we had the English and Scottish rugby teams staying and so I did finally get to cook for the English rugby team. After the team left, I got a phone call from General Manager, asking me to come down to his office. He told me that he had been asked by the English Rugby team if the hotel could let me go work for them. It turns out that the English rugby team was going to South Africa for a 5-game tour for four weeks and they want you to travel as team Chef. My boss helped facilitate this. So I travelled down to London and met up with the team, this was in 2012. So I flew out with them and worked with the hotel chefs in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town to produce the food and make the food was cooked to standard. The best thing when you travel with a team is you have to look like part of the team – so I was given the English rugby kit of track suits, trainers, a suit, a suitcase with the England logo on it. It was a great experience travelling with the guys and learning.
Best culinary tool? Spatula – a good quality heat resistant so you can really scrape out all those little bits of sauce out of the pan.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Ralph Porciani who is now the General Manager of Trump Turnberry Hotel in South Ayrshire, Scotland. He moved from Chef, to Chef in charge of Food and Beverage, to Hotel Manager and now he is the General Manager. I am inspired by what he has achieved in his life. I have worked with him over a number of years and he is loyal to his team, he helped me achieve a lot and promoted me to achieve my targets. He’s a great family guy and a real role model.
Favourite cuisine? Thai. I like eating Thai, it’s quick to cook at home. Thai chicken curry was always my go-to recipe because I would always have the ingredients at home. You can’t beat a good Thai green curry to be honest. It’s always full of flavour, its fresh, it’s zesty and spicy – I love spice.
One dish you can’t live without? Chips cooked at home. The proper ones – handmade, home cooked fresh chips. You can’t beat fresh chips with vinegar, salt and ketchup.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? The whole super foods thing – it’s a fad and people are playing on it. There is nothing wrong with eating an apple with the skin on it as that’s where all the vitamins are.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mom’s roast beef with homemade Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower and cheese, roasted potatoes, carrots cooked around the beef.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? My wife Lindsay puts the over ripe bananas in the freezer and then uses them to make banana bread.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Lamb chops with feta cheese and black olives and salad.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Detailed, passionate and flavoursome.
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!