CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with THOMAS BATOR
This man is a thinker! Even with my ‘this or that’ questions, he paused for a second before he answered. And no matter how pushy I got, he still paused to think. The second thing that struck me was his laughter – he laughed at most of his answers and it was infectious. He seems like a man who is pretty laid back, who does not take things too seriously, but when talk veered to Catalan, food and wine – we got serious! Chef Thomas may have worked in and with the best of the best – with the late Chef Santi Santamaria, the Chef with the most Michelin stars, at the seafood restaurant at Burj Al Arab, but it’s at The Surf Café where Thomas has the most freedom to showcase what he has learned over the years. Thomas’s journey shows that working hard, learning at every opportunity can get you places – it did after all bring him to Dubai!
Chef Thomas Bator
Name: Thomas Bator
Restaurant: The Surf Café
From: Adelaide, Australia
Culinary School: Regency TAFE, Adelaide
Knife Hand: Right
Instragram Handle: @thesurfcafedubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I think I was good, yeah! I have a Polish background (from both my father and mother’s side) so we basically eat a lot of cabbage. When I was younger, I used to watch my grandmother cooking and there was always a lot of cabbage, a lot of broccoli, cauliflower and vegetables like that. I remember eating cabbage stewed, very slowly cooked, sometimes in salad as well but mainly it was stewed cabbage – it was amazing, very very nice! If you ask any Polish person, they love cabbage – stewed cabbage is one of the main things they eat, even cabbage rolls. You can fill the cabbage leaves with pretty much anything, but the main one is with chicken and rice and then you wrap it, then put in a tomato sauce and then put it in the oven to cook. It’s very nice.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
To be honest, we were very sporty family, so I played a lot of sport when I was younger. I really wanted to play cricket or football – in Australia in the winter time, you play football, or you play cricket in the summertime. I was fortunate enough to play soccer for the State. I travelled to Singapore, and played in Singapore for a week or two.
When I got to the age of 16, I was working at a resort called The Lakes Resort Hotel in Adelaide where I started off as a kitchen hand doing dishes, helping out, plating cold and hot starters and things like this. The Executive Chef, Warren Johansen, at the time offered me an apprenticeship and I was actually fortunate enough to work for a Company called Hospitality Group Training. So I worked for the Hospitality Group Training, but my host employer was The Lakes Resort Hotel. The apprenticeship basically is a four year deal, where you basically do on the job training, as well as you go to culinary school. The good thing about working at The Lakes Resort is that you basically had a fine dining restaurant, you had a bistro, you had a function centre and 24-hour room service for people who wanted to stay in-house, so basically you had a variety of working in different areas. So now if you ask me to cook for over 200 people for a wedding, I can do it because I learned how to do it. If you want me to go and work in a fine-dining restaurant, no problem, I can do it. If you want me to work in a real busy fast paced, where they want to have dishes straight away, where you are doing 300-400 covers of service, I can do it, because I learned that as well. That was the advantage of working at The Lakes Resort and I did my whole apprenticeship there and then eventually once I finished my apprenticeship when I was 20 years old, The Lakes Resort offered me a job there, to work for them and I took it up.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
It all began at The Lakes Resorts, when six months into me working full time, a new Executive Chef joined. His name was Robert Blackbourough. He moved to Atlantis (Dubai) and was the one who offered me a job to work for 3 Michelin star restaurant Chef Santi Santamaria, the late great Santi Santamaria, at Ossiano in the Atlantis (The Palm, Dubai). Chef Santi had the most Michelin stars in Spain because he had several restaurants around Spain – I think he had about seven Michelin star restaurants. I moved to Dubai with Ossiano at the Atlantis in 2008 as Chef di Parti. This is where I learned and grew in the business and industry. Working under Santi Santamaria was an amazing honour. The food and the product we were working with was amazing, second to none, the best quality product that you could think of. For example, the fresh grouper came from Spain, the whole lamb we got from France, and we butchered everything ourselves, and cleaned and filleted the fish, everything ourselves. This is where I learned the importance of the freshness of the ingredients, it was pretty much where I got to learn to respect food a little bit better and sort of understanding the cooking process. Fish when you cook it nice, is amazing, but if you overcook it there can be problems because people don’t respect it. Santi taught me to make sure that the product we deal with is the best quality and also serving it as fresh as possible to make sure that the customer is happy.
Chef Santi was a Catalan chef, so it was quite nice to learn the Catalan cuisine. Being a chef is not easy, especially when you have 7, 3 Michelin star restaurants to your name and then maintaining that level. He had a very big reputation in Spain. He would be the one Chef who would be fighting Chef Ferran Adrià (Chef at ElBulli, which has since closed down), who was more into the scientific side of things, whereas the products that Santi used was all natural and proper and everything was hearty – it came from the heart. If you make a stock in a soup it comes from the heart, it’s not made out of gelatine or foam.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Pasta. It was a pasta carbonara with veal bacon, it was creamy with parmesan cheese – it was a staff meal – quick and easy.
Place you eat most often on days off?
My home; I actually eat a lot at home. To be honest, when I go out on my days off, I travel around sometimes and try different things – whether it’s a quick burger or a nice sit down lunch having a salad somewhere. I don’t really have a favourite place to be honest. My favourite place is my home because I like to cook at home a lot. At dinner time, I like to sit down and have a glass of wine, and chill with friends and cook nice food. I don’t get fed up of cooking, because I love to cook. I love the social feeling that comes with cooking for friends and family, to make someone happy and cook for them.
The best place I like to go out to is La Petite Maison or probably, Zuma. They have good food, good service and good drinks. I like to experiment, I am not fussy, so I will try something different every time I go out.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
There are a lot of things I like to work with. But for my favourite I would have to say fresh salmon. Because it’s versatile, you can do lots of things with it. You do a nice crispy skin, fillet or you want to have a salmon tartare, sashimi, sushi, ceviche or carpaccio. It transcends cuisines, its fusion, it’s like a melting pot of different flavours.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be in Adelaide with the family – my parents, my brother and friends – having a roast dinner at home. I would be the one to cook this dinner and it would be roast pork with roasted vegetables, salad, apple sauce and homemade gravy made from the juices of the pork. There would also be a couple of other dishes as well – a seafood paella and dessert would have to be panna cotta which I think is nice.
The Philippines. I went to different places like Clark Pampanga, Puerto Princessa, Palawan and Puerto Fuego. Its basically you are away from everything. We were in one island in Puerto Princessa and basically between 9am – 6pm they did not have any electricity, sometimes internet connection does not work. So basically you away from everything, it’s a great place to get away and have a bit of freedom. There are two places I would love to go and visit – Osaka, Japan and the West Coast of America.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Tuscany in Italy. I love the culture, the food, the people – it’s just amazing. I would gain a little bit more experience and knowledge and working over there would be amazing just working in a restaurant, learning how to cook a risotto, because they are quite fussy when it comes to their risottos. Learning to cook Italian food the authentic Italian way.
What has been your most funny kitchen moments?
As a tradition in all kitchens, every Chef that leaves a restaurant is pelted with flour, leftover seafood juices, eggs, anything you can get your hands on – it’s our kind of farewell. I remember a time when we wrapped a colleague up in cling wrap and put her on a trolley and then doused her in cream, flour, chocolate, sauce and many other things. The poor dear had to endure this ordeal for about 15 minutes. The stewarding department wasn’t too happy after we left – because there was a lot of cleaning up to do. What happens is when it’s your last day, you are working a lot of hours, and by the end of the night you don’t even think about it, you think about just cleaning and making sure everything is done properly and you just want to leave – that is when they get you by surprise. Every chef does this to every chef – you could call it like a chef tradition or ritual.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I like to cook for family and friends because I get more of a social thing out of it. I love to cook a Catalan fish stew for them. It’s basically a fisherman’s soup. The fishermen used to gather up all the leftover seafood that they had left with potatoes and onions and make a fish broth and serve it with a saffron aioli and some bread on the side. The ultimate fish for me to use would be monk fish, you have a couple of prawns and some clams. The soup is more of a bouillabaisse – it’s a French seafood soup which is infused with saffron and we thicken it with a picada – which is bread crumbs, toasted almonds and hazelnuts which you puree it to a powder or a crumby consistency and you sprinkle it in and it thickens the soup. So you have the flavour of the hazelnuts, almonds and the bread acts as a thickening agent.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I would say the Chocolate Bunyols. It’s quite nice. Again, it’s a Catalan dish as well. It’s a chocolate ganache taken to another level. It’s a chocolate ganache which we have dipped into one batter and we deep fry it so it comes out like a mini chocolate donut, so when you bite into it the chocolate explodes in your mouth – its crispy on the outside and the warm chocolate on the inside explodes in your mouth. And we serve it with vanilla ice-cream.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I like to keep my food as fresh and as simple as possible. I don’t try to take any shortcuts; I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. Basically, if you come to The Surf Café you get what you pay for – 100%.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Let’s say Lamb’s brains. I tried it as Ossiano – it was a sample dish. As chefs we always have to try different things. It wasn’t too bad, it tasted quite nice, I was surprised. It was breaded and deep fried with a lemon butter and caper (berry) sauce with fresh dil – it wasn’t bad at all. It was weird though because eating a lamb’s brain is uncommon.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
In 2009, on my first holiday I had when I was working at Atlantis, I got a chance to fly back to Australia and I had a stop-over in Singapore for 24 hours and I met Daniel Chaves who used to be the Chef de Cuisine at Ossiano. He showed me around Singapore and he took me to the restaurant called Santi, which was the second Santi Santamaria restaurant outside of Spain. He was the Executive Chef at Santi. I was only expecting 2-3 courses but I had like 10-12 courses and I was blown away. He was such a good friend of mine that he actually surprised me with the 10-12 courses and all the wine was part of the package – and it was all for free! The courses were very fresh, very elegant. Daniel was cooking personally with his brigade of chefs and after every course he would come out and have a chat. It’s an experience I will never forget. I am so glad I got an opportunity to eat at one of Santi’s restaurants. I have worked under him, but to eat at one of his restaurants was a dream come true.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I would have to say French fries. It’s not healthy but it’s so damn good! It needs to be the 10mm cut chip, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside with salt and mayonnaise and ketchup. Its not the healthiest thing, but I am guilty of eating a lot of it because it tastes good. No one can tell me it does not taste good!
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Sugar because I’m sweet and kind at heart. Maybe my mom Eleanor or my girlfriend Lorelie might think differently.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It was two chefs. As a young boy working in the kitchen, Marco Pierre White was a bit of an inspiration. I read an article on the internet which said, if cooking is what you want, make the investment – put your time and energy. The second was when I was working for Robert Blackbourough who said, once you have put your time and effort in, he told me to keep pushing and not to stop. To keep pushing to reach higher levels and don’t stop. At the end of the day, it’s so true, if you keep working hard, and work to the best of your ability you will reach your goals.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
A cricketer playing for Australia.
The team at The Surf Cafe
Most underrated ingredient? Salmon. It’s quite cheap and people like to buy it because it is cheap. But if it got expensive, people would say it’s over rated.
Best culinary tool? Chef’s knife – if you don’t have this, you don’t have anything.
A chef that inspires you? When I was growing up reading books and watching YouTube channels, Marco Pierre White will have to be that Chef. He’s one guy who has done a lot of things and a lot of people look up to. The fact that he was the youngest chef whose restaurant received 3 Michelin stars, the fact that he reached the top and then gave it all back – he gave the 3 Michelin stars back because he did not want them. I have a lot of respect for him because he’s done everything in the business today.
Favourite cuisine? Spanish cuisine because I love the food, flavours, the Mediterranean feel. I love their tapas. I love going to a tapas bar and having cava which is a Spanish sparking white wine – its just an amazing feeling.
One dish you can’t live without? I would have to say a burger – a nice wagyu beef burger. I think a burger is one of the greatest creations anyone has made. It’s very easy to prepare and people love it. It does not have to be wagyu beef, it can be burger and I get to have my French fries too. The best burger I have tried is at Salt, the bun is so soft, the meat is very nice.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Organic food especially in Dubai. You can call it that, unless you pick it directly from the farm, you can’t say it’s organic. There is no difference from my side of things if you go to a supermarket and buy a tomato and you go to a farm and get a tomato – it’s almost the same. Same goes for eggs – you can’t really tell the difference.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Lemon Gelato. Growing up in Adelaide, it has a pretty huge Italian influence. As a little kid I used to go to this one café with my mum called The Duck Deli – there used to be a huge pond there and I used to go to feed the ducks with some dry bread and my mom would have a cappuccino and I used to have the froth off it and then I would go and have a lemon gelato in a cone.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Salmon. It was pan seared salmon with a pinch of salt with a crispy skin with a nice fresh salad with different vegetables – fennel, tomato, cucumber, onion, mixed lettuce greens and a nice dijon vinaigrette that I make. It’s basically Dijon mustard, a bit of apple cider vinegar, diced shallots, fresh parsley, splash of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s a very easy dressing and a sauce to have as well with any kind of salmon or seafood.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Fresh, simple, hearty.
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!