CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF NIGEL LOBO
Nigel referred to Bombay as Mumbai – so I knew instantly he belonged to a younger generation (the other give-away being that he does look young). The one quality that comes to mind when I recall the interview is how persistent Nigel is. He shot of email after email for four months without a reply only because he was hell bent on learning in the kitchen of a particular restaurant on the other side of the world – Australia. And not only did he get to do that, he also went and worked (for free) in a 3 star Michelin restaurant in Germany (under Chef Thomas Bühner at La Vie restaurant in Osnabrück). This young Chef also represented India to train in Spain for 6 months. Chef Nigel left Dubai, the city he grew up seven years ago to become a Chef. Seven years later, he returned to the city as Head Chef. A truly remarkable journey of a kid who’s future profession was sealed watching Hell’s Kitchen. Nigel invested in himself when he went to work and learn in Germany and Australia (all at his own expense) – and only those who truly believe in their ability, have the willingness to learn and have the passion to pursue put their money where their heart is.
Name: Nigel Lobo
Restaurant: The Eloquent Elephant, Taj Dubai (Business Bay)
From: Mumbai, India
Culinary School: The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development, New Delhi, India and Escuela Internacional de Cocina, Valladolid, Spain
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram Handle: @theeloquentelephant
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No. Absolutely not! I still see vegetables and run away. However, I started liking broccoli, spinach over the last couple of years – it was just a sudden inclination towards vegetables than meat. My mom tried to bring South India (note: Nigel’s family originally comes from Mangalore, South India which gave me an instant connection as my husband is Mangalorean too) to Dubai so the fish curry spices were ground at home every day and staple diet for lunch before going to school would be fish curry, rice and a vegetable – this was compulsory – and the rule at home was you had to finish whatever was on your place. The vegetables I was forced to eat growing up were radish, spinach, bitter gourd and beans all made with a south Indian tempering. I used to be very whiny as a kid when it came to food in general. The first time I appreciated having a balanced meal was only after I left home. Before that I used to take everything for granted. But once all your whims and fancy requests which I used to make at home are no longer heard in the real world – you have a set menu for food which does not change you adjust and eat whatever is given to you without complaining.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to become a Chef – since I was 12 or 13. I remember once they asked me in catechism class what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I would like to be a Chef. When I was growing up, there were a lot of celebrity Chefs who came into focus on TV. There was Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay and the thought of living up to his expectations, making the food up to the Chef’s expectations or not was something that was very interesting, I loved seeing those beautiful plates of food being dished out. I always wanted to do Hotel Management – that was the broader view – but in the kitchen I wanted to become a Chef. So when it came for me to choose a profession, of course I was discouraged – what I mean is, my parents were very supportive all throughout my career, of the choices I made, however, they put their point across very politely – things like, if I wanted to become a Chef, I would need to put in the hard work, I would be working holidays, family life will be non-existent – and that I should look at it from a long term benefit point of view – basically advice all parents would give.
When it came to choosing a culinary school, there was nothing in Dubai at that time, so the option was either going abroad or back to India. So being Indian, and not knowing anything about Indian food, we decided to narrow it down to India. My parents had placed conditions to that as well – either I had to get into a 5 star hotel or into one of the leading catering colleges in India – failing which I would have to come back to Dubai and pursue a BBA. I had two 5 start hotel offers, and so in 2008, I selected the The Oberoi in Bangalore which was a 3 year on-the-job program which they call STEP (Systematic Training and Education Programme) and I chose Kitchen as my speciality.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I think the one in Melbourne, Australia at Attica which was voted as the 21st best restaurant in the world at that time under Chef Ben Shewry in October 2013. I wrote to Ben Shwery for six months, of which the first four did not get me any response, but then finally one day my inbox got mail inviting me to go over and train at the restaurant. The reason I wanted to learn at this restaurant is because they are knows for foraging – basically they grow their own herbs and pick their own herbs – so it was a very interesting restaurant to go and work in.
So every morning we used to go herb garden and pick herbs for exactly 60 people – because we knew we were catering to 60 people for dinner. So if you knew you needed 60 pieces of lemon thyme, you picked only 61 pieces of lemon thyme just in case one gets spoilt. Every day it would be fresh ingredients, everything is organic and everything is sourced locally. Dinner was always a set menu with 2 options – a 5 or 8 course set menu. Tuesday’s was very exciting because they had a Tasting Tuesday – so the menu would change for a day. Tuesdays was a day of learning for everyone as you experiment with a new dish.
I went to Attica as a stagiaire (trainee) for 1.5 months where on the first, second day you follow a stagiaire who is on his way out and whose role you would fill. You are they given a station on which you will help at and they have a really nice rotation policy so you get to work at different stations. What I learned – things like growing your own herbs is something you don’t usually do in Dubai or in India, now it’s getting more popular, respecting ingredients, respecting herbs and taking care of them, picking for a set number of people where production is that exacting and using the freshest ingredients you can possibly serve your guests. The amount you can gain from people, there are people in the kitchen from all over the world – so the inputs you get are invaluable. Even the staff meals we got over there were from all over the world – one day you would have Korean food another day would be British fare, and the day I cooked, they had Indian food.
The amount of herbs they used to grow over there were indeed very unique. I did not know half the names of the herbs grown there before I got there. I only knew a few basic, limited ones – and that is the whole reason why I went to a place like this – so I could learn. I remember they had a dish called Crab with 11 Basils – basically it had eleven different types of basil.
I cooked a nice 3-course Indian for Chef Ben when I left. I cooked Laal Maans (a mutton curry), Subz Makhani (mixed vegetables), jeera pulao (rice flavoured with cumin) and saffron and cardamom phirni (creamy Indian rice pudding).
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I was off yesterday so I had lunch at home. We had leftover fried rice from the fridge. I also made chicken wings, my Mom, Sheila made steamed rice and sautéed spinach Indian style which I have started loving and my sister Nicole made Goan pork sausages with potatoes.
Place you eat most often on days off?
On my days off, basically my dinners are with friends. So we go to a variety of places. Sometimes it might be a simple shawarma from a bakery which is in Hor Al Anz called Sevan which serves their shawarmas in a baguette and it’s just AED 10. There is another small shawarma place near Reef Mall in Deira which serves fish shawarmas. There is also this other small cafeteria in Gharoud (near India Palace) to eat Keralite food – where we had the Malabar paratha and chicken curry.
But I love going back to Daily Restaurant (near Makhtoum Bridge). I love their kheema (minced meat), their Nihari (slow cooked lamb curry), Haleem (mixture of broken wheat and lamb) and their kababs with freshly baked naans (bread).
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Lemon. I think a good twist of lemon in anything just lifts the dish up. even if you are having a cola and you squeeze a bit of lemon it tastes better.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be eating in Mumbai and I will be eating a chicken, cheese, paneer (cottage cheese) Frankie from BreadKraft (Lokhandwala Street). It is the yummiest Frankie ever!! I would be standing on the street eating it with a 500ml coke.
Spain hands down. From Costa Brava to Barcelona to Madrid and everywhere else in Spain – I loved the food, the tapas bars, the views, the culture and the landscape. I would love to go to London, England to watch Arsenal play.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
New York. To work in a kitchen. Growing up you always read books about Chefs in New York who have failed and then made it big. I would love to head a Michelin star kitchen for a couple of years. I don’t have a specific cuisine I would like to cook in because I think food is a learning experience and choices change over time.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
This was in the first week in the kitchen at The Oberoi, Bangalore. I was fully motivated and it was the time when you want to impress everyone. I was working with a Commi in the continental kitchen and he too was someone who had joined the hotel a couple of weeks before. It was the time when I was peeling carrots, cucumbers etc. and one day, the kitchen was a little free and I think he felt bad for me and he decided to teach me how to make a Club Sandwich or what we called CFF (Chicken, fried egg and fries). So he taught me how to grill a chicken, take a hand full of fries and put them in the fryer and to finally take a pan, put a little oil and break an egg to make the fried egg.
Three days later, at about 11am the kitchen was really busy, and the Commi called me and asked me if I remembered how to make the CFF he had taught me – and I was like ‘Yes Chef’ and he said ‘Ok then, go and make one quickly, but don’t get in anyone’s way’. So I took a plate, I took the chicken and put it on the griller, took a handful of fries and put it in the fryer. I then took a pan and put some oil for the egg and took an egg from under the counter and went ahead to crack it – but it did not crack – so I tried cracking it a little harder and it yet did not crack. The third time, I hit it really hard and this time the shell broke but nothing came out and at the same time I felt a tap on my shoulder. The Commi was standing behind me watching me and he said, “You need to realise that a boiled egg will never fall into a pan,” – that was because they kept boiled eggs under the counter while the raw eggs were kept in the fridge. So everyone in the kitchen took a moment, laughed and then got back to what they were doing, while I was left standing with the boiled egg in my hand.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
The group of Chefs at The Oberoi, Bangalore who helped make my base very strong – Chef Deep, Chef Uday, Chef Rakesh and Chef Jaideep. I would love to make them a 7-course tasting menu which would have fish, meat but get it cooked perfectly. For Chef Deep I would make a perfect dessert as he is a pastry chef, Chef Uday was the Indian Chef so maybe an Indian kebab platter, Chef Jaideep was passionate about his pastas, so something Italian and Chef Rakesh was the Executive Chef.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I think the slow cooked beef cheeks with sweet potato puree or the miso cod with wilted bokchoy. The slow cooked beef cheeks just melts in your mouth and the miso cod is just such a simple dish and sometimes getting simple things right become difficult.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Respect ingredients, season it well and that is all you need for a great dish.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I think it was when we were finishing our training program in Spain (at the Escuela Internacional de Cocina, Valladolid) we went to a two star Michelin restaurant called Echaurrean in La Rioja, Northern Spain. They served modern Spanish food and it was a set menu with 12-14 courses. One of the reasons why it was the best meal was because of the company – we were 12 Chefs from 12 different countries who had re-grouped. Our training was for 6 months, 3 of which we train together and the other 3 months we part ways to go and do trainings in different restaurants around Spain. So this meal was after the 3 months away and was part of a tour of Spain and was one of our final meals we had together. When people gather together sharing the same interests you get to enjoy the meal more. And the food was also amazing.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Unhealthy food in short! McDonalds and KFC. Especially the double cheese burger at McDonalds – I like the taste of the cheese. At KFC I like their Max Meal.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I think I would be an egg. You can cook it in any way you want to and I think over the years I have learned how to mould myself to the different opportunities which were given to me and not being fussy.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I think I can put this to more recently. Chef Jiten who is the Executive Chef at the Taj Dubai told me to season the food properly and that is something that has stuck with in the recent past. And I think if you look back at it, that’s the thing that makes the most sense because a small thing like salt brings out the flavour of the ingredient and then when we talk about respecting ingredients, this is what you are talking about.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
An investment banker.
Most underrated ingredient? Eggs. You can do so many things with eggs. I was in Spain working at this restaurant called Miramar by Paco Perez and he opened a restaurant in Barcelona called L’eggs which was based on eggs. There are so many things you can do with such a basic ingredient which we eat just for breakfast. So if you look at the basics, you can fry and egg, you can poach an egg, you can make a soufflé omelette with only the egg whites, apart from that you can make it as an appetizer, you can serve it as a poached egg with asparagus, with a little bit of morels (type of mushrooms) and a little bit of truffles, or you can serve eggs with some fried potatoes and a little bit of chorizo and Spanish paprika. One of the main ingredients of most desserts is eggs.
Best culinary tool? Thermometer. I think it helps controls what you are going especially when it comes to meats.
A chef that inspires you? There is a Chef from Chicago – Grant Achatz who owns a three star Michelin restaurant Alinea. He became an Executive Chef at 29-30 and subsequently worked hard and got his 3 Michelin stars and he just pushes the boundaries of food. He fought cancer of the tongue and has come back on top. He has achieved so much and he continues to push. He has a dish he makes which looks like a balloon but is edible and it’s made with green apple and I don’t know how he does it.
Favourite cuisine? Over the recent past, it has been Asian – Chinese, Japanese and Thai. I love stir fry Chinese vegetables and fried rice. I also love Thai Krapau which is they stir fry beef mince with chilli and basil.
One dish you can’t live without? My mom’s pork vindaloo which she makes on special occasions – Christmas or Easter. I love it for the spice, the ginger, the garlic, the balance of fat and meat and I have it with sannas (spongy steamed savoury rice cakes).
What’s one food trend that needs to end? I think the time of molecular gastronomy is over. It’s great for a once in a while experience but it’s not the kind of food you can go back to everyday.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. I think the fish curry – the king fish curry – with a coconut base it always had more onions, chillies and ginger in it. I used to eat this with steamed rice.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Chicken wings for lunch yesterday.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, tasty and 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?
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!