CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with LLOYD ROBERTS
Lloyd has worked and gained experience in some of the most renowned restaurants in the world serving Japanese cuisine – from Nobu to Zuma, from Novikov to his current abode at Wakame. But his journey to these fantastic kitchens began when he lost his job post 9/11. With no job in sight, he started from scratch – he changed professions, went back to school (culinary), took two jobs to make ends meet – but he did all this with dedication and what I can only call grit. When he joined the real world of kitchens it was still not a cake walk for this man, originally from Jamaica – his career graph can only be described as chance peppered with luck and a whole lot of family support.
From starting in the basement of Jean-George’s Vong kitchen to being an expediter at Nobu because there was no other job in the kitchen at the time to landing in Russia to open a Nobu and following it up with the opening of Nobu in Budapest, Chef Lloyd now has his chance to step out of the shadows. What I loved about Lloyd was when a huge hurdle came his way, he changed course, persevered, stayed focused, did not let anyone tell him he could not do it and just kept going. And it is this very dogged determination that has got him to Dubai.
Name: Lloyd Roberts
Restaurant: Wakame, Sofitel Downtown Dubai
From: Kingston, Jamaica
Culinary School: The New York Restaurant School, New York, USA
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No I was a very bad kid. I liked some vegetable, but there were certain types of vegetables that I didn’t like – it was more of the bitter kind that I did not like. My mom, Velma always told us that the bitter ones were the better ones for us – but I was like no, no, no, no no! My grandmother made it easier for us – it was more about the way she came around telling us to eat our vegetables, it was not kind of forcing it onto us. My grandpa and grandpa would approach out vegetable eating a different way – they would bribe us by saying, if we ate our veggies, we could go out and do something. In a way it was the grandparents spoiling the grandkids. So I would eat my vegetables, including the bitter ones – like cerasee – it’s a type of plant that you can eat it or turn it into a kind of a tea and it becomes very bitter. My grandparents had a farm in the countryside, so in the summers we would go up there and stay with them and work on the farm, so I used to eat a lot of vegetables like callaloo, which I did not like as a kid, which my dad used to make it in different ways. Now I eat any type of vegetable, especially the bitter ones.
When I got to New York when I was 11 year old, my parents started to introduce us more to vegetables. The range of vegetables in America was much bigger than back home in Jamaica and once you got the America, they had a different style of cooking. My parents did one style of cooking back home which was more like you boil the vegetables, add salt and pepper – that is how it was done. Then you come to the States and there are so many products which you can use. My mom started to watch a lot of cooking shows on TV and that got my mom really into thinking like, ok we can make vegetables this way – like roast, sautee, boil – and we started to eat a lot of roast vegetables. Even Brussels sprouts were made fun – no kid likes Brussels sprouts – so what my mom did was she sautéed it and she put it with a piece of salmon. Slowly we began to like vegetables. So you can say age 11 was my turning point.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, food was never on my mind. I wanted to be a software programmer. When I left Jamaica to leave for America, I was very good in maths and my Dad started to push me in that direction. When you are from the Caribbean, especially from where I am from, your parents start instilling rules in you. So, in America we had to go out and get part time jobs – trying to make us more responsible. With that money we used to buy our books for school, uniforms and things like that. So my first introduction to this (food) business was when I was a busboy at a catering facility in Queens called Terrace on the Park when I was 17 years old. I would go to school during the day and then in the evening I would go and work. After six months I really got into it especially the interaction with the people that got me interested. There are a lot of things you don’t get to see growing up in Jamaica that you see in the States – like you don’t see a massive kitchen with 20 Chefs back there or a massive piece of bone-in rib-eye which the Chefs are carving and seasoning – you are like, WOW, this is a kitchen. I used to come home and tell my parents photos of my dad, most of which they would not believe. But after my six months at the restaurant, I came home and told my dad that I did not want to do computing anymore and I wanted to work in the restaurant business! But my dad told me otherwise, so it was back to computing for me. When I turned 20, I moved out of my parents’ house and after I finished graduating, I worked in the IT field. Then when 9/11 happened, I lost my job, I was about 26-27 years old. It was crushing. I did not know what to do. I went to the newspaper and looked at the classified ads, I called my friends but no one wanted to hire me because everyone in the IT field was looking for someone stable, that was married and had a family.
One day, I went to my parents’ home and was sat with my mom and there was an advertisement playing out on the TV – Go to Chef school – which said that in two years you could become a Chef. So that is when I turned to my mom and told her that I wanted to become a Chef.
So I went down to the New York restaurant school and got the papers and then saw the amount I would need to pay and I was like ‘Oh My God!’ So I went back home to my mom and told her I needed some money – $50,000. She told me that she was not going to give me all the money, so we went together to the Bank and she co-signed a loan with me and the loan was for $35,000 and the rest I had to work and pay to the school every month. And it was during my two years of culinary school that I moved back in with my parents.
Tell us a bit about your journey through Culinary School?
I will never forget one of my Chefs at culinary school – Philippe Carmel. I remember the first day we went in, he had us cutting vegetables, and he went around the classs point and telling each student whether he thought they would make it or not. When he came to me and said, “Lloyd, you are not going to make it.” And I was like, “Why Chef?”, and he asked me what I was doing, and I said I was chopping the carrots to which he replied, “you are not chopping the carrot, you are killing it.” So I came back the next day, and went to Chef, and asked him what I needed to do and he told me to go read and research on what cooking is all about and I told Chef Philippe that “Chef, you are going to have to throw me out. This is what I want, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” After that Chef Philippe never gave up on me, he pushed me and once I got the hang of the basics, Chef turned around to me and said, “you are going to turn out to be something.” Now whenever I contact him on Facebook, and ask him – Chef, how are you? – he replies, saying – don’t ever call me Chef again, you call me Philippe because you have earned it. Chef Philippe guided me through two years of school.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
After culinary school, I had to go and do an internship and I told Chef Philippe that there was one Chef I really wanted to go work for and that was Jean-George. Chef Philippe said that if I could manage to get into JG’s kitchen and work with him for two years, my CV would be made straight away. So my counceller gave me a piece of paper with the address of Vong on it and off I went. I got there and asked if I could meet with the Chef, and the lady there asked me – which Chef – and I said Jean-George – not realising he may not be at the restaurant. But the Executive Sous Chef came to see me, who happened to be an alumni of The New York Restaurant School but he made me take a seat and wait. After a bit, the Chef de Cuisine, Pierre Schultz came up to me and after I told him why I was there, he turned around and said he had no place for me – and at that exact moment my whole entire world fell apart. I then said to him that I needed to work in his kitchen so I could get my diploma. He asked me to wait and went back into the basement… and I waited and waited for about an hour and then the Executive Sous Chef came back and asked if I had my knives with me and I said – Yes. He took me down to the basement and he said that I would be chopping chillies that day. And here I thougth I would be able to go upstairs to the kitchen to make like a salad or something like that. But no, I stayed in the basement for six months – I chopped chillies, I made spring rolls, I learned how to butcher properly, I learned how to cut properly – it was such an experience. I worked for six months for free.
After the six months, I asked the Chef Pierre if I could get a job working for him and he said ok, but it would be at a very low rate ($8 an hour) and I agreed. I came in to Vong at 4pm every day and did all the chopping in the basement. To survive, I took on a second job – I started to work at Starbucks in the morning. So I would leave Vong at midnight, get home by 1am and then by 6am I was in Starbucks opening up the shop over there and finish at 3pm. So I would have an hour in-between to leave Starbucks and get to Vong. I did not want to be a burden to my parents, so I did not want to stay home too much so Starbucks and Vong I did for two years.
During these two years, one day, one of the Chefs in the salad section at Vong fell sick and Chef Pierre came and told me that I was needed upstairs to give a hand. This was like my big chance and I ran upstairs, I swear it felt like I flew up the stairs. I got into the kitchen and I realised I was the ‘go-for’ for the nights – I had to go and get anything that anyone needed. I did not mind, because I when I got upstairs I thought I knew how to cook from school but when I saw the guys on the hot line cooking I was like ‘WOW’ and it made me more focussed on what I really wanted out of life – I knew where I wanted to go now. The Salad guy came back and I was a bit depressed as I was sent back into the basement. But I went to Chef Pierre and asked him what I needed to do to get back upstairs into the kitchen and he told him I could work with the dessert Chef and learn how to plate desserts and that I could be the person who closes the dessert section at night. I did not have any interest in dessert, for me it was all about the hot kitchen, the action and the adrenaline rush. But I worked with the pastry Chef for one year and then I went back to Pierre and said that the hot kitchen is where I want to be at – so he made a schedule where I was able to work three day in dessert and two days in the hot kitchen in the salad section.
One day, by accident, one of the guys on the hot line hurt himself in the kitchen, and the Chef said that we would shift the line a bit, and he asked me to jump into the soup section – and oh my god, that was a disaster – because I did not know that the soup guy was also picking up the vegetables for the fish guy. And I was like, I don’t know how to do this, but Chef calmed me down and told me he would guide me. That was the longest eight hours of my life in the kitchen. But it was such a disaster, the Chef took me off the line and marched me down to the basement again – I felt like I had let everybody down that night. The next day I came in to Vong one hour early and sat there and wrote down every single item, how to cook it – I drew like a map in my book where every single vegetable was, what went with what – and an hour later I went to Chef and said – let’s do a dinner service. I all, I spent 3½ years working at Vong and worked every single section. I then called Gina Novak my school counsellor and told her that coming to work for Jean-George at Vong was the best decision I ever made.
Vong opened up so many doors for me. This was my real introduction to a real kitchen and was a ground breaker into what the culinary world was all about.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I made a Caribbean dish at home yesterday for lunch – corn beef and cabbage with rice. It’s one of those dishes when your parents don’t have time to go to the market and get a piece of chicken or mutton to make nice curry, they come up with something quickly. So you just shred the cabbage, you add the corn beef, you season it with salt and pepper and add a little bit of sauce and serve it with rice. My wife is Russian so for her anything that I am cooking from back home (Jamaica) is very interesting for her because she has never travelled to the Caribbean.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I have been in Dubai only for three months, but I have been to Coya – I enjoyed the baby chicken, loved the sea bass ceviche and the tuna tiraditos. The guacamole there was amazing as well. I have also been to Zuma at DIFC – I love the tenderloin with the sweet chilli sauce and the crispy squid – you gotta have the crispy squid and the salmon. There is also a new restaurant called Vesna (Conrad Hotel) – it’s a Slavic restaurant – so it takes my wife back home. We had Borsch (a traditional Slavic soup), then we had Forshmack (fresh marinated herring with diced red onion, potatoes, cottage cheese and I think they put parsley which they put through a machine and it comes out like a pate and is served with toasted breads). We also had Pelmeni which are like dumplings which they make two ways – they make it with salmon or black angus. We also had the Chakhokhbili – it’s kind of alike a vegetable ragu with grilled lamb and for dessert they have something called a honey pie – which is very very nice.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I got to say Kobe Beef. It’s just very versatile – you can make a steak out of it, you can make a tartare, you can make sushi – there is just so much you can do with it. And here at the restaurant we are going to make a nigiri from it and put it as our special. We marinate it in yuzu miso and leave it for six hours inside, take it out, cut it sushi style and then blow torch it and flavour it.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Gosh! Flying home to New York City. I would go back to David Chang and eating a Noodle Bar having ramen. There is this one dish that I recommend to anyone that goes to New York City – they should go to David Chang’s Noodle Bar and have the pork belly bun. It’s just heaven. That is where I would want to go home and have my last meal. Even today, whenever I fly back to New York, it’s the first place I drop in to eat.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
After Wakame, I would like to open my own restaurant in Jamaica. I would like to do a modern style Jamaican menu where it’s a cross with French. It will be good-bye Japanese food.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I was at the salad station by myself one day at Vong and there was this new salad that came on that had a beetroot vinaigrette. After a while I ran out of the dressing so I put some into the bottle did not screw the lid on properly and started to shake it, the cap flew off, the beetroot was everywhere and I was covered in soy sauce, fish sauce and I smelled the whole night. I had this bright pink on me and I asked the Chef if I could go downstairs and change and he refused. So for four hours I stood there in fish sauce – it was enough punishment for the night.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My mum Velma and my dad David. They don’t usually like to come out to a fine dining restaurant, so for me whenever I have the opportunity to go back home I always want to cook something special for them. For my Dad, I would love to do a nice piece of wagyu or Kobe beef for him just to give him something different to appreciate because he loves food and he loves what I do. For me if I cook him a piece of Kobe beef, that would be heaven on a plate for him. For my mum, it would be something with fish. Both would be in Japanese style.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Chilean Sea Bass – the fish is amazing. When you eat it, it’s like having butter in your mouth, it just melts away. And the way we prepare it here (at Wakame) makes it even more interesting. Here we marinate it in ginger and jalapeño for 24 hours and then we slow cook it in the oven for about 15 minutes and then take it out and finish it up in the salamander. And the way we present it here – it’s a cold and hot effect that you have on the plate – so we put a cold sauce on the plate and then we put the hot fish, so when you are eating it you get two different actions going on.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Less is more. I learned this from Jean-George and I have never let it go and I now teach it to my guys in the kitchen. If you are putting a dish together – there should be no more than four ingredients because at the end of the day you confuse your customer with what you are trying to do and you confuse yourself.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
On a holiday in Tokyo, Japan I had horse meat – sashimi style. I saw it on the menu and had to try it. It was weird, it’s the strangest feeling – I put it in my mouth and thought – this is not bad! It’s like having veal. So I had another piece and it was good.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Oh! This is a difficult one to answer. I have to go with Per Se – its Thomas Kellar’s restaurant in New York City and it’s the famous oysters and pearls meal that I had – which is basically oysters and caviar. As a Chef you like to go out of your comfort zone and eat things and to have oysters and caviar and a glass of champagne – the combination is just wow. Its like magic happening on your tongue – you have that soft silky texture from the oyster and the saltiness and pop from the caviar and then all the bubbles from the champagne.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
I’m a pizza junkie. There is this pizza from this home delivery kind of place called Artichokes in New York City from which I have the thin crust crab and artichoke pizza which is packed with so much cheese on it. The pizza also has some fresh stone crab inside of it.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I would be foie gras – because you can use it to do so many different things – you can pan sear it, you can blend it down into a sauce, you can turn it into a mousse – it’s just such a versatile piece of product to have in the kitchen.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
This piece of advice was given to me by the Executive Sous Chef, Willis Reed when I was at the MoMA – that money is not the end game in the restaurant business. The money will come. So what I learned from that is that if you are very good at what you do, the money will come in time. But if you are not very good at what you do, then you won’t see that return.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I don’t think I would be doing computers. I would be in an office somewhere doing a 9-5 boring job.
Best culinary tool? Chef Knife because its so versatile – you can chop, butcher, fillet – the use of it are endless.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Philippe from The New York Restaurant School. Five years ago he lost his job teaching and went back into the kitchen as a pastry chef. At that age to be able to start over is commendable and taught me that it is never too late to get back into the kitchen.
Favourite cuisine? Thai because I love their spices they use. Its light and I just love the ingredients like galangal, chillies, lemongrass that go into it.
One dish you can’t live without? Chicken Curry Caribbean style. I can’t live without a curry in my life and I make it at least once a week at home.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. This would be when I was in the Caribbean. We have something called Bread Fruits – it’s a cross between a vegetable and fruit which you usually roast and I remember my grandparents making it for us. We used to eat it with mackerel. If you boiled Bread Fruit, the next day you can actually slice it and fry it and make something crispy – something like potato chips (crisps).
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Duck. We do a lot of duck at home and the reason its surprising is because I am from the Caribbean and we don’t have duck in the Caribbean.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? That was this morning. I made scrambled eggs with sausages and home made salsa.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Very simple, technique and unique.
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!