CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with OLIVIER CHALEIL
If there is a saying that truly represents Chef Olivier Chaleil’s life it would be the one by Allen Saunders: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” (although it’s more popularly attributed to John Lennon). He made plans, grand plans which fell by the wayside and yet with each of these diversions, Olivier forged ahead in his typical flamboyant (this is how I would best describe his younger years as he talked me through them) and self-assured style. He has rubbed shoulders with dignitaries, celebrities, artists and musicians but the one that had him shaking in his boots, was his idol Yehudi Menuhin. Olivier’s rebel and crazy days seem behind him, but he still has the spunk, sense of humour and ability to look back and laugh at himself, making him one of the ‘youngest’ Chef’s I have met!
Name: Olivier Chaleil
Restaurant: Sofitel Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa
From: Gouaix, France
Culinary School: Auxerre, Burgundy, France
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I hated vegetables. You must understand that the French take great pride in their vegetables – we take the vegetables from the garden because we love them, then we peel and cook them – we master how to cook them – but as I travelled the world I really learned how to enjoy vegetables. In France, meat and fish and potatoes are first choices – the taste of vegetables is prime – if you eat a carrot, you eat a carrot. My love affair with liking vegetables started very recently – I have more-or-less become vegetarian now – I have cut down on meat.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I remember wanting to do nothing! Just enjoy my father Paul’s money. But when he told me I had to work for it – it was a shock. I thought of going into the military when I was 16 years old before which I wanted to be a helicopter pilot or a veterinarian. But I realised this would not be for me. I am the kind of person who when I do something I like to see the results quite fast – I need to see the result of the birth of my project quite soon. I never wanted to become a Chef, I always wanted to become a restaurateur – I wanted to have my own restaurant one day. So I went to culinary school. I studied for four years and then towards the end I met Sophie, my girlfriend who decided to move back to the States and I decided to follow her to Santa Fe. I could not speak English, had never been on a plane before and never left my mom. At this age, I was 18, I was supposed to go to the French army as part of the mandatory requirement. As I was leaving, I told my mother that I would not be able to come back to France for 7 years or the police would catch me. So I arrived in America and within a week my girlfriend kicked me out so I ended up in Los Angeles and had to get a job – kind of a pastry Chef at L’Hermitage which was the 5th best restaurant in LA. After a year of living it up in LA, I called my father and went back to France. I then joined a small restaurant called Tours I then went into the French army for a year where I was a Chef and the maitre de of the General. After the army, I went and worked in a restaurant in Burgundy called La Cote D’or where the challenge here was to get the second Michelin star within the year which we succeeded in getting.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I cannot say. Every job has been memorable. At Tours I learned the art of speed – it was a small team. When I was at La Cote D’or it was all about excellence and quality, stress and managing stress. When I was in Canada at the Le Méridien I learned and improved on my communication and PR skills.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had a salad with garlic dressing, prawns and zucchini – that’s it! With some bread and butter and a bowl of berries.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I go two times to Cheesecake Factory in a week for lunch with my wife and I have a salad – different salads.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Capers. I love the acidity in capers. Sometimes it is kept in brine or vinegar. I like it with meat or fish
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I will be in Istanbul in a restaurant called Asmalı Cavit – its close to Peira – they have the best sardines and the tarama – a mix of fish eggs, olive oil and bread crumbs.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I would go back to Istanbul. I love Istanbul because it is visual and I feel like home over there. I have a lot of friends there and the Turkish people are lovely. I may open a small restaurant – but the problem is that the Turkish only eat Turkish food and not French food – so we will have to see.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
It was my last night in Canada before I left to get married in France. I put the fish in the oven and I told the staff to take it out after a few minutes and plate it. One of the guys did not understand and he took the fish out of the oven and put it on the plate and it was sent to the table – it was completely raw. The lady of course was very upset and the whole table left so I was very embarrassed.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
The ceviche at Moana. It’s very pure and light.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Simple. The product has to be the hero. Simplicity is very difficult to achieve especially when putting a plate together. For example if you want to make a nice plate all the shapes have to be beautiful. If you see a plate from Alain Ducasse, it’s perfect. Between chopping and cutting there is a big difference.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I remember in Melbourne there was a small café which had perhaps the best squid – they were stuffed with onions, lightly pan fried in olive oil and garlic confit with a branch of baby tomatoes. It was perfectly cooked.
The other meal was in Paris. I used to go to this very old bistro – Chez Benoit – with my father Paul which had one Michelin star. We used to always have the best cheese trolley and very classical cuisine. Today, when I return to Paris from anywhere in the world at any time of the day or night I have a table reserved for me to have a meal.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
At the moment, everything with calories because I want to lose weight.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Savoy cabbage. It’s a stupid cabbage but it has such a novel taste and you can use it for so many things and it’s beautiful.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
By my father, who told me not to give everything at once. Don’t show people everything about yourself at one time, let them discover you and what you can do little by little.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Maybe I would be a luthier – someone who repairs violins. I used to play the violin.
Most underrated ingredient? Parsnips, because we don’t really use this vegetable as much they should. Another that is under rated is celeriac which is a wonderful vegetable, although it might look like hell, but it tastes wonderful and it’s so good.
Best culinary tool? My Knife – they are mine, they follow me – if they could talk they would have a lot of stories to tell.
A chef that inspires you? I like Alain Ducasse. He is the ultimate. A Chef would be good not only over a stove but also be able to bring people together – Ducasse knows how to recognize people.
Favourite cuisine? Chinese. I fell in love with it when I lived in Taipei and it is endless. I can go to China and be surprised all the time.
One dish you can’t live without? At the moment it would be salad. I know its boring!
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Molecular cuisine. To me it’s not really food, it’s more gimmicky.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. The Lapin a la moutarde my grandmother Marie-Louise used to make. It is rabbit – but we only take the back of the rabbit – the saddle and back legs. You put mustard of it and put it in the oven and roast it and when half baked, you put in potatoes to roast. My grandmother used to make this every week when I went home from work.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I cooked some stuffed chicken with spinach and a little bit of cheese and sautéed vegetables.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, ingredient first and flavourful.
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?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!