CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF WINFRIED HELMETAG
As I sat to transcribe this interview (the time lapse is something I have to ask forgiveness for) I could not help but smile. Chef Winfried started off being guarded but as the interview progressed his sense of humour crept through. Winfried is a man who decided not to pursue his dream of being an engraver because he would have to leave home and took a different route which led him to being a Chef. How ironic then, that Windried left Germany in 1980, only to return over the years as a visitor. He first came to Dubai to work at the Hyatt Regency in 1981 and has since worked in Egypt, Moscow, UK, UAE and of course at the palace of King Abdullah of Jordan. He has witnessed Dubai morph from a sleepy city to the vibrant city it is today and he does have some interesting stories to share – a bit of a history lesson – from someone who has lived it.
Name: Winfried Helmetag
Hotel: Millennium Airport Hotel
From: Westphalia, North Rhine, Germany
Culinary School: Culinary College in Arnsberg, Westphalia
Knife Hand: Right
Instagram: @millairportdxb; @winfried.h
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No. I hate pumpkin with a vengeance. Even today, you cannot give me pumpkin, if anyone offers it to me, I will run a mile. If it’s a pumpkin carving, a pumpkin soup – I don’t like anything with pumpkin and it’s all my mother’s fault. When it was pumpkin season, my mother used to give it to us in different shapes and forms – pickled, boiled, baked – I more than overdosed on it. I also did not like carrots – I like raw carrots but not cooked carrots. As kids we had balanced meals, where our meals consisted of vegetables and potatoes. Once a week we may have had rice or pasta but majority guaranteed five days in a week – potato potato patato.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was very very young, I wanted to be a locomotive driver. But by the time I was out of school and we had to slowly decide what profession we wanted to enter, I think I was about 14, I wanted to be a jewellery engraver. I was always very artistic. When we were given opportunities to look for jobs, we got a handbook where certain positions or jobs we could aim for were mentioned if we completed a specific degree in school complete with descriptions of the job. For the job as an engraver I loved everything about it and so I went to my parents saying this is what I wanted to do but my father said that if they let me do it, then I would be away from home and that shocked me as I had not thought of that. So the next job option was to be a Patissier – so I did that for three years. But in the end it did not make me happy. So I did two more years of apprenticeship as a Chef at a 500 bedroom hotel – Sauerland Stern Hotel – which was away from home. This is where I found my freedom.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
They are all very memorable. But if I have to choose just one, it was in Scotland at the Gleneagles Hotel. I was there for three and a half years starting as a Senior Sous Chef and I left as Executive Sous Chef and I was the only German. I was empowered to make the right decisions by the hotel and my bosses.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I have found that it is very difficult to go back to restaurants, because for me, as a person who knows about food and service, it’s very difficult to make me happy and if I am not totally happy I will never go back. But I can mention Le Classique at Emirates Golf Club – but I haven’t been there in a long time as Chef Francois is not there anymore.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Shallots. They are very versatile. You can do many things with it – you can never really overcook them. They give a lot of flavour if you lightly cook them, they have a lot of flavour if you overcook them and they keep their aroma.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be in Edinburgh, Scotland eating Haggis. We used to serve a lot of haggis at the parties that were hosted at Gleneagles as it was something that was traditionally always served in Scotland. And you eat the haggis with “neeps and tatties” (yellow turnip or rutabaga and potatoes, boiled and mashed separately) – I love the flavour.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I love cooking for my children – Ian and Erica. They are both well-travelled and have developed a taste for good food. I remember cooking them lamb liver when they were kids. When you work in a country where it is difficult to get veal or beef liver like it was in Jordan I used to use lamb. My kids appreciate everything I cook for them – the risottos, the pastas…
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Da Vinci: Baked Sea Bream. The combination of tomatoes with the fish and herbs.
Cactus Jacks: Chicken Quesadilla.
Biggles: Minced Chicken Burger – Jaituni Murg – which is made using Indian spices.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Fresh, light. I believe that the food should always be well presented. I like it when you can actually enjoy the food first with your eyes, but not being over pampered – whatever food we manage to cook on a grill or in a pan has to look appetizing as soon as it gets on a plate. And I like to see the food as open as possible – not hidden under bread, or pasta or something else. I like the idea that what I describe in the menu, I would like the guests can see what is on the plate right away – they don’t need to search for it.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Chocolate! For me the chocolate which I love and can eat it anytime is Mon Chéri. You can’t get it in Dubai though as there is alcohol inside – you can only get it in Europe. They are only made in the winter time to guarantee the flavour.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Chocolate – crisp on the outside and soft inside.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I think I would have been a sportsman. I used to be good in football and athletics.
Best culinary tool? Knife. You can do so many things with it – you can cut and create forms – if you know how to handle a knife you can do almost anything with it – it’s very versatile.
A chef that inspires you? There was this Greek Chef in London – Nico Ladenis who inspired me. His cooking was very much Mediterranean based – lots of basil, olives – he did not just stew things up, he managed to make things look beautiful. He was one of people who were influential in Mediterranean cooking and bringing it to UK.
Favourite cuisine? Italian. Because of the olive oil, the light cooking.
One dish you can’t live without? Pasta. Any pasta. I can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What’s one food trend that needs to stay? The food trend that is definitely changing is fine dining – it is disappearing. I still think you need this fine dining to stay. There are still some people who will go out for celebrations, where they will dress up and enjoy fine dining.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Bratwurst – it’s a grilled or pan-friend sausage made from veal which we used to have at parties or on the weekend with mustard. When I go to Germany now, and I go to an area where they are selling sausages I will stop, even if I have just had my lunch, and have one.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Spaghetti aglio e olio with garlic, chilli and olive oil.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Refreshing, flavoursome and light.
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!