CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with ALISON KIEWIET VAN EEDEN
I was in Bombay when I got an email informing me of Chef Alison’s appointment as the new Executive Chef at Novotel and looking at her press photos, I knew I would love to meet her – she had this exuberance that I cannot describe. In person Alison was exactly how I expected she would be – chatty, funny, passionate. What I loved about Alison is that she is not swayed by the glitz and is happier finding her space where a city’s cultural heart lies. She believes in giving her staff an opportunity to shine and you can see she is encouraging when you see one of the dishes that was created by her sous chef make it to the lunch menu. I am sure its not easy being an executive chef, but being a woman too may have a few more challenges – but chatting with Alison – you know she has what it takes.
Name: Alison Kiewiet van Eeden
Restaurant: Bistro Domino, Novotel Deira City Centre
From: Johannesburg, South Africa
Culinary School: International Hotel School, Johannesburg
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
No! Definitely not. I am still not a good kid. I used to just like my meat. We have got amazing meat in South Africa so that is all I wanted to eat. I ate vegetables only because I had to and that too more when I was a teenager when I was trying to lose weight for my metric dance (like a prom).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an environmental lawyer every since I was young. My Dad took me to see a play called ‘Slick’ in Durban when I was on holiday which was all about the slick on top of the ocean and all the effects that the pollution had on the animals. So, I decided I wanted to be one of those people who could help those animals, save trees. I think I watched a movie later on where one of the environmental lawyers had tied themselves to a tree – and I thought – that is cool, I want to do that. This was around the time when I was five or six.
But then I went traveling overseas when I was 18 years old – I backpacked a little bit. Funnily enough, when I came back, I wanted to go into marketing and my parents told me that marketing was not the area that I should be going into so they sent me for an aptitude test. And, everything in the aptitude test actually said that I should go into the hospitality industry. So, my dad suggested I try going to hotel school for a year and see how it goes. So I studies hotel management for two years where I was thrown into the kitchen, which I thought I was going to hate – but as soon as I started cooking, being in an industrial kitchen it got more and more fun. I was enjoying it so much so on weekends I would go to a food magazine and find caterers at the back of the magazine and then would phone them up and ask them if I could come and help them over the weekend and I would go and work for them for free so I could gain experience in the kitchen. So, at the end of the two years at hotel management, my dad said maybe I should pursue culinary arts which is when I joined the International Hotel School in Johannesburg.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
It was when I worked at the Emperor’s Palace, Johannesburg. The Emperor’s Palace is massive and I was a trainee there – while I was in my second year of culinary arts. They had about 18 different outlets so as a trainee you got to do everything. I first went to the banqueting kitchen and I was completely shocked at the size of it – it was massive – it had 18 tilting pans, you were cooking for 15,000 people – and they put me in the cold kitchen but I was fascinated at how the whole operation ran. The longer I stayed, I moved into other different outlets. So, I wasn’t always based in banqueting, I would also get to go to the 5-star fine dining restaurant for a couple of months, then they would move me again to the hotel opening or to one of the casino floor restaurant. If one of the restaurants was quiet, I would call a sous chef at another outlet and ask if I could come and help if they were busy.
What did you have for dinner yesterday?
Smoked Salmon, prawn and avocado salad at home made by my husband with ingredients bought by me.
Place you eat most often on days off?
Arabian Tea House in Bur Dubai. I love their Emirati breakfast platter with a side portion of scrambled eggs and I must drink their lemon and mint. Another place, but you are going to laugh at this – its nothing fancy – we have one of these little shops called “Multi Food Restaurant” in Mankhool which is where I live and they make the most amazing shawarmas really cheap, which is an extra bonus.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
It’s not one. I base all my recipes with a Mirepoix – which is equal quantities of carrots, onions, celery and leeks. It’s an old school way of cooking and I use it as base for most items that we make in the kitchen – like my Chicken liver pâté, curries, casseroles, sauces… You can add bay leaf and peppercorns based on what you are making, or cloves – you can re-adapt it in so many different ways. I am not sure what makes mirepoix a good base, but it definitely assists in adding that oomph of flavour into whatever item you are cooking. It gives the dish more body and is a good thickener as well – if you are planning on making a gravy kind of dish.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be back home in Johannesburg with my family having a braai (a barbecue). Its kind of like our religion – braai for us is not really just the meal – it’s the food, the family, the drinks – it’s the whole vibe.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Maybe, Italy. There is a restaurant I would like to work for – Osteria Francescana – by Massimo Bottura in Modena. I would love to go and live there and even just wash the dishes just so I can see what the Chefs are doing.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
If he was still alive – it would be Nelson Mandela. I would probably make a braai. I know he would be happy because then I could sit with him and have a drink and we could cook the meat together.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I would say the Mushroom Rib Eye – its grilled meat and I really enjoy mushrooms and it comes with some onion rings – some good South African favourites. Its got all my favourite items in one plate.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I would say that I have a very modern approach to cooking even though I mentioned that I use very old school techniques – my approach to cooking leans toward modernist cuisine in what I make. Its trying to make sure the flavours are very bold, almost cheeky in whatever way I am serving them.
Best culinary tool? My knife. Every dish needs to start with some sort of ingredient preparation and the ingredient preparation normally starts with a knife. I have a ridiculous number of knives.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Massimo because he is lots of fun and he also that modernist approach to cooking. Another reason would be, because I find how he has made a mark on combating the food wasted problem very inspiring. Another chef, would be one of my first chef’s – Chef Milton who I worked with at Emperor’s Palace. He is now the food and beverage manager at Peermont. I am still in touch with Chef Milton to this day and if I have a challenging moment, he is just a very refreshing person to talk to. He will take anything and turn it around. When I worked with him, if I went to his office with a problem, he would ask me when I was there – he only wanted to hear the solution. He also taught me a lot of training and staff and everything that is required to become an executive chef. As much as we would like it to be all about cooking, there is a lot of other things and elements that happen inside the kitchen. He knows me very well – it’s been about 17 years – so he normally knows how to assist me.
Favourite cuisine? Besides South African food, it would be between Thai, Japanese or Italian. With Thai food I love the freshness, its not spicy but has a zing. In Japanese I love sushi – but proper sushi – not the fast food kind. I went on a course in South Africa with a master sushi chef – Chef Miyamoto – and he taught us the art of sushi and the respect which goes into making and eating it. Italian food, more specifically pasta – I love homemade pasta. Pasta is probably the first thing I learned how to make – when my mother was working late I would make myself some pasta – so it’s a bit nostalgic.
What’s your favourite comfort food? Ice cream. Chocolate. As much chocolate as you can get in there. Dubai really has some really nice chocolate ice cream. I recently tried this new one – the Magnum dark chocolate mini sticks.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given? It was from my stepfather – Martin. He said “it’s never the right time to do anything” – so just go ahead and do it anyway. He has said it to me a few times in my life. Like when I was 21 and just starting culinary school while a lot of my friends were doing their last year to get their degree or when I was scared when we were purchasing our house.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I made breakfast for my mum, husband and me. It was very easy – we had fried eggs, toast, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms.
THIS OR THAT
- Curly fries or regular fries?
- Hot sauce or barbecue sauce?
- Buffet or sit-down dinner?
- Rice or Mash?
- Soup or salad?
- Lunch, Breakfast or Dinner?
- Fried egg, omelette, or scrambled?
- Crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake?
- Ketchup or mayonnaise?
- Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
- Baked or fried?
- Waffles or pancakes?
- And lastly, Lobster or steak?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!