From Paris to Beirut

Chef Maryan Gandon moved to the InterContinental Phoenicia one year ago following the reopening of the hotel. Here, he talks to Laura Barnes about how to build up a successful banqueting sector and the benefits of having good quality local produce on offer

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By  Laura Barnes Published  June 1, 2006

Chef Maryan Gandon has a brigade of 160 chefs across six outlets. Arriving in Lebanon for the first time in June 2005, chef Maryan Gandon, executive chef, InterContinental Phoenicia and holder of two Michelin stars, had a massive task on his hands. Only two months previous, the Phoenicia had reopened its doors after a two month US $15 million refurbishment following the bomb blast that killed former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

The blast, which also affected the St George Hotel, had a huge impact on the nation. However, one year on and the hotel has been restored to its former glory, with chef Maryan boasting six successful outlets, with a brigade of 160 chefs.

Coming to Beirut from the Hotel Carlton InterContinental Cannes, chef Maryan has been in the catering industry for over 22 years, however, his passion for food began at a much earlier age.

“My father used to own a cold meat delicatessen in France, so by the age of six I had my own chefs outfit and was serving customers. I really believe that I was born into this field; as a child I knew it was what I wanted to do,” says chef Maryan.

However, realising the importance of a formal, professional training degree, chef Maryan completed a three-year hotel management course to complement his career. Starting out as chef de partie at the Hotel Hermitage he worked through the ranks before he became chef de cuisine at Lenôtre Paris in 1992. Working for Lenôtre, his banqueting skills were put to use and have proved vital for the regular events held in the Phoenicia’s Grand Ballroom. Measuring 1311m², the ballroom can accommodate 2000 people for cocktails, and 1000 for banqueting.

Born and raised in France, chef Maryan has worked across the Gallic nation, as well as holding consultancy posts at the Aphrodite Hills Resort, Cyprus, where he oversaw the hotel’s opening, and the InterContinental De La Ville, Rome, where he reorganised and reopened the hotel’s outlets.

He has also acted as a consultant at the Hotel Kempinski Moscow and The Plantation Club Hotel, Seychelles; as well as working as chef de cuisine at Hotel Scribe, Paris. However, working at the InterContinental Phoenicia, this is not only his first post in Lebanon, but also in the Middle East.

“Lebanese cuisine is really popular in France. People are beginning to talk more and more about it, not only because it is very family orientated and personal, but also because of the country’s fresh produce,” comments chef Maryan.

“It is great working in a place where food is in such abundance. The vegetables and seafood are full of flavour, and there are so many varieties; that was a big draw for me moving here. Also, there is a lot of olive oil produced in Lebanon, which is great,” he adds.

Producing an average of 5500 tonnes of olive oil a year, Lebanon also boasts a wide range of vegetable produce from its Bekaa Valley.

“What is fantastic about the products here is that the vegetables are natural, fresh and full of flavour. They are not what you would call perfect replicas of each other, but from the smallest tomato to the largest tomato, there is so much flavour,” says chef Maryan.

Due to the Mediterranean climate in Lebanon, chef Maryan is able to source most produce from the local market. However, there are a number of products that have to be sourced from outside the region. For example, dairy specific products like butter and French cheeses, Italian antipasti, Thai spices and a number of Spanish products have to be sourced from Europe and Asia, especially for Mosaic, the hotel’s all day dining international buffet, and Wok Wok, the hotel’s Asian outlet.

With an international buffet restaurant and an Asian outlet, chef Maryan is gradually trying to get people to try something new. However, he says it is not easy, as although Lebanese people do like to try different foods, they are also loyal to local cuisine, but people are adjusting.

“The only real challenge is the reluctance of some diners to really try something innovative, as some people can be cautious and not eager to try something new. However, we are gently coaxing them. We have a lot of regular diners so now that we have gained their trust we can gradually start to change things,” he says.

“Wok Wok is also proving very successful, as more and more people are looking to Asian cuisine, and really enjoying it,” he adds.||**|||~||~||~|Chef Maryan also oversees four other outlets, including the hotel’s flagship restaurant; Eau de Vie, which sees its clientele ranging from politicians and businessmen to Beirut jetsetters; Italian restaurant Caffe Mondo; Skin Club and Les Cascades. The hotel also has a gourmet shop offering a range of chocolates, cakes, quiches and breads.

“Because of the variety of our outlets we have a eclectic mix of clients. Although Mosaic is mainly frequented by hotel guests, the other restaurants mainly attract clients from outside the hotel,” comments chef Maryan.

“There are a lot of independent restaurants in Beirut — unlike the rest of the region — but we don’t have any problems attracting locals to the hotel. We are well established and have a loyal and firm customer base,” says chef Maryan.

Although Beirut is seeing a number of new hotel companies enter the market; including the Four Seasons and Hilton, chef Maryan is not worried about the competition, in fact, he relishes the challenge and sees more hotels opening up in Beirut as something that can only be good for the region.

As chef Maryan has a number of international restaurants represented in his hotel, likewise, he has staff from those regions; including French, Italian and Thai chefs. However, the majority of his staff are from Lebanon, who he says are hard working and very talented.

“There really is a lot of potential here. Lebanese chefs are very talented and have the passion; they want to be involved with every step along the way. I also think they adapt quickly and have a great eye for taste,” comments chef Maryan.

“However, it is up to the major chefs in Lebanon to train them and turn them into great chefs. At the Phoenicia we have a lot of trainees here on work placements; we put in place a firm development programme so they can get the most out of their experiences,” he adds.

However, for junior chefs as well as senior chefs, chef Maryan instils the belief that all parts of the catering industry are important. With vast experience in banqueting, including a consulting role at InterContinental Athens during a 1430 person banqueting event and 2500 strong reception, chef Maryan knows how to prepare and cook food for large events.

“I have had a lot of experience in the logistics and co-ordination of banqueting events, and although a lot of chefs may not concentrate on this area, I make it one of my priorities. Of course, ordering food and making the cuisine is extremely difficult, but I think one of the hardest things is the creative arrangement,” says chef Maryan.

“You can have the most amazing food but if it is not creatively arranged then it lets it down. Mise-en-place is extremely important,” he comments.

As a multi tasked chef, chef Maryan thinks that no aspect should be left behind; as such, the InterContinental Phoenicia has strong banqueting, restaurant and room service departments. The room service menu consists of an extensive food and beverage list, as well as in-house guests being able to request restaurant menus for their room.

Being an executive chef, chef Maryan is the first to admit that it involves a lot of sitting behind a desk and doing paperwork. However, when there is a new menu or a new addition, he likes to be working with the team.

“It is not only about making sure that a dish works, but I also think that it helps inspire my team and the younger chefs. Cooking is what I enjoy, in my heart I am a cook so I try as much as possible to have a part in the practical aspect of the job,” he says.

However, chef Maryan says the best thing about being a chef is seeing customers leaving with a smile on their face and knowing they had a good meal. And that is why he likes Lebanon; he says people eat not just to eat, but because they are savouring the food and the atmosphere.

“After everything the Lebanese have been through they are still standing on their feet. There is so much reconstruction and people are really living life and enjoying being together and socialising. They are warm and welcoming, I couldn’t imagine living anyway else,” he adds.

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