And the winner is...

This year’s Hotelier Middle East Awards saw Jason Whitelock bag the Chef of the Year accolade. He talks to Laura Barnes about how the Dubai market has changed over the past two years

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By  Laura Barnes Published  December 1, 2006

|~|jasonweb2.jpg|~|Verre by Gordon Ramsay currently sees between 55-65 covers each night|~|Although faced with some tough competition, there was still little surprise that Jason Whitelock, executive chef, Hilton Dubai Creek, was crowned Chef of the Year at the 2006 Hotelier Middle East Awards. Overseeing the hotel’s operation, from room service and breakfast, to the Glasshouse and more famously, Verre by Gordon Ramsay, in the two-and-a-half years that chef Jason has been in Dubai, he has clearly made his mark. But catering was not his first career choice. “I originally wanted to be a fireman, but at that time you couldn’t join until you were 21 years old, so I decided to join the Youth Training Scheme and work in the kitchens,” recalls chef Jason. “I was actually working in a really naf place, so it wasn’t long before I left, and before I knew it, I was working at the Normandie restaurant in Rochdale. I was there for four years, and in that time, the restaurant achieved a Michelin star, so naturally you do the rounds and end up in London,” he adds. Working for Stephen Turri, who was in the same cooking circles as Jason Atherton and Gordon Ramsay, it was not long before he began working for Ramsay, and then, in June 2004, he was asked to take over at the Hilton Dubai Creek. Although employed by the Hilton, along with Verre’s restaurant manager, sommelier, pastry chef and two sous chefs, he was selected by Ramsay to work for him in Dubai. Testament to Ramsay’s respect for chef Jason, the day after winning the Chef of the Year award, Ramsay called chef Jason to congratulate him. “Gordon is a busy man, but I talk to him about once every two weeks. But to keep in touch with his office I talk to his executive chef, Mark Askew, every two or three days, depending on what is going on at Verre,” he says. But chef Jason has had to adapt to working in Dubai, and being connected to a hotel has affected the way he operates. Conceding that there is perhaps not as much pressure working in Dubai as Claridges Hotel or Hospital Road London, for example — where the restaurant is full for lunch and dinner everyday — he says some things can take longer in the emirates. “Working in a standalone restaurant you can pick up the phone and talk to your suppliers whenever you need something. But there is a different mentality when you work in a hotel; you have to go through purchasing, which then sends it to the accountant. It is the same in any hotel in the UAE, but it is frustrating,” he says. Despite this, chef Jason is certainly doing something right, working on a 30% food cost percentage for the full operation, it is currently sitting on 31%, and although he says he could do better, with a fine dining restaurant included in this equation, he has been able to save money and cut down on wastage since he took over. “We have had a good run. Dubai is busy, hotels are full and we are working hard to make sure we produce consistently good dishes. Also, we have no wastage. When you look at Verre we have 55-65 covers each night and no wastage, that is something we have worked hard to achieve,” says chef Jason. “For example, one night we will make canapés for 65 and pre-desserts for 65. More than two years ago it was hit and miss. One night you would have only 20 booked, and by the end of the evening you would have more than 40 covers. The following night you may only have 18 booked, a table of five would then cancel and you would only have 13 covers. It was very up and down,” he says. Keeping busy definitely works and is something that chef Jason certainly prefers, not just in Verre, but also in the hotel’s other outlets, especially the breakfast buffet in the Glasshouse. With a uniform set up for the breakfast buffet each day, when the hotel has more than 200 breakfasts there is no wastage. However, chef Jason says that during the summer, breakfast may only have 70 covers, yet the hotel cannot reduce the buffet display. “When the hotel is full; people are coming down to breakfast; Glasshouse is busy; the room service is doing well; and Verre is also busy, then it is a lot easier for back of house to cut back wastage. Everything rolls along,” comments chef Jason.||**|||~||~||~|However, making sure the restaurants are busy is a continuous challenge for any hotel in Dubai, even more so when you are located on the Deira side of the Creek, as the majority of traffic heads towards the more recently developed Marina and Jumeirah area. But Verre has managed to maintain a loyal following, something all restaurants hope to achieve. “You may be a good chef, but you can only judge your level of success by how the place is doing. You need to put bums on seats and please the customers. There is no need cooking what I like,” warns chef Jason. But to make sure that people keep on coming back to the hotel’s restaurants, chef Jason regularly updates and reassesses all the menus. In Verre, the menu normally undergoes two major changes a year, once before the summer starts when it is quieter and there is a need for lighter dishes because of the heat, and then again towards the end of the summer in preparation for the busy period. The menu also sees slight modifications at the beginning of the year, when some of the mains and starters are changed, however, menu changes take place over a long period of time. “We look at what may work, and when we are happy we take pictures of each dish and then pass on the information to Mark Askew to check. He may suggest some changes, but he understands that because of supplies and the seasons here, what may work in London would not necessarily work here, comments chef Jason. “For example, at this time of year in the UK the food is more rustic, heavier and more gamey. But it is still warm here so we have dishes based on lightness, cleanliness and freshness of flavours.” However, the varying seasons do have a downside, and with minimal produce grown in the region he relies on European products, which can sometimes be inconsistent. For example, a recent addition on the menu is a terrine of champagne, poached rhubarb and blackberries, because rhubarb is currently in season in Europe. Despite this, and the relatively good price, getting rhubarb of a consistent standard is a challenge. “Sometimes the rhubarb will be jumbo-sized, and sometimes it is thin, or the colour will not be quite right. It is very up and down so you tend to go for safety, rather than bringing in unusual items, as you have to maintain that consistency,” says chef Jason. “Another problem is that you cannot just go to the market and see what is available. You rely on the suppliers to inform you of new produce. But on a whole, the suppliers can get whatever you want, as long as you give them enough notice,” he adds. During the summer, for example, chef Jason featured sea trout on his menu, however because it was not widely used in the UAE, it proved rather expensive due to airfreight costs. “The market is about supply and demand, if more people want to use something the cost comes down, but you sometimes want to use produce that nobody else does,” says chef Jason. He adds that while some dishes may work, sometimes offering something different to the market is not always popular. He mentions squab pigeon as one example. Additionally, during the summer menu, Verre offered turbot with pan fried watermelon and seared scallops. This then changed to halibut due to the seasons, but instead of pan fried watermelon it came with a lobster risotto, which was a lot more popular. “We probably trebled the sales of this dish, so although you may want to try new flavours — like the pan fried watermelon — you cannot always do this. Dubai is a relatively new city that has only really developed over the past five years, so it will take time to educate the market. People still want sea bass, lamb and lobster, so if you put something slightly different on there too soon, people will not go for it; but it is changing gradually,” says chef Jason. As the customers gradually adapt and mature to this new market, so too do the suppliers, says chef Jason. Companies like Wet Fish and Fresh Express are becoming increasingly diligent in what they bring into the market, as well as striving to reach the next step in terms of quality, he claims. “We are five years down the line now and I’ve been here for more than two years, so the suppliers know me and what I want,” he says. “It will take time but everybody is looking ahead and wanting to improve, especially as more and more restaurants and chefs enter the market.”||**||

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