French Creativity Despite the Weather!
Jean-Michel Hardouin-Atlan is the executive chef at the Swissôtel, Krasnye Holmy, Moscow. Over the past few years he has redesigned the whole approach the hotel takes to the culinary art, and has acquired a high reputation in Moscow both as a creative cook and a warm-hearted person. Hotel food in Moscow is seldom highly rated. In this interview, Jean-Michel shares some of his thoughts about food, the Swissôtel and Moscow’s weather.
Interview by John Harrison
How long have you been here, what do you do in your job?
I’ve been two and a half years at the Swissôtel, which is enough time to feel I have settled in. I like it when I hold the same post for a while because if you keep changing the head cook every six months or so, you have no consistency. My job has been to redirect and rethink the food and beverage services of the hotel.
Is it difficult to please everybody?
Of course. Whatever you prepare, wherever you prepare it, food is a personal interpretation. Either you like it or you don’t. I personally do not like spicy food, but there are many people who do. There are international dishes which everybody knows, and which I prepare in a way that everybody likes. But when you go into more specific food, then it is much more about your own interpretation of cooking.
Your career has involved a lot of travelling. Which country have you enjoyed most?
That is a very difficult question because every country has its plusses and minuses. Whether it’s the weather, the people, the ability to find the product you need to prepare a certain dish, it’s very hard to find the ideal solution. One of the best places I worked in was Hong Kong. Apart from the nine or ten million Hong Kong Chinese, there are a lot of foreigners living there as well. We had serious competition, and to be ahead you always have to make sure that your customers love coming. In the meantime it’s a very stressful situation. At the other extreme, there is Mauritius, which is a resort island. The sun shines every day. Everybody is on the beach in a swimsuit, except you because you are working. In the beginning it’s fantastic, it’s great, but after several years it starts to seem boring. You are not there to enjoy the place you are there to make sure that your customers enjoy their stay because of what you offer them. So the perfect place doesn’t exist, really. One of the advantages about working here in this hotel is the budget, which is higher than in many places where I have been working, and that is very very good for the chef because if you are always restrained by the budget it’s much harder, you have no freedom.
So how does that relate down to the individual customer?
It means that we are able to customise the hotel to individual guests. We get to know what regular guests like, how they want their rooms arranged, what kind of food they like. So if a guest is recognised by the reception staff when they enter the hotel, that’s a big plus. If the room is arranged in the way the guest likes, that’s another. Then there is the restaurant, where the manager knows them and can help them order what they want, because he or she knows what they want.
What’s it like living in Moscow?
Tough. The weather is really difficult for me as I have worked my whole career in hot countries. This is a very cold country [Jean looks sad in a French way], well, it is awful! Now the Spring is coming, it completely changes your mood. Of course you cannot change your way of cooking just because it’s raining or it’s minus 25 outside. That would not be fair and it is totally unacceptable. However it does affect my mood.
What kind of food do you like to eat?
This is a tricky question, but for me, I love Italian food more and more although originally I’m from the North West of France where we cook with lots more butter and cream than in the South where seafood and fresh vegetables are much more important. But because I worked in the Middle East and Lebanon for many years, Italian food gradually became more and more important to me. However I like to eat Chinese food a lot, and also Thai food, but I have a personal problem in that I don’t like chillies and hot spices.
Here in Swissôtel, which restaurant do you like the most?
Kai, because it is here that I can do things that I like. At the Café Swiss, you have international dishes which are very important to have on your menu, but you don’t have to be very creative to prepare such food. In Kai we create dishes which we like, that we want to share with our customers. For me it is fantastic that I can do that.
So you’re not too keen on the weather, but you like your job?
Yes, As long as you stay inside during the winter!