Ambitious young Austrian chef talks to Valeria Cheshko
Thomas, what’s your background?
I come from Salzburg – a little town in the countryside with a population of 5,000 people, far from civilization. When I was fifteen, I enrolled in a culinary school and then worked as an apprentice cook. I then went to America to gain some working experience in restaurants there. I was not getting paid, I was just doing it for the experience. After that I went to Dubai and got work in a seven star hotel. I was very excited as it had just opened. I next went to England to work at the Ickworth Park Hotel, and stayed there for three years. The countryside was very beautiful as I recall. Now it has been 2 years and 5 months that I’ve been in Moscow.
Coming from Austria, like all young cooks, I wanted to gain experience in countries like Italy and France. Then I saw the U.S. and then Saudi Arabia. When going to another country, I want to get to know a different culture, learn a new language. After England I received a job offer from the U.S. But North America was not that exciting to me – I knew it already.
Once I was talking to a friend of mine, and he said to me that Moscow was also looking for executive chefs. My first response was: “In North America?” to which he said, “No, in Russia!” I had never thought about it before, and I made my decision dependent on coming here and seeing it first. I put the job offer from the U.S. on hold and in the summer of 2004 I came to Moscow for an interview.
What convinced you?
What the hotel offered me. I felt the challenge for me to come here; that I could improve things and be of value. I saw that I could teach people something new and make them advance.
What were your impressions about the city?
I was simultaneously surprised about the city and scared. I am not someone who likes cities and crowds, but I changed my mind in Moscow. There are so many opportunities here – to go out, to eat in other places, to have fun.
What do you think about Moscow now?
I still think that the city has a lot to offer culturally. You can do many things. Where I grew up everything is closed by 9 pm Monday through Friday and sometimes the whole weekend. Of course, like all foreigners, I dislike the traffic, crowds, pollution, and noise. Now I know the people, I understand them, and I have learned to get along with them. I like knowing my way around.
What was the greatest challenge for you here?
The greatest challenge was to get people on my side and get them to do what I wanted. To achieve that, they have to see what you can do and respect you. They have to feel that I am here for them, not for me. It is very important that they feel that you respect them too. I learned from bad examples. Many chefs do not care about their people. I saw it in many different places in many countries. Now I have zero turnover; nobody is leaving because of bad working conditions.
What are your impressions about working with Russians?
My whole team is Russian. I found that people here are very human. At first you think that they are cold and not friendly; but once they open to you, they give you everything. If they feel like they can talk to you, then it is OK. The most important thing is to be a caring, nice person, if you know what I mean. The most difficult thing to achieve with my team here was to make the people taste the dish they had prepared. Really, it has been the greatest challenge to explain that you must taste the dish every time. It is difficult not to get frustrated sometimes.
How did you discover an interest in cooking?
You can say I found my profession by accident. When I was young, I never had any interest in cooking. I wanted to be an architect or a dentist. I had a talent in sculpturing, and when I was fifteen I got a job that started one year later. So I was thinking about what to do in the meantime. A friend of mine suggested that I could cook for a year – getting paid and being fed at the same time. So I called up a hotel, and they took me as a cook apprentice. The first 6 months were very difficult. I did not even know some of the vegetables. Then I started liking it. And I also found that I had some talent. When the year came to an end, I decided to stay. I love what I am doing now, and would not change it for anything. I wish that everybody would find their profession by chance.
Why do you think you are a good chef?
I love to eat and can do it all day. I love everything – every single dish and cuisine. Another important thing I think is that I love working with people. I care about them and when one feels that way your people stay longer. I never compromise on anything. If something is not good, I say it. But I also say why it is not good and show how to do it.
Where does the inspiration for creating a dish come from?
First of all, there are different levels of restaurants – brasseries, fine dining, lobby bars, etc. One has to understand what people at each of these places want. The inspiration itself comes from what I like myself, my past experiences and the chefs I admire. Food has to be fresh and taste good – this is the most important.
Are the colors important?
For me colors do not matter. What matters is a technique of preparation and knowing how to handle a product. Sometimes dishes do not look that great on the menu, but the taste is unbelievable. I want people to come back because they love the food.
Where does the Asian touch come from in your menus?
I love Asian food. It is very interesting – with extreme and very different flavors, which I like putting in my dishes. Although I have never been to Asia, I cooked with Chinese and Malaysians in Saudi Arabia. And I learned from them.
Please tell me something more about working at the seven-star Burj Al Arab in the United Arab Emirates…
I saw an enormous amount of different foods – good to extraordinary. What was not good was how the people were valued, communicated with. It did not matter what you think, just the high quality of the end product. I loved working with so many nationalities, though – 54! I saw that I could get along with everybody, which very seldom happens. But I am not praising the hotel as the best hotel in the world, because of how they treat their people.
You have achieved three rosettes for the restaurant at the Ickworth Hotel in England. How?
Three rosettes achieved from zero rosettes... made possible by working 17 hours a day. Never a day off. People committed every day to work to a high standard. That’s how. Now I think that working so much time to achieve this honor was not worth it. There are many restaurants with no rosettes and no Michelin stars that cook the same food. Michelin stars, rosettes do not matter. Enjoyment matters.
Do you have a lot of free time?
I do not have any free time. But if it is possible I like to go out at night. I love driving sports-cars, watching movies – you forget work then. I do no sports though – no time.
You like sports cars… Do they have anything in common with cooking?
They have nothing in common. You know, when you are a chef you work in a very loud environment under great pressure the whole day. You need something extreme to calm down. I like nice things – nice food, nice cars… I do not like half-nice sports cars; they have to be the best or nothing.
What are your favorite foods?
I like desserts the most. My absolutely favorite food is ice-cream. It is not easy to make a good one. I also like Asian food very much – Thai, Chinese, Japanese. I like the way they cook it; that so many fresh products are prepared in such a short time. It is so good for the food and it is so much faster than with European food.
Do you have any plans for the future?
A couple of years ago I had plans. But the plans never worked out. Now I do not have any plans. I live for the moment. Maybe you meet somebody and you stay longer, or go somewhere else together. At the moment I like it here; I like the hotel I am working at. I will stay a bit longer. There are still things that I can and will improve.