Young Blades

22nd July 2008 (Last Updated July 22nd, 2008 18:30)

Gone are the days when the hotel’s restaurant was the last place guests would choose to eat. Phin Foster talks to five young chefs taking the gastronomic scene by storm to reveal what it takes to be the next new thing behind the kitchen door.

Young Blades

In a culinary environment dominated by buzzwords, philosophies, movements and franchises, it sometimes feels as though producing exceptional food has become a secondary concern. However, while gastronomy has never been more baffling, the European restaurant scene is positively thrilling.

As our pick of the top five young hotel chefs demonstrates, this brave new world rewards participants who follow their instincts: chefs foraging in forests are now as likely to receive Michelin recognition as disciples of Ferran Adrià. Budding kitchen alchemists are importing science labs into Alpine hotels; Prague is being recognised for red mullet with sweet and sour artichokes rather than its more traditional dumplings.

But these young men do share some characteristics: a bloody-minded self confidence, an ability to lead as well as to learn and a desire to make history as well as study it. Their contrasting styles are a glowing endorsement of 21st-century cuisine and an invitation to watch this space.

The Ambassador

Matt Pickop, 29, Verre Dubai, Hilton Dubai Creek

As if running the sole Middle Eastern outpost of the Gordon Ramsay empire wasn’t pressure enough, a quick scan of Pickop’s predecessors at Verre could have a young chef waking up in a cold sweat. On taking the reins in November 2007, the 29-year old joined a lineage that includes two of Ramsay’s most successful lieutenants: Jason Atherton and Angela Hartnett.

“They’re amazing chefs,” Pickop exclaims, taking a break from working on a new blackberry parfait recipe for his spring menu. “Jason was here for two years and took a lot of ideas back to London that were ambitious and fresh. In years to come, perhaps I can return and make a similar impact.” Don’t expect that to be any time soon. Our only chef plying his trade outside of Europe, Pickop obviously enjoys the Dubai lifestyle.

“It’s a terrific city that’s growing fast,” he says. “I want to be a part of that. The quality of chefs arriving here also generates a real buzz and keeps me on the top of my game – it’s really kicked off in the last couple of years.” Dubai might be booming, but surely creating and sustaining a modern European menu in the heart of the Middle East is beset with problems.

“In London I could get hold of anything at any time of the day,” Pickop responds. “Here, the simple kitchen staples are delivered twice a week rather than daily. Looking after the produce you’ve got is a massive learning curve. However, the suppliers are coming on thick and fast and it’s far better than when I first arrived.”

“People of every nationality work in my kitchen and it’s all about knowing what to say and do to get the most out of people from a variety of cultures.”

Having quit a degree in media studies to concentrate on a kitchen career, Pickop started life under the tutelage of Stuart Gillies at Teatro, London, and became part of the Ramsay clan in 2002, joining Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s to work alongside Mark Sargeant. Gillies is now head chef at the Boxwood Café, another Ramsay venture, and both men remain important touchstones for the young chef. “I’ll ring them and discuss ideas,” Pickop says, “and obviously I’m in constant contact with Mark Askew [Ramsay Holding’s executive head chef].”

But it must be difficult for an ambitious young chef to see somebody else’s name over the door; does Pickop feel he has the freedom to put his personality on the plate? “I email pictures and menu descriptions back to London and it’s just a case of ticking the right box,” Pickop replies. “I’ve not had a ‘no’ yet. We put out some pilot dishes at Taste of Dubai in February. They’ve gone on the menu and are flying out the door. There’s every opportunity to innovate.”

There have been new talents that Pickop has had to develop since making the step up to his present position. “Huge man-management skills,” he says. “People of every nationality work in my kitchen and it’s all about knowing what to say and do to get the most out of people from a variety of cultures. The ability to change your approach in accordance to your environment will make you a better chef.”

The Patriot

Gustav Otterberg, 26, Leijontornet, Victory Hotel, Stockholm

When a 26-year old casts himself within a vanguard revolutionising a national cuisine, one can only stand back and applaud. Gustav Otterberg is a man intent on developing what is known as the ‘Scandinavian kitchen’: an approach focused on local seasonal produce, eschewing the perceived wisdom that fine dining must be rooted in the gastronomy of Western Europe.

“You have to balance being a friend with being a boss, and a happy crew will always produce the better food.”

“A few years ago,” Otterberg explains, “Sweden was borrowing from all over the world and it got pretty boring. Now, we’re beginning to find our own style and create something we’ve never had before. It’s a very exciting place to be.”

Otterberg’s career is just as exciting to follow. Awarded a Michelin Star earlier this year, dishes such as saddle of lamb with mincemeat in beetroot, cream of nettles, smoked ox marrow in bread and pollen of bee are resolutely local, seasonal and organic. He spends at least an hour foraging in the woods each day, has developed his own calendar and even consults his nonagenarian grandmother in the quest to forge a link to the cuisine and produce of yesteryear.

His menu is just as notable for what it omits. “Tomatoes taste like crap in Sweden,” comments Otterberg. “They have no flavour so it makes no sense to use them. Better to use what we already have in the soil, rather than import produce from halfway round the world.”

Magnum Ek, whose restaurant Oaxan features in the latest San Pellegrino 100, was employed as a consultant at Leijontornet when Otterberg was sous-chef, and the young man acknowledges the debt he owes his former boss. “My style was initially quite similar to his,” Otteberg admits, “but that has changed since I found my own direction. Of course, one takes inspiration from chefs around the world, but I try my hardest not to look at what others are doing because I want to create something unique.”

This shift came when Otterberg commissioned a local farmer to grow vegetables for his kitchen. “The difference was profound,” he recalls. “It was the moment I knew that I had to go local and everything has evolved from there. I look on it as a fine combination of being modern – using new techniques and machinery – and returning to our roots.”

This dogmatic single-mindedness at such a young age is striking. “I have no problem teaching,” he says. “I may be young, but I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 14.

“However, there are chefs working for me who are well into their thirties and taking criticism from somebody who’s your junior can be tough. You have to balance being a friend with being a boss, and a happy crew will always produce the better food.”

With enthusiasm as contagious as Otterberg’s, it is difficult to see that being a problem.

The Trailblazer

Rolf Fliegauf, 26, Ecco, Hotel Giardino, Ascona

Becoming the youngest-ever chef in Switzerland to win a Michelin star is impressive; serving a cuisine that goes against the conservative, traditionalist nature of the Swiss hotel market sounds like madness. A practitioner of ‘molecular gastronomy’, aspects of Fliegauf’s menu might look vaguely conventional: saddle-belly sweetbreads of Sisteron lamb, ricotta ravioli, lemon and olive praline. But central to Fliegauf’s philosophy is the art of surprise.

“I like to tease with the ingredients,” he says. “My descriptions list the constituent parts, but there is no hint of how they might be presented.”

” I have to lead the way, but I am also taking a lot of input onboard as I go.”

Falling somewhere between the lengthy tasting menu one associates with El Bulli or The Fat Duck and a straightforward à la carte offering, the young German admits that his style has been tweaked to suit the hotel’s patrons. Dinner begins with three to five amuses bouches, but the main course is a single plate consisting of numerous elements based around a few core ingredients. The weekly changing menu works across a five-week cycle.

“It’s a hybrid,” Fliegauf explains. “A lengthy grazing menu would not necessarily suit our clientele, but I would not be able to showcase what we are trying to do by going down the three-course route.”

The result is certainly no compromise: Ecco opened in March 2007 and was awarded a Michelin star within eight months. “Of course, recognition is at the back of your mind, but I was thinking in terms of two or three years down the line,” Fliegauf admits. “The surprise made it all the sweeter. It was not just the kitchen; every department had to perform at the same level.”

The restaurant closes between November and March, a period in which Fliegauf works with and consults other chefs, as well as performing his own experiments. He cites time spent at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck as a seminal experience. “It taught me how detailed the organisation of a kitchen could be,” Fliegauf says. “It was like Swiss clockwork: everything was so detailed and documented. The handling of products was at a level I’d never seen before and it’s really given me something to aim for.”

Alongside Blumenthal, Fliegauf names Michel Bras and Dieter Mueller as his strongest influences. Lofty company to keep, but Fliegauf continues to see himself as student rather than teacher.

“I’m no mentor,” he claims. “Yes, I have to lead the way, but I am also taking a lot of input onboard as I go. There is a lot of pressure because I arrived so quickly, but most of that pressure comes from inside myself.”

The Frontiersman

Andrea Accordi, 31, Allegro, Four Seasons, Prague

He may be the oldest chef featured in our list, but Accordi is a torchbearer for youth. The holder of Eastern Europe’s first and only Michelin star, his success signals the arrival of arguably the most exciting frontier in European gastronomy. He even beat Michelin Guide favourite Gordon Ramsay in the process.

“There are already some excellent restaurants here and the city is doing really well,” the genial Italian says. “They keep coming and the next couple of years are going to be massively exciting. Getting the star is not just big for me; it’s big for the entire city. I take an enormous amount of pride from that.” Although his cuisine is rooted in Italy and the Mediterranean, Accordi’s innovative use of spices – think Chinese anise, Szechuan pepper, liquorice and lemongrass – reveal rather broader horizons.

“I worked in Hong Kong and Singapore for five years and the flavourings and techniques I experienced there have had a bearing on the direction of my food,” he says. “Also, my wife is Thai and that has to have had some effect!” Despite being in Prague for under a year, there is the occasional Czech flash: Bohemian suckling pig with horseradish mashed potato, sweet and sour pepper and spicy shallot, warm head terrine with crispy vegetables liquorice jus. But Accordi is not too concerned with showcasing local cuisine.

“I use some Czech ingredients, but my menu doesn’t shout about it,” he says. “I source locally when I can. There’s not a massive array of products here, but what we get is good.”

The variety is set to increase with Accordi employing a Tuscan farmer to train his supplier in North Bohemia in the ways of ricotta production. There is also a strong Czech hand within the kitchen in the form of sous-chef David Anger. As executive chef, Accordi’s responsibilities at the Four Seasons run beyond his fine dining restaurant. It is therefore important that he has people around him he can trust.

“David is great and I have a wonderful team,” Accordi says. “The Czechs are extremely well trained and that bodes very well for the future.”

Accordi enjoys Prague, but accepts that he will not be there forever. “Chefing is a superb opportunity for a young man to see the world,” he says. “One day, I’d like to return to Italy and cook. If we’re talking about where I could spend the rest of my life, however, it’s Thailand. That’s where I see myself at 70.”

Until then, Accordi has plenty of time to explore.

The Family Man

Francisco Morales, 26, Senzone, Hospes Madrid

Winning the Restaurant Revelation of the Year 2007 award must have been a proud moment for Francisco Morales. However, there was another category that night at the fifth Metrópoli Awards Gala that the young Andalucían was anticipating just as fervently.

Rut Cotroneo was up for Best Sommelier and, as well as being an integral member of the Senzone team, she is also the wife of its head chef. It is testament to the success of the restaurant’s first year that the couple returned home that night clutching both awards.

“I am not surprised to have made it here so quickly,” says Morales. “It’s teamwork: she’s my eyes outside the kitchen and fully understands the concepts underpinning the menu and how to convey them to the customer. When you have complete faith in what is happening front of house, it makes life in the kitchen much easier.”

The 26-year old should be used to picking up statuettes by now: last November, he was named Best Chef of the 21st century by Cocinero Gastronómico –an award open to chefs of 30 years or under.

Senzone only opened in September 2007 and has already created a buzz in the Spanish capital. The restaurant is “one of Madrid’s hottest in terms of food, wine and service”, according to style bible Wallpaper*.

The young chef certainly has the pedigree. Since graduating from his parent’s Córdoba restaurant at the age of 17, the quality of kitchens Morales has graced is staggering and offers a firm reminder of the sheer strength of the Spanish culinary scene. He went first to the Guggenheim and worked alongside Josean Martinez. After 12 months, he arrived in San Sebastián and the two-star Restaurant Mugaritz. Two years later and he was making the pilgrimage of which most chefs only dream, to the gastronomic Mecca that is Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. His final pre-Madrid posting was a return to Mugaritz as head chef alongside Andoni Luiz Aduriz. Under his stewardship, it was named the world’s seventh best in the prestigious annual Restaurant Top 50.

“Adria and Aduriz are the two men who have had most influence upon my approach,” Morales says. “I can’t look beyond them as my overall heroes within the industry,” Bur Morales has plenty of his own ideas. Love of the vegetable is a distinctly un-Iberian trait, but this is a chef who stresses the importance of keeping the freshest produce in as natural a state as possible.

“Modern, fresh and clean,” is how he describes his monthly changing menu and dishes such as poached egg with cauliflower purée and Grenada’s Riofrio caviar or strips of cuttlefish with fine green beans and garlic oil reveal an extremely deft hand allied with an equally light touch.

Ten years down the line, Morales would like to be running his own restaurant alongside Cotoneo. For now, he will have to make do with wowing the Madrista glitterati and clearing space on his mantelpiece for a few more gongs along the way.