Following the launch of Social by Heinz Beck, his first restaurant in Dubai, Penelope Walsh sits down with the celebrated German chef to talk about the nuances of Italian food and why he’s so drawn to the emirate.
The stakes are rising for Italian dining in Dubai. Not only is Italian mega-brand Cipriani due to open in Souk Al Bahar later this year, but Dubai has also welcomed chef Heinz Beck to the scene, who has become well-known for his work at three-Michelin awarded La Pergola in Rome. Social by Heinz Beck, which launched in January 2014 at the new Waldorf Astoria hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, brings the first taste of this chef’s modern-Mediterranean style to Dubai.
On meeting Heinz Beck, he tells us he’s no stranger to Dubai, having already visited the emirate some four or five times previously. ‘You don’t open a restaurant without visiting the place,’ he counters, contrary to a number of celebrity chef openings here. Adding to a portfolio that already includes restaurants in Rome and London, what brings Heinz out of Europe to open in Dubai?
‘I think it is a very interesting, very open, very challenging, and inspiring food destination,’ Heinz explains.
‘Challenging’ is an interesting choice of word, and we’re intrigued to learn what this world-renowned chef might have struggled with in the city. ‘It is challenging, because Dubai has everything, they don’t really need a new restaurant, you see. So it is challenging to bring a new cooking style, and make people appreciate it. But I’m convinced that there is still space, if you make high quality food, and do it in an interesting, healthy, modern way.’
While La Pergola in Rome is Heinz’s most famous restaurant and offers what he terms ‘very fine dining’ (‘you have to wear a dinner jacket,’ he adds), Social by Heinz Beck will represent another, more accessible dining experience, with much of the menu offered as sharing plates. ‘We call it “de-formalised fine dining”. And the name, Social, he explains, reflects this. ‘It is much more open, much more casual. It has an open kitchen, and is more close to the guests.’
Originally from Friedrichshafen in Southern Germany, Heinz’s path towards the restaurant business was a fairly unexpected one. Following disagreements with his father over a future career choice (Heinz initially wanted to be a painter and attend arts school), Heinz moved out of the family home at 16 and when looking for work, landed a job in a restaurant kitchen. ‘I started at cooking school. Slowly, I learnt more about the industry, and I began to love it. It is very creative work, and I do it with such a passion. The most beautiful moment in my day is when I’m in the kitchen, cooking with my boys.’
After 15 years of working in German kitchens, fate brought Heinz to Italy, which had a profound effect on his work. ‘Italy has one of the most interesting cuisines in the world. 75 percent of my guests are Italian, and in a city like Rome, foreigners want to have an Italian meal. I believed that I had to get into Italian cooking, and I began to re-think those 15 years, and really remodel what I was doing. I had to reinvent myself and it was the most important moment of my life.’
Heinz describes this new-style of cooking that he developed as ‘light and healthy European cuisine, with some Mediterranean flavours’. Although he doesn’t call his food ‘Italian’, he explains why the complexity of Italian food makes him reluctant to do so. ‘Italy is a very big country, with a lot of cooking styles. In the north, it is very influenced by the Austrians and the Germans, and by the French. In the south they are very influenced by the Arabs and then in the west, they are very influenced by the Spanish, and in the east, by the Greeks. There is a wide variety of cooking. If you go to Sicily and add cream to a pasta sauce, they would shoot you. In Emilia-Romagna [in the north] there are dishes that use cream in pasta. It is so different, that I am prepared to say Mediterranean so that I can do all the regions of Italy, I don’t have to choose only one.
‘My cooking is very influenced by ingredients coming from all over the world as well. Eating has to give you emotions, and it is much more important to get the emotions from the dish, than to know where its roots come from. Emotions don’t lie, illusions lie.’
How, though does Heinz go about taking those roots of Italian cooking and turning them into something that is contemporary and inventive, such as on the menus at La Pergola in Rome? Inspiration, he explains does not only come from tradition, but from your entire environment, pointing out that seasonal perfection in a particular ingredient might be enough to inspire a new dish to showcase this.
‘You cannot reinvent a traditional dish without leaving the emotions that you get from the original recipe in the dish. If you give an Italian from Lombardia an osso bucco (where the dish comes from), he knows an osso bucco, he has eaten osso bucco 100 times, and has to get from the dish, the same emotions. But this is not just the case for Italian cooking, but whatever dish you are doing, it needs to have the same emotions and the same taste. People want to find their traditions in the dish.’
Explaining further what makes his cooking unique, Heinz reveals that simplicity is also key to his style. ‘There are some different philosophies. There are chefs who add a lot of ingredients to a dish, because they believe it is more creative to add. I believe, that to make a perfect dish, you need to remove ingredients. The less ingredients you have, the more difficult it is to make a perfect and exciting dish. You have to be very sure of your technical skills and the ingredients have to be absolutely perfect. There is no space for errors. The older I get, the more I believe that this is the quintessence of great cooking. To remove, and not to add.’
Over the past 15 years, healthy eating has become increasingly important in Heinz’s recipes. He is keen to stress that this does not make it ‘diet food’, but food that is light and easier to digest. After collaborating with medical professionals and gaining a better knowledge of the human body and how certain ingredients and cooking preparations can effect it, he says: ‘You make this knowledge part of your way to cook.’
First comes the initial inspiration for a dish and once the recipe has been developed, at this stage Heinz says he can begin adapting it to make a healthier version. These adjustments include changing cooking times (so as not to stress the meat too much), or looking at the quantity of fat in the dish (‘I look at how much I can I remove, without taking away the essence of the taste’).
One example of this is fagottelli carbonara, a reinterpretation of the traditional dish, which Heinz refers to as one of his most famous plates.
After eating a more classic version of carbonara, which Heinz found difficult to digest, he decided that filling the pasta, so that the carbonara sauce (in particular the egg yolks) are inside the dish, would make it feel lighter.
‘Dinner doesn’t finish with the dessert, it finishes the morning after when you wake up and feel perfect. And this is the respect I have for my customers. I’m not cooking to fill up my ego. This is what I always say to my chefs, that we have to cook for the needs of our guest.’
Social by Heinz Beck, Waldorf Astoria Dubai, Palm Jumeirah (04 818 2222).