27 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

‘Indians are very difficult customers!’

Ramon Salto, executive head chef at Le Méridien Dubai, has dished up culinary delights from Qatar to Kuwait, Spain to France. But the biggest challenge he faced was in Delhi, he tells Sangeetha Sagar

Sangeetha Sagar
9 Sep 2016 | 12:00 am
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Against a backdrop of steel, Chef Ramon Salto is hard at work. Bespectacled and in all-black attire, with some fancy top-of-the-line gadgets, his eyes never leave the pan of paella currently simmering in a black mass in front of him. At first glance he looks like a scientist on the cusp of a major breakthrough, excitement writ large on his face.

I’m standing at a bright open kitchen in Le Méridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre as the executive head chef, with piles of bread and mounds of seafood next to him, heats and fries and steams and purées and seasons away. In the past few minutes he’s whipped up a tomato soup, black pepper shrimp with pineapple, and a tuna and snapper ceviche. It’s been a blur of pots and pans and wooden spoons and vivid-looking ingredients.

When he finally looks up, he has a slight smile on his face. ‘I think that’s going to taste quite nice,’ the 41-year-old says. He isn’t wrong. The plates are spotless after the photographer and I have finished with them.

Of course, no one would expect the Spanish chef to go wrong with paella. And especially not if you’ve glanced at the culinary portfolio he’s amassed. Executive chef at the Leela Kempinski in Delhi, India. Hotel W in Doha, Qatar. A stint at the hotels Missoni and Radisson Blu in Kuwait. London, Spain, California, France… ‘Yup. Eleven countries,’ he says. ‘I was happiest in California, I think. And I really, really enjoyed India.’ That’s where he won two chef-of-the-year awards.

He’s also made the biggest gingerbread house in Asia – ‘two floors, seven metres tall, three weeks to set it up, with steel, plywood… it was like building an actual house’.

And he’s apprenticed at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, too. Enough said.

‘I come from a family of butchers, so I’ve always been involved with food,’ he says, as we finally sit down for a little chat. ‘I always found myself in the kitchen with my grandmother. And one day, at a meet-the-professionals session at school, I met 
a chef of a cruise liner. My appetite for food started there. I was all of 11.’ Six years later he was donning the toque blanche – albeit quite out of the blue.

‘I had a summer job at a country club, helping with a little bit of everything – cutting grass, painting. But I was always a quick learner, and when suddenly there was one guy missing from the kitchen, there I was chopping, cutting…

‘Then one wonderful day the chef stepped out; at the end of summer I was managing the kitchen.

‘I was very determined, and went to catering school after that. And I’ve been moving about ever since.’

His face lights up when he speaks about his three-year spell in India. ‘What an amazing experience,’ he gushes. ‘Especially because I wasn’t expecting success. Not that it was easy in any way, of course. The logistics was difficult, getting fresh seafood in Delhi was a challenge, procuring imported goods was a challenge. But we did so, so well. I was on TV, radio… I was chef of the year.’

He’s quite aware of the recipe behind all that success. ‘I understand the authenticity of every cuisine because I’ve travelled so much,’ he says simply. ‘So I kept that at the forefront. I hired a Malaysian, a Filipino, an Italian… each to take care of their respective cuisine.’

But some big challenges paved the way in India. ‘While the new generation is well travelled and understands all cuisines, the old gen were very attached to the cuisines and culture… you can’t really convince an old couple that everything doesn’t need an Indian spin. But people respect authenticity. And because I’ve always spend my money travelling, experiencing different foods and culture, understanding why people eat the way they eat, it worked. Very well.’

Cheery and personable, chef Ramon has been known to attempt to learn everyone’s names – and everything about their culture – whenever he enters a new kitchen. A bit problematic considering he now has 350 people reporting to him? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘But I’ve been an expat all my life, and I’ve understood that giving respect helps in everything. Interaction, rapport… it goes a long way. Then everything just falls in place.’

He’s excited about this new wave in Dubai. ‘The culinary scene is so competitive here, you have restaurants open constantly, celeb chefs, new concepts… it’s a very unique city, and this will intensify with the Expo 2020. It’s so thrilling, it keeps you on your toes and you certainly have to be in shape as far as creativity is concerned.’

Eighteen restaurants, 24 events and meetings spaces, a brigade of 250 chefs, 70 stewards… it sounds intimidating just listing it. ‘I never get bored here anyway!’ he laughs. ‘But I sent my family to Spain for the summer as I just didn’t have the time to be with them. So now I work. And sleep. And work. And repeat.’ And it’s only been three months.

He believes in going above and beyond fine dining, which he brushes off as ‘just one concept’.

‘Yes, it has a market. But people now want an experience that will make them feel special. Using various tools and some wow factor, you have to keep the guest engaged. That’s all that matters. At a lunch last week I made a wasabi lime sorbet with nitrogen. It was such a hit.’

His food vision, though, is to take cooking to a healthier level. Less deep-fried, more fresh and seasonal, more organic, more making full use of all the different seasons. ‘And yes, though I’m a big guy, I like to eat light, Asian food,’ he smirks.

He’s very fond of the cuisine he grew up eating, and is animated about its future. ‘I believe Spanish cuisine is becoming global. In Dubai, Spanish restaurants are becoming so popular. Spanish is the new French,’ he grins.

He’s also passionate about truffles, his favourite ingredient, and confesses that he promotes it everywhere he goes. ‘The flavour, the uniqueness…’

He’s had his what-have-I-got-myself-into moments, of course. ‘In France, WWF fighters came to eat at the restaurant I was working in – and it was fine dining. So there were 25 guys, humongous, and here we were serving six-course menu of tiny portions. Needless to say, they were very, very upset.’

‘So my chef said to bring everything in the fridge, grill all the meats and fish we had. They finished everything we had in the kitchen. I just didn’t stop cooking, and they didn’t stop eating. We closed the restaurant for the day.’

But it’s hardly the French he finds so difficult to please. On the contrary, it’s – ‘Indians,’ he says, laughing.

‘They’re very, very difficult customers. It was a great experience, of course. But when you touch their regional cuisines, it’s a nightmare.

‘Take the humble dal makhani as an example. To make a dal makhani that’s liked by everyone is impossible. Same goes for the biryani! I tried, but I’m not convinced I succeeded!’

He’s cooked for François Hollande, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Obama (‘when he was a senator, and such a humble man’). The Champions League, F1, Moto GP. Many famous footballers. More than he can remember now.

And what did they think of his food? ‘I didn’t hear anything. And in our industry, believe me, no news is good news.’

But that fervour’s not enough that he thinks his son, five, and daughter, eight, should follow in his footsteps. ‘No. I’d prefer they choose a field that is less high-maintenance, less long hours. I spent many Christmases and birthdays alone. I want them to enjoy another life. But I’ll leave it up to them.’

He’s trying his best to ensure his kids have more memories with him from an early age. Because he didn’t have that many with his dad. ‘So I cook breakfast for them, and take them to school. And my days off are for them.’

He’s certainly not rosy-eyed about his industry. ‘There’s lots of pressure. So much of it. In the fine dining, Michelin world, it is unbearable sometimes. The chefs there reach a level where there’s no return. That’s why I choose big F&B operations – there is pressure, but it’s more the pressure of driving business and creating concepts, not pleasing food critics who can ruin your life by taking away a star.’

He’s gearing up for a great ride now. ‘In Dubai, people are ready to experience what you offer. They have no fixed mindsets, no catering to clichés. Everyone’s all set to experiment here. And I find that just brilliant. Just marvellous.’

With food like what he whips up, no one needs much convincing, really.

Sangeetha Sagar

Sangeetha Sagar