Nigel Lobo admits that the passion, energy and motivation that he had for becoming a chef almost evaporated the first day he was in the kitchen. ‘In the initial stages, it gets monotonous,’ he says. ‘Imagine cracking 500 eggs for breakfast, peeling 50 kilos of potatoes for hash browns, or cleaning 40 kilos of spinach daily for a year as a target.’ The Dubai resident, whose first introduction to the culinary world was ‘watching chefs such as Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen’, nevertheless persevered and today is executive chef and group culinary administrator at the Royal Orchid Hospitality Group in Dubai.
With a bachelor’s degree in tourism studies and a postgraduate diploma in kitchen management, he started off his career with a stint at The Oberoi Group’s flagship property in India — The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur — before quickly rising up the ladder to work at several Michelin-starred restaurants in Australia and Germany.
At just 24, he was chef de cuisine at the Taj Dubai. Well versed with the UAE’s dining scene — he was born and raised in Dubai — Nigel was also shortlisted to represent the UAE in the regional finals of San Pellegrino Young Chef 2018. Here are excerpts from an interview with the chef who was part of the recently concluded Taste of Dubai. Nigel also provides readers with two of his favourite recipes (Malaysian chicken curry and slow-cooked back ribs with soy, orange and rosemary).
Tell us a little about yourself...
I was born and raised in Dubai; it is the city I have called home since I’ve lived here for 22 years. While growing up I used to watch food channels such as TLC and seeing chefs cooking delicious food motivated me to become a chef.
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At the age of 17, I went to India to work with The Oberoi Group. I’ve trained at highly acclaimed restaurants including Miramar — a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain; La Vie, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Germany; and Attica in Australia, a recipient of three hats and often rated among the best restaurants in the world. After travelling across different continents, I decided to return to Dubai, where I opened The Eloquent Elephant at Taj Dubai. I then joined Royal Orchid Hospitality as executive chef and group culinary administrator.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your journey?
I was intrigued by the glamour of the industry. What I didn’t realise was the hard work and effort that goes behind each dish. Earlier, I just wanted to be the poster boy, but then I faced the reality and there were times when I just had to put my head down and work. For a year into my internship, I didn’t even get the chance to cook — my job was to just clean and cut the vegetables. But once you build your knowledge bank and get past those initial few years, this industry can be very rewarding.
During the initial years of your career, there are times when you don’t get the right break, and there are moments of self-doubt. The culinary industry is really small and I think I have been blessed with the right people around me and a few people who believed in me, every step of the way. If I was ever in their shoes, I doubt I would have the courage to make the decisions they did.
You studied in India and then worked in some of the best-known Michelin-star restaurants in the world. Did the experience expand your perspectives or change it considerably, keeping in mind that the Eastern philosophy is to layer multiple flavours and textures, while the Western approach is to stay true to the star ingredient?
The experience was an eye opener considering my knowledge about food was quite limited back then. Culture definitely plays a huge impact on food choices. It expanded my perspective as well as changed it in many ways. When I started off, I wanted to put a lot on the plate. Now, I have moved away from that thought process and feel that my cooking style has matured in a certain way.
You always have to respect the ingredients, culture and cuisine regardless of what you’re cooking. It always helps to do a little research as well before trying out a new dish. I believe seasoning is key to any dish in any cuisine.
What are some of the lessons from these experiences that will always stay with you?
I think one of the lessons that will always stay with me is to be persistent — when all doors shut, you have to keep knocking. You never know which one will open and where it will lead you. Your future is in your hands.
The career of a chef is not as glamorous as it is made out to be in films and reality shows. Tell us of a few eye-opening experiences from your early days.
I remember my first day in the kitchen. I walked in motivated, full of energy and passion and I was assigned to peel 10 kilos of prawns and string four kilos of green beans. Needless to say, the passion, energy and motivation did not carry on to the next day.
In the initial stages, it also gets monotonous. Imagine cracking 500 eggs for breakfast, peeling 50 kilos potatoes for hash browns, or cleaning 40 kilos of spinach daily for a year as a target.
Don’t even ask what it is like to defy the chef; even my dad never yelled at me like that.
The UAE is home to a diverse population that has several expectations from their dining-out experiences. What are your observations about the clientele, and how do you cater to them?
The more diverse the population, the more diverse are their taste buds. I have also realised palates are very subjective. We have concepts and cuisines that are very diverse and we go through a great deal of effort to understand our clientele before opening a new concept. We believe it is essential to travel to different places, taste different cuisines and, most importantly, listen to the people who come to dine at our restaurants.
Listening plays a huge part — listen to guests’ feedback, acknowledge their point and take it forward from there. I have met a lot of guests only because we started a conversation to receive their feedback.
You have trained in various aspects of running a restaurant. How difficult is it to create a balance between your creative and your practical side?
It is very difficult indeed. Every new menu has its challenges. It is all about understanding your customer, understanding your concept (location, cuisine) and being consistent. Sometimes creativity needs to take a back seat even though as chefs we would like to create something extraordinary. A practical approach is all you need to start off in this industry. In the immediate future, managing costs while putting the best possible ingredients on the plate is absolutely crucial.
Social media, especially Instagram, has had a huge impact on the way we cook, eat and experience food. What do you think?
Absolutely. Everyone wants to experience and be seen, especially at trending restaurants. A lot of restaurateurs open concepts based on food they have seen on Instagram. I learn a lot from the social media platform and at times, I do make dining choices based on it as well.
I just think that even though Instagram has a huge impact, don’t overdo the #forthegram and end up eating cold food.
What is your comfort food?
It really depends on the mood. It could be pasta or really good Asian food. Sometimes, on holidays, biryani cooked by my mother, or even just a shawarma, moutabel or sujouk would be great. Food in any shape or form is comforting to me.
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What do you do to stay inspired?
Eat, explore and constantly learn whether it’s from a new commis, chefs from other parts of the world, books or even social media.
Any dreams you are waiting to realise?
Some day, I hope to start my own restaurant, and get featured among the 50 best restaurants in the world. If the Michelin guide ever decides to come to Dubai, I would like to have earned at least a single Michelin star and eventually have a restaurant empire to rival that of chef Jason Atherton.