The Sunday brunch of the InterContinental Hotel, Lagos has become so popular among Lagosians and guests that you find people queuing up before the restaurant opens at noon every weekend. The man behind the delicacies people are queuing up to taste is no less a Scottish, Austen Reid, the Executive Chef . In this interview with JIMOH BABATUNDE, he gives an insight into his journey into cookery and the joy of being one. Here is an excerpt from the interview.
On his journey into the profession
It started when I was taking home economics in high school and my uncle offered me a job working weekends in his restaurant at age 15.
From my uncle’s restaurant, I started getting a taste of what it was being a chef, which is basically you working to make sure other people have nice time.
Except the option of working weekends and all those long hours, I think most people who are into cookery did for the love of it. It is not like an office work that you resume at 9am and close at 5pm. Your job is to make people happy whenever they come.
And Nigeria is a very traditional place where people make booking for 5pm and might come till 7pm; so again, this is something I am trying to get use to. Again it is a culture here that people come late and the traffic does not help issues.
On the school he attended
I am from Scotland. I attended Trinity High School. When I left school, I went to culinary school in Scotland too. And I have done lot of cookery courses, even in home economics class we did everything, I learnt how to sew, do a lot of things.
I learnt not just cookery alone, but accounting, how to answer telephone, I learnt how to make bed. Since I have chosen to work in the hotel, I also have understanding of what goes on in other areas of the hotel.
Knowing something about other areas of the hotel operations is important as this makes you as a chef to understand what others do in other departments and so have good relationship with them. When a waiter delays in coming around to pick your food, you need not shout but you check the restaurant to find out why. There is always a reason why there is a delay, so the understanding of the workings of others is important.
On his experience working as a chef
It has been a roller coaster, I have travelled widely. I left my country, Scotland, in 2006, moved to Dubai. I worked in Burj Al Arab hotel from there I moved to the Carribean and later moved back to the Middle East in Intercontinental Muscat, Oman before moving to Kuwait .And this is my first time in Africa. I have been here ten months and Lagos has been fantastic.
On the food culture in the places he has worked
Food culture in the Middle East countries has been fantastic, Lebanese, Egyptians but the Arabic food is much, except you have regional difference. My years in Carribean were very interesting , because the food in Caribbean are similar to the food here in Nigeria, so you have the fried plantain , chicken stew, the hot chicken, fish stew, beans.
On Nigeria food culture and others
It is unique. Nigeria is not the same as European or Arabian. It is unique on its own. I don’t have any experience to compare to other African countries.
But what I am seeing here is unique. Some many types of sauce. Pepper sauce, if I eat the sauce I can’t taste anything for 20minutes, because my mouth is on fire. So this type of cuisine is new to me , I am learning all the new ones like Efo riro, Ogbono soup and the pounded yam and swallow. I don’t like the draw okro soup. I have tried it with my fingers, but don’t like it
On his food philosophy
On his favorite food on the menu
Lobster of Calvados . It is a classical French dish, lobster is a wonderful product. Basically, it is a very simple dish, but again it has to be cooked in the right way. If you don’t get it right people will criticize you, because it is regarded as high status dish.
In Nigeria, when I arrived I tried some restaurant. Some I don’t like because of the British taste , some too spicy , but Suya is my favorite . One of our staff just came back from Abuja and she brought kilishi for me.
Jollof rice is another wonderful dish here in Nigeria, it is such an art . Before, I used to think you just throw rice into water with tomatoes, but now I know it is more than that . The palm oil in Nigerian dishes is something I don’t like. Any dish made from palm oil I don’t like.
Some of the chicken stew, fish stews and goat stews I can handle, so also the pepper soup I like. I have not been brave enough to try bush meat. If you Google bush meat and you look at the animals that come up, I get very fearful of those animals. So, as a chef, I am staying away from bush meat.
On best advice for a novice
Listen, listen and listen. People don’t listen, because if you come into a trade like this, it is not easy. You should try and gain as much information as you can get from your bosses and you need to listen. Even somebody washing the floor can give you ideas. So, we never stop learning in this industry. It is always good to listen and this is the key to starting in this industry. Just listen to people and try to absorb the instruction and everything else will fall into place. The key to success in kitchen operations is communication.
On his best gadget in the kitchen
The chef’s knife. Because you can have blenders, you can have this or that but the chef knife is like his bare hand. If you don’t have a good knife in the kitchen you are empty. Other gadgets like blenders and others start with a good chef knife. And most chefs guard their knives and they lock them up in the lockers.
On the funniest thing in the kitchen
I will have to get back to you on that (Laughter)
On the food experience in intercontinental
The culture is here is that our market is Nigeria. We need to ensure that the food we produce n in the buffet and the entire restaurant is of the high quality for our Nigerian guests, but we are also a business hotel , so I will say on the buffet we have 60% Nigerian food and the other 40% is European, Indian, Chinese and some American. Every day we vary the continental food.
Our Sunday brunch is the best now as we have customers who come back every single week. If you come here by 12.30 pm you see people waiting to have the Sunday brunch with us. It is the best in Nigeria. We have too much food on the buffet. We try to change every week, but not the pepper snail , gizzard . Lot of things happens.