One of Europe’s most respected chefs, Heinz Beck has three Michelin stars under his belt, nine restaurants globally, over 30 years of experience – and he’s not showing signs of slowing any time soon! We caught up with him during a recent visit to his Dubai-based restaurant, Social by Heniz Beck, Waldorf Astoria The Palm Jumeirah.
From Germany, Italy, to London, Tokyo, Dubai, and many more in between, internationally renowned chef Heniz Beck is a busy guy, to say the least. Yet, despite his hectic, travelling schedule, he’s not stressed at all – simply eager to share his experiences and passion for food. Originally from Germany, Beck moved to Rome, Italy in 1994 to take the reigns at La Pergola, where he earned three Michelin stars. He has become a well-respected advocate of light and healthy Mediterranean cuisine, and continues to support research into the science behind nutrition and food-related diseases. With years of experience, the chef sits down with us to explain why the dining experience doesn’t end with paying the bill.
Taking it back to the beginning, what got you started in the kitchen? I wanted to become a painter as a child, but my father didn’t support that. He believed that painting was just a hobby and not a job. So I turned to cooking, because it was something I believed that would still allow me to express myself – and it does.
So, what would you say your main inspirations are? Chef Heniz Winkler has always been a huge inspiration to me. But generally speaking, everything inspires me. I look for the uniqueness in everything I see on my travels, which is reflected in my food.
What took you down the route of Mediterranean cuisine? I’ve always really been interested in healthy cooking, and once I moved to Italy, it was only natural that my interest towards Mediterranean food strengthened, and has continuously in the 21 years following.
So your interest in ‘healthy food’ hasn’t just been inspired by recent trends? Certainly not! Since I started cooking, it fascinated me learning about the health values and implications that food has. I now have a nice research centre in the University of Medicine in Rome where we are looking into how food affects the human body. At the end of the day, we are what we eat – people really need to respect that. What we put into our bodies affects everything from weight, blood pressure, mood, energy, how we sleep – everything! There’s a lot more that goes into healthy eating than meets the eye. I have been researching it for years and in recent times it has become more of a trend, which has many chefs claiming to be ‘healthy chefs’, when in actual fact, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Would you say your menus reflect your research findings? Yes, all of my dishes are in line with my beliefs and research. I’m not saying you’ll come into one of my restaurants and find diet food, because that’s not the case. I don’t believe in diets – they are not sustainable. Eating well is a lifestyle. Guests to my restaurant come in to eat well and enjoy real flavours in a great atmosphere. I prepare food as healthy as I can and in a way that retains as much nutritional value as possible.
At the end of the day, we are what we eat – people really need to respect that. What we put into our bodies affects everything from weight, blood pressure, mood, energy, how we sleep – everything!
My job as a chef is to respect food and respect my customer. My job is to ensure that the customer leaves feeling happy, sleeps well and wakes up feeling energised because of what they’ve eaten. If my cooking is bad, it makes the body heavy, which makes everyone tired on the dinner table, which in turn kills the atmosphere. Then they will have digestion problems, which leads to sleeping bad, and then the next day they are fatigued and don’t have enough energy. The way food is cooked plays a huge part. A dining experience doesn’t finish when you pay the bill – it’s in the morning when you wake up feeling good.
For our home cooks, what ways could they cook healthier at home? Firstly I’d advise to stop using convenient products. It may be great because it’s pre-made or just needs heating up, but it’s really not good Photographs MAKSYM PORIECHKIN for you. Secondly, don’t use temperatures that are too high when you’re cooking, and cut back on grilling too much because it creates oxidation in product, which is very bad for the body. Additionally, steam vegetables as opposed to boiling them. Buy only what you need, on a daily basis and stop over-buying products that you’re not going to use within a few days otherwise it looses its nutritional value, goes off and then becomes waste. No one wants old vegetables. Also, never go food shopping when you are hungry, because you’ll end up buying everything that catches your eye and much more than you need.
Do you create your menus around seasonality and availability of produce? Of course! In Dubai it’s slightly more difficult than in my other restaurant destinations because availability of fresh produce isn’t as good. But, I am very selective about my products. In Italy for example I have a man who supplies pigeons to me from his small farm. He has just three clients. So you can imagine the scale of the operation. But his product is of an extremely high standard and I’ve not found anything else that compares, so as and when he has the pigeon available, I’ll put it on to the menu.
Looking back on your career, what would you say has been the most monumental moment of your journey? When I earned three Michelin stars for La Pergola in Rome – I really didn’t expect it or see it coming. It was an amazing experience.
Have you ever had to deal with unhappy customers? Well, you’re never going to please everyone, so I have had my fair few encounters over the years. I once had a woman at La Pergola requesting pigeon, which was unavailable at the time due to short supply. Speaking to her she told me that it was unacceptable to come into a 3-Michelin star restaurant to not have what she wanted. My response was that it was unacceptable to serve a customer a product of lower quality because our exclusive supplier didn’t have stock at the time. The pigeon that I buy is 100% biological and 100% high quality, so that fact that it is of such quality in a demanding market, it sometimes happens that we are unable to get it. I can apologise, but unfortunately I won’t serve anything but high quality. So if that means running out of stock, then so be it.
Looking at current trends in the market at the moment, what would you say are the hottest menu picks? Everywhere is different, but generally I always say ‘think global and act local’. It’s important to stay on trend but also relevant to your market. You have to look at international trends yet adapt to the local scene so that people understand your food.
How do you spend your free time? What free time (laughs)? I don’t really have spare time. With nine restaurants globally, I’m working seven days a week. I used to have various hobbies back in the day, that I now don’t have time to do anymore. Who said anything about slowing down when you get older! I can't complain though, because I'm doing what I love and what I'm passionate about.
How much time do you spend in the kitchen? Usually, every day. The latest I go into the kitchen on a daily basis is 7pm, for around a minimum of six hours. And I’m cooking as well, which is important to me. I’m not just stood on the pass. No matter how much experience I gain, I'll never give up my time in the kitchen. There's nothing better than cooking.
What would be your word of advice to aspiring chefs? Pick another career path (laughs). No, I’m joking. Being a chef is the only thing I’d want to be and I’d encourage others as well. But only if they have the passion because it’s not an easy job. Many people start learning how to be a chef, yet quit quite early on as it becomes challenging very quickly, so passion is an essential. Secondly, I’d also tell them to take quality time to really cook and really eat – understanding and appreciating techniques, flavours and fusions. Understanding quality is the key.