The man behind the menus at Original Birth's haute hotels and the Food Loft Project, we talk to Frenchman Bruno Contreras about cooking for an Egyptian palate and why he hates molokheya...
Original Birth is a new hospitality concept that has changed the way we see hotels in Cairo. With a handful of boutique hotels under their management, including the glamorous and glossy The Gabriel at Sun City and the uniquely Egyptian Le Riad Hotel De Charm, in the heart of Khan El Khalili, the hospitality hot shots are quickly making a name for themselves through lavish events and their fabulous food and beverage offerings. Their Food Loft Project – a concept that aims to introduce restaurant concept development and consultancy services in addition to international-standard gourmet offerings to the Egyptian dining scene – has gone off without a hitch and every day we hear more people raving about Head Chef Bruno Contreras’ brilliant dishes, so we invited the experienced Frenchman in to get a taste…
How old were you when you started cooking?
I was at university and I didn’t like commerce and communications that I was studying. I decided quickly that I should do what I love, and that’s cooking, so I got my first job at a local restaurant and learned the trade. Shortly, after I had a chance to work in some great restaurants in France and I haven’t looked back since.
Would you call cuisine a science or an art?
It’s a mixture of both. I’m not too fond of chefs who call themselves artists. Chefs are more artisans. And, of course, cooking is chemistry.
How would you describe the perfect dish?
If you have fantastic bread, tomatoes and olive oil – which are all things you can find here – then it’s the perfect dish because it’s the basis of Mediterranean food. The perfect dish is a mixture of taste, texture, crispiness, salt, all of that. It’s all about the balance.
What’s the difference between working in a stand-alone restaurant and working at the F&B outlets at a hotel?
There’s is a huge difference. In a restaurant you have two shifts; lunch and dinner. But at a hotel, you’re constantly busy. If I had to choose, I’d choose a restaurant, but here in Egypt I see that people prefer hotel dining.
How many hours do you put in a day?
Usually between 13 and 14. That’s normal in a kitchen.
Do you specialise in French cusine?
No, not at all. Ever since I started traveling, I’ve loved to mix things in the kitchen.
Do you have a favourite?
Why did you come to Egypt?
I’ve been travelling a lot recently – I worked in Peru and the Maldives previously. I met the Managing Director of Original Birth “Abdul Baaghil” in the Maldives and we got talking about Egypt.
Were you worried about the political situation here?
Not really. And once I got here, I could tell there’s a big difference between what’s actually happening and what we’re told abroad.
What was your first impression of Cairo?
So what was your culinary concept coming into Salt?
It is to do something that has never been done in Egyptian hotels. To redefine urban food. The menu is very Mediterranean but fits with city life. I must say that I was surprised by the feedback we got when we first opened Salt. Most of our guests were in their mid-twenties and I was not expecting that.
What would you say your signature dish at Salt is?
Probably the marinated sea bass which is based on a traditional ceviche recipe, but it has a Japanese twist to it! I’m actually surprised it is as popular as it is, because from what I understood, Egyptians aren’t too fond of raw food.
And what’s the concept behind Le Riad’s food?
Due to its location in Khan El Khalili, we had to go Oriental. But I don’t mean just Egyptian. There’s Moroccan and Syrian and more. I lived in Morocco before, so I’ve had some experience in this kind of cuisine.
How did Egyptian chefs you work with at Le Riad take to your style of Oriental food?
They’re actually very open to it. It’s the guests that sometime say “my mum makes it better”!
What’s your favourite Egyptian dish?
It has to be feteer!
And your least favourite?
Molokheya, unfortunately! It’s the texture…
Have you had any difficulties sourcing ingredients?
After the revolution, some important ingredients are hard to find, or have gone completely. For example, we’ve had to switch from French chocolate to local chocolate. However, when it comes to fresh produce, we work closely with Makar Farms and Al Noor, which produce great vegetables and fruits.
What’s your favourite ingredient?
I love coriander. I love saffron too, but it’s pricey!
Who are your inspirations when it comes to cooking?
Michel Bras is a genius. There are few living geniuses in this field and he is one of them.
Do you think that when a chef does a show it takes away from his abilities to create?
For me cooking is to be in a kitchen, so if you’re on TV too often, there’s something missing. But it means you’re able to build something. A lot of great chefs live inside the television.
What’s your opinion on Gordon Ramsey?
He was a great a cook.
What are you like in the kitchen with your staff?
I try to give them inspiration. I had the chance to work with a great chef who inspired me and helped me go further so I try to give them that. I also try and make them focus on details.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
Being ready to sacrifice a little bit of their life and to love what they’re doing. We start at 7AM and finish at 1AM so you have to know what you’re sacrificing.
What’s your big dream?
To go on vacation!
Find out more about Bruno Contreras, Original Birth and their hotels on their website:http://www.original-birth.com/