“Sweden and Switzerland, people confuse us a lot for some reason,” laughs Chef Michel Eschmann, as we sit down for a chat at one of Kuala Lumpur’s finest dining establishment with an unparalleled view of the majestic Petronas Twin Towers. As the executive sous chef of Thirty8 at Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, the Switzerland-born Eschmann stumbled upon his culinary career while hunting for a summer job when he was merely 14. “My mum was forcing me to take up a summer job during the holidays and I did not manage to find any so I went next door which was a restaurant to ask for a job. It was a small fine dining restaurant which was actually quite well-known in the town of Baden,” he shares. His two week tenure at the restaurant proved fruitful as he developed an interest in cooking and discovered that he had a knack for it. He pursued several kitchen jobs at a hotel, elderly community home and another fine dining restaurant just to experience the different types of kitchens. “I eventually got the chance to complete my apprenticeship for three years at a small fine dining restaurant and trained under a very inspiring chef by the name of Gregor Zimmermann. This led me to several other kitchen jobs in Switzerland and I also participated in a few culinary competitions,” he continues. Opportunity presented itself in 2009 when Eschmann was offered the position of Chef de Cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund, Shanghai before relocating to Grand Hyatt Erawan, Bangkok to oversee Tables Grill, Bangkok’s first traditional European restaurant with tableside cooking. His flair for European cuisine is set to shake things up in the booming culinary landscape of Kuala Lumpur.
What is your approach towards cooking?
Hyatt’s food philosophy is to be true to a cuisine so we don’t do fusion food. The concept is given so what I can do is to bring in consistency and quality. We make very simple food, by that I mean it’s not overly complicated and it’s left very pure. We present it as what it is – if you order a steak, there is not much garnish or sauces on the plate and we serve the side dishes on the side. Simple food is always the most difficult to prepare as it does not leave you with a lot of room for error. If you have a fish and sauce then there’s only two components on the plate so the sauce has to be excellent. This requires a very good quality of the product which is sometimes difficult to maintain consistently. The chefs also have to understand that the quality of the product is important, when the product arrives we have to check it and understand where it comes from. I find that there is no awareness when it comes to appreciating and understanding where our produce comes from. It is also important to understand and choose the right cooking process which is what I’m trying to educate as well. What I’ve experienced which I think is a trend everywhere in the world is that young chefs are not interested in the basics of cooking anymore.
How will this affect the industry?
The young chefs are only interested in finishing the product by topping some nice garnishing on it but they don’t know how to get there. There is a huge lack of well-educated and trained chefs today. We have many fancy celebrity chefs these days where people try to copy them but they’re only halfway there so it’s better to focus on the basics of your dish rather than overly complicate things. Anyone can buy a cookbook, these young chefs copy some of the dishes from it and think they’re a superstar. The culinary schools are to be blamed as well because if a chef graduates from that school he is allowed to teach. You learn something from the teacher and you teach someone else and the right message gets lost in between. More chefs are also leaving the industry after completing their apprenticeship because they’re not willing to put in the hours as they are not able to handle the stress and pressure.
As a veteran in the kitchen, what are the qualities you look for in new chefs?
Most important is the attitude they carry. They must be open-minded and willing to learn. Humour is important as well as we work in a high-pressure job. Sometimes I ask potential candidates what is so bad about their current job when they come in for an interview just to see how they will react.
What motivates you to pursue your culinary role here at Grand Hyatt kl?
What motivates me is my team, if I see that the team understands what I’m telling them then this motivates me to push them again the next day. It’s very frustrating when there is no change. The biggest motivation is to see the team growing.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Someone told me to never overestimate yourself, know your strength and weakness too. I challenge my chefs sometimes, if they make a mistake I’m not the type to yell at them, I will let them tell me why they did something wrong so they will start to think for themselves. Cooking is a very logical process, sometimes there is only one way to do things. If you take a shortcut or you mix up the steps then the end result will be different. I know all the tricks because I have done it before.