Simon Winchester is the senior executive sous chef at the Mövenpick Tower & Suites in Doha, Qatar. He shares with Katherine Alano the challenges and joys of working in the Middle East
What does your role at Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts entail? We run two businesses, the hotel and its outlets and the catering event company, so my role is varied. The event catering involves everything from royal weddings to film festivals, embassy cocktail parties and private work for the Sheikh (which is always interesting). No two days are the same.
What are the key challenges of working in Qatar?
What impact does the local culture have on the food you prepare and your job? Local people and cultures play a major role, especially when we are doing banquet and events, and there are certain foods that must feature without question. For example, when preparing a five-course plated event, we have to add the Arabic dishes, hot mezze, cold mezze and Arabic bread. You must also have the lamb ouzi or baby camel. And it's not uncommon for menus to be changed at the last minute.
How does Ramadan impact trade? Ramadan is the most exciting time in the Muslim calendar, and at this time of year everyone is competing to get the business. There is a lot of money involved and many hotels do Ramadan iftar (the evening meal when Muslims break their fast) and sohour tents. Ramadan celebrations must take place with the full Arabic set-up - shisha, the food, and even the uniforms must be Arabic. During Ramadan, the Muslim chefs work only six hours a day and fast, so we have to have understand their cultural needs as well as those of the guests.
How do the guests in the Middle East differ from those in Europe? We deal with a lot of sheikhs and sheikha, and they are demanding, but in a polite way, and don't fully understand the word "no". But they are pleasant and respectful and are well travelled, so they know what they want and they do demand the best. In comparison to the Europeans, it's like night and day. It's a cultural thing.
Do you keep up to date with food and restaurant trends in the UK? I still keep in touch with colleagues back in the UK, and social media is great too. However, I have to look globally to food trends, not just the UK, as our clients are often working for multinational oil and gas companies and are well travelled. It's important to be knowledgeable about the latest global trends, including down to restaurant concepts.
What do you like about working in Qatar? My job here is varied and involves working in different locations with different people from different countries, which makes it so interesting. It's a real melting pot of cultures. I also get to drive catering trucks.
What do you dislike about working in Qatar? There is nothing I dislike about Qatar or any other of the places I have lived. Each place has something to offer, good and bad. I have experienced the hurricanes in the Caribbean and got caught up in the Arab Spring in Cairo, but choose not to focus on the negative aspect of where I live and work. You have to just accept it for what it is.
What are the financial benefits of working in Qatar? We are well paid and the salary is tax-free. The cost of living is cheap, and you can enjoy all that Qatar and the surrounding countries in the Gulf have to offer. Working within a hotel group has its benefits, including staff rates at properties around the world.
What do you miss most about the UK?
The seasons. The UK is unique in that respect, and when you're working in the UK your menus are constantly evolving with the seasonal produce.
- CV Simon Winchester 2011-present Senior executive sous chef, MÁ¶venpick Tower & Suites, Doha, Qatar
- 2011 Executive sous chef, Anassa Resort & Spa, Cyprus
- 2010-11 MaÁ®tre de cuisine, Kempinski Nile hotel, Cairo, Egypt
- 2008-09 Executive sous chef, Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort Villages and Spa, Grace Bay, Turks & Caicos
- 2006-08 Chef de cuisine (fine dining), Al Faisaliah hotel, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
- 2003-06 Executive head chef, Abode hotel and Michael Caines restaurant, Exeter