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The golden rules of chef Heinz Beck

Words by Rob Chilton

No bullying, no shouting and no arguments – the German masterchef has clear ideas about how to run his kitchen

Heinz Beck is from Germany but has lived in Italy for 27 years, leading the team at La Pergola, Rome’s only three Michelin starred restaurant. EDGAR met the talented chef at his Dubai restaurant Social at Waldorf Astoria on the Palm to find out how he stays at the top.

So, having lived in Rome for so long, do you support Roma or Lazio?

Ha, FC Bayern! When Bayern are losing all the guys in the kitchen take me for a ride but lately, Bayern haven’t lost so much so the guys haven’t been saying anything to me.

Do you feel Italian?

I think I’m European, more than German or Italian. We speak Italian in the kitchen, we only have Italian chefs. My Italian is much better than my English, I understand most of the slang but not the Sardinian slang.

Do you like the regional differences you find in Italy?

Yes, it’s nice, it adds texture and variety and I don’t think we should lose that. But in the end it’s one nation.

Do you cook like a German or Italian chef?

Would you ask the same question to a painter? Cooking is about creativity and expressing your talent, everyone has their own style. If you copy other styles you will never get to the top. I don’t cook like a German or an Italian. I cook like Heinz Beck.

Beck at work with his team

What do you look for in a chef you hire?

One day someone comes to [Chinese philosopher] Confucius and says, ‘I want to be one of your students. I’m the best philosopher, the best creator, the best inventor.’ Confucius says, ‘I will not take you. You cannot add a drop of water to a full glass.’ You see? I’m looking for talented people who have big passion but I don’t look for people who know everything. If they know everything they won’t open up and learn and they won’t integrate in a system. Everyone has to fit into an organisation. If you have five Messis or five Ronaldos in a group they will not win the game. You need one Messi and four talented players around him who want to grow and help him.

When you’re teaching your chefs, do you sometimes get frustrated if they make a mistake?

I can’t complain because it’s not his fault. If someone makes a mistake they didn’t get the proper training or the right communication. It’s not the problems of the boy, it’s the management. The easiest thing to do when someone makes a mistake is say, ‘You’re a stupid idiot because you didn’t do it the way I wanted.’ You have to ask yourself: who is the idiot? Insulting people is the easiest thing to do in the world. That’s the wrong approach to help people grow.

Are your kitchens calm and quiet or noisy and boisterous?

My kitchen is a guided democracy.

What does that mean?

Everyone can come to me and talk to me. Then at 7pm we have to be serious and concentrate and it becomes a dictatorship. No gimmicks, no jokes, no noise. It’s like an orchestra, there’s a conductor and everyone has to be quiet so we know when is the right time to play the drum. In 2001 I had a virus and it damaged my ear, I lost 70 per cent of my hearing. I cannot stand loud noise anymore. I have a continuous whistle in my ear but my brain eliminates this noise and I only hear it if I’m extremely tired.

Do you think you’re an intimidating boss?

No, me and my staff have a very good relationship, people work with me for a long, long time. Maybe I’m not so bad [laughs].

Beck runs Social at the Waldorf Astoria on The Palm

What makes a good leader in the kitchen?

A good leader has to be honest and fair. Everybody can have knowledge – if you read five books you have knowledge – but that doesn’t mean you are competent. If you are competent you can help everybody. Knowledge means you’ve read in a book that says the dish must taste like this – that’s rubbish. You can’t process the plate the same way every day because the produce changes. Tomatoes can be salty today, sweet tomorrow, acidic the next day. You have to understand how to get the same quality out of the produce every day.

Is it important to look after the emotions of staff?

Of course, otherwise it will not work. If someone sleeps badly and is not in a not perfect humour, I won’t ask, ‘Where’s your smile?’ But if it lasts two weeks I’ll ask what’s going on. In a kitchen there will always be problems, every problem you can imagine.

Do you have golden rules for behaviour in your kitchen?

Arguments I don’t like. I don’t like insults, blasphemy, bullying, shouting. I don’t accept these things in my kitchen, it’s not the street, it’s a kitchen. If I see these things I become very naughty and I will make the point. If it’s bullying I make the point in public so the bully feels what it feels like.

How do you inspire your team?

By being creative and doing new things every day. And involving them. I’m not clever, well, perhaps a little bit. I’m a lucky guy. I believe a lot in destiny and I was in the right place at the right moment.

Beck believes kitchens should be calm environments

How do motivate yourself?

I don’t think about it. If you start to think about it you become demotivated. I don’t have the time to think if I am motivated or not. I’m still learning, it’s an ongoing process.

You’re a left-handed guy – do you use specialised knives for left-handed chefs?

There are some that have blades made at certain angle, but I can use any knife. I can cut with both hands actually.

Do you cook every day?

Yes, every day. Cooking is not working, cooking is the best moment of the day for me, nothing bothers me when I cook. The kitchen is the place where I can relax. It’s beautiful – it’s salty!

You seem like a very calm man.

Some chefs go nuts and insult everybody. I might be wrong but I think it’s better to be organised. It’s better to finish with cows than have cows that never finish.

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