We’re celebrating our thirtieth year at etc.venues which makes it the perfect occasion to talk to some of the extraordinary people who’ve helped shape our business; people like Malik Fseil, one of our two talented Executive Chefs.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Auguste Escoffier, he’s the father of modern food and kitchen processes. I admire all that he accomplished in the early twentieth century and the fact that we’re still using many of his concepts today. Auguste was known as the ‘Chef of Chefs’. But, to be honest, the person who truly inspired me was my mother who was able to return home after a long hard day at work and create the most amazing food for her family.
Can you tell us about your background?
My background is varied. I started catering school at 15 years of age in Bordeaux then went to university for 2 years, gaining five diplomas. In France, a chef’s education is very important because the range of food is so wide. Take French cheese for example. There are around 400 different types and, as a chef, you need to understand each one, which animal it comes from and how to work with it. And that’s just the cheese. Then there’s the wine… there’s a lot to learn and, as I progressed, I expanded my knowledge of other countries’ cuisine through travel.
How did travelling help you expand your knowledge?
My wife and I spent 6 years travelling around the world and we had some amazing experiences – sampling street food in Hanoi, cooking with chefs in Madagascar, Sainte-Marie Island, and visiting parts of India; learning how they use spices to flavour their food. On a trip to Columbia, we went out with the local fisherman and caught fresh Barracuda. That night we cooked it with fresh coconut milk, curry, limes, garlic and tomatoes. To this day, it was the best meal of my life! Travel really opens up the mind. In France, it’s all about meat while in India, it’s mostly vegetarian. Those diverse experiences enrich your view and enhance your perspective. I’m still inspired by other cultures. You never stop learning…
What do you love most about your role?
Being a chef can be challenging. The hours can be long, the kitchen’s hot and we’re under constant pressure. Added to that, we’re surrounded by knives! But what makes it all worthwhile is working with people who are as passionate about food as I am. It’s a job where you can learn from everyone, every day. There are no limits to the creativity you can bring to your menus.
In France, we call it the ‘art of cooking’ and I do believe it’s one of the most complete creative endeavours. When you’re creating a dish, you must use your sense of smell, taste and, just as importantly, your sense of vision. I’ve always seen a plate as a frame and the food’s colours, textures and heights create the work of art.
What’s your approach when it comes to creating food for events and conferences?
Working at scale is quite different from working in a restaurant. If you’re cooking for 20 or so guests, you can quite easily manage this on your own. At larger gatherings, you need to plan, delegate and have a clear view of your objectives. You need to understand your team’s strengths and play to those. You still want to ‘wow’ your guests but how you go about it is different. It requires more management. On a big production, you need to have a team of chefs with a balance of skills. Some will have flair; others will bring speed. You need to assess what you have and deliver.
One of the biggest events we’ve catered for included 4,000 guests over two days. We started preparing around two months beforehand. We met with the clients, we organised tasting sessions, understood dietary requirements and ensured we were fully staffed on the day. An operation like that requires a lot preparation. It’s challenging but also hugely rewarding.
Do you think it’s important to cater for specific dietary requirements?
Yes, of course. To give an example, during a recent event of 250 delegates, 75 of them had specific dietary requests – such as gluten-free dishes, dairy free, vegan or vegetarian. The most unusual request I’ve had is from a guest who could only eat from produce that had fallen from a tree! We think it’s not just important to accommodate these individuals, we think it’s vital that we make a great impression. Delegates with specific requirements always leave delighted; they’re pleased that we offer more than just salad or fruit.
How do you go about sourcing food sustainably?
We’re smart about how we source our produce. We work closely with Claudio, in procurement, to source as many supplies from Britain as possible. It’s working well and, from a sustainability perspective, it makes a lot of sense to buy produce on your doorstep rather than thousands of miles away. After all, strawberries grow equally well in the UK as they do in Spain! To help further shrink our carbon footprint, we’ve also introduced Meat-Free Monday – offering clients some wonderful alternatives to meat dishes.
Why do you think food is such an important part of an event?
For most of us, I believe food an important part of life, especially when it comes to an event. Great food enhances the overall experience and gives people something to talk about while they are socialising or networking. More than that, great dishes get talked about many weeks if not years after an event!
What are the five most important elements when it comes to creating great food for events and conferences?
These points are in no order of importance but I’d suggest:
- Understand your client’s needs and expectations. So, for instance, you wouldn’t cater for a graduate training day in the same way as a conference full of doctors and surgeons. Tailoring your approach is important.
- Be aware of food trends and specific dietary requirements. Bland vegan dishes ought to be a thing of the past.
- Always use fresh products that, ideally, are locally sourced.
- Include plenty of variety.
- And finally, of course, there needs to be a creative twist. That certain something that creates the ‘wow’ factor!
How important is client feedback?
It is the most important element of all. Feedback is always sought. We communicate with clients throughout an event and always keep an eye on quality. After an event, we invite clients to score the food out of five. If we don’t receive top marks (which is rare), we get straight back to them to understand why.
What are the current trends?
There’s a real appetite for heathy meals. Current trends include fermented food such as kimchi cabbage, fermented beans or miso paste and plant-based recipes. People also care about their food’s environmental impact and this area of sustainability is where we want to lead the way.
What’s your proudest career achievement?
There is nothing better for me – or any member of my team – than hearing “That was delicious chef, thank you!”
If you’ve been inspired by this article, you can read more about our people and how they’ve helped shape our brand over the past 30 years here.