May’s – ‘The Fragrance Issue’ – Download Now
With out-of-this-world Burj Khalifa views and a fusion of fragrant ingredients, CÉ LA VI Dubai’s executive chef Howard Ko discusses why this sky-high restaurant is the culinary hotspot everyone needs to visit.
Can you talk us through your career history?
I have worked in hospitality my whole life and have never done anything else. I began at 15-years-old washing dishes and making sandwiches and then went to Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, California for baking and pastry. I worked as a pastry chef for a year and then went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York City. From then on, I only worked at Michelin Star restaurants for about 14 years. Restaurant Daniel **, Picholine **, DB Bistro Moderne, because I wanted to experience high volume, Melisse Restaurant **, French Laundry *** and Restaurant at Meadowood ***. I always believed I was never good enough, I think that’s why I always worked on my craft and worked at great restaurants, rather than looking at a paycheck. On my vacations, if I had any free time, I would stage at restaurants as well, these include; Saison ***, Benu***, Atelier Crenn***, Alinea*** and Dabous*. Until this day, I still feel I don’t know enough and push to get better and will always have this need to get better at my craft.
Where does your love for food and cooking come from?
I love how food can make you feel. When you get to a certain point in your craft you can make a dish that can invoke emotion. By making something that can bring a person back to their childhood, and intrigue by the way the dish is presented with tableside service. When you have the perfect bite that makes you just want one more during a tasting menu, is when you know you nailed that dish for the guest.
What do you love about what you do?
I love mentoring young chef. It’s our responsibility to pass on knowledge and share your philosophy with your cooks to make a lasting impression and to have that legacy, so when it’s their turn to become chefs, they will remember lessons and take that with them forever. I love seeing how they improve and grow as chefs with confidence. I always tell my team that I hope to read about them one day in an article, it would make me very proud because I know they have it in them. I also tell the women in my kitchen the harsh reality that it is a male-dominated profession and I encourage and empower them every day. I want to be there for them to let them know they have what it takes to be good as anyone if you put in the work.
What brought you to Dubai?
Chef Joseph, CÉ LA VI Group Executive Chef, was my friend and roommate when we worked at Restaurant Daniel in 2006 – I was 20-years-old at the time. We were so young back then but always kept in touch. I was an Executive Chef for a Hotel and opening restaurants in San Francisco and one day I get a call from Chef Joey and he offered me the position to open CÉ LA VI Dubai. It was a scary thought, literally being on the opposite side of the world but I am so grateful I took the opportunity. I also have a great supporting cast at CÉ LA VI from my GM David Lescarret, Marketing Manager Hoda Ghavidel, Guest Relations Manager Ettiene Du Plessis, Assistant GM Will Leekulcharoen who are all great teammates that support me.
How does the food and beverage industry here differ from other places around the world?
I think the F&B industry here in Dubai is amazing. It is still a young culinary city, but people are evolving in taste and are more open to a wide range of flavour combinations. So, chefs here are being more and more adventurous with their cuisines and flavours.
What are the hero dishes, in your opinion, at CÉ LA VI?
I think it’s the black truffle sushi rice risotto with butternut squash, beech mushrooms and parmesan foam. It has been a hit and seems to be the fan favourite.
The menu you’ve created fuses a lot of fragrant ingredients together – how do you curate them together?
I read a lot, not only cookbooks but also about the history of food. I think you need to understand traditional gastronomy before you can really evolve something new. Understanding how people eat in different cultures to different flavour profiles of each culture, makes you understand food on another level to develop dishes that makes sense.
For you, is the process that goes into curating new menus and new dish ideas?
I am very collaborative with my menu, with every chef in my kitchen. I always ask what they think when they try new dishes. I also encourage them to come up with ideas that we can work on together, so they can get better. During my time at the French Laundry with 3 Michelin stars, the menu would change every day. I think of looking at different cultures, traditions, and then flavour components. My 14 years of experience gives me a broader perspective and makes me look at food in several different scopes. It’s not only the flavour combinations but also how you treat an ingredient.
For example, smoking and drying out a leg of lamb for 3 years so you can shave it like bonito flakes, or serving a guest a dish of heirloom beans and braised seaweeds in a roasted turnip broth. Or, serving the piece of lamb that you have spent 3 years perfecting shaved tableside into your beans to give you an intensified lamb essence, these are the details that create one-of-a-kind dishes.
Who would you say your Chef inspiration is?
All the chefs I have worked for, I have a little part of them inside me. Sal Marino was my first chef who is still my mentor. Josiah Citrin from Melisse, Timothy Hollingsworth who people know from winning Final Table, and Christopher Kostow from The Restaurant at Meadowood, who showed me how to really think of ingredients and dining experience in a different way.
What are the hurdles you’ve experienced during your career?
When you’re really passionate about something, you have to make that your main concern in life. I’ve missed out on so much with friends and family, but it was essential at the time to grow into the chef I am today.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what are the milestones?
The knowledge I have gained from all the work I put in. Friends I have made throughout the years, being in the position I am in now coming from a really bad neighbourhood in Los Angeles. I am grateful that my sacrifices to always strive to do better is paying off.
What do you see next for CÉ LA VI Dubai?
CÉ LA VI Dubai to be one of the best culinary destinations in Dubai! We’re recognised for being at the top of our game after such a short time, which is so great to be a part of. I want to make an impact in the city, that can’t go unnoticed.
The Hero Dishes
Crispy Kale Salad
Rocket arugula, petite carrots, beetroot, peanuts, Thai lime vinaigrette
Roasted Black Cod
Sweet corn pudding, grilled spring onions, miso beurre blanc
Black Truffle “Sushi Rice” Risotto
Butternut squash, Shimeji mushrooms, Parmesan mousse
Roasted Chilean Sea Bass
Yuzu kosho seaweed brown butter, girolles, rock shrimp, grilled savoy cabbage and bonito cream
Grilled Spanish Octopus
Confit potato, demi-sec tomato, smoked pimentón, squid ink vinaigrette
May’s – ‘The Fragrance Issue’ – Download Now
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