Chef de Cuisine Simon Bowker technically has the biggest job at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. He oversees the banquet program, which encompasses more than 220,000 square feet of event space (and you thought your two thousand square foot apartment was impressive). He leads a team of 70 people including those who staff the banquet aspect of the Garde Manger (that's the term for the "cold items kitchen") and the Pastry Kitchen.
We asked Chef Bowker how he handles this culinary management, "extreme edition." Turns out he's used to hard work on a global scale, with a background that includes a stint in Dubai and a 2-star Michelin rated restaurant in the UK. He says that "you need to experience that as a chef or you become lazy and you never really see the other side of what cooking should be."& Hmmm, a lazy chef? That does sound dangerous.
New Times: Did you always want to be a Chef?
Simon Bowker: Ya, I always wanted to be a chef. My father is one and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, so it came naturally to me because it was in the family. I lived in a guest house or a bed and breakfast with my parents when I was younger, and I was in the industry from a very early age. I just found myself very comfortable within a kitchen so ya, as soon as I left school I wanted to go to culinary school and get involved in the industry.
Did any of your early positions have a particularly strong influence on you and your style?
When I left culinary school, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to work in the French part of Switzerland in a town called Sion. And because of the French influence in Switzerland, and just generally working in places in England where there was a lot of European and French cooking,I took that culinary angle. So I have a strong passion for French cooking, I guess working in Switzerland at 19 really pointed me in the style of the French.
How did you come to work in Dubai at Burj Al Arab (the world's only seven star hotel)?
What happened was that I was given someone's name through a person I worked for who was looking to recruit European chefs, so I sent my CV off to Burj Al Arab, and they responded and I managed to get the position. I did two years in Dubai, I got promoted from Chef de Partie to Sous Chef, I had a really good time there. Working in Dubai is a crazy city, and it is a real eye opener when it comes to service and the amount of money that is spent in order to give the guests satisfaction.
Were there particular challenges about the experience of working in Dubai?
Well, you are in the middle of the desert, it's hot out there. It's changed a little since I was there in 2004-2006. Back then, there was only two overseas deliveries a week, so it was quite difficult in terms of getting produce in fresh. There is no locally grown produce because of the heat out there. And just in general, the standard of the hotel I needed to adapt to and the level of service, I mean it's a 7 star mentality that you need to work up to, which if you have not done it before, can be something that is quite a nightmare. Plus, it's a 6 day working week that takes getting used to. I am glad I did it, but it was really hard, it's something that changed my outlook on cheffing.
You went on to become a Sous Chef at the Vineyard in Berkshire (a Michelin rated restaurant at a Relais & Chateau property), was there a bit of culture shock in returning to a British kitchen?
Not necessarily. It's funny, the kitchen I was in at Burj Al Arab had a lot of Asian work force, a lot of Pakastani and Indian cooks, quite a lot of European chefs too, and its more about the mentality, the attitude, the food that you are cooking, and the way that the service was run. They were both very similar in terms of of standards, so there wasn't much of a shock, other than coming back to the cold! Essentially, Vineyard had two Michelin stars, where nothing leaves the kitchen unless it is absolutely impeccable and perfect, and that takes some getting used to.
Did working at a Michelin rated restaurant add an element of pressure?
You definitely felt the pressure. There was a constant pressure in the kitchen, because it was such a new thing having the two stars, and there were only 7 other hotels in England that had the two stars at the time. So it was quite a big deal, and every dish, every ingredient, which was then plated and then went into the restaurant, nothing left the kitchen without the Chef seeing it. And it was a lot of hard work, long hours and just being on your toes constantly. But you need to experience that as a chef or otherwise you become lazy and you never really see the other side of what cooking should be. The other thing about the Vineyard because it was a 2-star, the kitchen was run with professionalism, it was always quiet, always calm and organized. There was so much to do, the workload was so intense, so nobody had time to mess around and chat. You were there to do a job, and if you didn't want to do the job, you didn't have to work there. So, you were proud to work for a Michelin 2 star and represent it, and you just kept your head down and work and the pressure kept you motivated, as well as the Chef, of course.
Is there simply more involved with a restaurant of that caliber? Once you get those two stars you don't want to lose them.
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It's just all so intricate, the intricacy of the plates and the dishes, a lot of work goes into it. Sometimes in the back of the house, you don't believe that the people in the front of the house eating, appreciate the time and effort that goes into the mise en place of the dishes. I mean, I am sure they do, but sometimes the effort you go to to make things symmetrical, or perfectly shaped, balanced, texture...it transpires into the restaurant and into the dishes. But at the time, there is no much of it that you sometimes think it could be lost. You know deep down that it's the right thing to do, and you know essentially it is getting recognized because otherwise it would not be rated two stars or be one of the top 10 restaurants in Britain. It's hard to get your mind set initially, but then when you understand it, it makes complete sense. It makes a difference.
What prompted your decision to relocate to Miami from the UK?
I'm sure you know in the chef world everybody knows everyone. My Chef de Cusine at the Burj Al-Arab in Dubai left to go to the Mandarin in Hong Kong, and I left to go to the Vineyard. I kept in contact with him and the chef he worked for in Hong Kong. The pair of them came to Miami to open the Fontainebleau. He contacted me and said they needed a chef and had to get me over to Miami as soon as possible. I thought about it and realized I'd done the restaurant thing, and the small country house hotels, I'd done a golf resort in England. I knew I needed to get more international operations under my belt, and also see something else other than just restaurants. He gave me the opportunity to come to America, which was something I wanted to do also. So it just kind of went from there. Deep down I did have aspirations to work in America because some of the leading hotels are here. And obviously some great concepts and ideas stem from America, and I wanted to be a part of that - so I was given an opportunity via the chef I had worked with in Dubai.