Banquet Chef de Cuisine Simon Bowker moved to the U.S. to take on the kitchen management of a massive event space at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. In the first part of our interview we got the lowdown on what it's like to work in Dubai, and how he handled the pressure of working in a Michelin 2-star restaurant in the UK. In this second installation, he discusses why it's a pain to feed President Obama, and that he doesn't mind slicing and dicing for the vegetarians he pities.
You've made a career out of working at extremely high end resorts, was that a conscious choice versus working at stand-alone restaurants?
I know that going for the high end hotels means the level of service and expectation are spread throughout the outlet, whether it's the banquet department or one of the signature restaurants. Everyone's got the same vision and it's just something I feel more comfortable with - working within a hotel.
You currently oversee a team of 70 people, does it take a village? What do they all do?
I can't take all the credit, I oversee to be sure that the function is rounded and executed how I want to see it. There is an Executive Pastry Chef that runs his pastry department, then there a head chef of the Garde Manger, the cold kitchen. They run their own operations, but it still boils down to me being responsible for the standards and the execution of the actual events. In my kitchen I have a Senior Sous and a Sous Chef and below that 30 cooks. If things go wrong it's on my shoulders, but when things go right I get the gratitude for it. You've got to take the rough with the smooth.
How do you manage to keep track of it all and do you feel that consistency is sometimes an issue?
It's such a big property 22 acres, 22,000 square feet of function space. To oversee all that you just need to have a lot of energy, and have your energy transpire into your team. It's a case of trying to be everywhere at once. You have to trust the people around you and the only way you can be certain of that is by ensuring that they are trained well. You've put your point and your vision across. I believe as long as your standard is in the right place that anyone who works around you or comes into contact with your operation, falls into line. If I were to be relaxed or lazy, people around you can see that straight away. That's not the way I work, and I've got a great team.
What's the biggest function you've handled at the Fontainebleau?
We did 3,100 last year for Outback Steakhouse corporate and we did S.P. Richards, which was 2,900 people. Fortunately they were just buffets. The largest plated function we've done here was 2,500, that was for Liberty Mutual Group, also last year. It's plated all while I'm there, we don't pre-box anything.
Are there any ingredients you really enjoy working with or particularly shy away from - especially working on those sized events?
To be honest, even though it's that large of a scale we avoid pre-fabbed food in general. I try not to buy frozen, you'd be surprised at how small my freezer is. Everything is as fresh as we can make it. If you buy everything in the guys you employ never learn to use a knife, never learn to cook, and you're just working in a factory. We try and find that balance between quantity needs and quality. That's not gonna happen if I start buying frozen vegetables. Our canapés are handmade, which is crazy when you think we do it for thousands of people. But people can tell the difference between frozen and freshly made when they put it in their mouth. I'm not scared of using any ingredient - there's always a way to figure it out.
I feel like scaling fresh fish for 3,000 people could be scary.
Yeah, but I get a butcher to handle that. It's scary for the butcher, not for me. My biggest hate is when people don't cook garlic properly. It needs to be cooked slowly. If it's thrown in raw and not cooked properly it winds me up. That's scary.
Any outrageous requests you've had to satisfy?
Seems people are more allergic than they ever were before. I'm sympathetic to people in those positions, though I am a bit skeptical sometimes. It's something we have to accommodate that can be a challenge when you've got to plate up to 2,000, but you need to make 10 varieties of the same dish because people can't eat certain things. I've seen it all before. When you've worked at Burj al-Arab in Dubai and the richest people in the world show up ready to pay anything for what they want, nothing's outrageous after that.
Any outlandish celebrity parties that were a challenge?
When Barack Obama comes. It's hard to get to work because the roads are closed, and it's hard to get around at work, because the Secret Service are everywhere. So when the President's eating, that's a real challenge.
Vegetarians, love em' or hate em'?
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Everybody is allowed an opinion and if it's there choice to not eat meat, I respect that. But I feel sorry for them because their missing out on a whole world of goodness. That's their choice, and I've been trained to accommodate anyone. I would never hate on the vegetarians.
Where do you like to eat when you actually have time away from work?
My favorite restaurant in Miami is Scarpetta. It sounds biased because that's one of the Fontainebleau's signature restaurants, and the head chef is one of my mates, but it really is true. He had a turbot dish on recently which was really nice, and I always like the duck and foie gras ravioli. That's always a winner for me. And I get naughty at Burger and Beer Joint, they have to roll me out of that place.