No, we’re not talking about a Michelin-five-star chef. No such thing. This kitchen fiend is Raphael Szurek, grand fromage at Hanoi’s JW Marriott. Words and photos by Julie Vola
Originally from Paris, 31-year-old Raphael Szurek began his career in the 3-Michelin-star restaurant, Le Grand Vefour, under the tutelage of Chef Guy Martin. In 2006, Raphael moved to Guangzhou, China for a six months’ internship at the newly opened Novotel and from there he had the opportunity to work at The Ritz Carlton when it was opening.
When it was time for him to move on, Raphael contacted the JW Marriott and was offered work on the opening of The French Grill. He recently received the Rising Star Culinary Excellence Award for Asia-Pacific from the JW Marriott. Stylistically, Raphael creates a modern French cuisine and enjoys combining Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese elements.
The process of creating a new dish can vary from 10 minutes to three weeks, Chef Raphael says. Sometimes, he says, you have a stroke of genius, and come up with a dish that works right away, but usually from the first idea to the final dish, trial and error have evolved the finished product beyond recognition.
“Creating a dish is an intellectual process,” he says. “I am not reinventing cuisine, but you can take from other people’s techniques and put your own twist on it, and that’s what’s nice. Dishes evolve over time, but people come to eat a chef’s full cuisine, not just one dish in particular.”
First things first; deliveries. Ingredients usually come in a refrigerated truck. If not, the temperature of the product is tested, and if it reads over a certain temperature, it’s rejected. Deliveries are massive, but trickle in slowly throughout the morning. The hotel juggles 70 different suppliers for their restaurants, and it can be hard to keep ingredients consistent, as some suppliers buy per container.
The French Grill spends VND20 million to VND30 million per day in food orders. The most expensive item is the Japanese Wagyu beef, at VND16 million for four kilograms. After the meat is prepared in the kitchen, it is preserved using oil, which avoids damage from freezing, and the grey colour that results if it is vacuum-sealed and deprived of oxygen.
“I like to look for new products,” says Raphael. “Sometimes I go to the market with the product purchaser to find interesting seasonal ingredients.
One of the most unique ingredients on his list is bottarga — a salted, cured fish roe from Italy. The chef also tries to order local whenever possible; his mozzarella and burrata comes from Pizza 4P’s, who make their own cheeses in Dalat.
When the deliveries stop coming, Raphael heads to his office that he shares with the other chefs to do his more mundane, yet necessary, tasks; paperwork. Luckily, Raphael’s culinary school in Lyon was focused more on food than administration, but a year of F&B management training prepared him to deal with this side of the business, too.
The JW Marriott culinary team consists of 140 chefs and 29 stewards. There was a learning curve for Raphael’s team, but after two and a half years together, they’ve become a well-oiled machine, and Raphael a happy chef. He describes it as a team sport, with each person having an important role.
Roo ‘n Shiraz
After his paperwork, Chef Raphael heads to the kitchen. Today, he is sharing one of his new dishes with us: Kanga Banga, a kangaroo, shiraz and rosemary sausage, served with beetroot and goat cheese.
Last year, some of the chef’s Australian patrons asked if the French Grill could do something for Australia Day, and what’s more Aussie than kangaroo? With his affinity for sausage-making, he decided to challenge himself to create a sausage with kangaroo meat.
The recipe consists of kangaroo meat, lamb fat, Australian shiraz, rosemary, salt and the kitchen’s own mix of white, black, pink and green pepper, roasted in-house. The chef uses a hand grinder to mix the meat, since the electric grinder is not big enough.
This process takes him a good 20 to 30 minutes for 3kg of meat, and a lot of elbow grease. He then stuffs this mixture into washed and salted pork entrails. The sausage is cooked for around 10 minutes.
Chef Raphael plates freely, no specific design in mind, just following the compositional rule of odds, and adding garnish intuitively; a piece of beetroot here, a bit of green and radish there. He adds a few drops of beetroot coulis, and then finally, the goat cheese is delicately crumbled on top.
The result is a verdant plate of green and red, with touches of white. Australian cuisine is relaxed, says Raphael, and it’s a bit like a deconstructed Australian BBQ with salad.
At 1.30pm, the chef’s team arrives, and Raphael holds a quick meeting to brief them on the day ahead. Then the whole team heads to the kitchen to begin their prep work.
Later that afternoon, Chef Raphael’s family comes by to surprise him. Clement, Raphael’s one-year-old son, is at home in his dad’s restaurant: today Chef Raphael has some time to spend with his son, and show him the ropes of his job. Raphael is also a talented musician and will often let loose his hidden talent, busting out a few melodies on the piano.
At 6pm, service starts. The kitchen opens and the show begins. I let myself out discreetly, so the chefs can do what they do best.