At Chef's Table with Justin Galea - Le Royal Merdien Hotel, Abu Dhabi

I have been in Abu Dhabi for close to 5 years now. And I have had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful chefs. For me chefs are like apples and oranges as the cliche goes - I think it unfair to compare them. Why can't I enjoy both?   However, I am also aware that chefs, unlike professionals in other sectors, are likely to celebrate the success of their peers. There seems to a  be generosity of spirit among chefs when it comes to this sort of thing. Make no mistake, they can be very competitive, driven by a single-mindedness to be the best.  With his recent win as What's On Abu Dhabi's Chef of the Year, I felt it fitting to pay tribute to a chef who has had a tremendous impact on me as writer, father and appreciator (is there such a word?) of food. Chef Justin Galea.

At the FACT Awards celebrating the hotel's success. 
The first time I encountered Chef Justin was when I visited Amalfi in May 2014 shortly after it was relaunched. At the time he wore the whites of the Executive Chef. We sat down, and I remember thinking about the manner in which he waxed lyrically about what was happening at Le Royal Meridien. You may recall that Amalfi's relaunch coincided with the general refurbishments that took place at the hotel, as the hotel sought to transform itself into  a destination of choice for business travellers and to offer a  Food & Beverage selection that could compete with the best in the city. It was an exciting time with Market Kitchen, a Jean Georges concept restaurant, also starting to make a mark for itself. We sat down and for the next four hours I listened to him talk about his vision for the hotel. However, to this very day, there is one thing in particular which rings in my ears and mind as if I heard the words last night. Chef talked very passionately about the connection between food and emotion.

There is no dish that is the greatest exponent of his philosophy regarding that connection than the Creative Tiramisu I had in Amalfi when Chef Pascal Sfara was still there on that memorable night.  If a Chef is able to tap into people's emotions and memories, he can trigger happy feelings (the converse is true of course). To this day it is my favourite dessert in Abu Dhabi. At the time I wrote these words and they remain true: For dessert, Chef prepares a tiramisu. Of course; one of Italy's many sweet contributions to the culinary world. What he brings to my table leaves me with a puzzled look. Could it be? No. Surely not. But...wait, it is. Candy floss. It triggers the emotion. The second time. A warm, fuzzy feeling sweeps over me, as I sit in awe with the wonder of  a child. Associations. With my fingers I eat through the centre of the candy floss to reveal part of the tiramisu underneath. I eat away at more of the candy floss. Childhood. My daughter. Associations. The picture is supposed to keep the surprise; the intrigue. No spoilers. Try it, and feel Chef Justin's words. 

What does Chef do in his free time? At another dinner at Stratos, he jokingly said that he had no real hobbies and did not go to the gym. He is a devoted family man, but his hobby is his kitchen. And that kitchen can be at the hotel or at home. It is at home where his daughter, aged around 3, cooks with him. He places a great deal of emphasis on educating people, especially children, about eating habits. He is very dedicated to tackling obesity in young people through food education. In 2015 he spearheaded Starwood's Adopt a School program that ran in conjunction with Royal Academy of Culinary Arts in the UK. Chef Justin, himself a member of the academy, will no doubt continue his involvement in this, especially considering the alarming rate of obesity in kids in this region. 

Chef Justin has retained a wonderful humility about him. Since ascending to his dual role as Director of Food & Beverage and Executive Chef, he is very much Chef as he was when I met him that night in May. More often than not, you will come across a duality in him when you see him in a pair of trainers and his signature Hugo Boss jacket. 

Stratos is sheer luxe. 
We talked about Stratos Lounge, Bar and Grill. He had  a unique vision for the old revolving restaurant at the hotel. I remember brunching at the original restaurant  a good three years ago. It was tired and in need of what, I knew not exactly, but in need of something certainly. The restaurant that was to be born of the ashes of the old one, was Stratos, Abu Dhabi's only revolving lounge, bar and grill - a real ode to luxury. It was always a risk considering Abu Dhabi, despite the obvious wealth, is a little more conservative than Dubai when it comes to restaurant spend. But Chef reminds me of an orchestral conductor who hears the symphony when all we see are the instruments. Stratos, which might end up with a few tweaks (common in a city with ever demanding diners) is here to stay. Build it and they will come. 

Abu Dhabi needs places like this that are luxurious without costing too much money. In fact, with the accolade of the best venue for afternoon tea in the UAE recently bestowed on Stratos by Gulf News, I sense momentum about to take Stratos to another level - pun intended. The exciting thing for Chef Justin is that this was even before the Eric Lanlard Afternoon Tea is launched, which incidentally, takes place in November. I recall Chef's tone of voice when he talked about this a few months ago - the boy is very much alive in the man, and in a  Wordsworthian sense, the boy is indeed father to the man in Chef! 

Stratos' bar
Chef has overseen the growing success of outlets like Stratos and especially Market Kitchen. It is said that a good leader makes sure that he surrounds himself with strong players. I maintain that Chef Pascal's departure from Amalfi was a major loss. However, Chef Jordan Annabi at Market Kitchen has flourished under Chef Justin's leadership. A recent nod at What's On for Best America's Restaurant is the kind of encouragement that staff thrive on, especially when it is people like Chef Justin who take risks. The restaurant does more than just put bums on seats and serve food. Their Market to Kitchen concept continues the education of young and old as Chef Jordan leads a small group of guests to the market where produce is chosen and cooked, all the while under his guidance.

Chef Jordan at Market Kitchen showing a young foodie the beauty of food - Market to Kitchen. 

Chef Justin Galea has been part of a transformation that has seen the hotel's top three restaurants, Market Kitchen, Amalfi and Stratos each reflect his vision. They are different restaurants, but all connected by an unwillingness to compromise on quality of ingredients. He has also introduced concepts that take the restaurants beyond the usual dining experience.  It has been such a privilege as a writer to sit down with Chef on various occasions over the last 18 months.

"We become what we are because of our mothers", he said one night. Looking at my life, his words are reflected clearly. Justin Galea, an inspiring figure with a heart and vision as big as his smile, Abu Dhabi salutes you.  

Brandon Stoltenkamp