Master of gastronomy, three Michelin-starred chef Heinz Beck has firmly established his unique casual fine-dining in Dubai
When sitting down with Heinz Beck to discuss his storied culinary career it does not take long to fully appreciate his unrelenting drive and intense work ethic. In Dubai for just two days to deliver a seven-course menu at his signature restaurant, Social at the Waldorf Astoria, the acclaimed chef has barely stepped outside the kitchen, let alone the front door of the hotel.
But this is normal practice for the German-born chef who has taken Italian cuisine to new heights. For more than two decades he has worked night and day to help La Pergola achieve and maintain three Michelin stars. For Beck, a day off is a rarity and a holiday is taken just once in a blue moon.
“You know a very interesting man said once that if you do something you love then you will never work a day in your life,” Beck says during a brief moment outside the kitchen. “I am never crying about hours spent in the kitchen or working. I am never thinking about having more time off. I don’t care about it.
“The day’s where I work less it is like 16 hours and I tend to work seven days a week. My last day off was August 27 and my next is December 25.
“You know from 1984 until 1991 I didn’t even have a vacation. But I didn’t even think about it as I was working the whole time. There was never really time for a holiday. It was the same from ’91 to ’99, I didn’t have a vacation either. But it was okay, it never entered my mind and it didn’t bother me at all.”
As you would expect then, a two-day trip to Dubai is not viewed as a holiday. And while Beck may have been working on his seven-course menu for a number of months, once he arrived he rarely spends a moment outside of Social’s kitchen.
“I don’t have time to try other restaurants or do anything else really. I come here to Dubai for two days and for two days I stay in the kitchen,” reveals Beck. “When I am here I have to stay with my staff and work with them. We work on new dishes, new menus and new concepts. So two days is almost nothing.
“We work for five months on creating something new in order for it to be perfect. But of course you have to be prepared for things to go wrong. Take this meal for example, we are having to change two of the seven dishes because of problems with suppliers. So just one hour before the meal we are making changes.”
This is the kind of scenario that Beck thrives in. Even some 37 years after first entering the kitchen, he loves the challenges that present themselves on an almost daily basis. It is obvious that he adores his work, so it is somewhat surprising to hear that food was not his first love.
“I didn’t want to become a chef at all, I actually wanted to be a painter,” says Beck. “But my father didn’t want me to go to art college as he saw it more as a hobby.
“He actually wanted me to study something serious, like economics or business. In the end the first job I found was working in a kitchen and at 16 that allowed me to leave home. Even since then I have been in the kitchen.”
The art world’s loss has certainly been the culinary world’s gain with Beck earning an impressive array of awards and accolades over the past three decades.
Having quickly discovered that he had a natural talent when it came to cooking, his artistic nature also meant he could create dishes of rare beauty.
“If you look at my dishes you will see that I am working with forms and colours,” he says. “Of course I’m very much into beauty and for this, the fact that I wanted to be a painter, for sure I am doing this as a chef.
“I found a way to express myself and I am very happy to have become a chef. It was not easy in the beginning, but I am very happy I chose to work in that first kitchen.”
Beck does still love to paint, and he proudly produces images of his latest creation which can be found in a small art gallery in Italy. But the time restraints he places on himself make it impossible for him to have a dual career as an artist and a chef.
Instead he remains firmly focused on creating new dishes and helping La Pergola maintain it’s status as one of Italy’s finest restaurants. But having been head chef at the restaurant since 1994, was he not ever tempted to leave once the three stars were awarded?
“We work for five months on creating something new in order for it to be perfect.”
“No, never. I like Rome, I like my staff, I married a Sicilian. Why should I leave? I am not the type of person to think about what comes next,” admits Beck.
“To be honest I thought I would only be there for two years. It seemed a great way to learn a new language and a new culture. Now it is 23 years later and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Much has changed for Beck since he made the move to Rome. He started with a small team of cooks who were simply hoping to create good food. Then when recognition started to come their way, the objectives changed and now they take great pride in making sure Michelin does not take away their stars.
“You don’t really think about success, it just happens,” he says. “When we first started my first brigade was five in the kitchen, four plus me. And when we got our first star it was that team.”
“Even when we got the second there was just six of us. And with the third there was only eight. Now there is 22 people and we are much more settled. We have our awards and we work to make sure we will not lose them for a very long time.
“But perhaps most important is that we are still busy. For 21 years the restaurant has been fully booked. There is not one single day that there has been a spare seat. So these are the real rewards as the restaurant is not small.”
Keeping the restaurant busy for more than two decades is no easy task but Beck’s insatiable desire to create means the food is always evolving.
“You see me now with the boys, we are changing something every single day,” says Beck. “I hope it will last, that I still do new things and have new ideas. The day I have nothing else to say will be the day I retire.”
Fortunately that day seems a long way in the future. It is impossible to imagine Beck being anywhere but in the kitchen and that is thanks in large to the role played by his wife, Teresa.
The pair met in Italy and have become partners in every way. Teresa not only shares her husband’s love for food, but also his incredible work ethic.
“I can tell you she does not take days off either,” says Beck. “The company is Beck and Maltesa and we are running everything. It is 14 restaurants worldwide. You have to think about how much logistic, administrative and financial work that is.
“I was very happy I met my wife as she made the company happen. Every day she has statistics and numbers and every day I come home and we have a briefing. I am married now for 17 years and I have never found her in pyjamas or in bed. And I come home late, normally around 2am.”
So while Heinz is the creative force, it seems it is Teresa who has the head for business. And with such demand for Beck’s food, there are always those interested in working with the husband and wife team.
“All of the work is through Teresa. She makes the strategies, does all of the administration and the logistics. It’s quite a different set up to all these famous chefs,” he adds.
“They have a company and are running the business for lots of people. For us it is different, the company is just the CEO, Teresa and one operational manager, Heinz, that is it.
“I do the operation part and I know we will open something soon in Milan but don’t ask me more because I don’t make the deals. That is purely Teresa. I don’t think ahead at all.”
Clearly the partnership is working well and the pair’s ravenous appetite for work means we will likely be seeing much more from Heinz Beck. And for food lovers around the world, that can only be a good thing.