You could call Chef Christian Kneer a man of the world. After all, the newly appointed executive chef of the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain has worked in regions such as Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His experiences in the various locations have helped him to gain not only culinary knowledge but also allowed him to interact with suppliers themselves. From being a part of the team that opened the Dubai Festival City during his stint with the Intercontinental in Dubai, to building relationships with the fishermen while he was with the Intercontinental in Bali, there is no question that the man knows his craft. His stints under the Intercontinental which saw him move from Dubai to Manila opened the door for his move to the Raffles Fairmont in Manila where he worked with what he called “one of the best teams”.
Armed with his knowledge running a restaurant, he decided to broaden his horizons and accepted an offer to work in Harrods, London which had him in charge of its culinary operation. Proving to be a challenge as the role required him to focus on retail, the opportunity was one that prepared him for his new stint at the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrian. Drawing on the similarities between Harrods and the Ritz-Carlton, he noticed that customer service was of the utmost importance.
“We never say not to anything….It is all about making the guest happy. Read from their lips what they want without them saying it”
On his new gig with one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the chef says that taking care of guests is more than a just a job requirement. Elaborating on the experience that guests can expect to receive Chef Kneer said that restaurants such as Primavera ensure that the authentic experience is created not only through the food but also with the help of the front and back of house staff who are Italians.
Currently standing as one of the strongest hotel chains in the world, the Ritz-Carlton is one that he feels has been well set up. While many look towards their next opportunity, Chef Kneer hopes that this is the last chain that he will have in his career. We sit down with the chef to find out what makes him tick and what guests can look forward to when they visit the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain.
There are so many things you have to deal with but I want to talk about the more immediate thing which is building the hotel and the food, the authenticity of the food, developing on all the different facets. Now, on the freshness of the local produce and getting the local produce: How difficult is it to maintain that in Bahrain because in terms of importation of — when you talk about the Mexican restaurant Cantina Khalo within the hotel, you have avocadoes. Bahrain doesn’t produce avocadoes.
Let me tell you something interesting about what Bahrain is producing. I was very much surprised when I interviewed here I visited the local farmers market (laughs). I saw yellow, green, purple tomatoes like in Italy. I saw broccoli I saw all kinds of herbs, all kinds of salads, kale, dragon kale. You cannot imagine. I tasted a completely new product, which I’ve never had before. I was actually blown away. Everything was clean, and the people were very friendly. When it comes to products its like in Dubai. You know companies here are very lucky in which there are imports. I always say that we are here in the middle, one side we have the Asia/Australia region, and the other side we have the whole European season. So we are very lucky that we can buy products from maybe the whole year round, because some will be seasonal. So not a big challenge.
No logistical challenges?
You know I mean you have to think a little bit in advance. But we are in the position to buy straight from markets once a week so I would not call this a challenge. (laughs) I had a bigger challenge in Bali actually.
In terms of building up the hotel and spearheading all the different restaurants, and structuring. What’s been your toughest thing yet coming in from the last four weeks in Bahrain like understanding the palate of Bahrain?
You know when it comes to the palate of Bahrain I think it really comes down to the locals here. In Dubai I had one local working on the team, but here we have a very high percentage of local people working with us. And from the moment I entered the airport I felt very welcomed here because people are not taking a step back when they see you, they actually come up to you and build up relationships very quickly. I first observe then I spend a lot of time listening to people talk, and having meetings. They called me to the head chefs, I have a chat with them, I visit the chefs, and based on that of course many hours of connecting and communicating with the executive and sous chefs. One of the visions for me is that to continue what we are doing here to drive the authenticity and be a real hotspot on the food market for Bahrain, which right now we are.
They have their local comfort food and the fact that Bahrain is an island, and many people who travel here know exactly what good Italian food or Indian food.
So the palate is refined and you want to provide a more authentic touch?
Yes. what I had discovered so far is that the team put a lot of work into developing new dishes. You always get the new experience. As far as I know, we’re really up to date when it comes to food. Both the quality of people and the quality of chefs, who are very well know, they have good experience palate wise.
You’re a global citizen, you’ve been around a lot, you’ve travelled to many countries, what’s the toughest country you’ve been to and what’s the toughest situation that you’ve been in?
I think I have to differentiate work and private life. For work I think the toughest was Bali. Because it had very strong people and very hard to make changes. Very resistant to change. When it comes to family I think the toughest place was Manila. Because the city didn’t really provide me with the kind of safety which I required to raise my kids. I think what makes Bahrain so easy going is that it’s very friendly for families to raise their kids here its perfect!
In London I was driving 1.5 hours everyday to work. I was in London and living in Croyden, and I was going bicycle 15mins and train 40mins walking 25mins from Victoria. Here its just 15mins.
You’ve got 11 restaurants here, in the hotel. And within the model you’ve got so many different offerings. In terms of building up the hotel, its direction, in the next 5 years, where do you see the model? Do you see the restaurant being more franchis-y in terms of big names coming into the hotel, as well as staples or do you see it being more of a unified concept?
I know where the question comes from because many hotels opening right now, they have two bars, all day dining, maybe make one restaurant by themselves then sort out the rest. I think here at the Ritz Carlton we are at a different position because we are not new kids of the block and everybody knows our restaurants. We are very well established in the market and I think this makes the difference here. I don’t see a big need to source out our restaurants here because all our restaurants are delivering pretty well right now.
Very obviously when you are— I think that’s one of the reasons that hotels this size in Dubai are struggling right now because competition is just too high. But I think we have a very big plus point because we are very well established on the market and have been delivering this kind of quality and experience for decades. So I don’t think there’s a big need now to think about sourcing anything out.
You’ve worked with Harrods, retail model. You’ve got 11 restaurants and a massive property here. Developing the retail model, do you think that’s one of the ways…?
Well I think you should at least think about it. There are couple of ideas I have in mind for example to Cantina Khalo which stocks us to sell one of the sauces or there are always a couple of things to think about. We have a lot of potential now to go there bigger in retail.
What’s the most memorable request that you’ve ever had from a guest? Working in either a big or small operation?
Okay I was in Dubai, I started there and I’d only been there for 2 weeks. When I came to Dubai for the first time I was the executive sous chef, and he went on vacation for 2 weeks and left me there alone (laughs). I got a telephone call from sales and marketing that they were planning a function and said they would pick me from outside the hotel in a land rover. I said where are we going? It was for half an hour and we went outside of Dubai…and actually we were standing in the middle of the desert around 45 minutes away from Dubai. Then I got the news that we had to do a set menu there for 2,500 people in 3 weeks time and this was I think the most challenging thing I ever did because we had to think not only about electricity but also water, air-conditioning. It was in the middle of summer and it was in 3 weeks time and I had only been there for two weeks.
So I called my boss in the evening and said ‘I have a small problem’ and explained the whole situation and he only gave me a couple of telephone numbers with people I could call. He asked me a question: If I was happy to be an executive sous chef and I said yes. And he said ‘ Then welcome to Dubai’ and he hung up the phone. He arrived 3 weeks later and didn’t interfere, which I have a lot of respect for. He didn’t call me once, im sure he did his research to see if everything was going smoothly but he didn’t call me once. But I didn’t contact him because I was too proud to go back to him (laughs). He came back on the day of the party and he just went outside when the dinner had started which I also have a lot of respect for. He went one round around the event and gave me a hug and said well done and left. (Laughs). This was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
What are your plans for the future? You made a big statement coming out saying this will hopefully be your last switch.
When I was 30 I had big plans on where I wanted to end up. Now I’m 45 and am more calm and am actually making big plans now for the next 5 years. For me its more important where I am now. After 4 weeks I’m very happy here. Great team, great property and very goof F&B outlets. So let’s see what’s coming. I don’t put myself under pressure anymore.
What do you make of the Michelin guide? And do you think the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) needs a Michelin Guide?
I think what happened in the last 15 years here is tremendous and I think it’s very sad that we don’t have it here right now. But there are for sure very outstanding restaurants that could have an impact worldwide. I think its necessary that hopefully Michelin is making the decision to come here soon.
If you had to pick a restaurant from your hotel to be in the Michelin guide which one would it be and why?
I think it would be Nirvana probably. Because its one of the most, and the best Indian restaurants in the whole Middle East.