VALLETTA: Chef Alex Dilling was probably at the peak of his career at The Greenhouse when the pandemic hit and the restaurant ended up closing for good. The Greenhouse was the talk of the town in London and in global food circles because of Dilling’s cuisine and precise focus on quality ingredients. During the lockdown, he was working on creating new dishes and was focused on getting back to the kitchen as soon as possible but it was not to be as news of the closure of one of the most famous restaurants in London spread like wild fire in the ‘small food world’.
While that was extremely bad news for Alex and his London team, it was very good for Malta. For the past two months, the talented British chef has been cooking at Ion – The Harbour, one of five Maltese restaurants to clinch a Michelin star.
He is the highest calibre chef to ever cook in Malta for a long stretch. “I had a lot of opportunities. I love to travel, cook and meet new chefs. When I filtered through the opportunities and met Mark Weingard, the owner of Iniala Harbour House, the idea of spending the summer somewhere I was not familiar with was really interesting to me. Also I was sure to discover some of the products from the Mediterranean. It was the project that seemed the most interesting to me as a chef and I jumped on it,” Alex told me when I met him at the Iniala hotel earlier this summer.
Alex has worked for 10 years with French culinary giants Alain Ducasse and Helene Darroze before taking over The Greenhouse.
The British chef is known for his focus on quality ingredients and London is one of the best places in the world to get such ingredients. I am intrigued by what he thought of the Maltese scene given most Maltese chefs complain about the lack of local quality ingredients.
“In London, we want to use the best product and it does not matter where it comes from. It is fine if it comes from Japan, France, Spain, Italy. We just want to offer what’s best. But when I took this challenge in Malta I wanted to try to as much as possible use products from here. In particular because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to support the economy, small producers and small suppliers who were hard hit. That being said it is challenging to find ingredients like vegetables because there is not much. It seems to me that not many in Malta are interested in this. There is also the history and the climate which is too hot. But discovering the seafood and fish here has been incredible. The quality of the seafood is something I have never seen before. It is better than anything I have ever seen. It has been the most exciting part of the journey so far,” he tells me.
Being in a new place in the middle of what has been one of the hottest summers in my memory is certainly not easy. But that has also helped him to work creatively. “Doing an event like this automatically forces you to be creative. Being somewhere else means you cannot just come, copy paste all the dishes you’ve done before because they don’t make sense here. It forces you to come up with new things that are adaptable for where you are. It has been really interesting. I’ve had to simplify my food quite a bit because of limited availability of certain ingredients but it has been great as a chef to have to work with new ingredients and force myself to come up with new dishes. This has been a fun journey.”
His two menus in Malta are fish driven thanks to suppliers that have been extremely reliable in providing him with exceptional ingredients. “We have five or six ingredients that are available most of the time but we also have backup plans,” he tells me when I ask him whether he’s had issues with fish supplies.
Alex arrived to Malta in the middle of a heatwave in June when temperatures reached over 40C. It would not be the first and last time this summer. Was there a point when you said this was going to be difficult? “Absolutely. I come from London which is not a warm place and I am used to a British climate. When I arrived here it was 40C and there needed to be adjustment not just for me and how I work in the kitchen but also in terms of the menu. I wanted to make the food lighter and also reduce the portion sizes because when it is this warm, your appetite is a lot smaller and I don’t want the guest to come to the restaurant and leave too full. The temperature dictated how much food we put on the plate and also the menu. That has been the biggest adjustment we’ve made,” he said.
The Michelin guide’s arrival on the island, love it or hate is, has created a stir in the dining scene despite the fact that restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic. “I think it is great that Michelin came here. It is fantastic for any destination to have Michelin. It gives everyone a reference point of what is going on in the dining scene. It is also a real reward for chefs working here. To have the guide here is fantastic,” he said.
There is an amazing opportunity to work with small producers but it will be the local chefs that have to make it happen. I hope they can start this movement to make it happen.
Apart from the fish which he has used abundantly Alex loves the local olive oil which he uses a lot including in his dessert as well as the Gozo sea salt which he says is fantastic. He has also taken a local humble cheese, the gbejna or ‘sheep cheeselet’ and whipped it up with olive oil to serve it instead of butter as part of the bread service.
Alex tells me that he would like to create a few dishes that are ‘uniquely’ Maltese. “To create a dish that you are really proud of takes time so I hope that I can keep creating new dishes and discover new ingredients,” he told me.
What advise would he give to young Maltese chefs? “I think the first thing that comes to mind is to try and use as many local ingredients as possible. While there are limitations, there are still a lot of beautiful products and amazing people to support. I think that probably a lot of the chefs want to use French products, and I would not be able to survive without ordering a few things from France but if I was here long term, I would be meeting more suppliers, asking farmers to grow things for my restaurant. There is an amazing opportunity to work with small producers but it will be the local chefs that have to make it happen. I hope they can start this movement to make it happen,” he said.
One of the signature dishes that has made him famous around the world is the Hunter style chicken. It is also served as part of the 100-day pop-up menu. I asked him about how he created it. “People have this idea that chicken should not be served in a fine dining restaurant because it is boring. I don’t think it is boring at all. I think it is a beautiful ingredient and that was the reason why I came up with this dish. It is also a lot of fun to make. I wanted to do something with the chicken but I did not want to serve roast chicken on a plate. I started to think about ideas of how the guest could eat everything in one bite. I was thinking of combining it with mushrooms, bacon, a kind of hunter’s chicken. I thought of wrapping it together so that when the guest cuts they get all the flavour in one bite. I went on Amazon and bought an easter-egg mould. I was very lucky that the first time I tried it, it came out quite well and ended up getting custom moulds designed. If I have to be honest I am a bit bored of making this dish but now everyone wants to try it,” he tells me with a smile.
I say that’s the problem with signature dishes. So how does he go about creating new dishes? Does he put himself in a creative zone? “My mind is always in a creative space. It is not that I am always thinking good ideas but I am always thinking about what can work what cannot. In my free time, I am thinking what could be a good idea. It is the process of our life. If I know I am going to use asparagus soon, I am thinking should it be hot, should it be cold, which ingredient should I pair it with, what should I take away, what should I add. I think that for most chefs this is a constant thing on your mind.”
He has two constraints to creativity. “I do not want to have more than two other ingredients with the main ingredient (though that does not apply to condiments and spices). I want to show the main produce on the plate and I don’t want to have eight different things on the plate. So that is a limitation. I also want the food to feel and have a link to France because I consider my food to be modern French cuisine. There are many chefs who might not have a link to a place who use or cook Japanese or Asian food even if they have never worked or travelled to these countries. It does not make sense to me. My background in cooking is French and so is my passion so I want my food to have that link. Those would be the only two constraints.”
He believes that creativity is one of the hardest parts of the job. “If you have a foundation of knowledge, everyone can make things. To create something where the guest sees a dish and know that it is your’s, that this is your identity is what is very difficult and that is why many miss out. When it comes to all the great chefs, you can recognise it is them just by seeing their food. There is their personality in a plate. That is the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant. The great chefs are those that can translate their spirit and their philosophy into their dishes. It is a little difference but it is one which creates an identity.
Like most chefs of this calibre, Alex is obsessed with the finest seasonal produce and that is what has inspired him on his journey. That is pretty much in evidence even in the Malta experience where he is using his techniques to bring the best out of exceptional produce. “Seasons and produce completely dictate what I put on the menu. We are always thinking about what is coming in season and when it arrives, we are ready. That is my focus and it is what makes it exciting,” he said.
The pandemic is likely to have an impact on our eating habits, on the way we experience a restaurant. I ask Alex whether he has noticed anything different. “I can only speak about my time in Malta. I think customers are not necessarily more demanding but rather particular about how their experience will go. People have not been out, they have been stuck at home and now that they are out they want the experience to be special,” he tells me.
He believes fine dining is going to be a challenge. “I think people enjoy eating simply and like a casual environment. We will see more and more restaurants start to remove the table cloths. People seem to no longer want stuffiness. This is what is going to save fine dining in a way because they younger generation does not want this formality any more. I think that more and more restaurants will try to become more normal. The food will still be of an extremely high level on the plate but the environment and particularly the service will be less formal,’’ he said.
Alex things that the food will however continue to get better and better. “You see so many young passionate chefs who are more and more talented. They are exposed to what everyone is doing so the creativity is endless. Good food will be here forever and in my view the level will continue to increase.”
The British chef’s 100 day pop-up comes to an end towards the end of September and he is still deciding what to do in future. “I am still in the process of deciding. I have a few things on the table and I should decide very soon.”
He tells me what’s for sure is that he would like to have a fine-dining restaurant and also a more casual place because you can still create something good though simpler and more approachable.
At 38, he still has a bright future ahead of him. So where does he want to be in five years time I ask him. “I want to have a gastronomic restaurant, I will try to achieve 3 Michelin stars because that is what I was working on and one day down the road, I want to do something more casual. I don’t know where I will be in five years but if I am in a kitchen cooking with a good team around me, I would be happy,” he said.
What is your take on the British scene? Over the past 10 years there has been a huge food revival not just in restaurants but also UK produce?
London and also the rest of the UK is one of the best destinations for food not just for fine dining but also casual food. It is fair to say that 10-15 years ago it was challenging in London but now we can compete with any city in the world like Paris, New York.
Is there one country which intrigues you with its cuisine?
Japan, 100 per cent. Went once and was completely blown away by the quality of product and the cuisine itself. It is different from Europe so I really want to go back, There is a lot for a chef to learn from this country. The quality of the produce is crazy.
Best dish you have ever cooked?
A good croque monsieur.
Is there something you don’t eat?
Your favourite ingredients?
Asparagus, caviar, onions
The best dish you’ve ever eaten?
Maybe the Oysters and Pearls by Thomas Keller. It is perfect.
If you had to go to a restaurant anywhere in the world tomorrow where would it be?
I would want to go to Le Pre Catalan in Paris by Frederic Anton
Mentor or mentors?
I spent a decade working with Alain Ducasse and Helene Darozze, two great chefs?
Is there one thing in a professional kitchen which should be in everyone’s kitchen?
The level of tidiness and organisation. it makes working very efficient. It is everything.
What ingredients would you not be able to cook without?
I would find dairy hard to cook without, cheese, milk, butter, cream.
Best meal you have ever eaten?
The first one that comes to mind is Puyol in Mexico. I had many amazing experiences but this one was very beautiful. There was also one in Kyoto which was very special but I cannot tell you the name as I did not see a name on the door.
Do you cook at home?
All the time. I love it. Simple, slow cooked things. I like to cook even on my days off preferring to eat at home. It is such a pleasure.