Hometown: Heidelberg, Germany
In Japan: 3 months
Identity: Executive Chef, Fukuoka Grand Hyatt
In his position as the executive chef at the Fukuoka Grand Hyatt, Ernst Jaeck wears many hats besides his tall chef’s hat. In addition to leading a team of 69 chefs, he liaises with all hotel departments, works on menu development, ensures the quality of food service, and does some administrative management. Sounds like a handful, for sure, but with decades of experience in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East, he has the experience and knowhow to do it all. German born, Ernst combined his love of cooking with a desire to see the world– setting off after graduating with masters from an elite German culinary school and never looking back. Now, coming to Fukuoka after his most recent five year posting at the The Grand Hyatt Bali, Ernst is keen to tackle new challenges. In particular, he’s curious to learn about the food in Fukuoka, already impressed with the quality of raw products on offer. In his spare time he looks forward to exploring Kyushu’s countryside by bicycle and car. Ernst describes having a vision and setting goals as some of the most important parts of his job. His goal is to ensure that every single portion of food is presented and cooked to perfection. During his time in Fukuoka, Ernst aims to pass on his knowledge, while always meeting his guests’ expectations.
Fukuoka Now sat down with Ernst for a chat about his life as a traveling chef, the differences between Bali and Fukuoka, and the difficulties of a Japanese shower. Read the full interview below…
Welcome to Fukuoka! What are your first impressions?
It’s a great, clean, and well organized city. That’s what I noticed, coming here after five years in Bali. It’s a completely new and different world. Bali is great, but it has a different culture and environment. I’ve also seen Tokyo a few times– and I found it to be just one huge city. But here you have some parks and forests that you can access easily from the city. So I’m happy to be here.
You were at the Grand Hyatt in Bali before coming here?
Basically I was working for the Hyatt in 1990s in Sydney. After two and a half years I left and worked for various other companies in the Middle East and China, and rejoined in the Hyatt in 2006 in Jakarta. Jakarta was a huge city– a concrete jungle that was polluted and congested. From there I got an offer to transfer to work for the biggest hotel in Bali, The Grand Hyatt Bali. With 650 rooms on 45 acres of land, it’s very big! We served over 1,000 guests on a day-to-day basis. I loved living and working in Bali, with its Hindu culture, volcanoes, rainforests and beautiful beaches. I was really happy to be there, but five years is a long time. So I decided it was time for a change and a new challenge. I’d been working in resort hotels in many countries, so I thought coming back to a city hotel would be a good choice. When I heard about Fukuoka, I had a look online and thought “This sounds good”, and now here I am.
How did you decide to become a chef?
Oh, that’s a long story! I’ll give you the short version. I’m German and my parents had a small 50 bedroom hotel in Germany, so I grew up in a hotel environment. As a kid, you would come home from school and help out– and in a hotel there’s always something to do. I was always fond of cooking. My father is a chef, so I helped him out and found that I liked cooking. Plus I always wanted to get away from Germany. Being a chef is the ideal profession to see the world, so I became a chef and never looked back.
In order to run a hotel, you need to have a master’s degree, which you can only do after five years after your apprenticeship. So I went back to Heidelberg and did my master’s degree as a chef there. The government runs the Heidelberg master’s programme and it has an elite status, so it’s harder. If you fail, you fail. Luckily I passed, but I didn’t want to live in Germany anymore, so I looked at the globe and thought Australia was nice. That was just the start of my journey.
What does an Executive Chef do?
An Executive Chef is a fox of all trades. You have to attend to all problems, liaise with all departments – sales and marketing, wedding sales, engineering, housekeeping. You work closely with the food and beverage manager, we’re like brother and sister. I look after the food and he looks after the beverage and the service. You’re basically dealing with all the departments.
Then as an Executive Chef you have to make sure that everything is well planned, and you have to have a vision. You have to set yourself goals and Hyatt asks you to set these goals too, asking “What are your goals for this year?” “What do you want to change and how are you going to change it?”
When restaurant concepts change, you become part of the renovation planning. In Bali, for example, I was involved in two concept changes where new restaurants were planned and built. In that situation you have to plan the entire kitchen layout according to the cuisine you will cook, so you have to have the knowledge of the ergonomics. Having worked around the world- I worked in China, I worked in the Middle East- I know how kitchens function in different countries. As an Executive Chef you basically have to make sure that it’s all functioning at the end of the day.
Of course, the most important factor is the guest. Getting to know the needs of the guest and pleasing them. I say to my chefs “I have one simple rule- to put the best food on the plate that we can.” And doing this 365 days a year can be a challenge. I try to make sure that every single portion of food is presented and cooked to perfection, so that our guests enjoy it.
And then of course there is the administrative work, which takes many hours. To make sure that the rosters are done, budgets are met and so on…
So, yeah… fox of all trades!
Do you get a chance to cook?
Yes. When it comes to new developments, I have to show the chefs how to cook the signature dishes of different countries. I can do Western, Italian, French and German food very well. I can also do Thai and Indian cuisine, from working in Dubai and the Middle East. This is knowledge you have to pass on.
How many staff do you have?
In this hotel we have 69 chefs. We have two restaurants. Actually, our Aroma’s restaurant caters for three different outlets– the lobby restaurant, the bar downstairs and room service. We’re also very busy with banquets. At first I was amazed at how we service up to 15 weddings between Saturday and Sunday– I was very impressed by how perfectly it runs! We have a big banquet team catering for any number from 20 to 2,000 guests.
What do like most about your job?
It’s so diverse, I never get bored. You meet guests with requirements and they throw new challenges upon you. No day is the same, you know?
Have you decided on any new initiatives yet? For example, you’re coming from Bali– so are we going to see any Balinese fare?
I have a feeling that people from Fukuoka would be interested to see what Balinese food is like. I can do a few dishes, but to make it really professional we need some Balinese chefs. To be honest, it really depends on what management want to do this year.
Can we expect some German touches from you?
I will certainly work on a few of my signature dishes that have been well received in the Middle East and China. When I was in Bali, it would have been ridiculous to serve German food– it’s a tropical island so you don’t want to eat mashed potatoes and sauerkraut! But German food could be served here in Fukuoka, in winter time. As a matter of fact, we’ve changed the “La Terrasse” snack menu recently, and I put one of my original kebabs on it. An oriental, char-grilled kofta kebab served with a little sour cream cucumber dip.
What’s your favorite food?
I like Thai food, it’s very light and tasty. I also like Japanese– and I’m not just saying this because I’m in Japan! Being a chef, I will taste any food. I plan to make it a point in Fukuoka, as I do in every country, to eat at Japanese restaurants nine out of ten times. This is Japan, the people living here know how to cook Japanese food. If you want Italian, go to Italy.
What kinds of Japanese food do you like? Any favorites since coming to Fukuoka?
I’d have to say ramen! I also enjoy countryside Japanese food, down-to-earth mama papa style family food, comfort food. Generally, I like Japanese food because it’s very healthy and diverse. I’m very curious to find out more about the food in Fukuoka.
Have you noticed anything with regards to the ingredients available here?
I believe the quality of the raw product here is just mind-boggling, whether you’re talking about meat, poultry or fruits and vegetables. In Bali if you buy tomatoes, some are small, some are big, some are rotten. Here everything is nicely ripened and mature and organised. The product is good. And then there’s beef, the one area where the Japanese can’t be beaten. American and Australian beef just can’t compare. I’m not biased, it’s just the truth! Japan produces very high quality beef.
What about Japanese language? Are you studying?
Well, I’ve worked in so many countries, you know… so it’s difficult. I told myself when I arrived that I would write down two or three words everyday and build a vocabulary, but I’ve been too busy. But I must try, because even in Bali and China it was easier to get around with only English. Here it’s not as easy. To use my bathroom at home is even a challenge! The shower and bath have no hot and cold taps- you have to press buttons on a panel- but all the buttons are in Japanese. Which one to press to fill the bath? Or turn on the shower? Or to control the climate? And then there’s the washing machine! Everything’s a challenge! So I really must try!
What’s your favorite Japanese expression so far?
My chef taught me two words in Hakata-ben: “Suitobai” 「すいとうばい」and “Sukanbai”「すかんばい」 – good and no good.
How do you spend your free time?
Yesterday I unpacked my two bicycles, and I look forward to biking around. Of course I’ve walked around Tenjin area, but what I’m really looking forward to doing is going out further and seeing the countryside. I’ve heard about Itoshima and Mt. Aso. And I have my Japanese driver’s license already, so I look forward to using that to explore the countryside.
Did you come here with your family?
No, by myself. No family– single and available!
Any final comments as you start out in Fukuoka?
I want to make a difference, I want to pass on my knowledge. I think I owe that to this hotel and to our guests. I have a huge repertoire and I want to try and teach these guys a few new tricks and make a difference, while exploring what our guests like. I love cooking, and I know that everything can be perfected. At the end of the day I want to produce the best food I can. I’m really excited to get to know the people and gain their trust. So far I’ve noticed that the Japanese can seem reserved and distant, compared to the Balinese. But I’ve already seen that they can slip out of their shell and have fun. So I’m looking forward to this.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn168, Dec. 2012)