Chef talk: Christian Heidenreich, a chef with ‘no regrets’
A good chef can travel the world and always work, always contribute, and that’s the core driver for Christian Heidenreich, whose home in Austria was a springboard to the world.
Christian considers himself still a chef today, and he will always be a chef, even though it’s been 8 years since he dug deep in a kitchen. He’s been in Hospitality Management the whole time though, managing a private members’ club in Beijing, opening a boutique hotel in Hangzchou and a stint managing a pastry and bakery school in the Philippines.
But looking back, it all started in Austria at the young age of 15 as an apprentice, away from home. From that moment, he was alone and self-reliant, which he feels was his foundation and made him strong. He wouldn’t be what he is today. So I asked the question:
How was that the kick off point?
“It was a hotel village, Hotel Dorf Der Grüner Baum and everything I am today goes back to those 3 years. My executive chef always used to say, ‘measure, weigh, count’, and that’s my modus operandi now, because those 3 things can relate to everything in life. Especially cost control, portion size, all the things that make up a profitable business, that is the core of any operation. It’s there to make money, and the chef is the driver of that.”
How did the journey begin?
“After the 3 years’ Apprenticeship the journey started with moving around, doing seasonal hotels. In Europe, it’s either winter season, or summer season unless you work in a city, and so I did a few of those, with a short stint in Switzerland, and ended up working in Vienna at the Hilton under a famous Austrian chef, Werner Matt.
Then I did my first of many hotel openings at SAS Palais Hotel in Vienna where I was chef de partie, doing entremets. Our French/Alsace Executive Chef was difficult and quite arrogant. He would stand on a box at the pass and scream orders into the kitchen without giving any guidance or help. Shortly before opening, the Executive Chef called a meeting of all 30+ chefs and he began a personal critique on each one to the group. When he came to me, he basically told me that I was useless and on a short wick. Instead of worrying about it, I made it my mission to prove him wrong.”
Wow! Great attitude. How did you do that?
“Even though he put another Chef de Partie in front of me to run my section, I managed to work so hard that the other guy couldn’t keep up and left. He actually said to me he couldn’t understand why he was put in front of me. The chef didn’t break me. Then an opportunity came up to move on from Austria, through my wife, who I met in Vienna, whose parents were living in Hong Kong. They were doing import/export working for a European company, so we took our chances, packed and moved to Hong Kong. This is where my overseas journey began, I never looked back or moved back to my home country Austria.”
That’s a massive culture change. How did you cope?
“With very basic English, and no job it was quite daunting, but through some good luck I fell into a job at the Holiday Inn Golden Mile, running a kitchen “Café Vienna”as sous chef with 30 staff, and the menu was ironically based on Austrian food, which made it easy for me to assimilate. However communication was difficult, so I ripped the menu and ingredient translations from the back of a cookbook, and carried that with me for the first 6 months.”
That’s an inventive solution!
“Even basic stuff was a struggle, so a lot was done with pointing. But because most of the staff were Cantonese who spoke no English, it wasn’t that big an issue. It was good fun.
That’s brought up some memories I thought were buried!
Let’s talk about salary, and people complaining about salaries all the time now.
I was living in Hong Kong, married, with one child on the way, and my salary was $1,000 US ($7,000HK) a month. Accommodation and insurance was provided, but the cost of living was still high. It was tough 6 day week, split shift, long hours and yes no overtime payment, but we managed, and I was working for a better future, moving up the ranks.
After 2 years, I moved to become a member of the opening team of the first Marriott property in Asia-Pacific, the now famous JW Marriott Hong Kong, being of charge of two restaurants. This was a great challenge and learning experience especially having to work with different principles not seen in Hong Kong before, one good change was that the Hotel adopted a 5 day Week, the first Hotel do to so in Hong Kong and yes it did cause a stir..”
So you obviously enjoyed working in big hotels?
Yes and after a rewarding 4 years in Hong Kong , workwise and family wise (both my kids are born there) I moved to Bangkok to become executive sous-chef at the Royal Orchid Sheraton which was a great and exciting opportunity. My executive chef was a German who was always paranoid about someone doing a better job than him. I never understood that, because my job was to support him and that’s what I did. Having to work under such circumstances can be very stressful but it is always important to see the big picture, which is getting the job done, and having had the support from all the staff certainly helped achieve that. Keeping my head down and showing my abilities to perform under such adverse conditions, I was offered a promotion to open a new Sheraton in Phuket, my first Executive Chef job in a 5 star hotel, with 80 kitchen staff, 5 restaurants and extensive catering. Imagine doing 600 pax on the beach with no kitchen, the main kitchen being 800 meters away. And I achieved this as a young 30 Year old , which was not that common in those days.
Until than all my jobs were in hotels, I was never a restaurant chef, I was a hotel chef, and it was always 5 star hotels.”
Okay, that’s interesting: How is that different from running restaurant kitchens?
“Hotel kitchens are broken down into sections, and there’s a rigid hierarchy. As a restaurant chef you have to cover all bases, and often a restaurant chef doesn’t cope with the rigidity of a hotel, and vice versa. I think an apprenticeship in a hotel is much more value to a kid than a restaurant – they’re put through all the sections without the pressure of being on the line, where in a restaurant, they’re expected to know everything straight away, and there’s not the time or the size to get proper training.
After successfully opening the Sheraton Grand Laguna (sadly its not a Sheraton anymore its now called Angsana Phuket) I had the great opportunity to be offered a job in Australia at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas as executive chef. And I was there for 7.5 years. Being in one place for such a long time (and that’s an eternity in this game) takes a lot of re-evaluating. My executive sous chef and I worked together to develop new concepts, with guest chef dinners, cooking classes, anything that makes it interesting again. We focussed on re-inventing the passion, and driving the staff to constantly step up to new challenges.
In all those years, I had gone through almost 400 people (kitchen and stewarding staff), re-hiring, training, coaching , mentoring, etc. in the kitchens. It’s a resort, in the tropics, so it was hard to have a fixed workforce. The only fixed long term staff were European chefs we hired on a 2-year contract and a number of apprentices (up to 8 at the time), and as mentioned earlier they had the opportunity to work through all the sections to get the best knowledge possible.
Those Sheraton years in Port Douglas were the longest I’ve lived anywhere apart from my childhood days in Austria. Taking a break from cheffing, but staying in the industry, seemed like a good idea. The owners of Petuna Seafoods in Tasmania offered me the opportunity to work in their factory in Devonport – I was responsible for chef to chef relations, research and development and running the factory and from time to time whipping up a gourmet lunch for any visiting chefs and other guests.”
Wow! From top hotels to running a seafood factory in Tasmania? That’s another huge leap. What did you take from that?
“The big lesson there was to understand the cost structure of the product. That was an eye opener – how much it costs to grow a salmon, how to break it down, package and ship, I learnt that the overheads are huge, it’s got such a short shelf life as well, so the only real profit is volume driven. But the urge to cook came back strong and hard after 3 years at Petuna.”
You missed the buzz of cooking, I think. So what then?
“I found a tiny place in Penguin again in Northern Tasmania, and took over the Madsen Boutique Hotel and Café.”
(Note from Christine here: This is where Christian and I met, when I was running the Hub newspaper in Penguin in North West Tasmania, doing the lifestyle and restaurant reviews, producer interviews and news).
Why such a huge change, from big to small business?
I like a challenge – and why not own your own business – be the boss? And that it. Finally, I was my own boss “I was the only chef, for the entire time we owned the business. All the food production was done entirely by me… with no help whatsoever..! So it was my domain, completely. It was fun, but tough. I had 3 days off in 2 years. What I learnt most in that place was to manage costs – so I developed a small menu, keeping it simple, and not throwing any money in the bin. Simple.
Two years to the day, we sold the business and moved to Canberra, and I was back in hotels. The Realm in Barton was another hotel opening, which started out as a simple task of opening their Banquet facility only, initially all the restaurants were to be leased out. As it happened, we decided to keep some restaurant space for ourselves which helped manage the Hotel Guests’ needs in regards to breakfast and room service. I really enjoyed my time there as the hotel’s owners were very hands on and great to work with.
Anyway I got itchy feet, my kids are all grown up and settled in their own lives I was looking around to move back to Asia. As it happened I received a call from an old colleague from my Holiday Inn time, looking for an executive chef for the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. It was enormous, with 900 rooms, 5 restaurants, a huge banqueting operation and I put my hand up. There it was my foot back into Asia, which I dearly loved and missed. I took the opportunity with open arms and it was a way for me to move on and up out of the kitchen into management. It took me a year to make that leap. Managing a big operation like this was not new for me – Phuket was big as well – you need to rely on the managers to do the work, so make sure you’ve got the best managers underneath you, keep them on your side, and help them do their job, then they help you do your job.”
So you were back in the big league with a vengeance?
“Hmm, I guess so. After 3 years in Kuala Lumpur it was time to see what else was on offer and looking on LinkedIn I found a job in China. It was suddenly off to Beijing for an interview in one day, I had to be back in KL for a very important function that night. 4 weeks later I was in Beijing at the Regent as Executive Assistant Manager, food and beverage. During my time there we reorganised the entire food and beverage operation and leased 2 restaurant spaces to outside companies, keeping the Italian restaurant and relocating that to another area. This was a fantastic cost effective solution to a logistical and staffing problem.
Two years into that, I was offered a position as General Manager with the owners’ private members’ club the Chang An Club one of the most prestigious in China
Was China a big adjustment?
“I tried to learn Mandarin, but it was hard you would need to go and study for a least a year not try and learn it on the side.
It was interesting and challenging at the same time. The government was going through changes, which affected our memberships, so suddenly there was a huge focus on cost management. The club was one whole building, which had facilities like a swimming pool, fitness centre, tennis courts and 3 restaurants and banquet facilities. The restaurants were Chinese (mainly private rooms), Japanese and Western, reserved for club members, but open for the public to visit.
From there, Club Corp, an American club management company, offered me a role as opening general manager of their first and only hotel and club operation with integrated private members’ club facilities in the world. It was in Hangzchou on beautiful Westlake. That was challenging with lots of ups and downs, but ultimately very rewarding to see this baby come to life and operate as a successful business. It had 88 rooms but with operational design issues, which we solved, but it was not easy.”
What were they, Christian?
“The actual hotel had no designated dining area, so we had to be creative – we never passed on blame, we just got onto solutions. The kitchen for western food was located behind the ballroom and the only access was through the pre-function area, and the lobby lounge had to double as our restaurant, where we served breakfast, lunch and dinner, so lots of redesigning and remodelling, but in the end it all worked out perfectly.
After 5 rewarding years in China, I felt that I wanted to come back to Malaysia for a short break. During that time, an old colleague who started an international pastry school in KL with a branch in the Philippines asked me to manage it for him. So for me that was a no brainer to do something different, but still within the industry, so I spent 14 months in the Philippines.” The challenges there?
“A lot of people are interested in baking and there is a big market for online bakeshops, the school was affordable but still economically unviable for the majority. For the ones who could enrol, it was the most rewarding training they could get anywhere in Asia. The teachers, both from the Philippines and Malaysia were brilliant. My big lesson from the school was that it comes back to attitude: to learn, to have passion and have an end goal. They may have serious skills, but those skills only stay with you as long as you keep using them.
We helped with placing the students all over the world: they’re working in London, the Bahamas, Manila, on Cruise ships and some with very successful businesses. We also guide them to what the reality of pastry cheffing is about: the hours, the monotony, and the challenges.”
So where to next, chef?
“Now? Well new projects are in development, and while I may not be behind the stove full time anymore except at home, I will always be a chef.
Through all my challenges and rewarding experiences in my life as a Chef and beyond it was always very important to me to see everything as a learning curve and most importantly;
Christian gets ready to drive back to Kuala Lumpur from Penang, where we met up, and for some new challenges that float his boat. We had lunch at the Double Tree by Hilton Resort in Batu Ferringhi, and could have had buffet, but went for a la carte. That’s his choice. “I don’t do buffets, too much waste.” Spoken like a true chef.
Thank you Christian,