Giorgio Diana was leading restaurants that earned Michelin stars while still in his 20s. While his Mediterranean food with a molecular touch has wowed diners and judges, it represents a life of sacrifice.
To reach such high standards at a young age requires not just innate talent, but discipline and some big life choices.
“I lost my family,” says the Italian, who is currently guest chef at L’Olivo Ristorante at the Rixos hotel in Dubai. “I have two kids in Germany but lost my family because I don’t have time for anything but work. I didn’t have time for Christmas so I haven’t seen my mama at Christmas for 22 years, I haven’t gone out for my birthday in 15 years and I forgot my girlfriend’s last birthday – I only focus in my kitchen and on my job.”
Despite this, Diana has no regrets – but is quick to dispel the impression some young people have about becoming a chef.
“Now it’s like a trend with people wanting to be a chef, but they have no idea what it takes,” he says. “For young chefs, I’d say don’t work for money – the hours are too much. We work a minimum of 15 hours every day and you don’t have a social life. You either do it 100 per cent or you change jobs.”
Other chefs based in Dubai have also reached high standards at a young age. Grégoire Berger, the head chef of Ossiano at Atlantis The Palm, who represented the Middle East and Africa at the global 2016 San Pellegrino Young Chef competition, tells a similar tale of sacrifice.
“At the age of 16, I was doing 16 hours a day,” says the Frenchman. “You don’t ask for anything, you just work and learn and you need to be mentally strong because the pressure is high. You don’t see your friends, you don’t earn lots of money – I wouldn’t go as far to say I sacrificed my childhood, but you do compromise on your life. Even today, I compromise with my daughter and my wife but at 30, I’m still young.”
American chef and writer Anthony Bourdain confirmed the notion that culinary excellence comes at a cost.
“In Europe, most of them started cooking in their teens, at an age that would be completely illegal in the States,” he says. “These are abused children … they worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of their career.”
There is, however, no shortage of young people wanting to become chefs – but again, Berger warns there is no overnight route to fame and acclaim.
“Patience,” he says. “People think because they are doing three slashes of sauce on a plate everyone will say it’s genius, but to be a chef you have to learn how to clean the plate, learn how to correctly clean, cut and cook a potato, learn the basics.
“It’s what I tell all the young chefs coming into my kitchen. Don’t take shortcuts because it’s not going to work. You need to know it’s going to be painful and the first four years you will just learn the basics.”
For Marina Social’s head chef Tristan Farmer, it would appear he took a more glamorous route, having worked at Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurants where he became a head chef at the age of just 26, and then with Jason Atherton – but like others, he had a tough start.
“I first stepped into a kitchen when I was 14 at a family-owned hotel and I was washing pots for almost two years,” he says, but insists he does not see it as a sacrifice as he has no regrets.
“I did what had to be done to get where I am – and by that I mean a lot of hard work. There is no end to the number of hours you have to practise to be good at something and good is never enough – you need to be the best and that does not have a limit.”
One thing Berger identifies as a key driver for young chefs is a willingness to take on responsibility – something he has done throughout his career.
“In Morocco, I opened a restaurant from scratch when I was only 20, and the head chef was not on the scene in Casablanca, so I had to take responsibility myself, from hiring staff to buying furniture,” he says. “At a young age you need leadership, maturity, and the ability to drive yourself.”
There have been some changes in the past decade. Diana points out that there is more and better kitchen equipment to help young chefs, when “10 or 15 years ago you have only the oven and two pans”.
Berger has noticed a softening – in some countries, at least – of how young chefs are treated.
“When I went to Morocco, I was typically French, and swearing at people, just like people swore at me when I was learning, because you’re strong and can’t have time for drama,” he says. “But after one week, nobody came into the kitchen. So I realised that I had to change myself because you can’t change others, and you cannot behave in Morocco or Dubai like you behave in France. I had to learn to drive different nationalities, especially when they are young chefs.”
Sunjeh Raja, the director and chief executive of the International Centre for Culinary Arts, sheds some light on what is needed for a young chef to survive in the industry.
“In the first few weeks of training, we can see what that person is like and if they have the required traits,” he says. “The most important thing is a person’s attitude because that is what will help sustain them through the challenges they will face and help them excel long term.”
It’s traditional, especially in Europe, to start in a kitchen as a young apprentice but Raja believes this is less common in this region and the modern world.
“Pre-training helps a lot, from learning about regulations to neurolinguistic programming to help them adapt to the challenges of working in a kitchen environment,” he adds.
Berger has only just turned 30, which is still young, but by the time a chef hits that age they will have dedicated most of their life to cooking – and if you have not already started young, some say it is too late.
Bourdain wrote in his book Medium Raw: “Nobody will tell you this, but I will: If you’re 32 years old and considering a career in professional kitchens, if you’re wondering if, perhaps, you are too old? Let me answer that question for you: Yes. You are too old.”
So start young, be prepared to work long hours, sacrifice your social life and don’t expect to get rich. But if you still have not made the big time by 30, do not worry, most chefs don’t reach their peak until later in life.
Consider the case of Jiro Ono, one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world, who is credited with many of the innovations in that cuisine.
He began cooking in restaurants at the, probably illegal, age of seven and opened his own restaurant when he was 40. That restaurant – the famed Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo – didn’t receive its third Michelin star until 2008, when Jiro was 82 years old. He’s now 91 and still works.
Four more chefs who made the big time at a young age
At the age of 18, Thomas became the youngest head chef in the United Kingdom and went on to work in Dubai, at the Burj Al Arab, and with Gary Rhodes. He also opened a branch of Retro Feasts at JBR in Dubai. Still only 23, he runs Luke’s Fine Dining at Sanctum on the Green in the UK and regularly appears on television.
In 2002, at the age of 28, executive chef Massimiliano Alajmo led Le Calandre restaurant in Padua, Italy, to its third Michelin star and became the youngest chef to do so. Nicknamed il Mozart dei fornelli (Mozart of the stovetop) he’s considered one of Italy’s more innovative chefs.
The boy from the United States won the MasterChef Junior competition at the age of 12 and has gone on to win – and judge – other cooking contests. Last year, Forbes magazine named him one of the Young Innovators Who Are Changing the World.
When UK restaurant Adlards, in Norwich, won a Michelin star, head chef Aiden Byrne was 22, making him the youngest person to lead a restaurant to a star. Now 44, he has worked all over the UK, written books, appeared on TV, opened his own restaurants and is estimated to be worth more than £300 million (Dh1.3 billion).