Swedish chef Robert Nilsson has opened his own restaurants, worked for Terence Conran and NASA, and won a string of awards including Sweden’s Chef of the Year. In an interview at the newly opened property, he tells Catering News what he brings to his first UAE role as executive chef of Viceroy Palm Jumeirah.
Transitioning from Sweden to the UAE came with its fair share of culture shocks for Robert Nilsson, executive chef at the newly opened Viceroy Palm Jumeirah – the first property in Dubai for the California hotel brand.
The lack of farm-fresh produce, the hierarchical management systems in kitchens in the Middle East region, and visa issues causing delays for his staff, were just some of the cultural differences Nilsson had to adapt to when he joined the hotel’s pre-opening team just over a year ago.
“Obviously, you wish staff could come on board a bit earlier so you can train them more and some staff get delayed due to visa issues,” he says. “But we’ve had a good three weeks of pre-opening trial runs and it’s been a great success so far with creating recipes and doing tastings of all the dishes. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of energy – it’s wonderful.”
His current role with Viceroy Palm Jumeirah is Nilsson’s first UAE appointment, and having been in the country just a year, he is already enamoured with Dubai’s F&B landscape. “It’s like the New York of the Middle East. I never really realised the food scene was so vibrant and alive, and so up there – it’s fantastic!”
While he had done pre-openings before for large restaurant operations, Viceroy Palm Jumeirah was his first international hotel brand pre-opening. Prior to arriving in the Middle East, he opened his own boutique hotel and restaurant, Kattegat Gastronomi & Logi in Torekov in 1996.
The restaurant quickly garnered nationwide acclaim, firmly establishing it as one of Sweden’s top five restaurants and a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux and Relais Gourmand. During this time, Robert received many awards and accolades, including Sweden’s Chef of the Year in 1998 and Nordic Chef of the Year in 2000.
Since then he has been group food & beverage director for a collection of luxury boutique hotels, which had between 18 and 100 rooms each. He also oversaw the launch of three new Conran restaurants in Copenhagen, worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in France, and even assisted NASA on a project aimed at improving the eating habits for the International Space Station.
“I have been mainly working within high-end restaurants and privately owned brands before, and parts of them were my own restaurants and hotels,” says Nilsson, explaining that his lifelong friend and general manager of Viceroy Palm Jumeirah, Mikael Svensson, wanted him to come on board for just this reason – because of his high-end, creative restaurant background.
“I would say a lot of the gastronomy in hotels is created by hotel chefs so it’s a bit different and I think if you’re a standalone restaurant you might be looking for a more hands-on chef and that’s what he wanted. I was involved a lot in talking about what to do with the restaurants,” says Nilsson.
There are three restaurants in the hotel: BLVD on One, an all-day dining venue, which offers global cuisine in a modern brasserie environment; Quattro Passi, a Michelin-starred concept from Italy offering the fresh flavours of the south of the country; and Maiden Shanghai, a contemporary Cantonese restaurant operated by the hotel owners.
“I would say a lot of the gastronomy in hotels is created by hotel chefs so it’s a bit different and also I think if you’re a standalone restaurant you might be looking for a more hands-on chef. I was involved a lot in talking about what to do with the restaurants”
The Delisserie is a deli-meets-patisserie with tea and coffee, freshly baked bread, afternoon tea, open faced sandwiches and Swedish cookies; the Spa Café promotes wellbeing and has a calm, beachfront ambience; and Elevate, a hideaway grape bar on the 13th floor of the hotel offers tasters of each of the restaurant’s concepts. Nilsson also looks after the F&B for the 600m2 350-capacity Vista Ballroom, suspended on the 14th floor of the hotel with wraparound views over the sea and Dubai Marina and floor to ceiling windows.
In addition to be executive chef of the hotel, Nilsson calls himself chef de cuisine for BLVD on One, a concept he is particularly proud of. “I have been looking around in various all-day dinings at hotels and usually they are predictable; you’ll always find the Caesar salad with shrimps or chicken; you’ll find pasta dishes, etcetera.
“We turned that around completely. We’re doing a breakfast buffet, lunch and dinner is à la carte and it offers a mixture of cuisines and cultures, so we call it a world brasserie. For instance, many people haven’t tried a traditional Swedish dish so we inject some small flavours and all of a sudden you have a really interesting dish, which is very different.
“I would say it is as far from a traditional all-day dining restaurant as you can get – it truly feels like a speciality restaurant. In order to honour all the work they put into the design, we really wanted to make it special, not just a buffet.”
And it’s not that Nilsson is against buffets – he appreciates elegant buffet set-ups focused on meat or fish – but he is very environmentally and health conscious. “I have a hard time seeing all this food being thrown away – I’m trying to be very environmentally aware and make my staff aware of using the right ingredients. Whenever I sit down with a supplier I ask about the additives, I make them understand I care.”
Sourcing ingredients is another of those issues that new chefs to Dubai have to get used to, and Nilsson was no different. “I can’t work as locally as I want to because there aren’t as many local farms.
“I’m going to try to find good quality products, however. In terms of ingredients, there are plenty available but I’m basically used to driving through farms to my restaurants and hotels, knowing the farmers, knowing their values when it comes to getting really good products.”
In addition to teaching his staff the importance of healthy, quality produce, Nilsson is also bringing to Dubai his leadership philosophy and has already told his team to stop addressing him as ‘Chef’.
“I don’t want to offend anyone, but I was born Robert, not ‘Chef’. Respect doesn’t come with a title; it comes with actions,” he comments. “If I can get them inspired by the way I work and by my actions, then I’m on the right track. And we don’t need thousands of chefs to achieve our goals – we need good chef to achieve the goals we’re focused on. Quality of profit comes from quality of food and staff.”
Nilsson looks forward to making his mark on the F&B landscape in the region, and on Viceroy’s first property in the emirate, but he is also excited about learning new things.
“Now that I work with Viceroy, it has a very different approach about how to work with guests and staff. The philosophy behind the company and the types of hotels we run – we are just a small group but we’re very talked about,” he says.