Interview | Sunday, 06 September 2009
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Passion, the ingredient for success

Cultivating strict discipline in the kitchen while never denying the raw passion required for the job, Hilton Malta Executive Chef Joe Vella insists that a complete dedication to the work is the only way to reap its rewards

Hilton Malta Executive Chef Joe Vella runs the second best rated kitchen in Europe out of 115 Hilton hotels, with only a marginal difference between him and the first.
“I come from a family of Qormi bakers, and my initial plans were to follow suit,” he says.
“But my elder brother, who worked as a chef de partie at the Corinthia Palace, pulled me in with him. I was 15 then, and I started as a student chef. I liked the idea. I realised that as a chef I would get more job satisfaction, so I kept striving for my grade to improve.”
His brother, nowadays the Executive Chef at the InterContinental Hotel, Frans Vella, had moved on from Corinthia, while the younger brother joined the Tumas Group after three years of apprenticeship at the Attard palace.
“I am proud of my brother’s achievements and he is proud of mine,” he said. “Frans is a very strong person, very dedicated and a very good teacher.”
“Joining Tumas Group marked a turning point in my life,” Vella said. “My bosses here have always supported me, and because they saw that I wanted to grow, they really helped me with my career.”
Vella was first chef at the Topaz Hotel and was then transferred to the Dolmen – both owned by the Tumas Group. Upon the opening of Hilton in Malta, the group transferred Vella to its only five-star establishment on the island.
“When I moved to Hilton however, I could not be immediately made executive chef because it is the policy of Hilton International to give the rank to people from within Hilton itself. So I first worked under a foreign chef, who had come from Hilton International for a year. After he left, I took over.”
Many others in Vella’s position would spend their days locked in their offices, fidgeting with their pens. But the Hilton chef is known to be a hands-on leader, dedicating a good chunk of his working hours in the kitchen – cooking, teaching and supervising a brigade of 65 chefs under his wing. His office, in fact, is glass panelled, overlooking the hotel’s mammoth kitchen.
“We have one main kitchen that services the entire hotel, while we then open four other small kitchens in different outlets for the summer,” he said.
The main kitchen is divided into sections – the larder, the butcher, a section for pastry, a breakfast station, one for a la carte, a banqueting section and the hot kitchen. Every station is run by a chef de partie, assisted by various commis chefs.
Then there is an executive brigade on top, headed by Vella, who oversees the executive sous chef, the executive pastry chef, the assistant executive pastry chef, a senior sous chef and two junior sous chefs.
Vella’s gentle and soft-spoken demeanour is not to be interpreted as a tendency towards lenience. On the contrary.
“Each one of my chefs must be in full uniform, and I make all the rules clear at interview stage,” he says, this time assertively. “I do not allow cigarette breaks, stubble or beards. They must wear a necktie and look in tip-top form. If not, I send them back home.”
He justifies his regimental mindset by saying that “this is simple good practice”.
“It is difficult for any of my chefs to have bad habits, because they are well aware of how strict I am on standards,” he said. “Even when it comes to behaviour during service, you will not hear any shouting, any swearing, any loud music or pots flying. Every one is focused on his or her work, and is well-behaved.”
Vella organises a chef’s table every Thursday, whereby a small group of diners are invited to have dinner a table in the kitchen itself.
“A patron once commented on how quiet the kitchen was during service. I think they almost expect to see some drama, so they end up feeling somewhat disappointed.”
So what does it take to become a good chef?
“Passion, and a lot of it. You also have to be the type of person who is not interested in life outside the kitchen. You simply cannot think of what you’re missing out there. You must be creative and must have backing. I, for one, am really backed by my wife, who is very patient with me, considering the amount of hours I work.”
Vella would not be the type to lambaste the Institution for Tourism Studies on the level of education being thought to aspiring chefs in Malta.
“There are a lot of teachers there who have taught me and some whom I have taught,” he qualifies. But this does not mean he has no opinion on the matter.
“Students need to be more committed nowadays,” he explains. “Some think of it as just another job, whereas it obviously isn’t. In this profession, you need to be really dedicated. Some understand what it takes, but some others simply don’t.
“Also, the ITS should lay out the coursework in such as way that students spend more time practicing and less time on academic matters. Both aspects are important for a full and proper education, but we need to put greater emphasis on training while on the job.”
Out of a nine-month academic year, most ITS chef students spend six months training at the college, while they are posted to work in a kitchen as apprentices throughout the next three months.
“Throughout that three month period, we can see them really improve,” he said. “But when they go back to school and come back after a consecutive six months, it’s like we have to start from scratch with certain things. The system must be split during the working week, for every student. Postings should be organised within the school week, say three days of work and two days of school. There is a similar system called ESTS, and when we have students following it, we find the system to be very effective. ESTS students tend to have more drive and seem to be more motivated.”
Why can’t they learn at school what they learn at the Hilton?
“First off, I teach them my way, which may differ to what they learn at school. But secondly (and more importantly) they get to see banqueting, barbeques, cocktail receptions, a la carte dinners, healthy options, buffet displays: the works, and in high volumes. They do not get the same chance at the ITS.”
Vella believes in local talent, and does not see a need to bring in chefs from abroad. That said, it is not the standard of Maltese chefs that he is worried about, but rather the standard of many restaurants on the island, and how these are run.
“Unfortunately, it is common occurrence for owners to interfere needlessly, destroying many talented chefs. Not every restaurant owner is a seasoned caterer, and that is unfortunate. Also, restaurants in Malta need to focus more on quality and less on volume. I am very lucky to be supported by my directors in their passion for quality, so I have a free hand. We would not have any problems in the local restaurant scene if every owner had to be like them.”
A commercial kitchen cannot properly run without outstanding purchasing skills. Many restaurants in Malta, however, tend to rely on frozen delivered goods – at times at a higher cost than fresh produce. Vella cannot explain why this is done.
“Nowadays you can find every ingredient on the island, so why not stock fresh produce? Of course, there are some very good restaurants, but some others simply are not. It’s not just about opening your front door to customers. The rest will not just follow. Are some people qualified to give orders to chefs and head waiters? If not, how can they run a good restaurant?”
Well aware of the risk of insulting some other restaurant owners, he did not mention the names of his favourite restaurants. He doesn’t just eat his own food though. Is Joe Vella a fine-diner or a lover of junk food? Does a chef of Vella’s calibre eat pastizzi and oil-drenched hamburgers?
“I eat healthy,” he said. “I have some favourite restaurants, and some of them belong to chefs I trained. But I do not tie myself down to any specific restaurant. There are two or three I go to regularly however, or rather, when I have time. I like to eat plain and healthy dishes, and no I don’t eat any junk food. When I go abroad, I make it a point to try out Michelin star restaurants, but in Malta I often end up visiting normal restaurants – not the fine dining ones… more on the classic. I like fine dining restaurants of course, but when I go out, I prefer eating in a relaxed setting. I would like to spend time with my wife, although there have been times when restaurant owners just pull a chair up and end up discussing work with me,” he shrugs.
Aren’t restaurants in Malta a tad too expensive?
“Yes, restaurants in Malta tend to be too expensive. Some either don’t do their homework well or else they just fix prices carelessly. Running a restaurant entails a massive expense, though. Good ingredients are not cheap, and payroll costs are very high. This is not to mention utilities or other kitchen products like detergents, foil or gloves. You would not imagine how high our costs are on such extras. Some restaurants exaggerate however. I think restaurateurs should just make their standard profit margin and stop there.”
Asked what would be the last thing he would eat if he were told that he only has an hour to live, Vella uttered: “A slice of Maltese bread with tomato paste.”
Many local student chefs are sent to internships abroad, and some end up working at very glamorous kitchens. However, there have been horror stories of knives flying, pots slamming and incidents of harsh bullying on apprentices from higher-ranking chefs. Is this a necessary part of a student chef’s formation? Does it matter so much to work in a Michelin star restaurant if you are only asked to cut cucumber in strips or peel potatoes?
“It is very important that the ITS keeps sending interns abroad, so we can raise the quality in Malta,” he replied. “About 80 per cent of my chefs have been abroad as students. Until recently, I still went abroad to improve and continue learning. I don’t mind being stationed in a kitchen where I get tasked to carry out the dirty jobs, I really don’t mind. You have to have an open mind in such situations, because ultimately, what matters is one’s exposure to good practice in good restaurants.”
Vella then remarks that a good chef is a student for life.
“A successful chef must build up a success story and then continue building on that success. You can never stop. In this job, you don’t just reach the top and go to sleep. If you stop for even one minute, you’ve had it.”
Over the past three decades, Vella says that “everything has changed” in the industry, from what people deem as acceptable or unacceptable to the back-office logistics of running a restaurant.
“Traditional cuisine has come back in fashion,” he says. “Presentation has also changed a lot. Restaurants are no longer looking at tiny portions. Even if you go to Michelin rated restaurants around the world, you will notice that portions have become bigger. The Maltese love big portions too. At a good family restaurant nowadays, you will typically find wholesome food in big portions at reasonable prices. That’s the Maltese market though. They go for the volume and they eat it all. The way we work in kitchens has also changed. With new technology, I now have enough equipment to be able to prepare a banquet for 300 people in a very short time.”
He believes that over the years, the restaurant scene in Malta “has gained more than it has lost,” with a wide variety of ingredients being available nowadays that were not seen anywhere in Malta in the past.
“But when business takes a drop, as we have witnessed a few months ago – we simply cannot afford letting quality suffer,” he said. “Some hotels in Malta went down this route to cut costs, but this will never happen here as long as I’m alive and I still work here.”

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