Ivy Nyayieka picks the brains of Chef Wissem Abdellatif, a Tunisian chef bringing his own twist to a fine dining classics in Nairobi, and discovers the joys of Foie Gras Creme Brulee.
Chef Wissem Abdellatif exudes the confidence only people who are really good at what they do possess. Executive Chef at the Radisson Blu hotel in Upper Hill, he is charming in his glasses and his hair that looks curly in a lazy way. On the phone he teases a colleague, telling her he is downing his tools for the night since the guests are running late. The Tunisian born chef knows how to work as much as play. On the floor of Chophouse, one of two restaurants located in the hotel, a well-orchestrated presentation of the food involves him introducing a Carpaccio Foie Gras with Italian truffle oil. Foie gras is the fatty liver of an overfed goose. Hovering discreetly in the background, he instructs us to “mix it!” His tone betrays something between sternness and protectiveness of his creation.
The dish is a fusion between French and Italian cuisine and includes a touch of Terrine de foie gras, black salt from Israel, micro herbs, mustard, asparagus and some molecular cuisine in the form of beetroot foam. My companion and I comment on how nowadays every self-respecting fine dining establishment must incorporate some form of molecular cuisine into the proceedings.
While Chef Wissem might come off as a bit of a control freak, I learn that this is exactly what you want in the person you entrust with your foie gras. “Cooking foie gras is a very delicate process. You need to know how to handle it. Because foie gras is fat, meaning if you don’t cook it you will not find this texture,” he tells me. When Chef Wissem tells you what he was up to 20 years ago, you cannot be faulted for having wrongly approximated his age down by 10 or 15 years.
After studying at home in Tunisia, then in Germany and Italy, Chef Wissem got into the Institut Paul Bocuse where he studied under the famous chef after whom it was named. Here, he first learnt how to make Bocuse’s famous soup VGE which comprised foie gras and truffle and was created in honour of then French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing (yes, his first encounter with foie gras was to make a meal almost literally fit for a king).
Chef Wissem’s eventual success is especially beautiful because he had to fight with his family to follow a career in the culinary arts. “Everybody wanted me to be an engineer,” he tells me “and I was always number one in Mathematics and Physics in school.” Yet he stayed his convictions, as he knew what he loved. “I spent all my childhood with family in hotels, so I fell in love with the kitchen. When I was a child, I would buy cookbooks, read them and then start to make food,” he says.
This sense of adventure continued into the beginning of his career: “I spent a lot of money for example, to go to good restaurants. I can even spend my salary to go discover one restaurant. My friends know about this: for me, the kitchen is culture and you need to discover,”
After graduating from Institut Paul Bocuse, the chef worked with a renowned Canadian-Tunisian foie-gras chef in Moscow. Thanks to these experiences, he knows how to make carpaccio, consommé foie gras, terrine foie gras, foie gras poêlé, crème brûlée foie gras and even foie gras stuffed inside meat.
Under the spell of a sweet rosê that was paired with our first dish, we are ushered into the next course: scallop foie gras and panna cotta creme brulee with brioche bread, apricot and passion fruit.
The scallop foie gras is classically soft inside. Chef Wissem stresses that it should not be dry, especially because it is usually served in small portions, “If you prepare it under high temperatures, you will find it too oily. You need to know how to cook it. Normally we just seal a la plancha with salt, pepper and a little bit of flour.”
My companion, who dislikes sweet wines and is skeptical of the Sauternes late harvest white and foie gras pairing, decides she must consult the man she calls her “personal oenologist”. Despite the assurance of Chophouse’s in-house expert and
Google’s corroboration that this is indeed a classic pairing, we send an alarmist “Sauterne and foie-gras, heaven or a NO-NO?” his way. His answer is confusing, starting out with a firm no and eventually admitting that that is how the French like it.
What is a perfect pairing, though, is the foie gras creme brulee and the Sauternes. “This is the thing you expect to be sugary or sweet but it’s actually savoury,” says my companion, as she digs her spoon into the delicacy.
You can tell the creme brulee is Chef Wissem’s favourite child too: “Creme brulee is really something amazing to make. It is not common in restaurants. This is our touch. This is unique.” If you would like to take the word of an accomplished chef, he promises it is not difficult to make but warns that it involves a lot of work. “We take the foie gras. Raw foie gras and we make it the same as creme brulee. We mix it with cream and with egg and with a little bit of Cognac.
“Foie gras is a magical product,” says Chef Wissem (really, get yourself a lover who talks about you the way this chef talks about foie gras). His confidence turns into something mellower when he starts talking about his food and he sounds almost,
once again, as vulnerable as a child who would thumb through cookbooks to learn how to make food.
Chef Wissem is surprised that Kenyans are foie gras fans, “In Congo, they order foie gras because they are Francophone and there are also many French people there. Kenya is Anglophone yet many people order foie gras and they really love it.”
Wissem is always careful to learn his customers’ palates. He says: “When I come to any country, I need to go to the market. It is very important to discover the culture and from there you make your fusion and give your touch. I eat all Kenyan food” Quoting Alan Ducat, Wissem adds, “The kitchen is like when you play theatre. You don’t play for you. You play it for the guests.”
Apart from Kenya’s, Wissem has explored markets in Dubai, Mauritius, Italy, Moscow, South Korea, Switzerland and Congo Brazzaville. However, home has never left Wissem, “We Tunisians are very welcoming. In our culture, we love good food and we enjoy receiving guests and we cook for them a lot of food. You’ve seen what I cooked today was a lot.”
So, thanks to Tunisia, we staggered out with our bellies a bit dangerously full of foie gras.