Gifted with magic at his fingertips! That’s how people describe the creations of Lijo George, executive sous chef at Blue, a restaurant managed by Michelin Star Alain Ducasse group in IconSiam, Bangkok.
It was no Ratatouille act that took Lijo George to where he is now. His relentless search for the best took this Thrissur native to the midst of the world’s top chefs and some of their famed restaurants. It was not an easy path for him. “I worked by the sweat of my brow and won back all I had lost”, recounts the chef.
In a heart-to-heart chat with Onmanorama, Lijo George opens up about his life and the experiences that got him his dream job.
It became clear to him that hotel management would be a welcome career option by around 2005. Post studies, his first stint at hotel work was in Goa, as a kitchen trainee, a job he enjoyed. By the time Lijo completed his studies in 2008, he was clear that he wanted to be a chef. He joined as a chef at an airport restaurant in Devanahalli, Bengaluru. But his desire to work in a luxury hotel made him quit this job after four months to take up a position at the Mysuru-based Royal Orchid group of hotels. His first posting was in Goa, an experience he will never forget. There was a miscommunication about my appointment and he couldn't join. Lijo was stuck in the city for three days and later with the help of a chef, he found another job in Bengaluru.
Setbacks and shocks
He joined there but the work environment was not encouraging and he knew he could not continue there. He set out in search of another job the next day. At the venue of an interview, he met a person from Kerala. Lijo shared his worries with him and the man promised to help. He said he would talk to a contact right away and borrowed Lijo's phone only to flee with it. But this was not the end and he was up for another shock when he reached back his room. Someone had broken in and stolen his money and other belongings.
A much distraught Lijo had no option but to head back to his friends in Devanahalli. Those were trying days, fraught with uncertainty, stress and anguish. He wanted to get away from it all and got back home to Kerala. He decided to take a six-month break to recover from his losses. Once again fate intervened and took him back to the Royal Orchid group in Bengaluru where he worked for a while before going to Dubai in 2010.
Hard work is the only secret
“Like all chefs, I too had to endure a lot of pressure. But I firmly believe that one learns, evolves and turns successful only after taking that test”, says Lijo. He has had his hours of extreme stress, for it is the chef's job to keep his customers happy and filled.
He later worked under Michelin Star chefs for over two years in Dubai before he found a job in Qatar. His colleague in Dubai, chef Elie Fischmann cautioned him against quitting. “Don’t go. It’s not yet time for you to leave”, he was told by Fischmann. But Lijo decided to give it a try only to be disappointed. He found that his new colleagues were not proficient in the western style of cooking. His chances of making it big in Qatar seemed remote and he turned to Fischmann for help. He offered Lijo a position and he came back to Kerala. In a couple of days, he got a message from Alain Ducasse’s corporate office. Fischmann had sent Lijo’s biodata to the corporate group. And that’s how chef Lijo George joined world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Qatar in 2013.
Lijo turns eloquent as he talks about Alain Ducasse who would come in at least twice a year to his restaurant. One of the visits would be for the gala dinner when news channels and journalists would descend on them for interviews with Ducasse.
On landing, the great chef would go straight to the kitchen shaking hands with everyone present. He would address them with joy and then head for housekeeping where he would chat up those in charge. “He commands such respect. So great is his personality”, says Lijo.
His association with chef Yannick Alleno in Dubai, Romain Meder in Qatar, Stephane Gortina in Hong Kong and Wilfrid Hocquet in Bangkok helped him master the fine art of French cuisine.
The stamp of a good chef
Hard work is the only route to being a super chef. What then is the stamp of a good chef? The willingness to see places and go places to taste food, try them out, integrate those tastes into your cooking and bringing out a signature style of your own. That’s when you become a real cook, says Lijo. Besides, you need disciple and a lot of managerial skills, which one gains through experience.
What’s Lijo’s advice to those who look forward to a chef’s job? The willingness to persevere despite the setbacks a hotel job entails. It’s the setbacks and pressure that make us what we are, he says. Above all, you need to have a passion for this job, a deep commitment. This isn’t just a job. It’s the love of one’s life.
All good chefs spent the best part of their lives in the restaurant, within the kitchen, to be precise. Hence, they miss out on several of life’s precious moments outside. “I started working when I was 18. Now, 14 years later, when I look back, I realise I was in my kitchen for the most of it”, says Lijo. One needs to practice the art of balancing life, professional as well as personal. You need to pay attention to your personal needs too. Go for what gives you joy when off from work. Chef Lijo George has mastered the fine art of balancing both.