ASTANA – Executive Chef Benoit Letellier, who comes to Astana’s Marriott Hotel from France via the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Africa, has been blending his French heritage and his Asian experiences with local ingredients and Kazakh dining culture over his four years in the country.
“I didn’t know about Kazakhstan when I arrived,” Letellier said in an interview on Feb. 18. “But I adapted, I used my background of moving quite a bit in different countries.”
He joined the Marriott team for the challenge of opening a new hotel, he said. Now, a year and a half into his work here, the Marriott’s menus definitely reflect him and some of the food of his childhood. “We are all looking for our childhood because it’s a sweet time of our life, with no worries, no responsibilities. And all these good memories are associated with the food we ate in our childhood.”
Vegetables are very important to Letellier, and even during Astana’s long winter, the Marriott’s Aroma Restaurant showcases root vegetables, squashes, pumpkins. The French influence there is also strong.
“I do a couple dishes with foie gras. Especially now, during the winter, I put more than a few dishes that are French, like salmon with sorrel sauce, chicken in red wine, cassoulet … all these earthy dishes, to keep you warm,” the chef said. “This is like my roots, my origins, like when my grandmother was cooking rabbit with mustard – we have this on the menu! – my childhood, if you want, my family dishes.”
In the Vista Bar&Lounge, Letellier gets to highlight another side of his personality: what he learned in Asia. There, he said, he offers modern, creative, lighter food and lots of shared plates with an Asian influence. “I loved Asia,” he said. “Asia was a great period of learning and discovery for me, because the whole process of cooking is completely different from Europe.”
Moving around the world has influenced him a lot, personally and professionally, he said. “I had to open my mind to different cultures, to different people, different ways of life.”
He’s also observed different cultures of eating around the globe and learned to adapt to them. “Every culture is different and every culture has its traditions about the dining experience,” Letellier said. “For me, not working in the CIS countries before, I learned that the table is important.”
“[Here], when you invite people, you don’t invite people to an empty table,” the chef explained. “The table must be full – full of fruit, full of salads, it must be full. You cannot ask people to sit down at an empty table.” In Europe, this is different, he noted – guests may sit at a table and wait for the food to arrive. But in Kazakhstan, people might be offended to arrive at a major event to see no food out. “So yes, you have to adapt your cooking to what people want and need to have. … All dining experiences are different.”
Some adaptations are harder than others, however. In Kazakhstan, as everywhere, the chef says his two biggest challenges are supplying and staffing. “Staffing is the easier of the two, because you can teach people if they are willing. It’s not so hard to teach people.” But finding supplies in Astana, with its long winters and its developing transportation network, is a challenge for all chefs.
“Definitely you have to adapt yourself,” he said. And while it can be fun up to a point, it can also become frustrating, and Letellier says he has seen a lot of chef turnover in his time in town. “But in general, especially now, I’m not frustrated anymore. I know what’s available and I know what to do with what’s available.” Letellier tries to use as many local products as possible, and says he’s pleased at seeing the variety of locally-grown produce increasing.
With the rise of the celebrity chef and cooking TV shows, Benoit says he’s encountering more and more young people in Kazakhstan who want to be professional chefs. “It’s easier when you have somebody coming and they want to be a professional chef,” he said. “They want to learn, and that makes it easier for you to teach.”
The local mentality about service staff, however, still needs to develop, in his opinion. “This is a challenge that we are all facing,” he said. “There is a mentality here that [service jobs] are not professional jobs,” he said. Professional waiters are normal in many other countries he said, and waiters can advance to become managers and more. “[Around the world], hospitality is a real profession. And this we need to emphasise – that there is a career in this.”
Changing menus for different seasons and different events give the Marriott kitchen staff a chance to play and learn, he said. Astana Marriott has been creating new menus for different countries’ national days – including Malaysia, Germany, the Czech Republic and Thailand so far. “For me, as a teaching process for my staff, it’s very important,” Letellier commented. “They get a chance to learn something new. … It’s more exciting when you’re doing a big banquet with completely different things on the table.”
Coming up, the chef will have an opportunity to showcase his own heritage. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supporting and organising a global French dining experience, Benoit said. More than 1,000 French chefs around the world, Letellier among them, will organise a six-course plated French menu, paired with French wine. “We are going to cook some frog legs, some foie gras, veal, monkfish – and snails as well, I have snails!”
But it’s not only about the food – it’s about the entire French dining experience, the chef said.
The event, for which anyone can book a table, is set for March 19.