When the new Maslow Hotel Executive Chef says he doesn’t look at the time, he looks to see if a job is done, you start to appreciate why Algerian-born Omar Menhouk says he drinks up to six expressos a day.
With more than 20 years’ cheffing experience in some of the continent’s most exclusive properties, he first arrived in South Africa in 1994 to open a well-known French restaurant in Pretoria. He returned to Gauteng in December, after working in neighbouring Swaziland, to head up the kitchen brigade at The Maslow, Sun International’s premier business hotel in the heart of Sandton.
This is not Omar’s first foray cooking for Sun International guests. Early in his career he worked as a Chef de Partie at Sun City from 1998 until 2001 and returned as Executive Sous Chef a year later. Since then, he has cooked his way up to his most recent position of Resort Executive Chef at the Royal Swazi Spa.
“I am happy to be back home and closer to my three daughters, two of whom live in Pretoria,” he said.
With a Diploma in Cooking from Algeria, Menhouk speaks five languages including Arabic, Swahili and Italian, which helps with staff as well as guest relations.
“I like to make sure my guests are happy and don’t leave disappointed. Your meal must be quality, and delicious. But you are only as good as your team. You all pull the wagon together. Remember, I cannot cook every dish myself. When my team do wrong, I point it out, and the same when they do a good job,” Menhouk said.
Having worked for a member of ‘the Leading Hotels of the World’ as well as one of the world’s most exclusive game lodges in Kenya, Menhouk prides himself on attention to detail and knowledge of many of the world’s leading cuisines.
He has cooked for celebrities including Sir Richard Branson, the First Lady of Zambia and the Royal family of Saudi Arabia.
“Branson was a true businessman and a gentleman. He would ask me to dish up for him from the buffet what I thought he should eat.”
His mentors include Graham Wood, Sun International’s Chief Operating Officer of hospitality and Australian Chef Peter Washbourne, to whom he attributes having “built my name and my career when I worked at The Palace at Sun City”.
“Today I am recognised for my training skills. Nurturing young aspiring chefs to reach standards of excellence is a passion for me.”
Menhouk enjoys creating innovative dishes and says he enjoys cooking with lots of herbs and spices. These include turmeric, ginger and Himalyan salt. “I stay away from canned ingredients.”
In his own fridge, Menhouk says he always has fresh vegetables, lettuce and all types of fruit, as well as lamb, fish or calamari.
“I am happy to be back at Sun International and at The Maslow, with its beautiful garden environment. Although systems have changed since I was last with the Group, with many improvements to ordering and receiving, it still feels like home and we are looking forward to more guests returning.”
Menhouk is using the quieter period during the Covid-19 lockdown to adapt the menus and add some exciting dishes. “Of course, we won’t remove guest favourites, but I am looking to do something very different. More Mediterranean cuisine, delicious steaks with premium cuts, Wagyu and Angus beef, lovely tapas in our bar overlooking the pool and gardens.” In line with the growing trend for vegetarian and vegan dishes, these dietary requirements will also be catered for, as well as Halaal and Kosher friendly if requested 48 hours in advance.
Omar’s new creations make their debut on Valentine’s Day, Sunday February 14, when a four-course lunch will be served at the Lucuna Bistro. Choices include crab, an oyster cocktail and smoked fish or a creamy leek and mushroom min vol au vent platter, for starters. For mains, tuck into 21-Day aged fillet mignon, with croquettes potatoes, or roast duck breast with compote of kumquats cinnamon, or a prawn masala with south Indian lemon rice or handmade ravioli filled with butternut and spinach.
The Maslow is a popular choice for business conferences, weddings, baby showers and birthdays and Menhouk is looking to bring in healthier menu choices. “If you’re here for business, you don’t want to eat something heavy and then have to go back into a session. We are looking to create balanced meals and desserts with less sugar and more fruit.”
The Maslow’s kitchen brigade is about 40-strong during the pandemic, but this is small fry for the Chef who has run kitchens with more than 100 chefs. However, exposure to the upmarket Sandton clientele makes this posting one with small margins for error. “You have to be very diplomatic to work with people, there are many different personalities and ages. You must listen and keep smiling. No-one wants to see a chef with a sour face while they are trying to enjoy his food!”