To the frontpage
   kvinfo@kvinfo.dk
 
spacer spacer spacer
spacer

Wassim Hallal's recipe for success

Photo: Tine Harden

Wassim Hallal was born in Lebanon in 1980. In 2007, he opened Restaurant WH in Aarhus and was nominated for the title of Restaurant of The Year in Denmark. Wassim’s recipe for success is simple – work with what you are passionate about and don’t ever feel sorry for yourself.

Wassim Hallal tells his story in "New Men in Denmark", a series of portraits of ethnic minority men living in Denmark.

 
 

KVINFO/7.2.2008 My decision to become a chef wasn’t just a flight of fancy. My father had worked as a chef. He had owned his own restaurant in Lebanon up until he fled Beirut because of the civil war. In 1984 I came to Denmark with my parents and three brothers. To begin with, we lived in a refugee camp in Copenhagen. My parents wanted to get away from there because the only thing a lot of the people there could only talk about the war and misery from which they had fled. My parents decided to move to a small provincial town near Thisted called Vesløs. It was here that I spent almost all of my childhood.

We were the only foreigners in Vesløs. Even though we brought a different culture and mentality to the town, the 300 people there made us feel welcome. From day one, our parents made it clear to us boys that we were living in Denmark now. This meant that we had to accept the Danish way of life. Even though we were a Muslim family, we celebrated both birthdays and Christmas. The only difference with my friends was that if they were hungry after school, they could just make a sandwich. In our house there was always a warm meal on the table. My friends loved getting a plate of my mother’s cooking before trooping off to football practice, where I spent most of my spare time.

The subject of me being a foreigner never came up – neither at school or nor the football pitch. My brothers and I always felt that we were just like everyone else. And I’ve never thought of my two different cultures as conflicting elements. I saw them more as being a good mix. And this attitude has proved to be a source of empowerment for me later in my life. Today I’m exceedingly thankful that my father didn’t make us grow up in some ghetto area. The upbringing my brothers and I had has been a key factor in the fact that all of us have successful jobs today.

Mad about Home Economics at school
Like a lot of other boys, I dreamt about becoming a professional footballer. But the chance of making it to the top is, of course, very small. Realising this, I began to consider training to be a chef. I loved Home Economics at school. With my father’s background as a chef, and because my mother was a real gourmet, the decision was easy. My job as a dishwasher in a hotel kitchen allowed me to see what the job of chef involved at first hand.

 

After school I went directly into catering college in Thisted and I was lucky enough to get a trainee placement in a restaurant at the same time. My father warned me about the long and antisocial working hours, but otherwise supported me every step of the way. Not that I really needed the support of anyone else – that’s the way I am as a person. If I set out to do something, I only have myself to blame if it doesn’t work out. This keeps me focused.

Too many silver wedding functions
Once I got underway with my apprenticeship I was smitten. Preparing food was the best thing in the world, and I discovered that I could so something special in the kitchen. Night and weekend shifts were part of the territory and, naturally, this had an effect upon my football practice and some friendships went by the wayside as a result of my new work routine.

My apprenticeship provided me with good ballast, but by the end, I lacked something more challenging. Every time I wanted to experiment and develop my new ideas I was given a "No". There was no room for creativity when dealing with traditional silver wedding menus. And that just wasn’t enough for me. I had to move on if I was to become a better chef.

A catering degree with honours
I still had six months left of my apprenticeship. I managed to transfer to a placement with head chef Nikolaj Kirk at his restaurant Formel 5 in Copenhagen. Everything was different in Copenhagen – no mundane chores and everyone had an overwhelming appreciation for the profession. Only razor sharp knives here!

 

For a boy from the provinces like me it was a fantastic experience to work in such an ambitious environment. I thrived on the intimacy and the concentration of preparing food for 20 people. There was no doubt about it – this was what I had always dreamed of. In 2000 I completed my catering degree, graduating with a silver medal, the highest accolade achievable.

A Michelin restaurant in Belgium
After graduating, I spent time at a restaurant in Belgium which had two prestigious Michelin stars. Good contacts, as well as my silver medal, opened the door for me. Here, I was afforded the opportunity to be able to work with ingredients which in Denmark were extremely expensive, including caviar and truffles. But speaking neither French nor Flemish, this was a tough call for a young man of only 19.

I’d heard a lot of tall tales about life working in the kitchen of a Michelin-rated restaurant and I soon discovered that most of them were true. The pressure on chefs to perform and produce the best every single day was enormous, and many turned to drugs to keep going. Sniffing a line or two of cocaine before starting work was not an uncommon phenomenon. The whole thing was extreme! But although I was a bit of a tearaway in my youth, I’ve never resorted to using drugs.

Another thing was that you never had any time off work. Chefs started work at 9 am and didn’t get home until 2 in the morning. The plan for me was that I should move on to a three-star restaurant in France, but I simply couldn’t stand the incessant physical and emotional pressure. After six months I decided to return to Denmark – home to my girlfriend in Aarhus.

High school sweethearts since the age of 15
My girlfriend Tina and I virtually grew up together. We are both from Vesløs and have been a couple since we were about 15. Tina is a trained architect and works as a construction manager in a large architect company in Aarhus. After my time in Belgium, we moved into an apartment together.

But I really longed to work in Copenhagen again. So I contacted my old boss Nikolaj Kirk. He told me about a vacant chef’s position at Molskroen and encouraged me to apply. He put in a good word for me and in 2002 I was hired as a staff chef. To years later, the head chef left and I was offered the head chef position. From then on, my career took off.

Molskroen voted Restaurant of the Year
As head chef people began to notice my talents in the kitchen, and I soon amassed a collection of fantastic reviews. My concept was to use intense ingredients and intense preparation techniques at such a refined level that the guests experienced something subliminal and weren’t left thinking "I could have done that myself" afterwards. But inspiration on its own isn’t enough. Success requires hard work and fantastic co-workers, which I had.

Everything culminated in 2006 when Moeskroen was voted Restaurant of The Year in Denmark. It was the only one of the eight nominated restaurants outside of Copenhagen. Despite being awarded this accolade, I decided to quit shortly afterwards. I had spent the last five years striving to make Molskroen the best-known gourmet establishment In Denmark. Now it was time for me to move on with my own project.

Copenhagen cosmopolitanism out in the provinces
I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse – to run my very own restaurant, Restaurant WH, in the Japanese Garden in Trige, north of Aarhus. To date, I have opened a brasserie. But in 2008 we are opening a gourmet restaurant which will comprise the newest, cutting-edge, high-tech equipment in the field of gastronomy. Everything has been architect designed to the minutest detail in accordance with my own plans. And it’s not only the food that will be exclusive. The interior design and furnishings will be unique, too. The aim is to provide guests with a complete dinning experience from the minute they arrive.

I feel really privileged that a backer has invested DKK 20 million to allow me to realise my dream. When I left Molskroen I took a few of  "my lads" with me to Trige. And together we are all dashing around in the kitchen to bring the cosmopolitanism you can find in Copenhagen out to the provinces here in Jutland. Michelin stars are only awarded to restaurants in and around Copenhagen. It’s not fair that we can’t get a Michelin star just because we happen to be located in Jutland. Wake up – things are happening over here, too. People are slowly beginning to realise this now, and perhaps the rules will be changed someday. The most fantastic thing is that, after only having been open for a few months, my restaurant has already been nominated as a candidate for Restaurant of the Year.

Wedding plans for the summer
Both Tina and I are on the go 24/7, and our friends find it hard to keep up with us. We both make good money compared to our peers, though this doesn’t make us act like "nouveau riche" snobs. But we both love life in the fast lane, and we can afford almost whatever we like.

Right now we’re planning our wedding for the summer. Tina originally wanted us to marry in a specific church, but when this proved to be impossible, she ditched the idea of a church ceremony completely. We might as well get married at a registry office. Being an architect, Tina is quite particular when it comes to choosing the architectural surroundings. And deep down, I don’t think my parents were overly keen on the idea of a wedding in a Christian church. But they love Tina very much and would stand by her decision if she chose to hold the wedding in a church.

Proud parents
I consider myself a Muslim, but the way I practice my religion is quite relaxed. As a chef, it’s not possible for me to stick to the no-pork aspect of the religion and my parents understand this. They also know that both my brothers and I drink wine. They’re not too keen on this, but they choose to say "We respect our children and we trust that what they choose to do is what is best for them."

My parents still live in Vesløs. If there was peace in Lebanon I’m not in any doubt that they would choose to spend their retirement years in their home country. But they are very pleased that their four sons have achieved the goals which they have set themselves. Today, all four of us work in management or executive posts – plant foreman, deputy manager and self-employed businessmen. My parents are looking forward to having grandchildren, but children will have to mait, I'm not ready for that yet. Right now, the only thing I have time for is work. I lecture at different catering conferences and in the autumn of 2007 I published my first cook book.

I want to be world champion
My personal goal is to participate in the world culinary championships held in Lyon, France. I’d like to be able to call myself world champion – and I’m ready to fight for the title. This challenge suits my competitive nature and my temperament, which I attribute to my Lebanese roots. I’m definitely not a good looser.

I don’t think too much about my Lebanese background but I haven’t found a better way of describing who I am. Although I feel 100% Danish, I also feel 100% Lebanese, even though my surroundings may view this differently. I’ve holidayed in Lebanon a couple of times, just to be somewhere where I fit in and can relax. But I stand out the second someone hears my stilted Arabic accent. So I have to settle with being Wassim Hallal – and that’s fine by me.

Nevertheless, the whole debate about immigration annoys me sometimes. For example, the debate about wearing headscarves. The fact that the media goes amok for weeks when a woman wearing a headscarf stands for election to parliament is nothing short of ridiculous. This debate serves no other purpose than to drive a wedge even further between the different sides. Obviously, some politicians haven’t got enough to do.

My hair is turning grey
Sitting here today I can only feel extremely satisfied with my life – even though I’ve already got a lot of grey hair and I’m only 26. It’s always been a hard slog to be so far ahead in relation to my age and to show my worth. In ten years I hope to own a large restaurant with one or two Michelin stars. A restaurant with guests who appreciate noble ingredients and talented craftwork – the recipe for quality. And perhaps I’ll have the time to visit the theatre with my wife and go out for a good meal. I can still relax, even though the food isn’t up to my standards.

Translation: Andrew Bell

 
Background:
 

Born in Lebanon in 1980 

 
Came to Denmark in 1984 and grew up in Thy in the north of Jutland
 
Trained as a chef at Thisted Technical school, graduating with honours in 2000
 
Opened Restaurant WH in Aarhus in 2007
 
Plans to open a new gourmet restaurant in 2008
 
His dream is to take part in the World Master Chef Championship some day
 
New Men in Denmark - read more stories here



Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: kvinfo@kvinfo.dk