The Crowne Plaza’s executive chef Alexander Reilly talks about his culinary journey
By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad
Ahead of the Crown Plaza’s hotly anticipated French Food Festival, MWB arrive at the prestigious Gulshan 2 location for a cozy chat with their Executive Chef Alexander Reilly. The expressive Scotsman raves about the selection of French cheeses he had planned for the cheese board for the event, which figures French Ambassador Marie Masdupuy amongst its esteemed guests. “My earliest experience of working in industrial kitchens was with French cuisine, so that’s something I’m excited to get back to. There’s a little bit of a challenge with sourcing the produce, and to be mindful of halal recipes, considering so many French recipes use pork and alcohol, which I obviously cannot, but it’s been fun, tweaking recipes to suit the culture and available resources here. Let’s see,” he tells us. He goes on to provide notes about Chicken Dijon and Lyonnaise salads and pepper steak as some recipes he is tweaking for the festival.
You’ve been in Bangladesh almost a year now. What’s some of your favorite local cuisine?
I love phuchka. I can eat it very quickly, it’s spicy, and there’s the tamarind and the aloo – we love our potatoes. That’s probably one of my favorites. I like the rice dishes like biriyani. Fried pakoras – people from my culture, we like our food fried, you know fish and chips. Have you ever tried fried pizza? Oh and daal. Fantastic. I love it.
What about all-time favorite cuisine?
British people don’t really have much of their own cuisine. We’re always borrowing from other cultures. I grew up eating my mother’s lasagna, and of course, I love my potatoes, and simple comfort food like sausages. I’ve been able to travel a lot and try different cuisines. I started my career in the UK, at the Hilton in Glasgow, and then worked with two football clubs, making corporate meals, on a large scale. While on that job, I got to travel to America, got to visit Chicago and Miami, and went all over, and it was great, and then I went straight from LA to Bangkok, my first time in Asia, and was instantly hit by the sounds and flavors and chaos, and for the first couple of days ate nothing but KFC, because I was paranoid. But gradually I learned to love the food there, and it started me off on my Asia travels in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. My wife and children are based in Malaysia, so I got to try a lot of different food there, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Indonesian food – so underrated, and the sambals. [The chef proceeds with a chef’s kiss]
So a lot of travelling, a lot of jobs, and a lot of experiences.
Of course! When I was travelling through Asia, I was knocking on doors, asking to see if I could find work. I ended up working at an Indonesian place, very low pay, but what experience! I did the same in Thailand, and it was marvelous. I’m in my fifties now, and I’ve worked at some top restaurants in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Shanghai, and now I’m here in Dhaka, talking to you. When you’re in the kitchen, in work mode – I suppose it’s true of any busy profession – you’re in the zone, you don’t think about these things, but sometimes you look back and you have to pinch yourself.
What was an important lesson your experience has taught you?
I think, to be humble. Ultimately, this business, it’s all about the people, and the more you interact with different cultures, the more you learn. I remember my first time in the Middle East; it was right after Bali, Indonesia, which is prominently Hindu. And then I arrived in Saudi Arabia and discovered Ramadan for the first time. I learned about the rules of fasting. It was an education. Now I don’t need someone to remind me what to do during Ramadan; I can plan the meals around both our clients’ needs and those of our staff.
As you get older and work with people, you respect people more. That applies to both my family life and also applies to my job. You’re only as good as the team behind you. It’s important to build relationships with people.
I was looking at your profile, and it seems like you’ve done a lot of work in optimizing production and lowering costs. Would your challenge in Bangladesh be tackling food waste maybe?
It’s interesting you should ask that. IHG does have a program dedicated to reducing food waste, and it’s definitely something we’re working on implementing. There are many ways to approach this – controlling portions, preventing spoilage. There are different types of wastage – plate wastage (how much you’re taking on your plate and leaving uneaten), buffet wastage (how much of the buffet items are uneaten), and there’s also spoilage. We’re observing the patterns and will adapt accordingly. Food wastage is a terrible thing, especially in Bangladesh where so many people actually need the food but can’t get it. We’re also exploring the supplier-side, building relationships with local suppliers, sourcing quality produce from independent suppliers to generate more business for them, lower our costs, and reduce spoilage. It’s definitely a work in progress. Let’s see.
During Eid ul Adha, many households will see an influx of fresh meat. Any chef tips on how to make use of this?
With meat dishes, keep it simple. If you want a recipe that works just as well with beef, chicken, lamb, or fish, why not try a shish tawook marinade (lemon, yoghurt and garlic)? The acids really tenderize the meat and add a rich flavor. If you have quality produce, you really can’t go wrong with it.