Chef Name: Dmitri Magi
Title: Executive Chef
Eleven Madison Park:
#1 San Pellegrino, World’s 50 Best List, 2017
3 Michelin Stars, 2011 to present
4 Stars from the New York Times
Davies & Brook:
1 Michelin Star, 2020
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
I was 10 years old when I knew I wanted to be a chef, but I was 17 before I walked into my first professional kitchen. I started as a dishwasher; a kitchen helper. I loved it! I never went to culinary school, and learned everything I know through my work experience.
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
Beer can chicken: you put the chicken on a glass jar with some chicken stock, water, onion and garlic. Brush the chicken with mayo, and bake it in the oven. I remember the apartment would be full of the roasted chicken smell… especially the crispy skin. My brother and I were always fighting for the best piece! I grew up in a place and time when stores were largely empty, except for canned seaweed – so it was only once a month or so, on special occasions, we were able to get a chicken. It sounds so simple, but in those times it felt like Christmas.
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
Every chef that I have worked with has taught me something different. Each one has a different approach. You try to learn from their mistakes, so you don’t repeat them again – at least I try not to!
I’m proud to call Rene Redzepi my first mentor – he taught me creativity and dedication in the kitchen. He showed me that you can use any product in many different ways. That being a chef is not just a job, it’s way more than that, it’s a lifestyle. He held everyone to high standards: caring about what we do, pushing all of us to be creative. Food is not just food. He taught me to think broader in terms of how to use produce.
Chef Daniel believes in me, cares about me, and always has my back. He’s given me endless opportunities that I will eternally be thankful for: he trusts me, and that is a gift. Chef Daniel lets me be who I really am, and helps me find myself. At EMP (Eleven Madison Park), I learned about the importance of culture, and of the kitchen and the dining room really working together as one team. It’s not just the food that’s important – how the food is served to our guests is just as crucial. I’ve learned the importance of the entire team working together to achieve one dream, regardless of people’s different positions. I’ve also learned that it’s true what we say here: you have to change to stay the same. When you think that you’re doing well and you start to feel comfortable, it’s time for a challenge and a change. Chef Daniel keeps motivating and pushing me to be a better leader.
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
Estela by Ignacio Mattos – when I first walked into Estela in NYC, I was amazed by the simplicity of the plating and the deep flavour. I bought their book the very next day. I loved how simple and delicious the cuisine was… nothing extra. It reminds me of what we’ve been doing at EMP, and what we’re doing now at D&B (Davies & Brook). Our philosophy of food is similar – food needs to look effortless, but also needs to be complex in flavour. When you read this book, you want to make all the recipes. You understand how delicious it all is. Why didn’t I come up with this myself?
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. This book has been very close to my heart for a long time; it’s one of the first books that inspired me, and it continues to inspire me. It helped me understand the philosophy of cooking. When I started working in Copenhagen, this book helped me understand what we were doing there. Everything around us at the time was about molecular cuisine, while what we were doing in Noma was basic, local. This book, even though stemming from the South of France, supported what we were doing at Noma. The philosophy of the book was very similar to Rene’s philosophy. By reading this book, it helped me better understand what I was doing in the kitchen. Vegetable forward. Respect for vegetables, which I didn’t have before. I think this book is still relevant today.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
Salt and acid.
Acid is one of the main ingredients in our kitchen – almost every dish on the menu has a trace of some acidity. We use a lot of citrus – mainly lime, along with many different vinegars to bring the acidity, creating a fresh, light and balanced dish.
Seasoning is very important: no one wants to eat plain food! Salt is not just an ingredient; it is very versatile and a tool in our kitchen that we use for preserving, brining, curing, fermenting and seasoning – it helps other products shine. When I’m tasting through the line before service, the most frequent comments that you’ll hear from me are – add more salt, add more acid.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
Crepes – I love to make them with my kids on Sunday mornings. I never get tired of it. It’s one of my childhood foods, one of the first things I learned how to cook by myself. The kids eat it with butter or Nutella. I eat it with dulce de leche or sour cream and smoked salmon, you name it.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
Even though Michel Bras wrote one of my favourite cookbooks, I have never had a chance to visit his restaurant “Maison Bras” in Provence. That would be my first choice. He’s a legend. His philosophy of using and foraging for local fresh ingredients has inspired me and an entire generation of cooks so much, and the restaurant is located in the insanely beautiful South of France.
And who would you take as your guest?
I would take my wife. I spend so much time at work and she has always supported me. She lets me be me and that has allowed me to be more present at work as I know that everything is well at home. That being said, when I do have time off work, I prefer to spend it with her and our three kids. So a visit like this would be my gift to her.
What do you look for in a good chef?
Honesty, humility, adaptability, willingness to learn and a positive attitude. We are all humans; we all make mistakes. No-one is perfect. The way you handle a mistake is crucial to me. Come forward, admit it and try to learn, so it doesn’t happen again. Be willing to be part of the solution. Be honest with me and, most importantly, with yourself.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
If you love it, don’t give up. The life of a chef is hard and requires sacrifice and passion. We work many hours, don’t get paid a lot, and are always under pressure. This is not a job you get simply to pay the bills. If you really love what you do, it will give back to you more than you can imagine. I never promise my chefs an easy life, but I do promise them an interesting adventure.
How has the pandemic affected your restaurant? And how did you adapt and evolve throughout?
It is hard to describe all the difficulties that we faced through the pandemic. We’ve opened and closed the restaurant four times in the past year. We’ve learned how to open up in three days, instead of a month like before, and close in 24 hours. And if someone told me a year ago that we would do take away, I would have laughed at them.
Some people from outside of the UK had to go back to their home country. Some chefs decided to become farmers or move to the countryside. We all had a lot of time to think about our life’s purpose. I realised it is very important to give back to the community during these times, which made me think about how we could support people during the pandemic. We are not firefighters, policemen, doctors. But we are cooks with a desire to make food for people we care about, we have a kitchen, trained chefs, access to produce, and we wanted to contribute. We were lucky that we had a chance to cook food for the doctors during the lockdown. What else can we do going forward? We are thinking how else we can support the community.
Can you share any wisdom from the experience so far with others? Have you changed? Has your cooking changed?
I think I personally, and our cooking, has become more thoughtful.
I’d never spent so much time with my family at home, really taking in every moment that normally was so rushed because of work. Cooking at home with the kids really took me back to when I started out cooking, and actually reignited the fire for my love of food and creating dishes. It only made me realise how much I love my work and drove me to be more excited to get back.
I believe now that as a team we are stronger and more resilient than ever. We believe we can handle most curve balls thrown at us now, and the past year has really taught us that we can do anything if we put our minds to it, with the support from each other.
Chef Dmitri Magi is Head Chef at Restaurant Davies & Brook
Address: Claridge’s Hotel, Brook St, London
Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7107 8848