Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2009Many companies require applicants to take some sort of test before they are offered a job. Ever wonder what a hotel chef has to do? For Nadine Waechter Moreno, the new chef de cuisine at the Park Hyatt’s iconic New York Grill & Bar, the challenge was to cook a gourmet dinner.
“I went to Hong Kong for the interview last year and had to prepare a five-course meal,” she says, sitting down in the 52nd-floor restaurant after the end of a recent lunch service. “I made a vichyssoise with truffles, ravioli with rabbit and parmesan sauce, some beef with braised potatoes and vegetable garnishes, and a few other dishes. That was the first time I had to do that. That’s how I got the job.”
Born in Switzerland, Moreno, 30, says she always wanted to do something creative. “At first, I thought I might be a graphic designer, but that involved computers too much. I started to get interested in cooking whenever I went to spend the holidays with my grandmother. I think my main inspiration came from her.”
From 1996-1998, Moreno did an apprenticeship at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Lucerne. After spending another two years at Swiss hotels, she worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, before moving on to other destinations in Europe and Australia. She arrived at the Park Hyatt in July.
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about the New York Grill & Bar, but I did know the Park Hyatt from the movie Lost in Translation,” she says. “I was definitely impressed when I walked in. I wouldn’t say there was much of a culture shock; maybe a little language shock.”
When asked about her cooking philosophy, Moreno stresses the basics. “I concentrate on using simple ingredients, flavors and presentation. I am very open-minded and want my chefs to use their own creativity and give me ideas. For me, learning Asian cooking—which is not my roots—is very exciting. I like to be creative, take a simple dish and do something special to it. For example, I introduced lobster quesadillas with avocado and tomato salsa to the menu here, and it is doing very well.”
Other Moreno specialties include Japanese beef tartare with mizuna and truffle coulis; lemongrass-cured salmon with sesame mayonnaise; coconut prawns with verbena-shellfish sauce, vanilla risotto and fava beans; and foie gras with coffee jus, carrot hazelnut sauce and green pea puree. She tries to use local ingredients as much as possible. “Fortunately, I have a great team of motivated sous chefs who have a lot of passion for what they are doing, and they know all the best local ingredients and where to get them.”
Moreno changes the prix fixe lunch and dinner menus once a month, while the à la carte menus get a makeover four times a year. Her challenge has been learning what will and won’t work with the locals. “There are a lot of things I do differently here. For example, in Europe, chicken breasts are always used. I wanted to put that on the lunch menu, but my sous chefs told me that Japanese prefer chicken legs.”
Like most chefs, Moreno is happiest in the kitchen, but she also enjoys interacting with diners. “If guests are excited about food and want to talk, of course, I’ll come out. I’ve noticed that Japanese customers like to talk to chefs. When you see a full restaurant… that is very satisfying to a chef.”
Moreno usually starts her day around 10am (she and her Mexican husband live a 10-minute walk away from the hotel). “I check emails and the lunch menu, and we start lunch at 11:30. Around 3, we have our meeting and discuss new recipes before the dinner service starts at 5:30pm. I’m usually here until about 11.”
On her days off, Moreno says she likes to take it easy. “When you are standing up all day, you don’t want to run around playing sports. I haven’t had time to get out of Tokyo yet.” And she doesn’t do a lot of cooking at home. “I cook for myself here every day, so my husband and I prefer to eat out. It’s fun to just walk around exploring the neighborhood for those small Japanese restaurants that are often run by an elderly couple. I find the way everything is presented in Japanese restaurants so amazing. I have never seen anything like it.”
And would she ever be seen in a fast-food restaurant? “Well, my husband might have a McDonald’s. I just sit and watch him eat,” she says with a smile. “But don’t think that chefs just like fancy foods. There are times when I enjoy a sandwich or simple pasta. As long as it is done with love and with good flavor, I enjoy simple foods, even something as humble as fish and chips.”
New York Grill & Bar: 52F, Park Hyatt Tokyo, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-5323-3458. Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30pm-10:30pm. Nearest stn: Tochomae or Shinjuku. www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com