Cooking in the Danger Zone
Julie Mautner / November 2006
Burns, cuts, falls, and the occasional bout of food poisoning have always been standard occupational hazards for chefs. Suicide bombings, kidnappings, land mines, terrorists, civil wars, corrupt governments, and pirate attacks have not. But as our economies become increasingly global, more and more American and other Western chefs and hoteliers are finding themselves, intentionally or otherwise, working in precarious parts of the world.
Military chefs know the dangers, of course, of working in war-torn regions and are certainly aware of what the Worst Case Scenario might be. But we now live in a world where even the seemingly most peaceful places—Bali, Madrid, London—can erupt into violence with no warning. The most extreme example of this was on 9/11 when Windows on the World executive chef Michael Lomonaco stood and watched the Twin Towers collapse around him, taking the lives of 73 co-workers and friends. He had stopped in the lobby to get his glasses repaired and, by doing so, had inadvertently saved his own life. Very quickly, Lomonaco was forced to come to terms with the fact that virtually all of his day crew had perished—or were about to. The thought that immense harm might befall him at the corner of Liberty and Church Streets in lower Manhattan could hardly have entered Lomonaco’s mind that sunny September day.
“My friends and colleagues—and thousands of others—were merely living their work-a-day lives, only to be brutally murdered,” he says.
Another example is chef Anthony Bourdain, who was in Beirut filming an episode of his Travel Channel show No Reservations when war broke out.
“We’d been hearing great things about Beirut and arrived and quickly fell in love,” he told Reuters news service while being evacuated on a U.S. Navy ship. (The U.S. State Department helped 15,000 Americans depart Lebanon between mid-July and early August.) “It was paradise, sort of the Western dream of the way we’d all like the Middle East to be: enlightened, progressive, multicultural, multireligious.” But two days later the gunfire started, leading to air strikes and rocket attacks. “I was in love for two days and had my heart broken on the third,” Bourdain says.
But it’s one thing to find oneself in the proverbial “wrong place at the wrong time” and another to willingly sign on for work in a known danger zone. Still, scores of people do it. What are they thinking?
“Westerners working in far-flung locations do so for several reasons,” says Benoit Gateau-Cumin, whose company, the Boutique Search Firm, places employees in hotels and restaurants worldwide. “It could be that they’ve been chronically unemployed in civilized places and therefore have very little choice left. For that reason, you’ll notice that, generally speaking, chefs working in desolate areas or hardship destinations are usually much older than the average. They can also be people who’ve been working for an international group in other locations and have been promised a big promotion if they serve 12 months in a crummy place.”
Sometimes, Gateau-Cumin says, expats marry locals whose families put pressure on the couple to stay. Or the partner can’t get a visa and the couple is stuck. “And a few exceptions,” he continues, “are complete sociopaths who actually enjoy being in a place where bad things happen.”
Most Westerners abroad, however, say that what made them leave home was simply the itch for new experience. Now based in Las Vegas, Canadian chef Kim Canteenwalla “caught the Asian bug” after visiting a chef friend in Singapore. He says what drew him was the variety of food products…and the Asian women. American chef John Mooney went to India to guest chef, liked what he saw, and returned. Born in the Netherlands, now working in Auburn, Alabama, for Horst Schulze’s new West Paces Hotel Group, Hans van der Reijden was intrigued by Bali for all the obvious reasons, but also because of his Indonesian heritage. Indonesia was a Dutch colony for 350 years,” he says. “It felt like going back to my roots.”
Hotel general manager Norman Rafelson went to Israel for the chance to raise his children overseas and to be professionally involved “in the center of the world. Israel could have been where the expression ‘never a dull moment’ originated,” he says.
“The chefs who moved to Beirut likely went because the scene was booming, hip, and tolerant,” Bourdain says. “They went for all the right reasons, the same reasons they’d work anywhere. Beirut was an absolutely wonderful place to work until just a few weeks ago.
“My chef pals in Moombai and Bali went to those places because they fell in love with the beautiful things there,” Bourdain continues, “and the hopefulness of a resurgent, newly prosperous clientele and environment. They fell in love with the traditional cooking and ingredients of those places—and often fell in love with the people. Or fell in love with a local woman. If things got bad or ugly for a while, they were already dug in and decided to stay—the good outweighing the bad. They stayed out of optimism…or sheer determination to not let the few ruin it for the many.”
Gateau-Cumin says the willingness of people to work in danger zones closely parallels unemployment trends in less stressful locales. “When everyone is working,” he asks, “why would you risk death when you can work for a nice restaurant in Provence, where the only hazard is a potentially fatal overdose of pastis? On the other hand if you’ve been out of work for a long time, a job with Sodexho or Halliburton feeding soldiers in a bad part of Africa is gonna look a bit better.”
But if you’re someone who wants to display “risk tolerance” on your résumé, don’t believe for a minute that you have to head for a war zone or region of political unrest: there are plenty of places where you can get yourself a good adrenaline buzz just by getting out of bed. Go to work for the Remote Sites Division at Sodexho, for instance, and you might find yourself cooking on an oil rig in the South China Sea, in the desert in Saudi Arabia, in a mining camp in Sub Saharan Africa, or on Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific, where the average annual temperature is 32 degrees. “We don’t like to think we’re putting our people in harm’s way,” says Sodexho’s William Mengebier. “But the conditions can definitely be rough.”Gateau-Cumin says that hardship locations rarely pay more than other expat postings but they do allow for R&R relief in “friendly” places: three to five days, all expenses paid, are typical every six to eight weeks or so. “If you’re in Yemen, you’ll be flown to Dubai,” he says. “If you’re in Myanmar, you go to Bangkok. And it’s pretty hard to spend your money in the boondocks,” he adds. “So you end up with savings, one way or another.”
John Rossheim, a journalist and researcher specializing in careers and employment, says U.S. companies send workers abroad only when there’s a strong business case for doing so. “Expatriation is expensive and risky,” he explains, “so the American expat had better contribute something vital that a local hire couldn’t. Many companies would rather source talent globally—hire the cheapest qualified person on the worldwide spot market—than pay huge international relocation costs and U.S. wages. Plus, there’s always the risk he’ll defect to the competition, run off with a hostess and abandon his family, or get blown up at the wholesale market.”
Suzanne Storms says, proportionately, there actually aren’t that many Americans working in hotels or restaurants far overseas today. A New Jersey native with experience in Beijing and Dubai, Storms is now executive chef at the Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort (Fujairah, UAE) and is the only female executive chef in the region. “You find a lot of Germans, Swiss Germans, Austrians, and Italians,” she says. “People joke about it, actually, and call it the Swiss-German mafia. Some Americans want to venture out, but not too many of them really do. Americans want a big backyard and a dog. We like our comfort zone.”
The fear factor
“Risk” and “comfort” are relative terms, of course, and these days, it seems, you’re vulnerable if you’re breathing.
“Bomb attacks can happen anywhere,” says Liv Gussing, a 10 year Amanresorts veteran who is now the general manager of Amandari on Bali. “The crime rate in Los Angeles is 12 murders per day, and look at what happened in Paris this year! The risk of a car accident is far greater than being in a bomb attack. So where are we safe?”
“Anywhere can be dangerous,” agrees restaurant consultant Clark Wolf, who is currently talking to clients about projects in Dubai, Kuwait, and South Korea. “Some places seem romantic, but it’s all just a crapshoot, especially with these idiots in the White House pissing everyone off and waiting for the rapture.” Wolf remembers being in Lima, Peru, when the Japanese Embassy was being held just four blocks from his hotel. “I was trapped in four-star Kempinski, drinking Pisco Sours and listening to Abba,” he recalls.
OK, so maybe that wasn’t torture, exactly. But bad things are happening to good people every day. What is daily life actually like for Westerners working in potentially perilous places?
“India is a mix of amazing and terrifying,” proclaims Mooney, who was there with Taj Hotels full-time since 2004 and left last month to be executive chef at The Shelborne Hotel in Dublin. “Arriving at the airport is like stepping out of a time machine. Mumbai does not make a good first impression. There are all sorts of street dogs, and driving to town requires passing miles of slums. Lots of poverty, lots of homeless people lined up along the road. Mumbai has a massive population, something like 20 million. At first it’s all very difficult to look at, but then you do get used to it.”
Mooney calls the political environment “a little volatile” and says that eight bombs recently exploded simultaneously on a commuter train during rush hour. “Two hundred forty-six people were killed, including an employee of our hotel,” he reports. “But the history of fighting is normal here, and life just keeps moving on. In most cases, I felt safer there than in New York.”
Mooney says that food, water, and air quality were bigger obstacles to him than political unrest ever was. “The pollution is what disturbed me the most,” he says. “I love street food, and India has plenty. But you really can’t experience too much or you’ll definitely get sick. And air quality is very poor, which contributes to the whole stomach problem. And it’s strictly bottled water only.”
The upside, however, was travel, exposure to new foods, and “the beauty of the country.” He’s been to the Himalayas (“breathtaking”), did an elephant safari in the north (“unbelievable”), and has even started two organic farms to supply him with ingredients. “Everything is close to nature there,” Mooney says. “You see camel-drawn carriages, elephants sharing the highway with semitrucks, monkeys stealing fruit from the loading dock. It was an unforgettable experience. I’ll definitely be back.”
In 1987, Rafelson, a hotel general manager in Ohio, received a call asking if he would be interested, after 13 years with Hyatt domestically, in a posting to open the Hyatt Jerusalem. “I had visited Israel several years prior and found it to be exciting and dynamic,” he remembers, “so when the call came, there were not many mental or physical obstacles to overcome.”
Rafelson and his family arrived at the start of the 1987 Palestinian intifada, and he found himself opening a hotel in disputed territory. When he returned in 1997 to open the Hyatt Dead Sea, it was the start of yet another intifada. Still, he says, “There was never a question of feeling unsafe. Living in a country of conflict was something that Israel has managed and dealt with for so long: being checked when you entered the mall, for example, was just a part of everyday life. And you knew the state was looking after you. Our relatives and friends were far more concerned than we were.”
Now the general manager of the Regent Shanghai, Rafelson says that the political climate in Israel rarely impacted his ability to do his job. Like a true hotelman, he says the biggest obstacle he faced in Israel was not the violence itself but rather the effect it had on tourism and therefore his ability to plan.
“I can’t think of anywhere else I would have wanted the children to grow up,” Rafelson reports. “There’s a special warmth and honesty to the Israeli people—a zest for life. These are wonderful attributes I see in my own children today. I’d go back at the drop of a hat.”
Gauging potential danger in any particular place is virtually impossible because risk varies widely from country to country—and the landscape is continually shifting.
Look at Lebanon, for instance, where 1.6 million tourists had been expected this year. Hotel operators there say Arab visitors tend to quickly return after a crisis but that Europeans—and other Westerners—come back much more slowly.
Or take Bali, where bombings in 2002 and 2005 killed 225 people, many of them Australian tourists. Today the U.S. State Department cautions against all nonessential travel to the region. Last October, Gussing was in a restaurant on the beach, about 20 yards from the explosions. “We were very lucky and escaped with no injury because the restaurant is open air,” she remembers. “It was a very horrific experience.”
Within moments of the bombing, virtually every hotelier in town received a text message alerting him to the attacks, thanks to a system implemented by the Bali Hotels Association. “Messages are dispatched to all general managers on the island from a central point,” Gussing explains. “Security is placed on high alert, and the hotels could be closed off. The boom gates come down, and the screening of all cars going in and out becomes much more diligent.”
Today Gussing, who is half Swedish and half Indian and carries a Swedish passport, firmly believes that: “Bali is not a dangerous destination. Bali is a Hindu island where almost all 3.5 million people practice their peaceful faith on a daily basis,” she explains. “There is very little crime—in fact, in my three years here, I’ve not heard of one murder. I have lived and worked in Thailand and Myanmar—both of which are pretty peaceful countries with the same limited violence that can be found in many other parts of the world. I can’t stress enough that Bali is not a danger zone.”
Others agree. Van der Reijden went to Bali in 1996 for Ritz-Carlton and clearly remembers the night in 2002 when the first bombs when off. Once every guest and staffer was accounted for and the hotel was secured, he and his team turned their attentions to ferrying supplies to the local hospital, assisting in the search for victims, and aiding guests with departure. “It was a mass exodus,” he remembers. “We were at 100 percent occupancy, and within 48 hours virtually everyone had left the island.”
Today Van der Reijden has nothing but good to say about Bali, as a place to visit or to work. “The Balinese are the most peaceful, gentle, caring people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” he says, “and they’ve been hurt by this more than anyone else. The economy was devastated, as it thrives on tourism. Tourists are returning, but recovery is coming slowly. It’s very sad to see.”
Canteenwalla had already spent a great deal of time in Southeast Asia when he went to work in Cambodia. And even though being surrounded by the military was “the normal condition” there, he says nothing prepared him for what happened in Phnom Penh when civil war broke out in 1997.
“It was shocking, scary, and somehow exciting—all wrapped up into one emotion,” he recalls. “All expats were evacuated, including 25 employees of our hotel, including chefs, who were sent back to Singapore. We—my team of five managers—decided to stay and watch over the hotel. We thought the evacuation would last for about a week, but the expat staff didn’t return for six weeks.
“We were all under curfew,” he continues, “and could not leave the house [staff was housed in an adjacent hotel]. Food and beverage were in short supply, markets were shut down, and there was no movement at all for about three days. We could hear gunfire and see troop movement, tanks, and smoke in the distance from our balcony. No planes were coming in or out. There was a lot of looting, and work came to a standstill for a week or more.”
A Swiss national, hotelier Hans Meier had the misfortune of being in Cambodia during the civil war and on Bali during the bombing in 2002. “The incidents were hard to digest, because they both had a strong impact,” he says. “More than for my own safety, I was concerned about the locals. Conflict means bad publicity, fewer tourists, and fewer jobs.”
Today Meier, who is now general manager at The Setai in Miami, says, “Compared to the United States, I’m not sure that Cambodia or Bali are the more dangerous places to work.”
But you don’t have to be dodging bombs to find trouble in a foreign land.
Born in New Zealand, with a B.A. in finance and economics, Bobby Chinn left the investment business to do stand-up comedy in the Bay Area and fell into restaurant work to pay the bills. It was his father, actually, who encouraged Chinn to give Vietnam a shot. “He told me I was wasting a very expensive education,” Chinn remembers, “and that I was neither funny nor a good waiter. I decided I needed a change.”
Thus began a 10 year saga that led, finally, to the opening of Bobby Chinn in Hanoi, which has been called one of the best Western restaurants in the country. Along the way, Chinn encountered every setback one could imagine: work permit hassles, equipment shortages, horrible hygiene, deportation threats, the interference of low level bureaucrats, his long-term girlfriend bailing out and going back to San Francisco, and scores of unscrupulous employers who reneged on promises to make Chinn a partner. He remembers his disappointment, after working with top chefs in California and France, at finding himself toiling “in a rat-infested 70 seat restaurant with four frying pans, an incredibly hazardous oven, and a staff that was completely untrained in food safety.”
Chinn swears by Vietnam, though, because “it’s safe; the food is great; the rest of Asia is a hop, skip, and a jump away; and the people are wonderful. The Vietnamese look to the future and have not really dwelled on the past. It was not my war, it was not their war. The political and economic climate has changed a tremendous amount for the better over the past 10 years. I’m not sure what a hardship posting really is anymore,” Chinn says today.
The chance to meet and work with “foreigners” seems to be yet another big plus to spending time abroad. Canteenwalla, for example, says even though he was sometimes frustrated by his inability to express himself, working with a variety of nationalities was the very best part of his experience. “Learn, laugh, respect,” he says.
“In Dubai, my brigade was composed of Indians, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and an Italian sous chef,” says Storms. “Here in the Emirates, 85 percent of the residents and the workforce are expats. My colleagues here who are Middle Eastern and North African—Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iranian, Tunisian, and Moroccan—are lovely, warm people. Sometimes we talk politics or religion over lunch or in passing. Listening and an appreciation of others go a long way.”
If you’re looking for adventure, though, bear in mind that one chef’s paradise can be another’s purgatory. Canteenwalla, who spent a year in Dubai, says what he remembers most are “intense heat, a lot of money but very little culture, the locals not being very welcoming, and extremely long hours at work. The highlight of Dubai was leaving Dubai,” he adds.
Storms first worked in Dubai in 2000 and returned to the region in 2005. “The UAE is very peaceful and has a very high standard of living,” she says. “As a female chef in the Middle East, I’ve only encountered surprise and delight. When I came here, I felt a kind of automatic respect that no one gets at home.”
Storms mentions compensation as yet another reason she is where she is: her company pays for her housing and utilities and gives her a transportation allowance, meals, and periodic bonuses. Plus she pays no income tax in either the United States or the UAE, but that could change at any point. The best part of all, she says, is the travel: 35 days of paid leave each year plus 16 public holidays.
“If you’re thinking of going abroad,” she advises, “go for it as early as you can. Look at the position, the opportunity, how dynamic the management and company are. Food and people are number one, not governments or politics.”
Everyone interviewed for this piece seems to agree that we live in a wonderful time where options are virtually unlimited. “There’s a big and exciting world out there for those who want to pursue their dreams,” says Ronald Krannich, author of Jobs for Travel Lovers. “Go wherever you want to go and don’t worry too much about safety and security. The chances that you’ll be a victim of terrorism or violence is about the same as being struck by lightning.”