DiningA life in gastronomy

Our Chief Culinary Officer shares his gastronomic milestones

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Jumeirah’s first Chief Culinary Officer, Michael Ellis, has had a glittering life in gastronomy. Which is why we’ve invited him to perfect the restaurants, bars and lounges across our portfolio of hotels. 

It's a role that he’s uniquely suited to, having worked in every area of the food industry, from chef and sommelier to salesman. Before working with Jumeirah, he was head of Michelin Guides, leading the brand’s experts, writing the guides, and awarding the celebrated stars. 

We asked him to share some key moments from his culinary career.

 

A lifelong passion for food

I grew up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the ‘60s and ‘70s when food was very ‘meat and potatoes’. I knew I was going to end up in the food world as even when I was very young I was extremely sensitive to odours and tastes. It’s just something that’s always fascinated me. So much culture is reflected in food – it’s such a fundamental human need. 

I’ve always been fascinated by going to markets and supermarkets in different countries to see what people eat. For example, you could have a meal in a 7-Eleven in Japan and it’s like being in a restaurant - it’s unbelievable.

 

Falling in love with France, and discovering its food

As a 16-year-old I went to France with my high school maths class and tried French food for the first time. I had an epiphany and thought, ‘This is the place for me.’ I was a French person born in the US by mistake. I took summer school and graduated from high school early to go to France to study, then eventually went to the INSEAD business school in Paris.

France has been good to me. I like France and if you have the right diplomas and you speak French well, they embrace you with open arms. For the French I was the perfect American because I know more about France than most French people do.

 

First steps in the food industry

I finished college early and trained as a chef. I went to Ferrandi, a state-run cooking school in Paris, then worked at a one-star Michelin restaurant as a commis. I worked 16 hours a day, five and a half days a week, starting on Tuesday mornings at 9:00 and finishing at 23:00. You would get a three-hour break between services, and the week finished with Sunday lunch, allowing us Sunday nights and Monday off. It was a great experience but eventually I had to think, ‘Is this what I want to spend most of my time doing?’. I didn’t want to work in that part of the industry, I’d rather have jobs that let me travel. That was the fun part – when I was working and travelling.

 

Starting out at Michelin 

In 2007, Michelin hired me to be head of sales and marketing for their motorcycle tyres business. I moved to Clermont-Ferrand in central France, and that was a really tough job. It was a €300m division with sales teams all over the world. Every two weeks I would go off and visit different countries so it was really interesting. After four years they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I want to get out of Clermont-Ferrand. They knew that I had a cooking background and they were looking for someone to run the Michelin Guides. That was in 2011, and I was there for seven years.

 

Awarding Michelin stars in unexpected places

I was fortunate enough to be able to give two Michelin stars to two hawker stands. One of these chefs has become an international superstar. He had a place called Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Noodle and he worked 18 hours a day. Now he’s a multimillionaire, has 15 different outlets, and appears on talk shows. I saw he was cooking in New York recently with Christopher Kostow, a pretty established chef. The guy’s life has completely changed. We also gave a Michelin star to a lady with a street food stand in Bangkok, Jay Fai. 

 

Most memorable dining experience

Easy, it was eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro. I went with a Japanese Michelin inspector a few years ago. It was at a metro tube station but you’d pay £400-500 per person and it’s impossible to get in. Jiro was known as having the best sushi in the world, and also as being the most senior sushi chef in Japan. 

At the local fish market, seniority determined when you could choose the fish you wanted, so Jiro would always get the best. They would have 900lb bluefin tuna and he would get the best part of the tuna belly, the otoro. Jiro takes the sushi and puts in the rice and vinegar, and you eat it out of his hand because sushi is as much about the rice as it is about the fish, and it’s about the temperature too.

 

What’s exciting about being in charge of perfecting the dining experience at Jumeirah?

Making a great brand known for its food and beverage offering is an aspirational opportunity. Michelin was more of a barometer, as opposed to this job which is really hands-on. It’s about where you’re going and asking key questions. Is this the right octopus? Is this the right caviar? Is this fish overcooked? Is that steak undercooked? You’re intervening to change the menus, or hiring chefs to add their experience.

The fun part is getting it right. And then people come back saying, ‘We went to Alta Badia, it’s fantastic.’ 

You know you’re making inroads and producing good food when you hear that. That’s what José Silva, the CEO of the Jumeirah Group, brought me in to do and I have a responsibility to our teams to make sure that happens.

Dessert closeup at Jumeirah Emirates Towers