Sven Ullrich, a native of Hamburg, Germany, heads up culinary operations at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, including SHOR, Japengo, and SWIM. We met on September 8 at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, and he shared several culinary insights.
Did you always plan to become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
I had no clue when I started, but my parents got me a work experience in a hotel, and when I saw the chefs working in a kitchen, with hot food, touching hot stuff, putting their fingers in boiling hot sauces, which back in the old days, you were allowed to use your fingers – now a spoon – I knew I was hooked.
What does a dish have to be to go on the menu at each of the restaurants in the Hyatt, and what’s the difference?
That’s a very interesting question because it depends, really. What does a dish need? First of all, it needs guest satisfaction. Every time we put something on the menu, we run it as a special first, so we get the guest feedback.
We have an idea right now of putting on veal with a parsnip risotto. We’ve got to try it out. We have to make the dish, play around and then we’ve got to sell it as a special. Then we get the guest feedback. If they say, “Oh my god, I love it,” or, “It’s a little bit too salty,” then we tweak it. When we get good feedback and sell it a lot, then it’s ready to put on the menu. It’s a little bit of a trial and error phase, which really helps us, because we’ll look in the kitchen and say, “Is the recipe really working?” Or, “Do we tweak the recipe to get the flavors better together?” That happens all the time. That’s what it’s all about. Cooking is about constantly improving.
We had a veal shank braised with island flavors, a light curry sauce, we tweaked that recipe so many times, because it’s always too spicy and the guests said it was overpowering. We tweaked it and now it’s perfect.
What do you look for when you’re hiring in one of your kitchens?
Hiring, it all depends on which level, if we’re looking for a manager or we’re looking for a rank-and-file employee. If we’re looking for a manager, attitude is, for me, 90%. The skill level, the basics need to be there, of course. I cannot start training them knife skills. The basics, you can see on their resume if they’ve worked in established places. It’s all about attitude. We give a lot of training. We guide them through everything, so attitude is 90%. We’re looking for hungry people that want to have my job. I don’t want people who say, “I’m just looking for a job.” I always say, and I’ll make that my standard sentence: “Here, it’s not a job, it’s a career.” That’s my responsibility. I’m like the shepherd who nurses all the herd and really makes them grow and become better. So many contacts, my chefs who were sous chefs are now executive chefs. They all moved up. That, for me, is the biggest satisfaction I can get, just seeing people move on.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
When I went to Japan, I had whale. I don’t enjoy that, because I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I’m not talking about the flavor right now. I’m talking about everything else. I don’t think it’s right to eat dolphin or to eat whale. That’s what I don’t enjoy. I had to try it, of course, because people eat it all across certain areas, and it’s a delicacy. For me, I had to try it. Like snail eggs, that was unique, but I don’t enjoy eating it. You have to set our limits with what we eat.
Considering you have so much responsibility here at the Hyatt, what steps do you take to achieve balance in your life?