De Vincentis, a master in Oman: young Italians? Sadly, they’re presumptuous

Interview with the executive sous-chef at the Shangri-La Al Jissah resort, 18 restaurants. Hard work and bitter thoughts

by Gabriele Zanatta
Marco De Vincentis, 42, from Naples. He’s the ex

Marco De Vincentis, 42, from Naples. He’s the executive sous-chef of 18 restaurants, all inside the Shangri-La Al Jissah resort  in Oman, in the Arabian Peninsula 

It takes between 6 to 7 hours of flight to get to Oman from Italy. Once landed, before passport controls, what strikes you is everyone’s kindness. Even the cleaning staff, clung to those ramshackle floor-polishing objects: «hello sir, how can I help you?», a task you wouldn’t consider theirs. It’s the first of a series of ruthless images, once you compare it to the arrogance of the many employees left behind, and the airport of departure.

Any thought on our country’s slippery slope melts away with the warmth of Muscat, the capital of the sultanate ruled by the monarchy of Qabus, a man who’s much more enlightened than many of his western colleagues. According to the news, Oman is a very stable, tolerant, rich, clean country, with zero discontent. During the week that is to follow, nothing will deny these premises.

Just like in the Arab Emirates, in this south-eastern extremity of the Arabian Peninsula everyone is working together to free themselves of their dependence from petrol. With the petrol crisis, Qabus moved long ago in search of alternative revenues. Tourism represents a growing portion of the GDP and for this reason Oman is attracting hotel chains from all around the world.

A 45-minute drive from the airport, the imposing Al Jissah resort stands out. It is one of the 107 pearls scattered around the world under the Shangri-La brand, a battleship of luxury hospitality with headquarters in Hong Kong. It’s formed by 3 structures created in front of a large halfmoon of pure sand, with gracefully carved rocks towering over it: Al Waha (for families), Al Bandar (the citadel) and Al Husn, the most luxurious and tranquil site, off limits to children. There’s a total of 460 rooms, with prices ranging from 300 to 1,000 euros per night (350 euros including breakfast, for a family with two children). A magnificent spot where you can spend a few carefree days of holiday.

A view of Al Husn, the most luxurious section of the Shangri-La

A view of Al Husn, the most luxurious section of the Shangri-La

The dining room at Shahrazad, the resort’s top restaurant, offering Arab/Moroccan cuisine

The dining room at Shahrazad, the resort’s top restaurant, offering Arab/Moroccan cuisine

In all this, the culinary offer has a crucial importance. Al-Jissah includes 18 restaurants and cafes that with every kind of cuisine: Omani, Middle eastern , Indian, classic international, Moroccan, Lebanese, Spanish, Asian, Latin American, Italian… The executive sous-chef of all the restaurants at the Al Jissah – and number one at Al-Husn – is Marco De Vincentis, a shy 42-year old whom our readers might remember after a dinner organised 4 years ago with Bottura’s team when he was working in Singapore. We had an interesting chat with him.

What’s your story?
I’m Neapolitan. After completing my studies, I started working in Romagna, learning the ropes from brilliant teachers like Vincenzo Cammerucci, Marco Fadiga and Igles Corelli. In 2010 I left Italy. I worked at the Rosewood in Riyad in Saudi Arabia, in Panama, at the Sofitel in Penang in Malaysia and in 2013 I joined the Shangri-La group, first as chef at the Waterfall in Singapore and since one year ago in Oman, where I’m renovating the cuisine of this resort. At the end of this experience I will be promoted to executive chef. I don’t know yet where they’ll put me.

Your suitcase is always ready.
Understanding and using the traditions of all the world, that’s what I like about this profession. When you’re in love with cooking, you’re in love with everything, from preparing showa, lamb’s shoulder with banana leaves, to a tapa, or spaghetti with tomato sauce.

How is it going in Oman?
Well. The country is growing, even in terms of food culture. Many young people study abroad, then come back and start small interesting businesses like Yuzu Farm, an organic oasis in the desert, an hour and a half from here. I buy their edible flowers, lettuce, their herbs. They even grow 7 kinds of local tomatoes.

How is it going with fish and meat?
Except for pork, a religious taboo, it’s great: they have fabulous lamb, we import veal from Australia. We have 5 fishermen who work only for us. We get beautiful tuna, king fish, swordfish, red snapper. The Omami lobsters, with no claws, are delicious.

Among the 17 outlets of the resort there’s Capri.
We offer comprehensible Italian cuisine. In complex resorts like our own, the use of creativity must be very moderate:  I’d never make ravioli filled with foie gras, they’re not part of our culture. We must try to preserve tradition, always. No fusion.

Marco De Vincentis with Antonio Aquila, chef at Italian restaurant Capri

Marco De Vincentis with Antonio Aquila, chef at Italian restaurant Capri

The Mahhara Beach Bar 

The Mahhara Beach Bar 

Can you get Italian raw materials?
They’re much harder to import, compared to Singapore. We get burrata, buffalo milk mozzarella, bresaola, dry pasta but not much more. More than anything, I miss pork products, bottarga and all our dried delicacies. This happens because there have very strict controls on the border with the Arab Emirates: there’s a large Indian community living here; in the past there were issues with contaminated food arriving from India. They have very strict rules for food safety, lorries are often stopped at the border.

How do you train the hundreds of cooks who arrive here?
If Shangri-La is a leader in its segment, it’s thanks to its sound training programmes. When it comes to training staff, they’re global leaders. See the mail I get [he points at the dozens of messages that arrived on his smartphone in the last hour]? They’re all feedbacks from guests. Any bad feedback will lead to internal meetings and briefings. We’re working non-stop to try to identify a client by his surname, not his room number. It’s a huge and stimulating job.

How many Italians work in your kitchens?
Very few. I’ll be honest, aside from the excellent Antonio Aquila, chef at Capri [sitting beside us] my experience with Italians is not very nice. Many come here thinking they have something to teach to the Bedouins. They’re more arrogant and touchier than others, which I find very frustrating.

Have you noticed this only here?
No, it was the same in Singapore. We would make homemade dry pasta, cut with bronze: there were Filipinos making spaghetti for 200 guests per service. Italians would walk around the pans, full of presumption, doing nothing. They’re convinced they know everything, but truth is they often don’t have any desire to work hard. They still don’t get that today there’s not just them and the French around the world: there are good cooks coming from all over now. And more often than not, they’re humbler. Take Virgilio Martinez, whom we had here: an exceptional person.

Do you miss home?
Not at all. I made a lot of sacrifices, and now I start to enjoy the fruits of this work. In Italy we’re far behind in terms of management culture. Had I stayed in my home country, I would have learnt nothing of what I’ve learnt during the last 8 years abroad.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


Zanattamente buono

Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world