Jul 12 • 59M

Episode #47: Zineb Hattab

Chef of the restaurants Kle and Dar in Zurich, Switzerland.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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Zineb Hattab, or Zizi as she is often called, has two restaurants in Zurich, Switzerland: Kle and Dar. Kle is a seasonal plant based fine dining restaurant, while Dar is the younger sibling and is based on the food of Spain and Morocco that she grew up with. Zineb grew up in Girona, Spain with Moroccan parents and after leaving a job as an engineer at 24, she worked for years in restaurants such as Celler de Can Roca, Nerua, Osteria Francescana, Cosme and Blue Hill. In 2014, she opened Kle in Zurich and she has gotten a lot of attention for her approach to cooking and the way she runs her restaurant. If you’re like me, when you listen to the interview with her you’ll get a sense that she is someone that will be an important voice in reshaping the way restaurants are run in the coming years.

-Nicholas Gill

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Photo credit: Ema Drion.

Partial Episode Transcript

On creating a healthy work environment:

Nick: “You worked at some pretty amazing restaurants like Celler de Can Roca, Blue Hill, Nerua, Osteria Francescana…What do you feel was missing from the work experience of these places when you came back to Switzerland and wanted to open your restaurant?

Zineb: “From every place I went, I learned something. But I guess being able to really align my personal values with my job. As you said, I came from corporate, so I came from companies with very strong values and where life balance is kind of alike did you need to have for some mental health. It's also becoming a topic in gastronomy. But when I started, it was not really there. And I was really not aware of what I was getting into. When I switched careers, reality kind of struck. In my idea at the beginning, it was like, Okay, I'm going to learn as much as possible and I was not really thinking when I open my restaurant I’m going to I change this, this and this. It was more of a process of being in many different places and seeing that even if you say that you care about your team, or about your producers, to do it in a consistent way, without sacrificing quality and without sacrificing. You know, in restaurants you have the pressure of time. It's very easy to fall into, it's okay this time, or it's okay if this person has a burnout. I didn't want this in a place at work, I really wanted it to be priority number one. I'm not trying to say that these places are unhealthy work spaces, it's just that for me in my restaurant flavor, the wine list or profit…it goes much, much, much after the health of my team.”

Nick: “But is that economically possible?”

Zineb: “Well, that was one of the challenges. I had to prove myself, because until now it is profitable. We have been a profitable business since day one, which is not very common for restaurants. And I don't know if that is what actually makes a difference. Or when I opened my accountant said, ‘be aware that the first year you're going to be in red numbers, probably, and it's part of gastronomy. Every restaurant we work with is like this for one or two years.’ Dor us since month one, we were breaking even. And of course, then COVID hit. But I can stand behind one small and one big restaurant, which are two very different concepts, and both of them are profitable. And still the people are priority number one.”

Nick: “Good. That's good to hear. Because I do think fine dining is possible with a healthy work environment. I think there's a lot of kind of buzz going around, especially in the last like month or two, that the two things don't align. That it's basically impossible to treat staff well, not cut corners and produce and supporting producers and all of these things, and also be profitable. And I think it can be done. I think it just needs some creativity behind it. And you need people to be patient, everyone from diners, to investors. To just be patient and be willing to pay what a meal costs, the value it deserves.”

Zineb: “It’s good to surround yourself with the people who have the same vision and the same goal. Hiring for me is very important because I have personalities. I have people who can stand behind what we want to achieve. Every day I ask myself, How can I do better? And I don't do it for anyone else. I don’t do it for the magazines or for fame. I just try to say okay, yesterday I could have reacted better to a situation when I was in the pass, for example, which is one of the most stressful moments for a chef. How can I approach it next time in my reply? Did my chefs grow with what I said. Could they follow my example or was the opposite. Was I giving a bad example? And it took a lot of time because I come from places where all these things are not considered. You are just there to produce and then at the end, you want to have everything perfect. And every small detail, every small error is punished, like if it was the world. So I really had to rollback.

Actually, COVID helped me with this because we opened and said we are not going to do the same mistakes. We're not going to follow the same road. We were so full and so busy that we were falling into working crazy hours and not having the weekend. So, stopping everything. I think COVID was the first time that chefs had no chance to do anything else than stopping. So reassessing, okay we opened the reason for a reason. So, we need to stand for it. After two and a half years, I can say that it works. But it's just constant work. I still see myself sometimes falling. Before it would take me maybe a couple of days to react. Now, I think last week, maybe what I said would not be rude in any other restaurant, what I said would have been very polite, but I just said to somebody that I needed some time to answer a question. And then I thought, okay, I went to the server and said, Hey, sorry, I could have handled it better in the same moment, instead of waiting or just letting it pass, so my chefs don’t think they can answer this way.”

Nick: “I think that's it's very human to be on the pass and get upset, or whatever. In it working in a restaurant or any work environment. Occasionally people do get mad at each other, they get stressed out and frustrated. And I think it's just a matter of just finding better ways to handle it than just fear and intimidation.”

Zineb: “And treat each other as humans. Before I would get mad when someone was doing something wrong. Now I'm like, okay, they probably don't know how to do it. They are trying their best. So, let's empower them or show them again, or show them different way. Because not everybody learns in the same way. Yeah. So but for these I had to learn, I had to read a lot of books about work and leading teams and a lot of Harvard Reviews about working with difficult, difficult people or conflict people. So, I had to do a lot of research, which as a chef, usually you don't do but maybe my background as engineer gave me that because when you're an engineer you learn how to solve problems. You really don't remember all the formulas, and all the numbers, just how do I solve the situation? It's a problem solving mentality. And this is what I do on a daily basis. But as you say, it is human to make mistakes. What makes a difference is when you are able to apologize.”

Nick: “I think it's important to create an environment where if you do screw up, that somebody can come and talk to you. I think there's so many kitchens where the staff is so afraid of the chef, that they don't say anything and things just linger and then they bubble up and it just ends up in some kind of disaster.”

Zineb: “Yeah, you need to give the space for people to talk. Also to feel empowered even when it's a direct attack or criticisms to you as a person. And I never had this, but I'm very happy when my boss at the beginning was a bit, how can I say strange? But then I was like, Okay, we are growing together, they want this place to be better. They are communicating what doesn't allow them to grow. They are thinking with me, not only following. So, once you find the people around you that are building it with you then it becomes much easier. Now I see them changing things, discussing how to deal with situations and I'm very impressed.”

On deciding to open a plant-based restaurant?

Zineb: “When I moved from New York and I went to open my own place, I never thought about opening a vegan restaurant. Because everywhere I learned was not vegan at all. But in New York I was exposed quite a lot of more vegetarian and plant based foods, with Enrique as well we did a lot of vegan food. But here I already had selected my farmers and then the cheesemakers. But then when I got the keys of the space, I kind of felt the weight on my shoulders of opening a restaurant. The financial risk and all the responsibility. I thought, Okay, I need a bigger reason than myself to do this. It has to be bringing something to the city. Bringing something that there is not just if I can open a nice restaurant making nice food, but something that actually drives me. And I just did some research about animal farming, not only animal farming, all kinds of farming, like extensive agriculture monoculture, and the practices that are in Switzerland, compared to the rest of the world. Because it's very easy to say no, in Switzerland it is better, because we have more regulations and it’s stricter. But in reality the part of industrial animal farming is pretty bad everywhere. And as my background is always to trust the numbers at the end, the fastest solution for me to have a better impact was to go plant based.

I had no idea how to go plant based. So I decided to try myself, it was very short notice. I decided to start eating vegan. And it was a struggle to eat out in Zurich. I saw that there was really not much out there. Some places have some options, but you always have to pick and choose a couple of pieces from the whole menu. And I said, Okay, let's do it. Let's go all the way. I traveled the world to eat, learned all the techniques and to get my level of cooking as high as I could in a short time. And I think I can bring vegetables to a whole new level here in Zurich, at least. And my cooking has changed a lot since I said that.

Right now, I look back, and I cooked a lot of things I knew that without the components would be for a non-vegan. And now I just completely forgot that part. And I really focus on what the seasons bring, to work very closely with the farmers on what grows next to each on the field. So yeah, this was a very spontaneous and crazy decision. My friends were like, ‘What are you doing? You never did this before? And why don't you open something that you know, and then maybe you switch to vegetarian?’ I’d rather do something I believe in and fail and do something I don't and then succeed with something I don't really believe. In that moment I really thought going plant based was the best solution to have less impact in the planet and the footprint.”

Nick: “I can imagine being so close to opening a restaurant and having to design a menu and everything, then so suddenly wanting to cook plant based food…I almost feel like in a way, it's a relief, that it kind of frees you from any kind of menu you thought you should have, or you were supposed to have and that you can just be free. Even though you're limiting yourself, from cooking meat and these things, that it frees you. It just like releases you from the structure that probably every other restaurant in Zurich has to have a certain kind of menu to do things in a certain way that it totally opens you up.”

Zineb: “This is a part that I didn't think about it. I didn't expect that it really detached me from everything I did before. Because usually, you go through the process of cooking very similar to the last place you have been or the chefs that have influenced you a lot. But this was like a cut because I didn't have these places to go to and use the background and their influence. But now I just do whatever I want. However I want. And this is something I never thought about, and it has really helped shape our kitchen into the unique cuisine that we do. Usually it's very hard to compare to any other.

Also, the fact that it's very safe. And this I never thought about because in the fridges you don't have dairy, you don't have poultry, you don’t have seafood. So, food poisoning is almost impossible. You still have to be careful and follow procedures, but this is a part I didn't know because I never did it before. When we were organizing the fridges and following all the Department of Health regulations and was like, there's not much we have to follow. Because there's nothing. It’s only veggies, fruits, nuts.”

Nick: “What's the worst that can happen? You know?”

Zineb: “So that was another point, a positive point. All of this and my team, when I already had my team, when I decided this, and I would say it is the only decision I didn't take together with my team. Because I told them thge restaurant is going to be plant based and they were really cool about it and they were like, Let's do it. Why not? And almost all of them have either become flexitarian or vegetarian, or vegan. It’s not the requirements work with us, but I mean it's already five days a week that they have in family meal, plant-based food. It's already influencing their impact on their consumption.”

Nick: “You've spoken a bit about de stigmatizing veganism? What do you mean by that?”

Zineb: “I used to be the typical chef that didn't like vegans to come to eat, because they made my life harder to create the menu. I didn't understand the point of it. So, I was this person who had a lot of hatred or pre-fabricated ideas about veganism. And now I'm on the other side. So, I try to break with those stigmas and just cook very delicious food, which doesn't make you think if it's vegan or not. And here's what we do. A lot of people come and they don't even know that the restaurant is vegan, because when you walk in the restaurant, you can’t see it anywhere. It's not on the menu. It's not something we have to declare.

Of course, if you go into the website, because we talk about what we do. But then you eat many people after seeing the menu, the whole tasting menu, they don’t even realize or they write on the reservations that they're intolerant, or they have a seafood allergy. So we just kind of detach that it is vegan because of the ideology a lot of people think that you need to be living in the farm with animals. You can also just go to have a regular meal with your friends or date without having this in your we just want to normalize it. Like when you go to the Chinese place on the corner that you love. One day you come to us, then a kebab, just to make it as a normal thing, because this is the way I think we can incorporate eating more plant based food in our routines in our lives.”

On why she calls her restaurants plant-based and not vegan, creating substitutions:

Nick: “Do you call it plant based or vegan? Do you have a preference?”

Zineb: “Yes.

Nick: “Plant based?”

Zineb: “Yeah.”

Nick: “Why? Just I'm just curious.”

Zineb: “Because usually veganism is related to a global model, while plant-based is normally only diet. Only food. And with vegan, people have this understanding of, ‘If I go there, I cannot wear my leather shoes.’ If we just focus on the food we do, everything actually at the restaurant is plant based. And everything from the decoration to…but we just have seen that people react much better to plant based. We don't want to go into the guilt trip. I learned that you don't get anywhere with the guilt trip. We just want to make people happy and taste good foods and not feel bad about what they do. That’s not on me.

Nick: “You say you learned. How did you learn? Did something happen to where somebody felt guilted?”

Zineb: “No, I think emotional intelligence is very important. And reading how people feel and that they don't want to feel like when they are having a glass of milk that they are destroying the planet. They want to feel that when they have a glass of oat milk in their coffee it's delicious. So, it's a good option. And this is how I learned to approach this from a place of love. I know it sounds very holistic, but it's true. You touch the people more when you give them something that makes them feel good than when you give them with a stick in the head. Myself as well. I used to eat cheese every day. I was a cheese lover. But I learned to make really nice cheese myself.”

Nick: “So what do you use to make cheese now?”

Zineb: “For the moment we use fermented cashews. Of course, in Switzerland, you cannot grow cashews, but we work with a company that builds the processing part in Burkina Faso, so the profit stays in the country. Usually countries buy the fruits or raw nuts and then they process them and all the profit stays in already rich countries. So, Gebana, they make sure 80% of the of the income of the with stay on the original countries and they make the infrastructures there. So, for the moment we do it these cashews and I found it to be the best in my experience.”

Nick: “So what kind of cheeses do you make? Or what do the cheeses seem like?”

Zineb: “We have fondue because we're in Switzerland. We did a fondue style, like put au gratin potatoes, which are potatoes from the Alps. This was at Dar, our second restaurant. Now for a pop up, we did grilled cheese that was really stringy and cheesy. People really loved it. We also do some blue cheese sauces using koji from buckwheat. So, we ferment buckwheat with koji and it gives us this nice kind of Roquefort or Gorgonzola flavor. So yeah, it really depends on the time of the year what we are cooking.”

Nick: “So, just out of curiosity, what do you use instead of things like eggs?”

Zineb: “For example, for pastries, we use aquafaba for the merengues. Also, aquafaba for mayos. For Dar we do lot hummus, so we need a lot chickpeas. And that's the perfect combo to get aquafaba and then all the mayonnaise, the alioli. If we do chile mayo, any emulsion, also for Hollandaise, for example, in the season of white asparagus, a Hollandaise with horseradish, and we use aquafaba. For baking. I like to use apple purée, or chia seeds. There are many, many alternatives and I love baking. So, I had to find solutions. Because baking and pastry the traditional is very much based on dairy and eggs. And at the moment, there are amazing brands also doing creams, which really taste like full fat cream.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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