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How a Master Chef Adapted to the Mongolian Market

How a Master Chef Adapted to the Mongolian Market

When French Chef Alain Denis came on board as director of food and beverage at the Best Western Premier Tuushin in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, he knew the job would challenge him in ways he’d never experienced before.

Situated 100 meters from the Government Palace in Sukhbaatar Square, the 198-room hotel attracts an international crowd. To appeal to its broad mix of customers, Denis serves international cuisine in the first-floor restaurant, Le Cabernet. Other food and beverage options on property include a third-floor steakhouse, Prime Grille, and a 25th-floor bar and restaurant, Premier Lounge. Conference and banquets business is also strong.

“The business is similar wherever you are—Middle East, Africa, Mongolia, China,” said Denis, who has worked in the hospitality industry for 50 years in more than a dozen countries. “You have to sell the guest on the business, then you have to adapt yourself to the local market.”

But the Mongolian market is tough to navigate. The country’s harsh climate is generally not conducive for the cultivation of crops. Raw materials are hard to come by, so Denis has to source many ingredients from China, South Korea, and Japan. Because of the location challenges, the hotel cannot provide food at the five-star level even though it’s an upscale property.

As a landlocked country, Mongolia also has little access to fresh fish. The hotel could import fresh seafood from South Korea, but guests would have to shell out $200 for a piece of salmon. “He gets the acceptable level of fresh produce and everything else, dairy products and whatnot, and gets the meats and proteins as much as he can. Some of it is frozen,” said General Manager Sam Sallam.

The economy in Mongolia depends largely on livestock, such sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. Although these animals outnumber people 16-to-1 by some estimates, common cuts of beef like T-bone and ribeye are not available here. That’s because herders strive to raise bigger, fatter animals, and don’t believe in selling small ones, Sallam said. As a result, the beef is quite tough and often needs to be boiled to achieve tenderness. “No offense to Mongolians, but there is no way you are going to serve a Mongolian piece of steak because you need a chainsaw to cut it,” he said.

International suppliers often require the hotel to order bulk quantities that are too large for its needs. Chef Denis tried to import T-bones from Australia for a party of 250 once, but the supplier said he would need to purchase 1,000 kilos worth of meat. “Last time I imported from Singapore, it was a night mare and it cost a lot of money,” Denis said.

To balance his food cost to the marketplace, Denis has to be creative. “One of the serious challenges, in the winter months especially, is an equation between supply and demand,” Sallam said. “The supply is available, the demand is seasonal.”

Aside from challenges with purchasing and product, skilled labor is also hard to find. To get his staff in working order, Denis spent two months training his staff, covering everything from basic hygiene rules to food safety and preparation.

Denis and Sallam found out the hard way they needed to stress specifics to the employees who book private meals and events for clients. A couple of months ago, a large group of mostly Muslim guests arrived for lunch at the hotel, but the chef had planned pork for the occasion. The marketing staff had failed to ask the client about any cultural, religious, or other dietary restrictions. Had the chef known these details in advance, he could have avoided such a delicate situation. “From that day, they learned,” Sallam said. “Because now there are so many cultures coming and so many requests.”

One of Denis’ biggest concerns is absenteeism, which is common in the Mongolian workplace and makes it hard to plan schedules. Staff may forget to come into work, leave the restaurant when it’s full to take a relative to a doctor’s appointment, or take a day off and not come back for a week or two.

“We’re filling the gaps and we’re closing some of them,” Sallam said. “We do the best we can until the last day we’re here.”

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