Chef Talk: Waldorf Astoria’s Opening Chef Lij Heron

Chef Lij Heron is a multiple award-winning Generation X-er head chef with “7 Diamond” hotel experience. He recently reclaimed the coveted title of “Best Meat Chef” at the Pro Chef Middle East Awards for the second year in a row, “Best Steakhouse” in the BBC Good Food ME Awards as well as for the Food & Travel magazine and was nominated “Chef of the Year” in the Pro Chef Awards and BBC Good Food ME Awards.

Together with his amazing team, his outlet has earned the title of “Best Restaurant Team” for the 2016 Caterer/Hotelier Middle East Awards. Altogether, he has had an impressive total of 9 nominations and 5 wins within two years of opening.

He is the opening chef for the world’s most famous luxury hotel brand-the Waldorf Astoria at the Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. His responsibilities include the well-received Lexington Grill steakhouse, the legendary Peacock Alley and the Camelia Lounge. He previously headed the flagship fine-dining restaurant, Al Muntaha on the 27th floor in Dubai’s most iconic Five-Star Deluxe hotel, Burj Al Arab and the award-winning Rib Room at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

He earned his two-year culinary arts degree at the internationally acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in New York, over 15 years ago after starting his career at the Hilton Kingston, Jamaica. After completing culinary school, he worked briefly as a butcher in a seafood restaurant in Sarasota, Florida.  Since then has risen through the ranks and headed 5-star hotel kitchens for several years. He is an amazing chef and a pretty awesome trainer in and out of the professional kitchen.

Chef Lij

His practice includes Middle Eastern, America, Asian and Caribbean experience in Fine Dining, Luxury 5 Star, 5 Diamond, Hotel and Stand Alone operations.  He is an expert in Restaurant/Hotel Openings, Kitchen Layouts, Management, Staff Development, Training and Menu Concept Development. Chef Lij is highly competent and skilled in Contemporary European, American, Steakhouse, Seafood, Mediterranean and Caribbean menu concepts.

He has been featured in numerous Radio/TV interviews and publications and has been invited to judge the Taste of New Zealand competition in 2016 and appear as a guest judge along with his food media executive wife, Kari Heron on MBC2, in a top cooking show to be soon announced. Together they co-author the award-winning food & lifestyle blog “Chef and Steward” which is also nominated for “Best Food Blog” in the BBC Good Food ME Awards. It is also the recipient of the “Best Jamaican Overseas Blog” in the Jamaica blog awards and earned a sliver award in the Expat Blog Awards for the UAE. They have one son.

Tell us about your personal experience of being an Executive Chef here in the Middle East and the UAE.
Being the Head Chef of Lexington Grill it makes you realize that one has to be open minded to the different cultural taste buds, since the clientele that you serve are from so many different nationalities. You also learn how to lead and manage teams with people from multiple nationalities and still find common ground in spite of perceived differences. Also you can choose from so many different ingredients worldwide at your feet due to both the location and the climate that makes importing necessary.

Why did you decide to work here in the Middle East?
I heard about the type of the culinary standard that was on the rise in the UAE. Things were very different when I first arrived and the market has changed significantly. This was almost 11 years ago. I feel proud to have been able to make my mark and my own contribution to the UAE food scene over the past decade.

For those not familiar with [Lexington Grill], what region is your culinary style modeled after?
Lexington Grill is an American Style Steak House.

What has been your impression of the local food scene over the years here in the Middle East?
The food scene in the UAE is ever changing from Portuguese and Greek cuisine (which are both getting popular now); Restaurateurs are pushing the limit in terms of customer experience, as a chef you need to adapt to the changing times, also it is very important that your food taste remains consistent.

When you find time to step away from Lexington Grill, where are some of your favorite spots to dine or socialize?
My time out of the restaurant is with my family we may go to the park or out to have sharwarma. I love to visit the local fish and vegetable market in RAK. We also do a quite a bit of dining out and eat in street food joints as well as more formal restaurants.

What is your favorite restaurant, besides the one you work at?
Umi the Japanese restaurant in Waldorf Astoria RAK. Chef Yukitaka is one of Japan’s finest.

If you had not pursued a Chef career or the life of a rogue restaurateur, what do you think you would have been?
Interesting question. I would have become an electrical engineer. I actually studied that first then changed my mind after being on a few construction sites.

What three ingredients you MUST have in your kitchen?
Maldon Salt, Whole Black Peppercorns and Butter

Are you launching any new projects in the near future that you’d like to share with us?
My wife and I Kari Heron of CHEFANDSTEWARD.COM are writing a cookbook this year. We are looking for a good agent and publisher because we have a few great book ideas. She is a sought after food photographer and stylist as well a seasoned F&B marketer and content guru producing content for TV, web and print. She has been pressing me to do a TV show for years and I feel that I may just be at the stage where I can consider it. We will also be unleashing a line of raw, organic Jamaican mountain honey from our family farm in Jamaica and will continue to launch a range of gourmet products over time.