This is an homage and a thank you to one of my early mentors, Raymond Zarb. He was the Chef De Cuisine at the Russell hotel in London when I worked there around 1965 or so. He was an imposing figure with an electric personality and a very demanding and precise idea of how things should be done. He was a big man who made the air move as if to make room for him when he entered the kitchen. There was no mistaking his presence even if you didn't see him right away. He was there! He was a walking encyclopedia of cuisine, he seemed to know everything and we young lads would watch him whenever he made something in the hope that some pearls of knowledge would somehow make their way into our brains.
We as youngsters were all in awe of him and when he came into the kitchen everyone stood up a little straighter and were just that much more careful not to make a mistake. Even the seasoned chefs who were in charge of us were on their guard.
He also had the eye of an eagle. Nothing escaped him, he could spot a mistake in the kitchen while sitting in his office. He was amazing. His attention to the smallest detail , from the size of a trimmed vegetable to the preparation of any dish was always exact.
This is what we all wanted to be.
He wore his chef's toque in Napoleonic fashion with the flat side facing outward. This gave him an air of authority that could not be challenged. I can still see him entering the kitchen in the Russell Hotel glancing left and right as he moved his great stocky frame forward as a ship would in high seas, making sure that all was in order. He was indeed a presence.
He was extremely demanding and only wanted the best. Anything less would not do. He was an inspiration to us all.
He also did not suffer fools very well. I remember one day a little waitress, she must have been in her sixties, came down to the kitchen while Monsieur Zarb was working. He had his back to the waitress and a ten bob note in her hand. The waitress said " Chef, one of the guests sent you this as a tip" There was a great intake of breath from the cooks around him as they knew that this was a gross breach of protocol. Without missing a beat the chef said " Tell him to stick it up his ar#*%. The waitress smiled, said " Yes chef! " and put the ten bob note into her purse.
He had very little patience with politics and what would now be called PC. If he thought you were doing something wrong he didn’t hesitate to tell you so in no uncertain terms. He was a force unto himself.
He had a very warm heart and really cared about us. If he thought he had been too harsh he would come back a little later and put his arm around your shoulder and tell you that it was for your own good. I was given personal proof of this as one day I cooked a roast too much and he threatened to throw me out---- headfirst ! On another occasion I had the temerity , being a young lad who already knew everything, to question one of his directions. That was a mistake. After each of these incidents he put his arm on my shoulder in a fatherly way and told me it was for my own good. Many years later I realized that he was right. I have used his example and told tales of his legend to my own employees in all corners of the world and they are always fascinated by the stories.
He was really the first super chef in London. He had huge articles in The Observer newspaper long before these things became commonplace and he was the first Maitre Cuisinier to come to London.
Raymond Zarb definitely left his mark on me and on many other 20 year olds who thought they knew everything. I am sure that there are many chefs in London now and like myself, around the world, who owe him their careers. Hopefully some of them will see this.
I have not seen a Chef since with the amount of notoriety and reverence that Raymond Zarb had at that time.
I remember him with great fondness and gratitude.
I still have his menus from the Russell Hotel. As soon as I can find them in my files I will post them.