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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Good Food and Travel -- All in a Day's Work

MTThomas Koessler is the youngest-ever executive chef at any Marriott hotel.
At the age of 15, Thomas Koessler was desperate to become a dental technician. He loved sculpting, and all he wanted to do was spend his days perfecting people's teeth.

When the dentist in his native Salzburg, Austria, told him he'd have to wait a year before starting training, the teenager decided to pass the time working in the kitchen of a local hotel.

Koessler is still a chef 11 years later, and he's rapidly climbed up the restaurant ranks. He recently became the youngest-ever executive chef at any Marriott hotel, a considerable achievement in a large international chain.

Speaking in an interview at the Marriott Royal Aurora in central Moscow earlier this month, Koessler said he committed permanently to restaurants because he loved food -- but also because he discovered a liking for the kind of creative work his job requires.

"When you cut half a cow down to a piece of steak in a kitchen -- it seems strange, but you enjoy it," he said. "You have a relationship to your product. Not a lot of people know how to get the end part from the whole part."

At the Marriott, Koessler is the sole manager of three eateries and 80 staff. He is responsible not only for ensuring that work in the kitchens and on the floor in the restaurants proceeds smoothly but also for the profit margin of the hotel's food services. It's a big responsibility, Koessler said, because in large hotels as much as one-quarter of profits from food sales is reinvested back into the food and beverage division.

Every day, Koessler meets twice with his five deputies and does rounds in the kitchens. He then checks the contents of the stockrooms, which must hold a specified amount of each item of stock. There should always be between 50 and 60 tins of caviar, for example, and 200 kilograms of fresh oranges.

Koessler said he couldn't resist an urge to micromanage his 50 Russian chefs, with whom he speaks in a pidgin language he calls "kitchen Russian."

"When I check the kitchens, I get stuck at every single [preparation] position -- maybe they're not cutting the leek right," he said.

"I need to be in control 100 percent, otherwise I don't know if it's right."

Koessler did his apprenticeship at the Salzburg hotel where he began work. His first months were spent in the salad section, where he learned how to make 25 different varieties. Later, he learned to perform magical transformations with meat, creating a delicious steak from a dead cow, as he put it.

In 2000 and 2001, Koessler moved between hotel restaurants in Austria, becoming a chef-in-charge and then chef de partie. He said that all budding chefs begin as line cooks working on particular sections, for example cold food or pastries. The next step is to become a chef de partie, who manages a section, and eventually a sous-chef, a deputy to the head and executive chefs whose responsibilities can include writing menus.

His big break came when, at age 21, he was offered a chef de partie position at the Burj Al Arab, a sail-shaped skyscraper on an artificial island off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, often described as the world's first seven-star hotel.

"It's what every chef and cook was talking about," Koessler said. "My head chef in Austria was a good friend of the sous-chef [in Dubai] ... and so I got a call saying, do you want to join us?"

Working in the hotel's aquarium-surrounded restaurant as chef poissonier, the chef in charge of fish dishes, Koessler came into contact with chefs from 54 other countries. He learned from Chinese chefs how to prepare stir-fries in 15 seconds, a skill for which, he said, they had been especially brought from China, and from Malaysian chefs the trick to gutting a fish and then carving the fillets in 30 minutes.

Koessler came to Moscow following a stint in Britain, where he earned a number of awards for a hotel in Suffolk, and only after first trying to get work in the United States. Visa problems stymied his efforts.

"A friend at a Marriott in Houston told me Moscow was looking for an executive sous-chef. I thought, are you crazy? I never considered Russia, that there might be a hospitality industry here, nice restaurants."

Pleasantly surprised by the attractiveness of the center -- and of Russian women -- Koessler secured the job by cooking a dinner including squid bread and beetroot and lemon rolls for managers. He has since redesigned the hot and cold kitchens and is planning a new menu for the hotel's fine dining eatery.

Koessler said he wasn't trying to compete with Moscow's fashion restaurants, solely aimed at attracting the elite crowd with concept decor and the latest gourmet fads. Instead, he said he wanted to focus on serving great food. To that end, he has ingredients he can't buy here, such as Japanese rice and 4-kilogram sea bass, shipped especially from France.

When someone is as demanding of oneself as he is, Koessler said, they could hardly do otherwise.

"I will never lower myself. I will never compromise on anything -- not with my staff, not with my food. Maybe that's what my staff will learn from me: to never compromise."