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Raphael Duntoye, UK-based award-winning chef: Abandoning my engineering career to be a chef, my best decision

Chef Raphael Duntoye was the toast of the three-day GTBank Food and Drinks event, which opened on Sunday, April 29 and wrapped up on May Day, to resounding applause by the hundreds of aficionados that thronged the annual exhibition of culinary creativity, sponsored by the financial institution that loves to ask people, “would you rather not bank with us?”

Duntoye, who handled the Masterlass event drew a crowd of celebrities from all walks of life, who had come to see one of their own, who is making waves abroad as a chef. Very unassuming with cheerful disposition, Duntoye is Chef Patron of La Petite Maison, a popular upscale French Mediterranean restaurant with outlets in London, Dubai, Miami, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul. He began his culinary journey in 1995, when he abandoned a career in engineering to follow a life-long passion for food and cooking. Shortly after his impressive cooking session, at the event, he spoke with Sunday Sun.

Tell us more about Chef Raphael?

After I left engineering, I joined the Butlers Wharf Chef School in 1995. Following my graduation, I spent the next five years earning my culinary stripes under the mentorship of Pierre Koffman, one of UK’s most celebrated chefs. Later I served as Executive Sous Chef at Sketch in Mayfair and as a Senior Sous Chef at the Japanese restaurant, Zuma in Knightsbridge, London. In 2007, I opened the first La Petit Maison in Mayfair, London. I have since grown the award-winning restaurant, which now has branches in five major metropolitan cities across the world.

Which field of engineering did you study?

Electronics Engineering.

Then why did you leave the profession?

I woke up in the morning and realized that it was not for me. I wanted to change my career. I had been thinking about being a chef even before I got my degree. I have a good social life. I took the plunge to pursue my dream, and here I am today.

What has life taught you?

Don’t take yourself serious. It is very important. Be humble and always to strive to be the best.
You know, I have been up and I have been down. I have learnt a lot from life. For me, the best thing you can do is give goodwill to everybody. This means that everybody around will be doing good things when you are doling out good. Moreover, you have to treat people the way you want to be treated. It is very important.

As a Nigerian doing amazingly well abroad, how do the Whites react when they enter you restaurant and see a black man as the chief chef?

I have not checked. If I walk into a room and what you see is black, by the time I’m done you don’t see that anymore. Also, I have never entered a room thinking I’m black. As a Nigerian, it doesn’t matter how much we have in our pocket, nobody is more proud than us.

How do you juggle your business and family life?

That’s tough. I will like to spend more time with my family and I hope someday I will do. Right now, my work demands a lot of my time and sometimes you know you are doing it for your kids. So, sometimes I try and take them on holidays just me and them alone. I just came back from holiday. Just me and them.

When you are not wearing a chef’s uniform, how do you dress?

I keep it nice and simple. Just like my cooking.

How much do you make as a chef?

Someone asked me the question last time I was here. If you think about money then you will fail. If you do one thing often, you try to attain perfection. Even when I wake up or go to bed I think about what I can do better tomorrow than today. I ask, how can I be better the next day? What can I do today better than yesterday? That is how I live my life. I believe in hard work and a bit of luck as well.

I believe I have worked hard but mostly I’ve had good luck and all my disappointments have turned into blessing. When the Managing Director of Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), Segun Agbaje, invited me over to come to Nigeria to cook at the first GTBank Food and Drinks, I was really adamant. I didn’t want to come because people in Nigeria are doctors, lawyers etc. Nobody wants to do this (be a chef). No parents want their son to be a chef here.

But when I landed in Nigeria and saw many faces at the Masterclass I said to myself whao, Nigeria has arrived. Not only that, go to anywhere in the world you always find Nigerians doing great things, so when people say you are lazy, I put it to them that we are not lazy people, what we need is structure.

With your delicious cooking how do you remain trim?

I love cooking but the older you get you try to eat in a healthy manner. I love bread but I have cut it down. Now, I eat bread once a month but when I eat, I eat all day. I take about two days to get over it. The main thing is to eat in a healthy but graceful manner. The way the body works is that if you are eating three times a day, you moderate it. The main thing is to eat in moderation as well. For me, I don’t eat enough, I don’t always do it. I try to eat in a healthy way.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I didn’t grow up in a family that was very food oriented. For example, most of the time I write my menus; everything around me inspires me. People inspire me; for example, the chef that spoke before me, Elizabeth Solaru inspired me. So, I get inspired by a lot of stuff on food.

You and your wife who is the better cook?

I will tell you a story. When I opened La Petit Maison, my daughter was about two and half years. I was at work every day and on Sunday, after church, I would go into the kitchen to serve. And on one of those days, my daughter said to my wife, ‘Mama, you know I love your cooking but why is Papa’s recipe better?’ That answers your question.

What is your life philosophy?

If I believe in something, ‘it’s do or die’. My philosophy is do or die.

How do you manage your restaurants?

By hiring the right people. You also have to take good care of them. Give them the feel of ownership. If you do that everyone will be happy and the chef will stay with you. A chef has never come to me for a raise. No one has ever come to me for a raise. You know why? Because I give them extra for their work. Everyone wants to know that they are important in an organization. I prefer to have less in my pocket and sleep tight at night than to have much and get worried about the business. I always make sure I give everybody a bit of the pie.

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