Interview with Thomas Gugler

Selma Roth,
Saudi Gazette, JEDDAH
What do King Abdullah, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Angela Merkel have in common?

Not much, except perhaps that they are all world famous people. That, and the fact that the same top chef has cooked for all of them.
His name? Thomas A. Gugler, a somewhat eccentric certified masterchef who hails from Bavaria, Germany, and lives with his wife and children in Jeddah. Gugler himself is quite nonchalant about this impressive list. “In the end, you can easily satisfy people with good food.”
Gugler, who received an impressive total of 178 medals, awards and honors from international cooking competitions, is no newbie in the Kingdom.
For eight years, he worked for Saudi Arabian Airlines Catering as the executive masterchef and manager menu costing and planning, catering all royal flights as well as those of heads of states coming to the Kingdom.
In 2011, he embarked on a new adventure when he got the opportunity to become the executive masterchef and F&B (food&beverage) director of a new hospital that was to open its doors 1.5 years later.
You might wonder why such a renowned chef chooses to work in a hospital, but Al Mashfa is not the average neighborhood hospital; it is a luxurious, state-of-the-art, 7-star hospital — the only one in the Middle East and Africa.
“The food here is not normal hospital food,” Gugler explains while showing me the hospital kitchen. “We try to do something completely different here.”
That is, converting top-quality restaurant food into hospital food. “We create fusion, crossover food and combine Arabic flavors with a Western presentation brought out in Asian style.”
Naturally, Gugler and his team at Al Mashfa hospital have to keep in mind many more nutritional factors than the average restaurant cook, such as the amount of vitamins, protein, gluten content, and sodium. “You have to think a little bit out of the box,” he admits.
To assure the patients’ well-being, all food is tailor-made to suit individual needs, and the hospital only works with fresh products, making everything from scratch on the day it is served.
Besides his daily job at the hospital, Gugler takes part in numerous cooking competitions worldwide as a world-certified A judge and a coach of young, talented chefs.
“It is very important for me to travel with young chefs not only from the hospital, but also other people associated to the hospitality industry here.”
Nearly every week, he takes his apprentices around the world to have them experience different cuisines and attend cooking competitions.
The German cook, whose great-grandmother worked for the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, had always wanted to become a chef.
“When I was young, I always watched my grandmother cooking, who was also very talented, and I was extremely interested in this field. Thus, I decided to become a chef,” he said.
Luckily, he had the support of his family and got the chance to learn all necessary skills from Hans Immerz, a famous German cook.
During this apprenticeship, Gugler went to cooking competitions nearly every week.
MasterChef Hans Immerz said: “If you want to learn you have to go for competitions. Of course, it was not always that easy, because I was working 263 days per year at that time.”
However, now Gugler is thankful for the experience and medals he obtained while competing all over the world.
Gugler is a member of over 30 chef associations in the world, including executive master chef and continental director of the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) for Africa and the Middle East and the founder of the Saudi Arabian Chef Association.
Prior to coming to the Kingdom, he was the trainer of the German national youth team of chefs: “With them I won the cooking Olympics and world championships several times, and this gave me the opportunity to travel around the world to train other national and regional teams.”
Gugler thinks the importance of educating young, talented chefs should not be underestimated, as the standards are going down.
“Nowadays, people are not learning the basics anymore.” As an example, he says that almost no one is able to make a good sauce from bones anymore, as everyone uses convenience products. On the other hand, he realizes that for mass production the use of these products is often indispensible, as labor has become too costly.
The German masterchef is passionate about coaching young, talented chefs. With his teams, he travels around the world to take part in numerous cooking competitions: “I always mix my teams. Sometimes we go to top events in which we need a team that has been working together for five, six months, but at smaller events, a two- or three-week training is sufficient for the team to be able to compete with top chefs from all over the world.”
Gugler is currently working on establishing a hotel business school in the country, a “talent shop for young chefs and hospitality-associated people.” He thinks this will play a major role in the development of the country.
“When the expatriates have to leave Saudi Arabia, the Saudis will have to do everything themselves. By that time, they have to be ready,” he says. Further enhancing the skills of young talented chef is also the aim of the Saudi Arabian Chef Association, which Gugler established some years ago with a Saudi colleague.
According to the chef, it is crucial for young, aspiring cooks to work with and get trained by renowned master chefs to learn all skills needed. “Whenever someone has worked for a known chef, another famous chef will take him without looking at his CV. I think 70 percent of cooking is learnable; the rest is God-given talent.”
Having said that, the chefs admits that although everyone can learn how to prepare a dish, sense of taste and the art and touches of cooking are skills almost impossible to acquire.
Besides that, Gugler believes various other factors play a role in creating a scrumptious dish: good-quality raw materials, a good school, the right equipment, and – surprisingly – having the proper clients. “It doesn’t help when you cook like a genius and you don’t have the right clients.”
Speaking of clients, how much do they differ from one country to another? “Saudi clients are definitely different. Saudi Arabia has a very special culture. The heritage of the country is based on tribes living in a very rough environment,” Gugler observes.
Traditionally, the tribes had to find ways to preserve foods and to be able to carry them hundreds of kilometers in the desert climate, something very challenging before the invention of refrigerators. He loves the Saudi cuisine and thinks it is quite special, because it’s mild, natural, and based on flavors.
“You don’t find very fancy food in the Arab cuisine, but you find good quality, homey food,” he says because “people here do not go for convenience products like readymade pizza or burger; Saudis cook from scratch with a lot of rice, beans, peas, lamb, fish, and chicken.”

The centrality of food in Saudi culture should not be underestimated, he says. “Family and food are of major importance. Most of the entertainment revolves around the table. It’s their amusement, as it’s too hot for outside entertainment.”
Despite, or perhaps because of that Saudis are very picky in their eating habits. “When a Saudi buys fresh lambs, he always wants to see a piece of the skin to know the breed it’s coming from. Saudis also do not like to eat frozen chicken. They love chilled, fresh chicken.”
He thinks currently, people in the Kingdom are further diversifying and fine tuning their cooking habits, as they broaden their horizon during trips to Europe and other places.
Recently, Gugler and his team – consisting of one German, one Filipino, and one Russian chef, in addition to a local service team member – attended the Eurasian Cup in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to represent the Middle East and Africa in the competition.
Despite the short notice – Gugler received the call to participate just one week prior to the competition – and the number of teams participating in the event, they were “quite successful.”
Competing with 219 other teams, Gugler’s guys won three gold medals in the kitchen and one gold medal in the service as well as the grand prix for the whole team.
The chef’s agenda is packed. “In two days, I go to Alkhobar, then to Turkey, Egypt, and Kiev in the Ukraine.” Other places on the agenda this fall are Kazakhstan, Dubai, Macau, Switzerland, and India.
But not all his activities involve fancy cooking competitions or lavish hospital nourishment.
Gugler is also concerned about poverty and food availability for an ever growing world population.
Lately, he conducted a charity event in Somalia, where he and a friend distributed 50,000 kilograms of food to dying people.
“We were attacked and shot at, but I think it is very important to do this kind of things.”
Other charity work includes his membership in the board of “World Chefs Without Borders,” which sends chefs to areas affected by natural disasters, as well as in the committee of “How to Feed the Planet,” which discusses the future of sustainable food.
The cooking veteran recommends young, aspiring cooks to just apply for a job in a kitchen, whether it is in a restaurant, hospital, or any other place, even if they do not have an educational background in cooking.
He strongly believes in “where there is a will, there is a way” and thinks that nothing can stop a proper chef from creating a satisfying dish.
“If you’re a good chef, you can work with whatever material is available. You have to modify secondary-quality products and work it into a good product.”
That Gugler is able to turn all he touches into gold is certain. Trying to go back to natural flavors and fond of cooking with fish, seafood, venison, and mushrooms, the Bavarian chef turns whatever product he finds into something special that will almost make you want to become hospitalized