Driss Helali: Sofitel’s French elegance match my culinary philosophy

In our series of interviews with prominent chefs and management, readers will have exciting moments with Driss Helali, an Executive Chef at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, in today’s share. In an effort to give you a variety of vibrant and multifaceted perspectives on the restaurant business, Wanderlust Tips USA is pleased to offer this insightful article with you.

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is a true gem in the heart of Cambodia, offering an unparalleled blend of comfort, and cultural immersion. Nestled amidst the vibrant city of Phnom Penh, Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra stands as an emblem of elegance and refinement, offering a haven of tranquility and rejuvenation. This 5-star luxury hotel seamlessly blends colonial-inspired architecture with modern design, creating an ambiance of timeless sophistication.

Executive Chef Driss Helali, whose enthusiasm and skill have turned the hotel’s savory offerings into a symphony of tastes and craftsmanship, is in charge of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra’s culinary brilliance. Having extensive and meticulous expertise in the pastry arts, chef Driss Helali will provide an especially interesting piece on how he found and shaped his career as a chef. Taking in all this gifted chef has to offer, we can craft the ideal itinerary for your next relaxing vacation. 

Good morning, Driss Helali. Could you please introduce yourself to Wanderlust Tips magazine’s readers? 

Bonjour, my name is Driss Helali, and I am an experienced culinary professional with over 19 years of expertise in the food and beverage industry. My culinary journey has taken me to many corners of the world, including France, Ireland, Dubai, and Cambodia. 

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to manage multicultural teams, which has enabled me to develop a vital skill set in menu creation, meticulous food cost management, and organizational efficiency. For the past 17 years, Cambodia has been my culinary home, where I have served as the Executive Sous Chef at La Residence Restaurant Phnom Penh and later as the Executive Chef at the prestigious Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. 

My passion lies in creating exceptional dining experiences while upholding the highest standards of culinary excellence. Every day in the kitchen, I approach each task with creativity, innovation, and a genuine love for cooking. 

What inspires you to be a chef and the opportunity to work at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? 

Culinary arts run deep in my family, and I am proud to come from a long line of chefs. My great uncle, uncle, and even my brother have all made their mark in the world of cuisine. Growing up, my mom’s cooking constantly inspired me, shaping my passion for the culinary arts. 

Having lived in Cambodia for the past 17 years, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the local flavours and culinary traditions. Cambodia’s rich culinary heritage has significantly influenced my cooking style, adding a unique and vibrant touch to my creations. 

The dream of working for a prestigious luxury brand like Sofitel has been with me for years. The blend of French elegance and excellence that Sofitel represents aligns perfectly with my culinary philosophy. To be a part of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, with its reputation for delivering unparalleled luxury experiences, is an opportunity I’ve been working towards and eagerly anticipate. My diverse culinary background and passion for innovation align seamlessly with the standards of excellence upheld by Sofitel. 

How did the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra attract you? And could you tell me about the most interesting experience while you are working in this professional kitchen? 

As someone who has spent 17 years in Cambodia, I can attest to the multifaceted and immensely captivating allure of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. Over the years, the hotel has established an esteemed reputation as a beacon of luxury and sophistication. Sofitel is more than just a workplace; it is a symbol of excellence in the hospitality industry. The brand’s rich history of culinary and service excellence, combined with its commitment to career development and work-life balance, immediately caught my attention. 

Working in this professional kitchen at Sofitel has been an intriguing experience, offering me the opportunity to cook for world leaders such as presidents and prime ministers, host various international delegations, and create culinary masterpieces for celebrities. These experiences have not only enriched my culinary skills but have also provided a profound sense of accomplishment. The challenge and excitement of crafting dishes for such esteemed guests have been truly exhilarating, making my journey at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra an extraordinary and fulfilling professional experience. 

Have you ever dealt with menu development? What is the future plan for Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra to reach the restaurant’s target diners?

As the Executive Chef at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, I have been responsible for menu development. During my two-year tenure here, I have been privileged to lead the development of menus for all of the hotel’s Food and Beverage outlets, featuring a variety of cuisines such as French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai. 

In keeping with Sofitel’s commitment to excellence, we are dedicated to providing a dining experience like no other. We plan to enhance our offerings by sourcing only the freshest ingredients available in the market, ensuring that our emphasis on high-quality and food-safe ingredients guarantees a delicious culinary experience and the health and safety of our valued customers. 

We aim to create a culinary journey that guests will remember, encouraging them to return for the exceptional quality and flavors that define our menus. This commitment to excellence and continuous improvement will help Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra appeal to its target audience and maintain its position as a top-tier regional dining destination. 

How would you describe your personal cooking style? What are the most important features that dishes of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra focus on? 

My personal cooking style is rooted in traditional French cuisine, emphasizing classic techniques and high-quality ingredients to capture the essence of French gastronomy and celebrate its rich culinary heritage. At Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, we’re passionate about providing our discerning diners with an authentic gastronomic experience. 

One of the things that sets Sofitel apart is our diverse culinary offerings. Each outlet is led by a native Chef de Cuisine, a master in their respective cuisine. Our Chinese restaurant, Fu Lu Zu, is led by Head Chef Jian Feng He, while our Italian restaurant, Do Forni, is headed by Chef Luigi Coccimiglio. We’re also in the process of appointing a Japanese Head Chef at Hachi. 

Our dishes are crafted with authenticity in mind. We aim to preserve the true essence of each cuisine by capturing its unique flavors, techniques, and cultural nuances. This dedication to authenticity sets Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra apart, providing our guests with an unforgettable dining experience that reflects the mastery of our chefs in delivering genuine and delectable dishes. 

What are the most popular dishes at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? Could you tell me the inspiration for those? 

Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra offers a wide range of culinary experiences, featuring a diverse selection of cuisines we take great pride in. Our Sunday brunches are particularly popular and are designed seasonally to showcase the culinary creativity of our expert chefs, making them a local favorite in Phnom Penh. 

Apart from the Sunday brunches, our hotel has a variety of outlets like Chinese, Japanese, and Italian restaurants, each with its own set of signature dishes. The authenticity of each cuisine inspires these dishes, and their popularity speaks to our commitment to offering our guests an authentic and diverse culinary experience, with each dish telling a story inspired by rich culinary traditions from around the world. 

It can be said that the taste of diners at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is diverse, how have you conquered the satisfaction of them? 

As a five-star luxury hotel, we welcome travelers from different countries and cultural backgrounds at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. We understand that every guest has unique tastes and preferences, so we have implemented several strategies to ensure their satisfaction. 

Our hotel offers a variety of restaurants, each led by an experienced chef de cuisine who specializes in different cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese, and Italian. This diversity allows us to cater to various culinary preferences, providing multiple options for different tastes. 

We also understand the importance of accommodating dietary requirements. To ensure the wellbeing of our guests, we are committed to tailor-made, customized dishes based on various nutritional needs. Our personalized approach, combined with the expertise of our culinary team, allows us to meet and exceed the expectations of our diverse clientele, contributing to a truly satisfying dining experience at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. 

As a good chef, you have to experience many different cultures and cuisines. What would you say about your best dish while working in Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? 

After living in Cambodia for 17 years, the local culture has deeply influenced my culinary journey at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. One of my proudest creations is the Hokkaido Scallops Ceviche, inspired by Cambodia’s vibrant flavors. This signature dish is a fusion of Hokkaido scallops with local Cambodian ingredients, and it perfectly represents my commitment to creating dishes that showcase a blend of diverse culinary influences.

The ceviche is a symphony of flavors that combines the delicate sweetness of Hokkaido scallops with the infusion of lemongrass, ginger, and kaffir lime. The dish is adorned with French caviar, which adds a touch of luxury and sophistication. This harmonious blend of ingredients has created a culinary masterpiece that has garnered praise from our local diners and esteemed guests, including presidents and foreign delegations.  The Hokkaido Scallops Ceviche is a perfect example of my passion for creating delightful and memorable experiences for the discerning guests at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. 

How do you handle bad reviews of cooking? Have you ever received any negative feedback when you are working in Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? 

Dealing with negative reviews is an essential part of being a chef. Maintaining high standards at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is crucial, but negative reviews, although rare, can still occur. When faced with criticism, it’s essential to follow these steps:

  1. Stay calm and objective: Take a step back and assess the feedback objectively. Even though emotions can run high, it’s essential to approach the criticism with a calm and rational mindset.
  2. Learn from the feedback: View the feedback as an opportunity for improvement. Analyze the specific points raised and determine if there are valid concerns that can be addressed. 
  3. Communicate with the team: Discuss the feedback with the kitchen and service teams. Collaboration is essential to identify potential improvement areas and ensure that everyone is aligned with the culinary goals. 
  4. Implement changes: If there are valid points in the feedback, take proactive steps to implement changes. This might involve adjusting recipes, refining cooking techniques, or enhancing communication within the kitchen. 
  5. Engage with the customer: Reach out to the customer who provided negative feedback if possible. Apologise for any shortcomings and express a commitment to improving. This proactive approach can often turn a negative experience into a positive one. 
  6. Continuous improvement: Use negative feedback as a catalyst for continuous improvement. Regularly assess and refine kitchen processes to maintain the highest standards of quality and service. 

It’s essential to note that in any high-end establishment, the aim is to deliver excellent dining experiences consistently. When handled appropriately, negative feedback can be valuable for achieving and maintaining those standards. 

Who are some of your culinary influences? What is the most important criteria you tend to focus on while making dishes at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? 

I am inspired by renowned culinary figures such as Paul Bocuse, known as “the pope of gastronomy,” Guy Savoy, a two Michelin-starred chef, and Yannick Alléno, who has an impressive twelve Michelin stars. 

When preparing dishes, I prioritize the fundamental principles defining exceptional cuisine. The freshness and quality of ingredients are crucial, as they ensure that each dish is vibrant and of the highest standard. I am committed to sourcing only the finest components for every recipe, as the essence of good food lies in good ingredients. Taste is also significant to me, and I strive to create an exquisite and memorable flavour experience that will linger in your memory long after the meal is finished. Finally, I emphasise the art of plating, taking care to present each dish in a visually appealing way and enhance the overall enjoyment of the meal. 

My culinary approach at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra is a harmonious blend of inspiration from culinary masters and a commitment to the core principles of freshness, quality, taste, and artistry. 

Do you have any advice for those who want to be chefs, especially for working in Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra? 

For those who aspire to become chefs, particularly for those who aim to work in prestigious establishments like Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, I have some advice to offer: 

Embrace the mantra of “working hard”. Success comes from unwavering dedication and a relentless work ethic in the culinary world. My mentor once told me that if you’re not a born genius, the key to reaching the stars is sheer hard work and a passionate commitment to your craft. Cultivate a deep passion for what you do, immerse yourself in learning, and let your dedication drive your journey. The culinary path can be challenging, but the rewards are truly satisfying for those willing to put in the effort. Be persistent and curious, and never underestimate the power of hard work to propel you towards your culinary aspirations

Stay tuned for more exciting travel and food adventures in the coming chapters of our interview series.

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