What have you been doing lately? "After 30 years [of working for Grand Hyatt] it felt good to leave corporate America and live a more quiet life. I grew up in the mountains in a village called Menden, in Germany, where the winters were harsh, so my dream was to live on an island. I now live in Guam with my wife and it's only 4½ hours from Hong Kong. It's not sexy like Hawaii, but it's comfortable. I fish every day, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, and I'm content."
What do you miss about Hong Kong? "The energy hit me as soon as I landed. Being able to go through immigration with a thumb-print scan is so amazing. The variety of food here is - my God! Before, having white truffles was such a big deal. Now everywhere you see white truffle promotions.
"I used to be involved with charities. I volunteered for Little Sisters of the Poor, where they picked up food from the hotel every day. I was also involved with the Duchess of Kent Children's Hospital and Heep Hong Society."
How did you learn to cook? "It's a cliché, but from my mother. She was from the French part of Alsace and my father was a German soldier stationed there during the second world war. They fell in love and he brought her back to his village. She must have been frustrated because she didn't speak the dialect and wasn't easily accepted into the community. But she started baking and cooking dishes she learned from her mother, like kugelhopf [Alsatian brioche cake]. Many kids and neighbours wanted to come to our house and have cookies and cakes. My mother was happy to tell them stories about the food. I was impressed she made herself welcome. I assisted her in making these cakes and cookies, and soon she was taking orders for birthday cakes and special occasions."
How did you get started in the business? "My mother subscribed to something like Home & Garden. She showed me pages in the magazine of restaurants in Paris. She said chefs there had a good life and they always had food to eat. She gave me 90 [German] marks and I used some to buy a train ticket. I arrived at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, and I was scared, a country boy. I couldn't speak French. In those days chefs were like gods. One took mercy on me, giving me a job as a trainee at Maxim's and I was lucky because it wasn't good being German after the war. I had to work in the basement; they dropped all the food down there and I had to catch the fish and oyster trays. I developed a skill in opening oysters and cleaning fish. After three months I spoke just enough French to be in the kitchen."
Tell us the story about you and the watermelon. "I was about 14 years old and it was my first time in Italy and, being a country boy, I had never seen a watermelon or eggplant. I bought a watermelon for 50 cents and took it back with me to the youth hostel. I didn't have a knife with me so I thought I could hit it against something. I hit it against the bathroom sink and then the sink fell down and the water pipe broke. Water was spewing everywhere! I screamed for help and the owner was very upset with me. He wanted to evict me and made my father pay for the damages. The story went around our village and people made fun of me. But I do appreciate watermelon more than ever before."
What brought you to Hong Kong? "I had worked in different Hyatt locations and one day my boss told me there was a job opening in Hong Kong. I raised my hand right away because I really wanted to open the Grand Hyatt. I had been to Hong Kong before and liked Jackie Chan films and visited the Kowloon Walled City. When Kai Tak airport was open, I would sit on Checkerboard Hill and watch the planes take off and land. There were so many good Thai restaurants in that area."
Where do you like to eat? "Le Grand Colbert, in Paris, is a brasserie. It's seasonal minded and they make guests feel comfortable. At the Oriental Spoon, in the Twinpalms Phuket Resort, there was a Thai lady chef who would ask you what you wanted to eat, how hungry you were, if you wanted spicy or not. Then she would go back into the kitchen and make the dishes. Keyakizaka, at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, is a modern version of teppanyaki. The chefs don't have a stern face - they are young and genki - they're with it. You just pick the ingredients in front of you [for them to cook]."