Hector Jimenez-Bravo does not need to be introduced to Ukrainian audience. He is the TV star, great chef and successful businessman who has been living in Kiev for 4 years already. “Destinations” asked Hector about his recipe for success.
Bravo Restaurant Group is one of Hector Jimenez-Bravo activities. This company deals with new restaurants and restaurant concepts in countries of North America and the CIS. In 2013 Mr. Jimenez-Bravo opened the International Culinary & Pastry Arts Academy in Kiev. The future stars of gastronomy are born here. Hector Jimenez-Bravo is the creator of his own culinary style in which he joins the Latin American culinary traditions, French elegance and delicacy of Asian cuisine.
Hector, how is it to be successful in Ukraine in such difficult times for this country?
When you do business you need to be ready for the challenges. You can’t just think that the business is going to be easy anywhere in the world. For example, in Canada business is very well organized. But even there everything is not so perfect. Challenges can change from country to country. Bureaucracy while opening the business here is very strong while in Canada you don’t have this problem, but you have other problems. For example, taxation is lower here, and in Canada it is higher. Anywhere in the world you will face certain difficulties. What you have to know is that you have to be very open-minded and very respectful to the local culture. Before I came here to Ukraine I lived in 10 different countries. Somehow I am very knowledgeable of how it is important to put yourself into a local culture from the local perspective and to be ready for difficulties.
The first thing that I always did while getting into a new country was not to have friends-foreigners but meet with locals. Here I have only some foreign friends from the Canadian Embassy. It is important not to create a bubble. If you have only foreign friends whom you meet after work you will live in this closed space. You will have no opportunity to get to know the locals and the local culture.
This is the biggest problem of immigrants from all parts of the world. They don’t want to integrate. They just move with some communities and create neighborhoods with their own culture.
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As for me, experience of living in different countries helps me to be ready for anything. I had never ever expected that I would live in paradise. Paradise does not exist. I lived in Maldives. Everybody thinks that Maldives is paradise. Believe me, it is not. There are very beautiful places, beaches, the ocean is unbelievable but it is not paradise. That is what you need to keep in mind.
Did your perception of Ukraine change within the years you live here?
Yes, a lot. I was living in Saint Petersburg before I came to Kiev for the first time in 2005. It was my vacation. In May in Saint Petersburg was grey, wet and dirty. And when I landed in Boryspil and went by taxi to Kiev I saw these green trees. It was so beautiful! Then I’ve got into the city. In the center of Kiev you get into narrow streets, cozy places. It was so nice and I thought: “May be one day I will come here to live”. That time I had no idea that 3 years later this idea would come true. Yes, my perception changed. Many foreigners left Ukraine when Maidan had happened. Many of them stopped investing into Ukraine and even took out the investments. I did the opposite. I decided to stay and I decided to invest. I did it because Ukraine was very good to me. People welcomed me very well. It was a kind of relationship. Any relationship has good times and bad times. That country was with me in good times, so why should I leave it in bad times? I would not do that. I decided to stay and to invest.
When people ask me: “Hector, where is your home?” I usually answer: “I have Colombian and Canadian passports, I live in Ukraine”. I think my heart is split in 3: Colombia is the place where I was born, the place of my roots; Canada is the country which accepted me; Ukraine is the place where all the cities are smiling to me, welcoming me with open arms. So my biggest change from the time when I arrived here till now is that it became my home.
When you tell your foreign friends about Ukraine how do you describe it?
I usually say that it is amazing. And it includes also pluses and minuses. It has been one of the most incredible experiences in my life.
Would you advise to visit this country?
Absolutely yes. I always tell my foreign friends: “Just go there like tourists at least. This country has rich culture and history. It has beautiful nature: there is the Black Sea in the south; while you are there sometimes you think you are in the tropics, but you are not. Mountains and one of my favorite places are in the west. The center of the country is great with Kiev city and Kievans. It is a great cosmopolite city. When people ask me if it is safe, I always say: “If it is not safe, I would not live here”. And that is all.
Do you like to travel in Ukraine? Do you have your favorite destination?
Yes, a lot. I visited more that 70% of its territory. As to my favorite destination, it is difficult to name only one, because Ukrainians are very jealous when I don’t mention their area. Not long time ago I was in Shayan on Western Ukraine close to the border with Romania. There are very nice spa centers with mineral waters and great massage services. The nature is beautiful. It is a perfect place to relax.
I like very much Lviv, sometimes you feel like in Vienna over there.
Odessa architecture, markets and people are very special. I like Odessa.
I visited so many places around Ukraine. Area of Ivano-Frankivsk is very nice. They have an amazing banush, very delicious. In Vinograd I tasted incredible bogrash. I really liked it, I had my personal interest in that but I combined it with professional side of my life while travelling with TV channel to make some shows in villages and cook with grand people. It was the best experience for me.
Let us talk about gastronomy. Recently in London the first 3D cafe was opened. The food over there is prepared with the help of 3D printer and the furniture is made on printer too. What do you think of the future gastronomic trends in the world?
I think it is like in fashion: everything goes through a cycle. In fashion the people never believed that the beards would come back and now it is a popular trend again. Culinary has it cycles as well. Molecular cuisine was born about 8 years ago. And everybody thought: “It is the future”. Well, it is not. Actually the clients did not like it; better to say, they liked certain accents of molecular cuisine in a dish. The trend changed. Now dry grain, like beans, lens, chickpea are one of the biggest trends of 2016. These are not the glamorous products but it is one of the trends because chefs are exploring this, going back to the roots. So it is very difficult to say now what the future trend will be. It will be always an experiment. We are always creating different things. Our first level students impress with the dishes they cook. So their food is already better than the one in some restaurants around the world. Ukrainians are very creative. I’ve been cooking for 27 years of my life and the food I’ve tasted here is one of the best foods I’ve ever tried. And I feel very proud because these students are from my academy.
What are the main problems of Ukrainian gastronomic culture and what are the steps we should take to change the situation?
I think the clients of the restaurants here don’t have to be afraid of experiments and have to be more open to new flavors. We – chefs - do understand that everyone likes home food. It is normal. But it is great from time to time to experiment with flavors, to change food that we eat. People here are too much into what they like to eat and that is it. Here you can find Italian cuisine together with French and Asian one in the same restaurant. And the reason for this is your mentality. People think: “I’ll go to the restaurant where my wife can get Italian pizza, I like steak, and my daughter likes sushi.” And people do not understand that in the kitchen the chefs need their specialization. If a chef cooks a little bit of everything he is never going to be great in anything.
Did you succeed to taste fine dining in Ukraine and very good Ukrainian cuisine?
Haute Couture does not exist in Ukraine, but you can find fine dining in my BAO restaurant. I never had an intention of making my restaurant Couture, because I know that Ukrainians are not fans of such an ambient approach. I wanted to create a place where you can feel comfortable on high heels as well as in snickers. But it is still a fine dining experience.
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About Ukrainian cuisine: I’ve tried some food of chefs who are trying to do something with a new Ukrainian cuisine and unfortunately I’ve got disappointed. In these restaurants it is not new and it is not traditional at the same time. As to BAO, I’ve made marketing research and it was clear that everybody here likes Italian cuisine and I said: “I don’t want to do that”. “Hector, are you crazy?” “Yes, I want a place like a clash between New York and Hong Kong in one place. And I did it. Everybody told me that Ukrainians don’t like Chinese cuisine. Well, I have news: after opening my restaurant, 5 more tried to copy my food. So this is a good trend.
Are your BAO restaurant, Bo café and Academy the part of big Hector’s eco-system where you teach personnel of your restaurants and improve the quality of service and gastronomic approach in Ukraine in general?
Yes. The Academy was my first project here. Everybody was thinking: Why don’t you open a restaurant, but academy? I said: “Because first of all I need to train the chefs and then I can open my restaurant”. We have like an eco-system or a cycle – we are training the chefs (many of them work in restaurants and my pastry shop, and I want to continue expansion of my places).
Some restaurant trendsetters prefer to have their own farms and mini-gardens to have fresh and high quality products. Would you like to do something like that?
I really want to do that and I really want to work more with the local farmers. Unfortunately, here the minister of agriculture needs to do better job. We need to organize agricultural business better in Ukraine as well as to promote it, to support the local farmers, who don’t have any support for now. Whatever they produce they do it with their hands. When I was looking for Pekin duck for my BAO restaurant I really wanted to use Ukrainian product. And I tried many of them from different farmers in Ukraine, but I didn’t find the right one. Now I use Hungarian duck. We still use local products for many other things. But I’d like us to do much more. I’d like to be more involved into that, but I just don’t have enough time. It is not easy to keep the balance of all the projects I am running now.
Do you agree with the statement that we are what we eat? What are your food preferences?
Absolutely yes. Right now I stick to a very strict diet. Just for health reasons I’ve lost 9 kilos in 2,5 months. We are what we eat. I feel healthy and happy now. It is just a very balanced diet and I am involved into sports a lot. You need to find a balance of what you eat, how much you work and how you feel about your health. Last year I had unpleasant accident and I’ve got into hospital. I had the re-opening of the academy, the restaurant opening and TV projects. I was full of stress. And for this year I changed my lifestyle totally. Every morning I am in a gym for 2 hours. Then my day goes on without stress.
What are your future plans in Ukraine?
I want to continue the expansion of Bo café and we have plans with BAO restaurant not in Ukraine but abroad. We want to make the academy stronger and stronger. Now we are going through accreditation process with British Council for international certification. I want to continue to expand the academy also.
If you did not become a chef, whom would you like to be?
A chef, only. If I had a chance to return to the moment when I was taking decision about my life I would not change anything. I would do exactly the same mistakes because I am very happy with my life. If I changed something, probably I would not reach what I have now. I think I am who I am because of mistakes I made in my life.
Things that do not kill us, make us stronger. Right?
Absolutely. I would not want to be anyone else but Hector Jimenez-Bravo.
Interviewed by Anna Vishtak
Photos by Yulia Kurta for Destinations