A Culinary Education
With its soaring atrium lobby surrounded by unspoiled beaches, epic deserts and the craggy Al Hajar Mountains, Al Bustan Palace is unlike any other hotel in The Ritz-Carlton family — the property even serves as an extension of Oman’s official palace. But perhaps most innovative is its Culinary Academy, a vocational school led by Executive Chef Jörgen Sodemann. Here, the former Berlinermserves as teacher, mentor and culinary inspiration to a generation of young Omanis — and, as he tells Catherine Hong, learning often flows in both directions.
On the transition from Germany to Oman:
Back in 2011, when he first met with the then-general manager of Al Bustan Palace, Sodemann wasn’t even sure where Oman was — but he knew he was ready for an adventure. “I had spent my whole culinary career in Germany,” he says. “And I was ready for something new.”
On culture shock:
Although a peaceful and stable sultanate, Oman still presented a cultural learning curve for Sodemann and his family. “We didn’t speak a word of Arabic, and we didn’t know a soul in the city. But one of the great things about living on this earth is the opportunity to learn something new every day.”
How a culinary school emerged from a five-star resort:
Oman’s open-minded sultan, Qaboos bin Said, has been passionate about expanding employment opportunities for his people beyond the oil industry, with a particular focus on luxury travel. The Culinary Academy provides the training, fulfilling the government’s mission of developing homegrown culinary talent, and in turn supplies the hotel with a pool of qualified employees. “Many of these kids are from small villages and come to us with limited English skills and little to no professional kitchen experience,” says Sodemann. “So what I look for is a spark. If the individual can smile, show energy and passion, that is where we start.”
Why education is a two-way street:
“All of our students have learned very, very quickly,” says Sodemann. “They may have had little foundation in Western cooking, but their passion, curiosity and commitment have served them well.” But, as Sodemann explains, the teaching goes both ways. “I’ve learned not only from my staff, but also my students. Each family has a different approach, and I always like to ask my students how it’s made in their home. When we compare recipes in the kitchen, debate is fierce!” Partly as a result of his students’ influence, Sodemann decided the hotel must have its own fire pit. “We are now one of the only restaurants in Muscat with our own authentic shuwa oven,” he says with pride.