A few years ago, I introduced readers of The National, Abu Dhabi and Salut! to the remarkable success stories of Sylvester and Jonathan Wahid, the sons of a Pakistani who chose the French Foreign Legion as his path to a new life in the West. Wahid Senior did well, so well that he was able to bring his family to France. The boys are now among the country's top chefs. They were already in that league when I met them at the Baumanière les Baux in Les Baux-de-Provence; here is an update on their soaraway culinary careers, written for The National once more but this time its business pages ... as always, thanks to the edit of The National for permitting the reproduction of my work
The world of French haute cuisine has been made to sit up and take notice of two gifted sons of a Pakistani father who found a new life in the West by joining the Foreign Legion.
In a chic Parisian arrondissement and in the heart of Provence, Sylvestre and Jonathan – not the names they began life with – are separately succeeding at what the French generally consider they do best, creating sumptuous dishes for discerning diners.
As boys, the brothers were happy to play cricket in the streets of Kohat, 70 kilometres south of Peshawar.
The tables of exquisite restaurants frequented by figures from film, music, big business and politics could hardly have seemed more distant.
Yet in a fiercely competitive environment, the Wahid brothers are now acclaimed chefs with three Michelin stars between them, a shared appetite for relentless work and limitless ambition. They have also converted their skills into business success.
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They served together for several years at the famed French restaurateur Jean-André Charial's magnificent Baumanière les Baux at Les Baux-de-Provence, north of Marseilles. Sylvestre was the chef and quickly acquired two Michelin stars, Jonathan the patisserie chef with a national award under his belt.
When they branched out in different geographical directions, they retained a professional relationship.
Sylvestre, now 42, moved to Paris and succeeded the venerated Jean-François Piège as chef at the four-star Hotel Thoumieux, where he runs two restaurants – one bearing his name – and leads a team of 25-30 staff.
Portrayed in glowing French media accounts as a chef “out of the ordinary”, he is happy in his work but dreams of opening his own restaurant or restaurants in such cities as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, New York and Los Angeles.
And he has already given himself a taste of entrepreneurial commitment by joining his younger brother in buying and developing the Saint-Rémy de Provence.
The day-to-day running of the restaurant and hotel is very much in the hands of Jonathan, 40, and his wife, Fanny Rey, France’s only Michelin-starred female chef in 2017 and a past finalist in French television’s Top Chef contest. But beyond the ties of a close family, the brothers retain a professional and business relationship.
Both are conscious of operating in a notoriously fickle sector where flair is not enough.
“The terrorism attacks in Paris affected everyone and it has not been easy,” says Sylvestre, who is “crossing fingers” for a third Michelin star in January. “But if you take proper care of your business, you can make a restaurant succeed provided you never forget the golden rule - work, work, work.”
Jonathan, the father of two children aged 13 and eight, echoes his brother’s words. “In this business, you need to combine passion, endeavour and ambition,” he says. “The guiding principle is work hard, work quickly and work better.
“We have put a huge amount of into preserving the history and identity of our establishment and strive constantly to improve everything we do.”
The Auberge employs 25 people and has 11 rooms although the restaurant accounts for 80 per cent of revenue, with an average of 25 to 30 guests each lunchtime and 40 for dinner.
“Our history and that of the Auberge are above all the story of a couple - Fanny the chef, me the pastry chef - and in her case working enormously to her own culinary signature.
“Fanny and I own the entire property but it is true that being together, and sharing knowledge, with Sylvestre makes us much stronger in terms of evolution.
“He is our financial partner but also gives us his vision of cuisine. Remember he is a great, highly experienced chef whose help we consider precious. Fanny is younger, less experienced. It’s an exchange and a matter of sharing.”
The brothers’ outstanding progress is all the more astonishing when their origins are fully understood.
It was on little more than a whim, and a fondness for western films and television programmes such as The Great Escape and Robin Hood, that their father left Pakistan to join the Foreign Legion in the south of France.
Six years later in 1984, having established himself in the unit’s catering service, he was allowed to bring his family to join him.
When The National featured the brothers in 2009, their father, by then retired from the Foreign Legion, said everything he did on arriving in Europe was guided by a belief that “when people move to another country, it is for them to adapt, not the other way round”.
This view was later mirrored by Mohed Altrad, the illegitimate Syrian-born son of a Bedouin tribal leader who turned a a bankrupt scaffolding business into a French multinational, with 17,000 employees and a turnover of US$2 billion.
Initially encountering racial prejudice on winning a scholarship to study in France as a teenager, Mr Altrad decided that “for me to stay, it was not France that had to change for me, but me for France”.
For the Wahid family, this meant changing first names to appear more French. The father had already become Henry Wahid and he quickly changed his sons’ names from Shahzad and Jawad.
Like Mr Altrad, the brothers have never forgotten their roots. But it was not until this year that they returned for the first time to Pakistan, invited by the French ambassador there to cook for an official function in Islamabad.
“It was a short trip, just four days, but very moving,” says Jonathan. “We managed to see relatives and also something of the way Pakistan, as a relatively young country, is developing so quickly and successfully.”
In their high-profile careers, both brothers have cooked or baked for such celebrities as the British actor Hugh Grant, the former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney and – before they separated - the Franco/American film couple Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp.
In Paris, Sylvestre has prepared dishes for a wide international clientele, including visitors from the UAE.
But for Jonathan, the status of his customers is unimportant. “We have a very wide client base, international but also European and even local,” he says, “and for us it makes no difference whether our customers are known or not. We just want them to be happy.”
In a companion article, I discussed an important factor in the success or failure of restaurants ... where they are
Location, location, location.
With one word twice repeated, the American writer and former restaurateur Lorri Mealey diagnosed a key symptom in the familiar condition of restaurant failures.
Writing at the personal finance website thebalance.com, Ms Mealey cited research from Ohio State University that found almost 60 per cent of eateries changed ownership in the first year of trading.
Some 80 per cent failed altogether within five years, according to the same study; “Few other businesses tout such disheartening statistics,” she wrote.
Ms Mealey, who started out in lowly catering jobs while a student in western Maine but went on to co-own three restaurants, listed 10 factors from poor hiring practices and slack financial stewardship to ignorance of the need to advertise, bad customer service and inexperience.
But she says: “I will continue to say until I am blue in the face … a bad location is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) reason a restaurant fails. Poor visibility, no parking, no foot traffic or maybe being cursed are just a few of the problems associated with a restaurant location.”
It is not difficult to see the logic applying anywhere in the world.
The Wahid brothers easily pass her test on location. There are few more idyllic spots in France than Saint-Remy de Provence where Jonathan and his wife, Fanny Rey, have their restaurant-cum-hotel. In a lush, hilly setting 20 kilometres from Avignon, the town was the birthplace of the 16th century prophesiser Nostradamus; the Dutch master painter Vincent van Gogh had psychiatric treatment there.
In Paris, the rue Saint-Dominique, where Sylvestre puts his creative skills into practice at the Hotel Thoumieux, is in the heart of the city's most important tourist district. Attractions range from the Eiffel Tower to the celebrated Orsay, Rodin and Branly museums. The Invalides, final resting place of the former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a five-minute walk from the hotel.
But not all restaurateurs recognise the importance of location – and many get plenty else wrong in the running of their businesses.
Even on the French Riviera, where the sheer number of visitors each summer should guarantee a captive market, businesses fail partly because of where they are situated.
In the small resort of Le Lavandou, west of Saint-Tropez, the same proprietor tried two locations for his Indian restaurant before giving up. Each time, he had chosen hopelessly out-of-the-way premises. Just outside the town, an upmarket restaurant faces a constant struggle, despite ownership and name changes, to prosper in a location on a busy main road with no sea view and limited parking.
Restaurants in France often appear to employ too few staff, leading to slow service and excruciating long waits for the bill. Owners contend that their hands are tied by restrictive labour laws and high taxes and are looking to the new business-friendly president, Emmanuel Macron, for remedies.
The Wahid brothers seem acutely conscious of the need to get other aspects of running a business right so that their obvious talents in the kitchen translate into commercial success.
They pride themselves on hard work, constant evolution and attention to detail – a far cry from what the Scottish celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey found when travelling round the United States for a Fox TV reality show, Kitchen Nightmares.
Of 77 ailing cafes, bistros and trattorias visited, more than 60 per cent closed within a year of featuring on the programme.