Shanghai legend Koen Vessies of Tomatito and el Willy Group is sadly saying sayonara to Shanghai after 11 years. But, don’t worry; he’s just moving south to Singapore, to help open a new el Willy concept, meaning he will still maintain strong ties to the city. We caught up with him before he jets off at the end of this month to reflect on his past experiences in China and look forward to what’s to come next for everyone’s favorite sexy chef.
When did you become a chef, and how did your journey lead you to Shanghai?
To make extra pocket money as a 12-year-old in the Netherlands, I started out as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. After recognizing my energy, the chef started to give me small tasks, like peeling potatoes, cleaning shrimp or washing lettuce, to stay busy.
After just a few weeks, I found a friend to take over my dishwashing duties and became a “full-time” kitchen helper. Four nights per week, the chef taught me everything he knew, and in return, I made his life easier. When I left the restaurant six years later, I was able to fully run a kitchen – a skill set for life.
Being a chef back then wasn’t as “sexy” as it is now, so when I told my parents I wanted to become one, they weren’t so keen. We found a middle ground in Hotel School, where I finished my studies, but deep in my heart, I still knew I wanted to be a chef. I participated in the chef’s school in my last months of study and won our school’s chef competition.
Soon after, at the age of 21, Dubai’s famous 7-star star hotel Burj al Arab hired me as chef de partie at their restaurant Al Mahara. I found myself cooking for many of the world’s most famous pop stars, athletes and celebrities. I’ll never forget when a certain ex-Spice Girl put me straight into the weeds by ordering a 7-course steamed vegetable only meal with no oil, salt nor pepper on New Year’s Eve!
The experience working in Dubai was completely over the top, but I learned so much about different cultures, lifestyles and cuisines. In Dubai I also found Sanne, the love of my life and now mother of our kids.
When she moved back to Netherlands I worked at Forte Village for Gordon Ramsey in Sardinia, Italy. Then I moved to Taillevent in Paris, a famous and traditional Michelin Star restaurant where other well-known chefs, like Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se), trained in their younger years.
Eventually, Sanne received a scholarship to do a Masters in Chinese Economy in Shanghai. Having no idea about China whatsoever, I decided to join her on this adventure.
What are some of your fondest memories working in the Shanghai F&B scene?
After Dubai, Italy and Paris, I thought I had seen a lot. But when I arrived in Shanghai, I realized that this is a very special city. It was like my previous experience but on ecstasy. The energy and power of the city are phenomenal, and so is the F&B scene!
In the early years, the ‘treating culture’ was booming. People were spending like crazy; champagne showers every day. I remember selling all our live lobsters to a lady and later finding out she had “freed” them in the Huangpu River…
Chef collaborations are one of the things that make Shanghai’s F&B scene so unique. POPSECRET was a event where chefs and bartenders worked together with artists, dancers and models for a food and art extravaganza. All of the chefs’ faces were painted by Kathryn Robbins, the whole space was covered in art, there were dancers and body paint models, all taking place in a beautifully designed Penthouse apartment. Guests had no idea what they had bought into.
Seeing people’s faces when Alvaro emptied a whole can of liquid nitrogen over the marble floor to create “smoke” was priceless. As we “plated” the dessert atop the venue’s 12-seater large wooden show piece table and a half naked body painted tiger model crawled across it, the poor real estate manager lost it. The whole experience was next level.
Who are the main people that have influenced your Shanghai career, life and overall experience the most?
Willy Trullas Moreno, who hired me as a sous chef for el Willy 11 years ago, completely shaped my Shanghai career. He put me in touch with the first people in the city. Also, my fellow Shanghai restaurateurs have inspired me a lot. The F&B community is tight and always out there to help each other. People here have achieved amazing things by working very hard. There is a lot of creativity, boldness and persistence.
My wife Sanne has also shaped my China experience. She is the one that brought me here and connected me with Willy. I remember her telling me, “Shanghai is much more interesting than Paris. In Paris everything has been done already. In Shanghai you can be part of the evolution of the city.” Eleven years later, I do feel that I’ve been able to be a part of this evolution, and I’m proud to really leave my mark on this amazing city.
You are the executive chef for el Willy Group China and the group’s Managing Partner, so what ultimately led you to stay here so long?
I started working at el Willy 11 years ago and became partner shortly after. Our partnership became unstoppable, with nearly all of our restaurants and bars consecutively being awarded ‘Best in Shanghai’ across a wide range of categories. Even now, “sexy tapas bars” are continuing to pop up around southeast Asia. Our style is well known by food and drink lovers throughout the city, as well as visitors who travel far and wide to get a taste.
Willy taught me to live and breathe the sexy and fun atmosphere that we create in each of our establishments. Under our “One Team One Dream” motto we take on any challenge! Over the years, I’ve had many highlights, successes and good times. I’ve dealt with many challenges too – COVID-19 being the most recent – but we stayed positive and came out stronger because of it. We will re-open el Willy in its same location soon when the building is fixed, and we have a new project in Bangkok to keep pushing for more FUN in southeast Asia!
What is your favorite China food memory?
When I was in China for just one week, we took a 32-hour hard sleeper train Chengdu. You can imagine I arrived hungry... All the flavors were new to me, so I was like a kid in a candy store trying everything! A lovely Chinese family was hosting us and taught me to play mahjong in the park; they showed us Chengdu and gave me my first taste of hotpot.
I remember going to the local market with the mother and grandmother where we bought all the ingredients. We cooked the whole thing at home and had a feast! They didn’t speak English and being super fresh in China I didn’t speak any Chinese yet, but the food spoke for itself.
What are you most excited for with your upcoming move to Singapore?
I have never been to the city, so it will be all new. I hear it is a culinary melting pot, so I can’t wait to try the food. For me, the easiest way to discover a city is always to go to the market. It is a good indicator of what a city has to offer, and it’s usually the first thing I do when on holiday.
I’m looking forward to BBQ-ing at home and enjoying my own food during our family meals rather than hurriedly tasting and trying in the kitchen at work. Also scouting a new location is something I look forward to. New projects always give me a lot of energy, and I’m excited and proud to continue the Tomatito and el Willy story for the coming years!
What will you miss most about Shanghai?
The energy of the people in this concrete jungle. People in this city like a challenge and don’t give up on their dreams easily. No shocker here, I will also greatly miss the local food in Shanghai.
What advice do you have to budding chefs or those working in F&B in Shanghai?
Shanghai is an amazing city that never stops. Go for 100%; push yourself hard, and don’t give up. Connect with other professionals, exchange, share and learn. Learn from new cultures and from their cuisines. The reward can be amazing but it doesn’t come easy. Give your everything to the city, and the city will give everything to you!
Any parting words before you go?
Zeiwei! Stay crazy, and see you soon my friend!
[All images provided by Koen Vessies]