Every now and then, an opportunity comes for a change. That’s exactly what Kaesta McFee did years ago when he decided to take his culinary career international. In our latest interview, the Trini-Canadian chef shares what inspired him to move abroad, how it has enhanced his career and the value he’s gained in traveling the world.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Trinidad but migrated to Canada as a teenager. All of my family is from Trinidad and Tobago. I grew up in the capital city of Port of Spain, specifically in the area of Belmont. My family started to migrate all over the world: some moved to England, some moved to New York and others moved to Canada.
I moved around age seventeen or eighteen. My grandparents were already living in Canada. They came up first. They were living in Jane and Finch (in northwest Toronto), which wasn’t the greatest area at the time. My mother eventually followed. But I used to spend my summers in Toronto, so I was used to the city by the time I got there.
What was the experience like for you to go from Trinidad to Canada?
The experience wasn’t bad. It was just really cold. And there were times I wondered what am I doing here in regards to the weather. It was difficult getting used to cold. But now I love it. Because Oman is crazy hot. But in general, I was already used to Canada since I had been spending time there before I officially moved. The transition wasn’t bad.
You are a professional chef. What triggered this career path for you?
Going to school in Trinidad, I wanted to do something else. [I wasn’t thinking about cooking] before I came to Canada. My aunt owned a restaurant in Trinidad and I used to help her run the place. But before that, I picked up odd jobs. When my mom moved to Canada, I lived with my aunt in Trinidad. I also worked at a bakery. I did various jobs, some baking, washing dishes… I would hang out with the guys and someone was always cooking.
When I moved to Canada, I first worked odd jobs. But I didn’t like that so I decided to go to culinary school in Sudbury, Ontario. There was a two-year program that was compressed into a year. From there, I was hired to work at Chateau Lake Louise.
How did you take your career abroad?
I applied for positions in Singapore. At the time, the only position they had was a junior sous chef in a world-recognized restaurant called Jaan, which was part of the Swissotel Stamford Hotel. I applied, interviewed and got the job.
From applying to leaving, I was gone within two weeks. I was there for six months. Then I got switched over to the Asian Market Cafe, which is also part of the Fairmont Singapore hotels. I spent almost two and a half years there.
Where did you go after that?
One day, my friend called me and told me there was a position in Abu Dhabi that I should apply for because I wanted to look at positions a few months before my contract was up. I was looking at a number of places in different locations and venues. But none were a right fit. So I applied for this job in Abu Dhabi and they actually offered me a higher position.
I went to Fairmont Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi and stayed there a year. During that year, a new opportunity came up. My old boss initially called me to offer a job with a group called Rotana. But I told him I wasn’t ready yet. Three months later he called again because he believed in me and my abilities as a Chef and offered me a chance to interview for an executive sous chef position. I interviewed for that position but ended up with a job offer as Executive Chef – my first Executive Chef position which was a super exciting opportunity for me.
It was my way in to go from a sous chef to an executive chef position. I had to adjust because of the promotion, which meant I skipped a position in between. But I worked hard each and every day showing what I had in me and that I rightfully deserved that position. I stayed there for almost three years and even got promoted to Cluster Executive Chef (a cluster position) where I was managing two hotels and sixty colleagues. This was in Abu Dhabi and I was there for almost four-and-a-half years which I really enjoyed. Now, I’m in Muscat. This is due to that my company offered me to be part of the opening team for a new hotel; so I took the opportunity and moved as Executive Chef and successfully opened our new Hotel Sundus Rotana and I am proud to say that our specialty restaurant has climbed up to #1 restaurant in Muscat within less than a year.
How’s life in Oman for you?
It’s more quiet and authentic; you can still feel the “magic of Arabia”. It’s also more family-oriented and the people are nice and very down to earth. There is a lot of opportunity to explore Oman’s amazing natural scenery: the wadis, the beaches, the mountains. I love being outdoors.
You basically have been abroad for the last eight years of your career. What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your career abroad?
The different cultures. If I was in Canada, I wouldn’t have the same experience. Food is a big part of it. In Singapore, you have Chinese, Malaysians, Indians and they brought all these foods and cultures with them. Singapore is such a hub for these different cultures. I could go on and on but just from Singapore, you could experience different meals. If you don’t enjoy [the country] while doing something you like to do, then maybe you’re not meant to be there.
How have these moves impacted your cooking?
When I went to school, I studied French cuisine. But when you live in Singapore, it gives you a chance to experience more. All these different nationalities and influences gave me a chance to experience those styles of cooking. I learned more (southeast) Asian cooking.
And then when I moved to Abu Dhabi, I took up more Indian cooking, because of the Indian influence in Gulf countries. Moreover, I learned a lot about Arabic cuisine and cooking by living in the Middle East. It was and is an experience to learn all these multi-ethnic cuisines. It was a good experience but it was also a culture shock. New cooking flavors and techniques. It was a gateway to learn about these places.
In what other ways have you been impacted by living abroad?
I picked up the whole travel bug. I started to travel like crazy. When I was living in Abu Dhabi and I traveled to Rwanda. I saw the genocide and then crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo. You just try to experience the culture with an open mind. People have nothing and they’re happy… and then you jump on a plane and see this lady complain about her seat. And you’re like really?
Food is culture. Food brings people together. When you have nothing in common with someone, at least you can talk about food. You can have a good conversation about food and flavors.
I’ve traveled with some people who won’t eat local food. They stick with what they know. And it became hard for me to travel with those people because they are not open to trying something different. For me, I am always looking for the local experience wherever I go. I have tasted some crazy food such as frog legs, snakes, sheep intestines, 1000-year-old eggs, all kinds of bugs. The list goes on and on.
What’s a piece of professional advice you have for a chef who wants to work internationally? What would you encourage them to consider?
Working abroad is an experience that no-one can take from you. You grow personally and career-wise. You learn to work hard, you learn to challenge yourself; you learn not to give up as you want to prove yourself. You make friends from many different cultures and backgrounds and your mindset changes – you somehow become a citizen of the world. I would encourage everyone to take that opportunity and work internationally – try it. Because if it is not for you, you can always go back home. But if you don’t try it, you might regret it later on in life and wonder “what if…”.
Being away from friends and family gets tough. Family is important. Yet in today’s world of social media, even our loved ones are just a Skype call or WhatsApp message away. But you also have to be open to going out and meeting people and making that effort. It will be good for you professionally. You will experience things you will not at home. When you travel you work with international chefs. In Abu Dhabi, there were chefs from everywhere. The competition is twice as heavy. You are either with the trends or you’re not and your restaurant won’t do well. Be open to new things when it comes to food. The world is evolving. Even in Canada. There are more types different restaurants more than they were before.
Thirdly, just go on and enjoy the experience. You’re going to get knowledge. It’s always good to move around every two to three years, your career won’t get stagnant. And then you get a chance to work with different chefs. You might get to work with a German chef, a Brazilian chef, a Portuguese Chef French chefs. Your career will be more evolved when you move to different places.