How Michelin Star Chef Alex Dilling Turned a Residency in Malta Into a Main Gig
When two-Michelin-starred The Greenhouse closed its doors in 2020, former head chef Alex Dilling knew that another gig was going to take a while. “When you’re used to doing this job, used to staying active, you have to find a way back into the kitchen,” says Dilling. With his sous chef Pierre Minotti in tow, the duo did little pop-ups and four-hand dinners including a stint at the dynamic Carousel in Marylebone. As the community struggled to keep their necks above water throughout 2021, Dilling and Minotti kept the ball rolling till a golden opportunity came their way.
“One day, I got a message from Mark Weingard, the owner of Iniala Harbour House, together with his director of F&B, Seumas Smith,” recalls Dilling. “They were asking if I would be interested in a summer residency in Malta.” After filtering through his choices, of which sitting at home wasn’t an option, Dilling resolved that spending the summer in an unfamiliar setting like Malta could be advantageous.
Fast forward to a glorious February afternoon and I am in Malta for a one-time-only four-hands dinner between Dilling and New York-based tw0-Michelin-star chef Paul Liebrandt. It’s 2 o’clock and Smith, Dilling and myself are sprawled luxuriously over the colourful petite chairs of a local bar in the breezy streets of Valletta. Despite being on our third round of G&Ts that cost €2 each, we kept them coming in between the blithe banter.
High Net Worth: So, Seumas, how did you wind up in Malta and how did Alex come into the picture?
Seumas Smith: We (Iniala Group) have another hotel in Thailand, and I was sent there previously to open the restaurant. We had barely opened for two months before Covid-19 hit and we had to close it. Opportunity struck when Mark, who’s our owner, told me that they were also opening another hotel in Malta and needed assistance to set up the kitchen there—that is until things got back to normal.
I had never heard of Malta prior to this and had to Google map it. Initially, I thought it was part of Italy, but it turned out not to be the case. When I came over, the previous chef had just left and after a little bit of deliberation, they decided to make something big out of it. It was then that Alex came into the picture.
Alex Dilling: One day, I got a message from Mark and Seumas, saying that they were interested in having me in Malta for a summer residency. The next day, I was on a train to Manchester to have lunch with Mark, and he seemed really cool. Soon after, we flew out here to see the project. It all happened really quickly.
How has the restaurant changed ever since you joined?
Alex: The kitchen has been completely redesigned. Seumas designed it and it’s fantastic. Since it’s a long-term project, we’re constantly trying to make changes, improve the food, reorganise the kitchen, etc. That’s the beauty of this journey. It’s a never-ending thing. We’re just getting better with each month. With the peak summer season approaching, we suspect that we’ll be very busy, since last summer we were already packed to the rafters despite Covid-19. Imagine this summer, with all the travel restrictions lifted, we are going to get slammed.
Did you strategically hold this four-hands dinner before the onset of the peak travel season in Malta?
Alex: Oh, for sure. Doing these kind of events helps to improve the exposure for Malta, especially on the gastro-tourism side. Hopefully, this will bring more food tourism here.
Seumas: Definitely, this is upping everyone’s level in Malta as well. Two years ago, when the Michelin Guide first came, visiting chefs like Paul and Alex put pressure on Maltese restaurants to look at the ingredients they can utilise from around the country. Suddenly, you start to see a lot more local produce appearing on menus.
Tell me more about the terroir here and what excites you.
Alex: So, when it comes to meat, Malta is not the best country for that. It is challenging trying to secure a local source reliably. But we manage and the seafood has been incredible. Vegetables can be a bit tricky here. It’s a compromise; if they don’t have beautiful vegetables, we tackle that by being more protein-heavy with more seafood.
Our menu is not vegetable-heavy because it doesn’t make sense. Aside from seafood, there is olive oil from Goza, and Gbejniet, a local sheep’s milk cheese that we try to use. We process the cheese and serve that with our bread instead of butter. We try our best, but it’s not possible to be 100 per cent local. Some stuff we have to import. Right now, we work directly with a guy who helps us handpick stuff from the Rungis market in Paris. For example, the dairy here is not suitable for a lot of recipes.
What’s your take on restaurants that are brutally local?
Alex: I had this thought while working in The Greenhouse: the people that come here spend so much money on a meal. I can get a better chicken from the Southwest of France in the same amount of time that it takes me to source something locally. I’m going to use it just so that the guests can get a better product. A lot of the restaurants say that they are 100 per cent local, but they are using chocolate, olive oil and things that don’t come from their country. I think that the responsibility of a chef is to use the best ingredients you can and honestly looking at how quickly things move around, it’s really insignificant.
What are some of the most striking seafood you’ve come across in Malta?
Alex: We get a lot of wild red snapper now that’s just impeccable.
Seumas: The bonito is incredible. We’ve been getting a lot of carabinero prawns and baby pink prawns lately too. There’s a lot of tuna—fun fact, tuna is farmed here in Malta and sent to Japan. I think it accounts for 30 per cent of what Japan imports.
Alex: You can actually swim with the tuna. I find that terrifying, to be honest.
Does this steer your menu in a different direction then, since I recall my meal at The Greenhouse to be more meat-heavy?
Alex: Indeed. Now I’m 50 per cent meat, 50 per cent seafood. The thing is that when you’re in Malta, by the sea, you will crave seafood. Unfortunately, the clientele in Malta are more meat-eaters, it’s strange, in fact, a lot of them dislike seafood.
Seumas: Malta was part of the British empire up until the 60s, so if you look around, you’ll notice a lot of rabbit pie and lampuki pie (with dorado fish) on the menu. Italian food also stands for a major part of the cuisine here, it’s oily and very heavy. Unfortunately, on a larger scale of things, in terms of the food scene, Malta falls way behind. Hence at ION Harbour, we strive to pioneer a stronger food culture for the country.
Several hours in and the soft lights of Malta’s natural harbours have formed the backdrop to our glamorous four-hands dinner. Aside from bewitching his guests with a flashy rendition of rabbit à la moutarde and earning audible gasps for his wistful Landes chicken done hunter-style, Dilling opens the four-hands dinner with a dish of oyster vichyssoise. Balls of confit potato and oyster bavarois spheres are bathed in a creme fraîche glaze—forming a protective fence between the oyster tartare and sparkling mounds of Kaluga Hybrid caviar. Befitting, since the world is his oyster.
ION Harbour currently holds one Michelin Star under the leadership of chef Alex Dilling.