Making the world better one dish at a time: Interview with Chef Russell Impiazzi of The Sofitel Dubai ‘The Obelisk’

Through the years, the United Arab Emirates has positioned itself as one of the world’s leading countries that offers a wide array of gastronomical delights. We can say that the country doesn’t only boasts of its food scene, tourism and wealth but it is also a home to a great number of talents. 

Dubbed as one of the youngest Executive Chefs of Dubai at 28 years old, Chef Russell Impiazzi of Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk is, indeed, a culinary genius. His talent in creating magic in the kitchen has made his gastronomical journey a success leading to launching an array of popular dining venues that won a number of Time Out Dining Awards and being consistently named among the Top 10 of the 50 most influential chefs in the Middle East by Caterer Middle East magazine. 

His passion, however, does not only revolve around the walls of his restaurants. His gifted hands are not only amazing in creating sumptuous dishes but they are also wonderful in helping other people through his passion projects in the community. Chef Russell has launched in 2014 The Pink Brigade together with his friend, Chef Robbie Stokes, to raise awareness and extend support for those with Breast Cancer by donating 100% of the proceeds. He further continued his advocacy projects by working with Hilton London Metropole for #FeedThoseInNeed to help feed those who were deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Let us get to know more of Chef Russell Impiazzi as we indulge in his world of culinary delights. 

  1. What influenced you to become interested in the culinary world? 

Looking back, I’ve been incredibly lucky as it’s really all I’ve ever really wanted to do from about the age of 7. I remember making fresh bread at school with flour, water and this magical thing called yeast that was completely new to me and then not just seeing the process but the most amazing smell. It just had me hooked. I went straight home and told my mum “I want to be a chef”.  

  1. Since your passion for food started at an early age, what kind of dishes did you grow up to? 

My mum is a great cook. I’m one of 5 children so food was always a big thing in our house, especially dinner time, as well as the weekly and daily shopping. We had great a local butcher shop and local green grocers just up the road from our house. Back in the day, a local butchery was very different from the trendy butcheries of today with mostly prime cuts. We would have stuffed braised lamb hearts, calves’ liver, the most incredible stews with oxtail and dumplings. 

As children, we’d of course be very fussy, but you’d always have empty plates after dinner. Sundays were reserved for a family roast, and I remember returning home after Sunday morning football to the most amazing smells. When you’re tired, cold and generally covered in mud after the game, it was the best thing to come home to. 

  1. Having established yourself as one of the youngest Executive Chefs in Dubai at 28, how did that affect your personal culinary development? 

Dubai really has been at the heart of my career. I first came here in 1996, as a young, 20-year-old chef who’d been working in London, to a place so foreign, with no idea of how long I’d be here or what the future held. I simply put my head down, worked incredibly hard, listened and learnt from all the different nationalities and food types I was suddenly exposed to, and I honestly loved it.  

Opening the first independent, licensed restaurant at The Pyramids at Wafi was an incredible opportunity and amazing project I was fortunate enough to be a part of. It essentially changed the way Dubai looked at eating out. With time, more restaurants opened within the complex and some evolved, and I was absolutely lucky to be at the heart of it all, leading the most diverse team of talented chefs.  Being exposed to and really embracing, not just the different cultures but the authenticity of the food really was one of the driving forces. And it still is today. I learnt my trade here and every single person that I have been lucky enough to meet and work with over the years have impacted me in some way. It’s so important to embrace the positives and to see the best in people, it even helps to get the best out of yourself.  

  1. Can you share with us your signature dish and what makes it special for you?

It would be easy to get all chef-like and say something intricate and complex. But for me, a signature dish is the one you cook the most, one with meaning, and one that evokes a sense of emotion, be it excitement, comfort, or nostalgia. And honestly, I have to say, I do a really good Spaghetti Bolognaise! 

This was my late dad’s favorite dish and our go-to family dinner on a Saturday evening. Now, I cook it every couple of weeks at home and my children absolutely love it. It’s great to watch them enjoy it as I did with my dad. So there, 30 years in the business and my signature dish is a bolognaise!    

  1. What made you decide to go back to Dubai and continue your culinary venture?

Seeing Dubai grow and evolve over the years has been a huge privilege and it becomes almost part of you. We genuinely missed the authenticity of the food here. Dubai has been home for such a long time, it was never easy to leave, but when the role was offered within an area that has meant so much over the years, it was very easy to come back to. The team here at Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk at Wafi have been incredible since my first day and so supportive of what we’re trying to achieve.   

  1. How were you able to come up with an idea to launch the Pink Brigade and connect it with your culinary talent? Tell us more about it. 

It started back in 2014 with my good friend, Chef Robbie Stokes, whose wonderful wife Clare was bravely battling breast cancer. The chef community is an amazing one to be part of and the amount of support shown to Robbie, Clare and his family was just incredible and awareness it generated was inspiring to see. 

Clare sadly passed away in 2015 and it’s very much a legacy to Clare that we have been able to continue to raise awareness over the years with so many amazing chefs supporting us. We all have our stories with loved ones, friends, or family that have been affected by cancer in some way and The Pink Bridge is something that I think a lot of us can relate to in its meaning, which is supporting each other and ongoing awareness. Working together, we are able to raise money along the way for the amazing work The Pink Caravan does in its screening program throughout the emirates because early detection really does save lives.

  1. Are there any projects lined up for the Pink Brigade

This year, we have the most amazing pink aprons from our friends at Bragard, along with A.Ronai, who have been so generous with their ongoing support over years that has allowed us to donate 100% of the money raised to The Pink Caravan. The last couple of years obviously have been tough for all in our industry, but we still managed to keep The Pink Brigade going. Last year was about awareness as I honestly did not know if there would be an appetite for it with the way the world was. But as I’ve said, the chef community are an amazing bunch, so it was great that we were able to get the message out. The idea for this year is that we will be raising funds, if we can, by selling our beautiful pink aprons with 100% of the proceeds again going towards The Pink Caravan. 

  1. Apart from the Pink Brigade, your work for #FeedThoseInNeed during the pandemic has caught attention. What did the pandemic mean for restaurants and gastronomy and what made you work for this cause? 

The pandemic was an emotional and scary time for everyone. For restaurants and hospitality, it was an absolute nightmare. Not just for the restaurants, bars, and cafes but also for the farmers, the growers, fisherman and the whole fresh food supply chain- the pandemic affected every part of the industry. 

At the start of the pandemic I was based in London and our hotel was one of only a couple in the UK that had government permission to stay open during the lockdown in order to support frontline workers and the incredible NHS doctors and nurses. The supply chain had shut down, but we still had to produce over 1000 meals a day with a very limited team and almost no deliveries. Despite all this, we somehow managed to do it. 

We knew the lockdown was coming, and so I asked the team to check all of the food that potentially would expire. With a couple of thousand biscuits, along with items from the dry store, we actually had quite a bit. I reached out to our local food bank who were more than happy to take it, in fact, desperate for it. That’s where it started to grow in my head that there is a real need here.  A few weeks later we were contacted by a couple of great guys who had started to connect a few restaurants in the midlands called ‘Open Kitchens’ and were crowd funding a few restaurants to produce meals for those struggling. As we were based in London, logistics was a going to be problem, however, I asked what we can do in London to support them. They very kindly connected us with The Felix Project – a London based charity that was relatively new but had a great support and access to literally tones of fresh produce that was going to waste as there was nowhere for it to go.  I remember saying, “send to me, I don’t care what it is…”. That’s when we really got started, and within two days, there was over a ton of produce in our loading bay.

This is what’s so special about hospitality and chefs. After explaining what we were trying to do and what we will do, the whole team wanted in, without question or hesitation.  We were able to get the team together, some of those who were alone, away from their families at home, and were struggling, so we got them back into work on a volunteer basis to be part of something special, producing 1000’s of fresh, healthy dishes with amazing produce that would have gone to waste for those struggling financially with young families, the elderly and the homeless. The amazing thing is that the team are still supporting The Felix Project to this day. 

Seeing the hugely positive impact to turning surplus food that is potential waste into great meals is such a simple solution of addressing an ongoing food waste issue. When I arrived back in Dubai, this was still very much in my mind and I was keen to see what we could do and what impact we could make here. We were able to onboard a couple of our suppliers to generously donate whatever they could not sell, again with the mantra of using whatever is available without wasting. 

With the support of the amazing culinary team here at The Obelisk, we have now passed the 10,000 portions of food prepared using surplus food and supporting the incredible work of the UAE Food Bank, who distribute all the meals to those who need it. It’s something that we will continue to do as really there is so much more, we as a wider industry, can do to support this.

  1. What is the best take away that you can get from being an Executive Chef and being a founder of a good cause at the same time? 

To me, being a chef is the best job in the world. I love it as much today as I did when put my first chef jacket on when I was 14 years old. As chefs, and everyone working in hospitality, you have the ability to make someone’s day better, whether is great cup of coffee, a great lunch with friends where you hear laughter in the restaurant, or an amazing birthday cake; all of these things make you smile, so why not do more if you can?  It’s about doing the right thing, loving what you do, staying positive and supporting each other whenever wherever you can.

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