The person the Medias call “the best Master Chef in Namibia” as he had already won this title in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and who was awarded the “best South African Master Chef” title in September 2013 is a Vatelien!
A Vatel Lyon 2005 alumnus, David Thomas moved to Namibia in 2009 and opened his own restaurant, Le Lyon des Sables, on the Walvis Bay seaside.
“Vatel doesn’t train master chefs. I’m the exception that confirms this rule,” said David Thomas with a grin on his face. Well, in that case, let’s have a seat in his restaurant with dolphins and pink flamingos right next to us while we savor his Success Story.
David, could you tell us how the Lyon des Sables was founded?
It started off as a joke between friends with Virgile Meiller, my best friend who is also a Vatel alumnus, which then changed into a serious discussion and turned into a real project. We arrived in Windhoek in 2009 and set up a joint partnership. We have a small team of ten: six in the restaurant and four in the kitchens, including an assistant chef, a cook and two people to wash dishes. You know, it’s really hard to find competent and qualified personnel here! I personally cook every day. I always have a short sourcing circuit to guarantee fresh local produce to my customers. It’s a huge challenge as there is no way to tell how many customers we will be serving in any given day.
What advice could you give to Vatel students and alumni who would also like to open their own company?
When you start your own company, you’re always taking a big risk. And when you do this in a foreign country, it’s an even bigger risk. This has to be something that you have completely thought through. You need to be thorough, tough, and you have to love what you’re doing for your own company to be successful and well managed. Vatel doesn’t train master chefs. I’m the exception that confirms this rule, but it does train you to be determined and have a fighting spirit!
Did you have a cultural shock upon your arrival in Namibia?
Everything is different here! From human resource management to customers, suppliers and local culture. There are very few qualified personnel because there is no local training available. Customers are a mixture between local people, tourists and businessmen. You can’t forget that Namibia is still a part of what we refer to as a third-world country. Even after having been here for five years, and having won many national and international cooking contests, there are still hurdles to cross on a daily basis. You always have to be dynamic and keep on building new customer offers.
Speaking of building, what are your projects?
The restaurant is doing well, it has a good reputation and we’re very well known. I’m thinking of opening a second restaurant, certainly in Windhoek, the capital city. To do this I’d like to meet new suppliers, find new products and keep working on new tastes and textures like I’ve been doing for the past five years.
Then after that, I’d like to roll out an exclusive catering service: dining in a lodge in the savanna, a private meal in the desert, a chef who comes to your home, etc. I’ve got tons of ideas.
I’d also like to find the time to educate and train young chefs. For the past few months I’ve been in charge of the Namibian junior culinary team. We won the first edition of the African Culinary Trophy last September in Johannesburg, competing against countries like South Africa, Dubai and Kenya.
So lots of projects, lots of things I’d like to do and lots of challenges. Without of course forgetting my family. On December 24th, I became the daddy of a beautiful little girl and she is number one on my list of priorities. But I’m still sure that you can balance your work and your private life.
Was hospitality, tourism or catering something you always wanted to do?
When I was in high school, I wanted to do vocational courses, but I decided to keep on studying and get my high school diploma. And it was in economics and social studies. And for higher education, I knew that I was looking for something with a hands-on philosophy. And I understood right away that Vatel would fit me like a glove with its curriculum closely linked to the workplace. I’ve got great memories of the time I spent at school, people I met and friends that I made.
Thank you David. Would you like to say something else?
Just get down to work there in the kitchen, and do it with a smile!