From picking salad in the garden growing up in France to overseeing the 10 restaurants in the island’s upcoming casino resort, one man, a dynamic doer, has bounced around the world, one luxury stop at a time. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
Olivier Belliard sits in the covered balcony area – presumably also the smoking area, though everyone seems too busy to smoke – and reels off his various addresses of the past 25 years: “I was in the Caribbean, Lebanon, Kuwait, Thailand, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mauritius, San Francisco, back to Mauritius, Abu Dhabi, Dubai – and now Cyprus.”
We’re on the top floor of an office building in Limassol, a low-ceilinged room with around three dozen (mostly young) people hunched over monitors. A woman talks on the phone, to what sounds like a job applicant; another is discussing a design, presumably of a logo or marketing image. Promotional cardboard cut-outs sit in a corner. ‘Experience the Dream,’ reads the copy on one; ‘The dream will soon become a reality,’ promises another. The ‘dream’ in question is City of Dreams Mediterranean, not just a casino but the first “premium integrated resort” in Europe – meaning it’ll also offer a hotel, an expo centre, an adventure park, fine dining, and so on – due to open on the outskirts of Limassol in a few months.
“Chef Olivier,” smiles the rather intense-looking man, making his way through the scrum and shaking my hand – then apologises for keeping me waiting but he can’t talk just yet, he has to “jump in a meeting”. It’s a standard phrase but still sounds amusingly corporate, to an outsider like me – as if to say you don’t ever ‘have’ a meeting, the meeting just keeps going and participants jump in and out. (What is corporate life, after all, but an endless meeting?) Olivier Belliard is certainly used to big corporations, having spent most of his career in global hotel chains and increasingly top jobs. His previous post was as Culinary Director at JA The Resort in Dubai, a “five-star all-inclusive beachfront destination” where he oversaw 15 restaurants – and he’s now the Executive Chef at City of Dreams, charged with setting up and managing the resort’s 10 dining areas.
He’s 49 but looks younger, with lively green eyes and a sly, up-for-anything expression – and of course he’s insanely busy, hiring chefs and designing menus in preparation for the opening. He works 12-13 hours a day, though he tries to keep weekends free; he lives in Limassol but his wife and teenage children are in Nicosia (the kids, a daughter and son, go to the French school there), and weekends are the only time when he can see them. That said, the kids must be quite independent by now, having grown used not just to their dad being busy but also to their own lives being fluid and easily uprooted. His daughter was born in Egypt, his son in Mauritius; they’ve lived their lives as permanent expats, following their parents in their peripatetic lifestyle.
Olivier’s own childhood was quite different: a “countryside boy,” as he puts it, born and raised in Normandy (actually Deauville), the son of a police officer. His father had a big garden, sparking an early interest in food. “I remember in summertime, when we’d go in the garden and pick the salad” – herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers – “and it’s just a game-changer: the freshness, the crispiness, the flavour. It just tastes different.” So he had those roots, I point out, that solid foundation growing up in one place; his kids don’t. “Yeah,” he agrees. “But I guess they have something else.”
He has it too, whatever that ‘something else’ is; an open-mindedness, certainly, both about people (the kids “don’t discriminate against anybody,” having experienced all kinds of cultures) and life in general. He’s only just arrived in Cyprus – but it probably won’t be for good, based on the pattern of the past 25 years. I ask where he’d like to go next, but in fact he has no preference. “The thing is, I’m the type of person that I don’t set boundaries,” he explains. “I don’t want to limit myself, I don’t have expectations… I think when you have expectations, you limit yourself.”
But he must want something out of life?
He shrugs noncommittally: “Experience”.
He talks fast, in fluent but imperfect English – and very candidly, being a man with a story to tell. He left school at 15 and began an apprenticeship, “four years in different restaurants, mainly in Normandy”. (In France, that’s equivalent to a high-school diploma; he did later follow up with a Master’s in Hospitality Management.) It’s no joke, getting thrust into “the working life” at an early age: “I don’t think people really understand this sometimes – because it’s a working environment, it’s not like a school, you are being treated like – like a chef… I remember I found it very pleasant, actually, that I was dealing with adults on a daily basis, not with kids the same age as me”. He went through the rigours of the French culinary system in the 90s, learning techniques from first principles: “How to hold a knife, how to hold a spatula, how to cook a fish. It’s baby steps”. Before the four years were up, the teen was already working in five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Olivier’s mind has always been more dynamic – action-oriented, you might say – than academic. Even as a lowly apprentice he was good at “watching people”, picking up a skill by seeing it done. Later, when he started travelling, he learned English in a similar way – not by ploughing through a phrasebook or a dictionary but by interacting, seeing behaviour and connecting it with the words behind it. He was – and remains – a doer, which perhaps explains his chronic restlessness. “Usually, after two years, I have to change my job,” he admits with a grin. He only stayed longer in Dubai because it was such a big job, and kept him so busy. “When I’m busy, I’m okay. But if I stop to think, I’m getting bored.”
Combine that restlessness with youth, and a chef-like temperament (we all know what chefs are like), and it’s clear that he used to be a handful. What was he like as a younger man? His hair was different, he replies, longer. And his personality? “I guess, y’know – when you’re a chef, you are arrogant. And I mean, being French – French and a chef… Yeah!” Olivier chuckles, with a humorous ‘Say no more’ gesture. “But travelling and working in different environments brought me to a different mindset,” he adds more seriously, “and a different approach in talking to people.”
For some expats, travelling the world is just something that happens. In his case, however, it seems to have been a much-needed blessing, making him a better manager and a better person. He used to lose his temper quite easily, back in the day; that’s how kitchens are, “I used to argue all the time”. What about bad habits? I remember reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, detailing all the drug use and bad behaviour that went on behind the scenes at high-end restaurants. Was it like that? “Umm, you know, hospitality is well-known for excessive consumption of – y’know, various things,” he replies, neither confirming nor denying. “So when you’re young, when you’re working in those kinds of environments…” Olivier shrugs: “The world of hospitality is a different world. Because we work when people enjoy themselves – and we enjoy when everybody’s sleeping… Starting from 11 o’clock, we start enjoying ourselves. So yeah. It’s a different life.”
That was then, this is now. He can still enjoy a good cigar, or a nice bottle of wine – but he’s super-healthy these days, tries to eat mostly vegetables, studiously avoids sugar (unless he’s sampling a dessert menu), goes to the gym when he can. His personality has changed too – not just because he’s now more a manager than a kitchen chef, but also because of his travels.
Thailand, in particular, was life-changing. “Asia has a different mentality, and maybe especially Thailand… There’s even a book you have to read if you go to work in Thailand, on working with Thai people. There’s actually a book for that.” The etiquette is different, their work environment much more serene. “You cannot raise your voice,” explains Olivier. “They are very sensitive, in a way.”
But surely, in a restaurant kitchen – when things go wrong, when customers are waiting…?
He shakes his head firmly: “No, you cannot. You cannot. You’ll lose everybody. You’ll lose face, actually – so nobody will follow you, nobody will trust you. So that was a big thing for me… In France, y’know, we throw a pan, you talk – uh, rubbish to each other, it doesn’t matter”. Olivier nods equably, the green eyes unblinking: “All these experiences brought me to a conflict with myself – and I had to change massively, to be able to progress. I’ve made mistakes. Through mistakes, I’ve learned these kinds of things”.
Thailand wasn’t all mistakes: that was also where he met and married his wife (who is Thai). They worked at the same hotel, he as a chef, she a guest service agent. That, incidentally, was the Meridien Resort & Spa in Khao Lak, part (at the time) of the Starwood Group – another of the deluxe corporate places to which he’s devoted most of his career. He does miss the cooking sometimes (he cooks for the family on weekends, to unwind) – but he’s totally invested, he assures me, “everywhere I work, I drive it like it’s my own business”. There’s always something, even once the place is up and running: “You have to change the menu every season, there’s always a VIP that wants something specific… There’s always a project coming up”. He is, unsurprisingly, hands-on, and plans to survey all 10 restaurants at the City of Dreams on a daily basis; schmoozing with customers is also part of his job description. There are people he met as hotel guests whom he now counts as friends, he tells me – though ‘friends’ is a relative term, in his profession, “because I spend most of my time working… I don’t have many friends, but I have good friends”.
Some might say it’s a lonely life – or not exactly lonely (he has his family) but straitened, disconnected. He could never go back to France, says Olivier a little sadly, “it’s too late. I came here [to Cyprus], I think it’s the closest I can get!”. He’s no longer on the same wavelength as the staid, settled people of his youth: “When I go back to France on vacation, it takes me a week to understand my parents. Because I don’t have the same problems – you know? I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the news – because I don’t have time. I focus on my work, family and friends… I also don’t involve myself in politics. I don’t care! I don’t care what’s happening – I mean, as long as there’s no war and so on. I’m just here to work, and enjoy my life and that’s it. Make a couple of friends, and that’s it.”
When you seek experience, all experience is equally valid; it’s only when you stay in one place that you start to worry and discriminate. Politics is tribal, us versus them; the news is often a way of instilling fear. Olivier Belliard isn’t tribal – he’s a citizen of the world – and his only fear is the fear of boredom, of growing stale. An action-oriented person needs action, it goes without saying. The life of the permanent expat is unusually liberal, and unusually free – though its lightness is enabled by a certain heaviness, the burden of having to reboot your life every couple of years and “not being able to have a place where you can settle and – y’know, have your dog, your garden. ‘This belongs to me. This is my house.’ I cannot say ‘This is my house’.”
The years accumulate, despite his nomadic lifestyle. “I left with a canteen” – a small metal box – “when I went to Lebanon. I had one box. Today, we moved with the family with a 40-foot container! So things somehow – you know, they expand… And it’s heavy because you have to re-start everything. You have to re-start building your whole life, every time… You have to make the effort of meeting people, making new friends. And all this – this is heavy.”
The settled life is easier, to be sure. But his life is perhaps more rewarding – and perhaps more chef-like, the paradox of chefs being that they always work in teams yet are always very individualistic. Corporate life is a bit like that too, the dreamy bubble of five-star hotels and casino resorts that comprise their own little world, like the pared-down existence of the expat life – or indeed like the three dozen people hunched over their monitors, focused only on the City of Dreams. Speaking of which, “I need to go back and finish this meeting,” sighs Olivier, flashes a practised smile – and departs, back to the world of action.