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Codes and beans: from software engineer to star chef

How does someone cook who once developed software for a living? Zineb "Zizi" Hattab was a software engineer a few years ago, but today she is one of Switzerland's best-known chefs. Code and data are no ingredients in the kitchen, but if you eat at Zizi Hattab's restaurant, you might taste them after all.

Tobias Imbach spoke with Zizi Hattab

When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
There wasn’t a specific moment, it was more a chain of moments that led me to making that decision. As a software developer, I mainly developed interfaces, I designed the user experience in production plans and in between. In my breaks, I used to write menus and think about things to cook. On the weekends, I would always have guests over. Slowly but surely, cooking took over all my free time. And at some point, I realised that I was more interested in cooking than in writing code.

So you had two jobs really, at one point?
It kind of overlapped – for a while, I still enjoyed my job as an engineer. The projects were interesting, but the tasks, the work processes were very different. As a software developer, I used to have one single project over a longer period of time, while in the kitchen, it was very much a daily thing – you’d start anew every day. That began to be very appealing to me.

Did you develop a solution for this in your work?
The software I developed at that time was supposed to help these people to use these systems, to train them. That's when I realised that although we are pushing these technologies into the world, we are not only creating opportunities, but also problems. Technological progress is often accompanied by a certain euphoria, and it is important that people who cannot keep up are not forgotten.

And then you kickstarted your career in gastronomy – by working under three star chefs like Massimo Bottura and Andreas Caminada. How did you manage to do that?
I think, my age might have played a role. I was 23, but in gastronomy, people start cooking when they are 15, so they would have years of experience at that point. Going to school again wasn’t an option for me because I was never the best student and I had already gone through engineering. Also, I was more fascinated by the idea and the concept of food than the mere handicraft, so I looked for places where this higher understanding of food was palpable – and one of these places was only 30 kilometers away from where I lived: Andreas Caminadas Schloss Schauenstein. I hadn’t heard of him before, but he seemed to me to be one of the best chefs in the world. I started to do some research on similar restaurants and the most influential chefs, not in terms of popularity, but in terms of how they were changing the status quo like Massimo Bottura and the Rocca brothers in Spain… and began to make a list. I sent a letter to all of them. From time to time, I have to read this letter to see what I said to convince them. Each of them gave me a chance. I am forever grateful. I took a year off, I told my boss that I was leaving to change my career, and he knew he couldn’t change my mind – he promsied to offer me a job if I ever decided to come back.

Have you ever thought about that?
To have a safety net makes every decision easier. But if I could turn back time, I would again study engineering, work as a developer and then become a chef. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

If I could turn back time, I would again study engineering, work as a developer and then become a chef.

Are there ways in which you benefit from your past as an engineer?
Well, I have a completely different mentality than any of the chefs I have worked with so far. Not better or worse, just different. I'm a problem solver. I don't dwell on the bug or mistake, but on how to find it and how to fix it. This makes work much easier, also for my team. In kitchen culture, mistakes often take up a lot of space. I am quite software-oriented in my approach to cooking. When something doesn't work, you need to find a way and fix it.

Speaking of mistakes – It is fitting that the name of the restaurant is, grammatically speaking, a mistake . "Kle" is spelled with an "e" because you misspelled the word yourself for a long time.
Exactly, I think it’s important to avoid mistakes, but, if they happen, to see them in a positive way – they bring you to places where you can learn and help you avoid similar flaws in future situations, when it might be more critical. It is exactly the same with cooking and software – failure and mistakes are part of the process.

Does your personality specially qualify you for the job of a software engineer as well as a chef?
Yes, I think so – I’m a person-oriented character, I have empathy and I can relate. I believe empathy helps a lot as well as being positive. I would not have survived as a software engineer with a negative mindset – because there were always problems.

I would not have survived as a software engineer with a negative mindset – because there were always problems.

On the other hand, you don’t want life to be too comfortable – what is wrong with that?
It doesn't fit my personality to feel too comfortable. Like now – We’re quite successful with “Kle”, so I have decided to open a second restaurant, which is going to happen soon. My husband is always like: “Please stop.”

What’s the biggest difference between your two jobs?
Everything is different, for one, cooking is much more immediate. Every day, you start from zero. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday. It's new food. You need to prove yourself every single day. While working as a software engineer brought many advantages, I could not be as creative as I am now. For me, food is my language. It is the way in which I express my personality. With food, I pass on my experiences, where I've been, how I see the world. With software, that is just not possible.

Why did you decide to study engineering in the first place? Was that something you were passionate about?
I first applied to philosophy, since I really like philosophy, but then I ended up doing industrial engineering. I think we like to do what we're good at, in my case, that was math and technology.

For me, food is my language. It is the way in which I express my personality. With food, I pass on my experiences, where I've been, how I see the world.

And nowadays, how digital are both your working life and your free time?
My current life is very much analogue. There are still many things that have to get done in the digital world – not binary at all though, more with Social Media – but most of it is analogue, regarding both business and free time. At the moment, I spend my day much more with talking than with cooking because we are hiring for the new project, and the team needs a lot of coaching and being listened to.

Which again perfectly fits your personality, as you described it before. However, is there any modern technology that you would use in the kitchen and/ or that interests you?
A lot of people are using 3D printing, for example, for cooking. I don't do it myself, but I've seen amazing things created with that. There’s also a lot of useful software. In New York, we had an app which put together all the suppliers and we could order from there for everyone. I generally expect more and more automation in kitchens all over the world, for more body demanding tasks like weight lifting or handling big amounts of boiling or very hot oils where people could be injured. Robotics help a lot there.

Part of our technologically shaped world is also the possibility to order food online. You don't do that. Why?
We did it during the first lockdown, but we didn't like the conditions for the drivers. Drivers are stressed, and I can't stand the thought of our food being served like this… I think there are now a couple of new local companies that are doing a good job though.

There are other developments in the food industry that are not necessarily helping to make the world a better place. However, do you believe that technology could improve it in any way?
Technology is already doing a lot when it comes to plant based food, for example, it enabled us to create meat alternatives. I don't think that all these alternatives are for vegans but more for people who want to reduce their meat consumption. This development is a great step forward. Also, technology can help us understand food in a different way – how is it composed? Advanced chemistry and biotechnology help analyse it and find plant sources to develop flavour profiles.

My kitchen tastes of a mix of places and memories because taste itself is a memory.

So the concept of food will further evolve ...
Absolutely, but some things will stay the same, also negative aspects. There will still be foodwaste, although technology helps lessen it, for example with apps like “Too Good To Go”. I also believe the social gastronomy movement is something that is only possible today –it's all about connections. The aim is "connecting people", as Nokia used to say.

That’s something you do with your food too – a lot of different influences come together.
True, my kitchen tastes of a mix of places and memories because taste itself is a memory. I am also influenced by my team and by the places they have visited. We bring in a lot of colour and different textures. Before anything else, food is taste, and then we start adding aspects that are pleasing to the eye and the nose.

As you said, you also cook for the eye. How much is food about enjoyment, how much do you aspire to create art?
I enjoy food, like I do many things. I enjoy music. I enjoy paintings, graphic design, anything that is creative. But food is a very volatile thing. You eat it and then it's gone, while beauty somehow stays. I like to think that beauty is an important aspect of humanity. We humans are attracted by beauty. There are beauty standards, of course, but we all have our own preferences when it comes to beauty and to food as well. I think food is a pleasure and it should always be treated deliberately because food is more than just fuel that keeps us going. It craves being enjoyed with all senses – be it taste or the sense of sight.

About Zizi Hattab

Zineb "Zizi" Hattab (32) was born in Barcelona and grew up on the Costa Brava. After studying mechanical engineering, she worked as a software engineer in Liechtenstein. At the same time, she discovered her love of cooking and decided to change her career. She began working for various star chefs in 2014. After a few years in a renowned restaurant in New York, she returned to Switzerland and opened her own place in 2020 in Zurich-Wiedikon: The Kle Restaurant. In September 2021, Zizi Hattab announced that she will soon be opening a second restaurant in Zurich.

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