IF you happen to stay at a Hilton hotel anywhere in the Middle East or Africa and eat in one of several internationally famous restaurants there, know that a Jamaican is behind every morsel you put between your lips.
His name is Simon Lazarus. If his name rings a bell, it's simply because his mother is Pat Lazarus, who graced Jamaican television screens for many years as a renowned and respected news anchor.
Her son has come a long way from the hills of Rock Hall, St Andrew, where Lazarus and her husband, Air Jamaica executive Mike Lazarus, made their home.
Simon has scaled the heights of the international hospitality service industry to become the vice-president of food & beverage (F&B) for Hilton Worldwide — Middle East & Africa, where he now manages restaurants in 56 hotels that serve over 16 million covers per year. He also manages the development process for F&B at a further 47 hotels in the Hilton international pipeline; over 300 outlets, plus 200 new concepts in development.
He oversees brands such as the Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, and Hilton Garden Inn.
Based at Hilton Worldwide's area office in Dubai, Simon is credited with successfully developing the brand into an award-winning operation since he first arrived in the Middle East in 2008 as senior area director.
Born in Montreal but raised in Jamaica, Simon Lazarus recently shared with the Jamaica Observer fond memories of his childhood.
"It was, in one word, magical. Growing up in the '70s and '80s in Jamaica was incredible. I vividly remember the political violence of the '70s and the crazy politics of the time, but as a child, my parents tried their best to protect me and my sister from this. We have a pretty large family, and I had a very active social life. We spent weekends either at the beach, exploring the country, having family lunches, or hiking with my scout troop. I grew up in Rock Hall, and used to enjoy hiking through the hills with my friends and loyal dogs. Life back then was very simple. TV was one channel, JBC, in black and white, for six hours per day. My friends and I were hardly ever indoors because our days were full of football, bicycles and hiking. We could virtually go anywhere on our own in those days," he said.
He attended Alvernia Prep School before spending a brief stint at Calabar High School before eventually graduating from Hillel Academy.
Lazarus admitted that he was a free spirit who posed a challenge to his teachers.
"I think the only teacher that truly grabbed my attention 100 per cent was Mrs Frances Mayne from Hillel. She encouraged me to take English Language and English Literature CXC in Grade 10, and I passed with two (grade) 1s! For the rest (of subjects), I was pretty average, but I used to devour books, like my mother, and used to finish a book in a day," he explained.
It was a scouts' trip back to Canada as a teen that really opened Lazarus's eyes to the huge, diverse world beyond Jamaican shores.
"I was a very keen boy scout, and was chosen to attend the World Jamboree with 13 other Jamaican scouts in Calgary, Canada in 1983. This really opened my eyes as we met and interacted with hundreds of Boy and Girl Scouts from all over the globe," he said.
"As a 13-year-old, I had only ever met Europeans or North Americans, but not much else. We all had such a mind-blowing experience eating, entertaining, hiking, shooting and rafting. We came home exhausted, but full of rich experiences. I will never forget trading Bob Marley tapes with a Nepalese kid, and serving ackee and saltfish to a Japanese kid," he added.
"It was also a time of awakening for us. South Africa was still going through the dark and terrible years of apartheid, but the scouting movement was very inclusive, and did not ban South Africa. We made it a point to single out and engage with the South African scouts — who, ironically, were fully integrated — and questioned both white and black kids on what it was like for them on a daily basis. They were very forthcoming, and it really opened our eyes, and theirs, about racism. It was really funny to see the expression on many scout's faces, as they could not believe that there were white Jamaicans! I carried a $2.00 bill in my pocket with the 'Out of many, one people' motto to show them," Lazarus said.
He returned home a different young man with the knowledge that he had to go out and explore the world, and open himself to new experiences. He didnt know it then, but that would eventually happen through his love for cooking.
"As my mother and father were working late and had busy schedules, I got sick of the helper's food, and started to cook the meals myself... hence my passion for cooking," he explained.
That passion would take him far.
Lazarus left Jamaica in 1986 and did a one-year contract in the Canadian Army, but he quickly discovered that army life wasn't for him; he would have to find another way to fulfil his passion for travel, it seemed. But he said he always knew that he would end up in the hospitality business.
"We (his family) used to travel a fair amount to Europe and the US, and I was exposed to great hotels, restaurants and social functions from a young age. I always loved hotels and travel, so I suppose it was natural to follow that career path. So I enrolled myself in the hospitality management programme at Vancouver Island University," he explained.
Before starting college, and during summer breaks, he did his management internship at the Wyndham Kingston.
"The general manager there was a colleague of my father's, and ensured that I learned the business from start to finish. I showed up for my first day in my suit and tie, expecting to learn all about front office, sales, marketing and finance, but was handed a steward's uniform! It was over a year before I was allowed to the 'front of house'," he said.
"My first year at the Wyndham entailed washing pots, taking out garbage, doing the breakfast shift in the kitchen, and washing dishes. The staff at the Wyndham are some of the best I have worked with in the business, and they truly took me under their wing. I was mentored by Jamaican hospitality gurus like Jeanie Jones, Rose Rowe, Norma Foreman and Mr Price in the kitchen. They really prepared me for the rigours and long hours in the industry," said Lazarus with fondness.
After college, he worked in various restaurants and hotels in Canada as waiter, bartender, supervisor, then restaurant manager. But he was just 21 and restless, and needed a challenge.
"I was a very 'experimental' cook, and my friends at the time can attest to many 'hits', but also several 'misses'. I decided to enrol in the culinary arts programme at Vancouver Island University. This is where I found true joy. I loved every minute of the course, and took in all I could learn from the European chef instructors. I graduated at the top of the class, and was then recruited by Hilton International in Toronto. I spent three years as an apprentice chef under a famous Swiss-Canadian master chef named Albert Schnell. Albert was a true gentleman and professional, and put me through a very tough, but thorough culinary apprenticeship," he said.
After three years, he was offered a job as chef de partie at the Zurich Hilton where he spent another two years revelling in being at the centre of Europe that allowed him to travel to almost every country on the continent with just his backpack, learning as much as he could about French and Italian cuisine.
After Zurich, he was promoted to sous chef and transferred to Hilton's then flagship hotel, the Langham Hilton in London. He ran the fine dining restaurant at the Langham supervising a brigade of Austrian chefs who barely spoke any English.
"We had a lot of fun speaking broken German/English/Patois, and produced some great food. After two years in London, I was asked to open the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau (Bahamas) as executive sous chef. It was great to be back in the Caribbean, and I truly enjoyed my two years there. I met my wife, Jennifer, in Nassau, and transferred to the Amsterdam Hilton as executive chef," recalled Lazarus.
This is an iconic Hilton hotel on the canals of the Dutch city of Amsterdam; famous for John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'bed-in' non-violent protest against wars in 1969.
Lazarus continued his steady rise in the Hilton hierarchy, taking advantage of several courses the hotel chain offered, and also started doing special development projects for the then VP of F&B. He was offered the job of director of F&B for the UK & Ireland, overseeing 80 hotels. After two more challenging years, he was transferred to Dubai to take over a larger geographic territory, and especially to develop F&B for the Hilton's new hotels.
"My job requires me to travel to some amazing countries. I have travelled all over the Middle East, but I truly love Africa. I have been several times to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Tunisia and others. Hilton has operated in Africa for over 50 years, and has a rich history in many countries. Hilton Addis Ababa is quite unique, and was opened by Emperor Haile Selassie. Travelling in Africa is always an adventure, and I have seen a lot of strange things. My childhood in Jamaica has held me in good stead, as if you can deal with 'Anancyism' in Jamaica, you can see it coming a mile away anywhere," he said, bemused.
Lazarus has credited his family, and especially his mother's work ethic, for his phenomenal career.
"I admire my mother greatly as a journalist and media personality. She constantly pushed me to excel and to challenge myself in everything that I do. She is a very principled person who stands up firmly for what she believes in, and worked very hard at her craft. I learned about commitment, love and passion for work from both herself and my father, though he travelled a lot and I used to miss him when he was gone. The irony is that I spend an extraordinary amount of time on an aeroplane, so I know how my wife feels," said Lazarus.
He was especially happy for all the opportunities granted him by Hilton Worldwide, which spotted in him talent worth cultivating.
"It has been 20 wonderful years with Hilton, where they really invested a lot in me. But it was incredibly tough. My message to any aspiring young Jamaican hotelier is that they have to be prepared to sacrifice all weekends, Christmases, public holidays and evenings off," he said. "Only once in the last five years have I been off for Christmas."
For this first vacation in five years, Lazarus returned to his home country, Jamaica, where his successes were feted by over 80 close family and friends last December. He returned to Dubai in the new year where, he said, "I probably eat more curry goat, jerk pork and patties than I ever would in Jamaica!"
"I am not sure how 'sage' my advice is, but Jamaica has to step out more into the world stage," said Lazarus.
"Yes, we have great athletes and artistes, but Jamaica is so much more than this. There are so many other fields that Jamaica excels in. Focus on looking outside for inspiration and knowledge-sharing from successful economies like Singapore and the UAE, and not spend time on non-issues," he advised.
"I firmly believe in apprenticing and learning whatever craft you do from the ground up with passion. We all have a responsibility to pay it forward."