Meet the Chef: Victor Borg shares how taking inspiration from tailoring led to Under Grain’s Michelin Star
In the next instalment of our chef series, Chef Victor Borg discusses how his career advanced from working with Gordon Ramsay as a young lad to receiving a Michelin Star five months after Under Grain’s opening.
Under Grain forms part of the Grain brand, which offers three different catering concepts in one location. Chef Victor Borg, Executive Chef of the brand, explains that when he started working with AX Hotels to create a dining experience at Rosselli Boutique Hotel in Valletta, he took inspiration from the locale.
Merchants Street, he explains, is known for the number of tailors that set up shop there in the past, which in turn influenced the décor, concept, and overall experience of the three eateries.
“When you’re a chef, you take inspiration from everything around you. In Merchants Street there were a lot of tailors back in the day, and that inspired me. Just like a tailor chooses the material, we choose the ingredients, and then you need the skill and knowledge to bring a creation to life,” shares Victor.
Your experience at Under Grain stays true to the restaurant’s tailoring concept from the minute the staff takes your coat at the door, hanging it in a way that contributes to the restaurant’s décor. The theme weaves through the dining experience and is highlighted by symbols such as the presentation of menus on clothes hangers and the bill on a pin cushion.
The uniqueness of the concept caught the attention of the Michelin brand, when in 2020 on their first visit to Malta after over 100 years since their establishment, they awarded the restaurant a Michelin Star, just five months after its opening. The critics’ visit comes unannounced, Victor explains, so restaurants would not be able to provide an exclusive service.
“We are one of around 3,000 restaurants worldwide, and we won the star after just five months from the restaurant’s opening. It’s a huge achievement and honour for us. This is very rare around the world. It usually happens after several years. You need to keep working to maintain the standard, otherwise you’ll lose the star. You need to keep motivated, focused and inspired, and hold the staff at the top of their game too,” Victor shares excitedly yet humbly.
Under Grain’s dishes are strongly influenced by French cuisine and inspired by Mediterranean flavours, and are crafted using several traditional techniques . Lately, Victor sought inspiration from Asian ingredients and began introducing them in his recipes to give his creations a little twist. These dishes are unique because they are highly ingredient driven. There’s detail in the texture offered on the plate, but more so by the temperatures; the typical plate combining hot and cold elements.
When asked about signature dishes, Victor says that with over 22 years of experience, it is difficult to choose a single dish, but the ‘VB baked white chocolate cheesecake served with passionfruit sorbet’ has become his trademark, with the name holding his initials. Another customer favourite is the Lasagne Nera, with squid ink and spicy sausage from Calabria. Inspired by the lasagne his mum prepared for Sunday lunch throughout his childhood, this dish always surprises customers as they don’t expect the pasta to be black.
The pandemic hit the catering industry very hard, but Victor reveals that the greatest challenges are being encountered now, due to shortness of staff and difficulties to source ingredients.
“Taste and service are essential elements to keeping a Michelin Star. So, if a service personnel is sick, for example, we reduce the number of bookings we take on, to make sure we maintain our highest standards at all times,” he says.
And for those wondering how a young, inexperienced Maltese chef ended up in Gordon Ramsay’s renowned Aubergine kitchen (the name of Ramsay’s restaurant in Chelsea, London), Victor believes it’s down to his determination, ambition and a healthy helping of luck.
The two met some 25 years ago, when Ramsay had just received his first Michelin Star and was still pretty much unknown. Victor was aware of him through a catering magazine that he received by post. During a research trip in London, he decided to take a taxi ride simply to look at Aubergine’s menu, as he couldn't afford to dine there. The next day he attended a cooking competition and just by sheer luck, Ramsay happened to be sitting next to him.
Victor’s determination landed him the experience of a lifetime, as he asked Ramsay whether he could offer him an internship at his restaurant. What followed was sending an official letter, passing several tests, beating hundreds of other young aspiring chefs, and waiting nine months for a work permit, all so he could join Ramsay’s kitchen.
Victor says that it was all worth it as it was a great experience that he cherishes to this day. When he left Aubergine, he thought, “if I survived this, I could make it anywhere in life and around the world,” and with that mantra, he has managed to surpass his goals, yet aspires to keep perfecting his craft.