Born in the 80s under the name Sheraton Heliopolis, the hotel soon became the meeting point of the uptown Cairenes that a whole neighbourhood in Heliopolis was named after it. Through the years, this hotel has gone through highs and lows, but Hilton is finally here to provide a heaven of Hospitality.
Today’s interview article features Mr. Antonio Ostuni, the Cluster Director of Food & Beverage at the Hilton Hotel and Egypt’s soon-to-open Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts. Under his belt, Ostuni carries more than 20 years of experience in the tourism industry across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
The Hilton Cairo Heliopolis is renowned for the diversity of food that guests can enjoy while staying or visiting. Can you elaborate on this? Also, you are also one of the few hotels that has ethnic chefs. What can you say about this?
There’s always a sense of belonging and warm Hospitality, not just in one of the Restaurants & Bars that I represent, but in many other departments, be it the fitness center, the outdoor facilities, the Front Office or Human Resources. It has a sense that you will hardly find elsewhere in the world. And if so, in just a handful of them.
What makes it unique from a food and beverage point of view is that the hotel is so committed for almost 30 years to the quality of food and beverage that it has become a trademark that we are terrifically proud of.
In all of our specialty restaurants, where each has its own soul, namely Raj, our Indian restaurant; Lan Tania, our Thai restaurant; Leonardo, our Italian restaurant; Al Dabke, our Lebanese restaurant; and Noble House, our Chinese restaurant, we have a knowledgeable expatriate chef, who comes from the country from which this cuisine originates.
That’s a trait that I felt was not a burden or weight, but something to celebrate, elevate and promote. We offer not just high quality food, but also a comprehensive dining experience. You will have so many authentic personalized branded experiences that you can dine here 7 days a week-lunch and dinner-and never have the same food.
The way that we decided to approach this F&B offering was a two-fold way. The first one is to understand what we are really great at, and promote it. The second one is to leverage on the loyal guests coming over for the last 20/30 years and make them our ultimate PR agencies.
Just few days ago we were awarded 2 awards by the World Luxury Restaurant Awards, for Al Dabke, which has been voted by diners as the best Lebanese Cuisine Restaurant in Africa, and to our Chef Patron, Chef Michel Ghawi, voted as best Head Chef in Egypt.
This is an award that represents the efforts of an entire team or community, and the guests that have been supporting this community.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your fascinating upbringing!
My father was a commander in the Italian navy. Because of that, he started taking us a little bit everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean within Northern Europe, although I was born in Italy.
We lived 5 years in Belgium in a Military base;that’s when you absorb a lot of the things that happen around you and build up, not just your personality, but also your values or cultural traits. So, my cultural traits were not, and are still not, 100% Italian in that sense.
It was my dream, a few years ago, to be an English teacher in Italy. So, I went to London and spent a year-ish, while continuing my studies in hospitality management. Then, I realized the true calling and returned back to hospitality with even more energies and long-term plans.
How would you introduce yourself in one sentence?
“I absolutely love what I do!”
It all started out with chopping onions and peeling potatoes 10 hours a day and that was it. No sunlight, or guest interaction whatsoever. I did work in stewarding, that is one of the key pillars of food and beverage, which involved me washing pots and pans for another 10 hours. And then just through the ranks: waiter, assistant manager, and restaurant manager. I then progressed further in Room Division-related Departments, such as Front Office and Housekeeping.
Unfortunately, I was stopped for a couple of years, because of a very bad car accident I was involved in. 1st October, 2005. I spent several months in the hospital with fracture to both hands. The incident tried to stop me, but it actually fueled my passion for Hospitality even more, leaving me with almost-invisible scars on both hands.
Was this always your dream job? If not, how did you shift to this particular path?
No, I guess it has been a job in the making. The goal changes often, but the main direction was to become a General Manager of an International hotel chain. The background of food and beverage is something that helps you a lot from an operational point of view, because you have a broad spectrum of activities that you do and will help sharpening the skills that make a General Manager a great one.
I have worked with great General Managers, I have been blessed by having lived in Dubai for seven years and a half, in Malaysia for 2 years, and now in Cairo for 2 years. I have had my fair share of very talented and nurturing General Managers, among which is Mr. Stephan Stoss my current General Manager.
So, it was a dream in between, but now it has a dream that has a clear goal: becoming a talented General Manager and maybe even more than that, so no rush.
Many people talk about work-life balance. I don’t believe in this idea, but I believe mostly in lifestyle. Being a hotelier is a lifestyle. You are born with the skills that help you accept and appreciate the hardships of being a hotelier.
It says on your LinkedIn profile that you are proficient in 5 languages (English-French-Italian-Portugese-Spanish)! How many of them did you learn? Are there other languages you would like to learn?
Well, there’s a different degree of proficiency obviously. I am not fluent in all five of them. Having lived in Belgium when I was young, my mom always says to me that I was fluent in English, French, Flemish, German, and Italian, because I was attending an international school. My Academic minor was obviously foreign languages, so I graduated in an international hotel management school, and I did my degree in several languages, including English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
If I had an opportunity to learn a new language, it would definitely be Chinese, or Arabic. Arabic for obvious reasons; I have been working and living in Arabic-speaking countries. But Chinese for the forward-looking nature of the language itself.
Are you inspired by a certain restaurant or hotel? What would you say is your favorite cuisine and drink?
Being Italian, home is where good Italian food is served. But, I am pretty open to anything. There are very few dishes that I am not a big fan of. I guess mostly ingredients rather than dishes or cuisines.
Having lived in Malaysia, my wife and I literally traveled half of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, and Hong Kong, so I have trained my palate with flavors that are far away from Mediterranean/local ones.
I love a good glass of wine. I have been very fascinated into my professional upbringing by Australian wines -or in general New World wines. “Good” wines are easy to find as long as you have taste enough to distinguish a good wine from a bad one.
If I would blindly reach out to a cocktail, that would be a Hendrick’s and Tonic, more than a Gin and Tonic; Hendrick’s is my favorite Gin brand.
Since we’re talking about food, what do you think is your “secret sauce”? (what makes you stand out as a person?)
One development opportunity of my character that I have really learned to dominate, and at the same time to use to my advantage, is that I am an introverted person; an introvert in the way that I gather and accumulate my energy for the rest of the day.
Being an introvert is just an opportunity that you need to be able to make the best of by spending some time of the day alone; a lot of the energy is garnered when I am alone and then the rest is giving yourself to the people.
Another part of the secret sauce is that I am very straightforward as a person. I have learnt that to be a liability at the beginning of my life, because it can put you in challenging situations, yet it’s among the most appreciated traits when you lead large teams as the one here in Hilton Cairo Heliopolis and Waldorf Astoria Cairo -More than 500 associates!
You must have faced several obstacles throughout the journey of your career. Could you elaborate any of the most difficult ones and how you tackled them? Did you feel like giving up at any moment of hardship?
I think holding through the hardships is the key, because there will always be light at the end of the tunnel as long as you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again, and keep your momentum, focus and priorities in place. People cannot balance a successful social life, marriage life, family life, professional life, and Academic life all at once;through the hard times, especially when living abroad and far away from home and the culture that you are used to, those were the keys to surviving.
So, the biggest advice is to make sure that your personal life does not enter your private life and vice-versa. Hospitality is not a 9-to-5 industry; we work 12-18 hours a day and 6 even 7 days a week. There have been times, when I couldn’t take a day off for almost 2 months, so you have to be very strong, emotionally speaking.
What would you say you had to sacrifice for your work? Do you regret any of those sacrifices, and if you could turn back time, would you do anything differently?
Long story short I wouldn’t change anything from the things that happened to me, because those hardships are what brought me to where I am now. I am very happy to work in Hilton International, lead a team of as many as 500 people, and be married to a lovely woman who I love to death. I think if I could turn back time, I wouldn’t do anything differently… except probably study Chinese (he smiles).
What are some of your future plans on a personal or business level?
When it comes to future plans, I always like to see myself 5 years down the line. Is my goal of becoming a General Manager still achievable? Do I need to slide it down a few years? What’s the next step?
I guess the most near future plan is to stay here and open the first Waldorf Astoria in Africa and make sure this team understands how great I think they are and the local community as well. I have had so many guests that come over and over again, and are so loyal to both hotels: the amount of love toward these two Hotels was shocking at times; I meet so many guests who say to me, “I have been coming here for 25 years” or “I got married here” or “My daughter got married here”. There’s so much emotional connection.
At the end of this interview, would you like to send our readers a message or any piece of advice?
Find your inner self and inner goal. Who are you? What are your development opportunities, so you can tackle and outlive them.