Turning to Andre Gerschel’s page in Dwight’s 2006 yearbook, one sees into his future: alongside childhood photos and moments in time with friends and family is a collage of restaurant matchbooks.
At the very least, the patchwork, which includes classics still going strong, such as Le Bernardin and Cipriani Dolci, along with now-shuttered spots like Lot 61 and Brasserie Julien, reflected his tastes. At most, the collage foretold that Andre would become a restaurateur.
Today, Andre is Managing Director of Baker & Spice, an organic baker and wine bar, with 15 restaurants and food shops across the Arabian Gulf. Known for its commitment to locally sourced, organic, seasonal products, Baker & Spice also features its own farmers’ market.
As if managing the multi-regional brand wasn’t enough, the intensely driven Andre recently opened Kizmet, a soulfood gastropub in downtown Dubai, which has become one of the city’s hottest spots.
Calling Dubai home for nearly ten years, Andre has always been interested in the world beyond New York City. At Dwight, he had a chance to begin exploring it earlier than most and says, “When you go to an international school like Dwight, which teaches the IB and offers students opportunities to study at its global campuses, you realize that New York City isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the center of the universe.’’
Dwight As Game-changer
Andre had attended two other independent schools prior to arriving at Dwight for high school, where he spent his freshman year not on our Upper West Side campus, but at Dwight School London (known then as Woodside Park). The international focus and change of environment spurred his growth.
As Andre puts it, “I had a hard time finding the right school environment before Dwight. Chancellor Stephen Spahn, who I had met prior to my year in London, thought that the time abroad would be good for me — and it was. In addition to focusing on academics, I interned at the House of Lords as a Parliamentary page, which was amazing. I was in an adult work environment, learning about the world, and building practical skills, rather than fixating on the SATs as my only end goal. Through my experiences in London, I began expanding my idea of what the goal of education should be for me, which extended beyond earning straight A’s to what I wanted to do after earning them.”
Upon Andre’s return to New York, Chancellor Spahn was impressed by his growth and newfound discipline. Then a tenth grader, Andre was ready to continue working hard towards an IB diploma — and emerge as his own person.
Outside the classroom, Andre was Co-editor, with Sam Lansky ’06, of the school newspaper and could be seen on stage acting in Upper School productions. One summer, he also began working as an overnight bellhop at the City Club Hotel in Times Square, which was an eye-opener: “I loved interacting with people there and discovered a great passion for the hospitality industry,” Andre recounts.
His focus and success at Dwight translated into acceptance letters from every institution to which Andre applied. He chose McGill because he wanted to continue learning beyond the U.S., and with his French lineage, the school was a good fit. Just one year in, Andre wanted to complement his education and gain more practical experience back in New York, so he took a sabbatical and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute to earn his chef’s toque, while also working with the Thompson Hotel Group.
The Entrepreneur Emerges
With culinary credentials in hand and the completion of management training at Thompson, Andre had an opportunity for a real adventure before returning to McGill. He set off for an island off the coast of Madagascar to work as the pre-opening manager of a sustainable eco-friendly hotel under construction. Given the remote location, all the rooms were built exclusively with materials found there, and the absence of a grid meant that everything was 100% solar-powered. This crash course in sustainability later served Andre well at Baker & Spice, where the all-things local, “farm-to-table” philosophy drives the brand.
College beckoned again and upon resuming his studies, Andre continued to hone his spark of genius by taking evening jobs wherever he could. Over the next few years, with a full academic course load, he served as Restaurant Manager at a hotel in Vancouver and then as Food and Beverage Manager at another in Montreal. After graduation, when a job in Dubai beckoned, Andre, who had never been to the Arabian Gulf and didn’t speak Arabic, bought a one-way ticket.
Destination Dubai: Home of Dwight’s Newest Campus
“To figure out how good you are at something, go somewhere where it’s hard, where the language is not your own, where you’re not a citizen, where you’re not familiar with the traditions and culture … that’s how you figure out how good you are,” Andre says with great passion. “If you want to figure out how good you are, go to a desert and make it rain.”
Making it rain in Dubai began with work as Food and Beverage Manager of the Jumeirah Restaurant Group and later as Director of Operations of Merchant Star Hospitality before the founder of Baker & Spice, Yael Mejia, called upon Andre to help expand the artisan business. Well-known for her farm-to-table model, she was also a mentor with great impact in the industry, from London to Dubai: “Imagine every player who won the U.S. Open for the last 30 years had the same coach and you didn’t know it was the same person — that was Yael,” Andre explains. “She was the mother of an immense culinary dynasty of young chefs and operators who have gone on to do extraordinary things.”
Working with Yael was a labor of tough love and the business blossomed, adding new locations, while supporting the expansion of the local food movement during a time when the restaurant industry in Dubai was mostly uncharted territory. Yet Dubai as a city, and by extension the Arabian Gulf, was developing more hospitality ventures per square foot than any other place in the world, making this desert the best place to be for a young ambitious restaurateur.
Citizenship Is a Privilege
Part of that ambition was to ensure that Baker & Spice was neither a “flash-in-the pan” restaurant nor an expat venture. “We didn’t consider ourselves expats, but as citizens of the restaurant scene,” Andre explains. “I actually dislike the word ‘expat’ because an expat has no accountability. An expat can critique, but does not fix; an expat is, simply, entitled. I believe that ‘citizen’ is a much more appropriate word ... being a citizen is a privilege and brings an obligation to contribute to the growth and well-being of the community.”
Andre — and his passion project Kizmet — have definitely added new experiences to the community, including the menu itself, which offers great casual dining amid fancier choices in the Dubai Opera House neighborhood. “Our food is inspired by the dishes that the staff grew up with … what we all miss from home,” says Andre. “That type of personal investment means that every dish has a story. It also means that home and sense of identity are transportable — you bring the food you grew up with to make where you live now home.”
Andre’s personal investment expanded into a culinary-forward concept known as Opposite Kitchen, connecting people on polar ends of the world through food. He developed it with two partners: “Safi, a food entrepreneur and Afghan refugee who grew up in Denmark; and William, a well-known chef, who shares our passion for food origins. We created pop-ups to showcase Arabian cuisine in Scandinavia and vice versa; we served Iftar, the traditional Ramadan break-fast meal, in Copenhagen during Ramadan, followed by Nordic cuisine at Kizmet. Both pop-ups were extremely successful in drawing people together to break bread, and to share traditions, cultures, and memories,” Andre reports. “We want to show that food knows no boundaries and that gastro-diplomacy is a real idea that needs attention.”
In addition to being a citizen of the restaurant community, Andre is a citizen of the Jewish community in Dubai, a grassroots group working in partnership with local stakeholders to establish a normalized presence. “Dubai has always been a beacon of tolerance and is perhaps one of the most modern and progressive cities in the region working toward a recognized pluralistic place of worship for Jews. This is an amazing opportunity to open up dialogue and promote tolerance,” he says proudly.
On the Horizon
Clearly, Andre doesn’t shy away from ambitious goals — no matter the arena — and he has a few more in sight: further expansion of Baker & Spice across the Middle East and North Africa, additional franchises, managing food and beverage operations for a new boutique hotel … all while keeping Kizmet customers satisfied and coming back for more.
A super-active Andre, who is a kick-boxer in his “spare” time, loves the high energy, perpetual motion, and sense of urgency of restaurants. He believes that the recipe for success is spending money on great people and great ingredients. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
While he loves every minute, the pace and intensity of the restaurant business is grueling. Andre envisions a time when he will put an end to the super-long hours and tap into his experience in hotels to transition from restaurateur to hotelier.
Until that day comes, bon appetit!