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Travel to Dubai

 
 

Dubai: The Making of a Culinary Capital

1 July 2014

Following a decade that has seen Dubai’s restaurant scene make a name for itself on the world stage, its reputation is still growing. The star names that have nurtured it are being joined by a multitude of celebrated chefs keen to be associated with the city that has become the Middle East’s foremost dining destination. Top chefs, including Gary Rhodes, Jason Atherton, Wolfgang Puck and Heinz Beck, explain to Jamie Knights why Dubai is the place to be

Prior to 2001, eating out in Dubai was an enjoyable experience, but the city couldn’t have claimed to be competing with the world’s greatest restaurants cities – culinary behemoths such as Paris, London, New York and Tokyo. 

The large expatriate population from the Indian subcontinent ensured that you could find some of the best Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi food in the world in the neighbourhoods of Deira, Karama and Bur Dubai. Veterans of the city’s food scene, such as Bur Dubai Iranian Special Ostadi Restaurant and Satwa Pakistani Ravi Restaurant, have been satisfying their loyal customers for more than 30 years. But these were local favourites; the city had nothing that was grabbing the attention of the wider world. 

Then, in October 2001, Gordon Ramsay, now one of the most famous chefs in the world, thanks to his global restaurant empire, constant media presence and willingness to gamble (not always successfully) on an opportunity, opened Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek in Dubai’s Deira neighbourhood. 

It marked the awakening of Dubai’s culinary ambitions – a big name had landed. But, though the arrival of Verre was a landmark occasion for Dubai, Gordon Ramsay had commitments all over the world, and, understandably, wasn’t at the helm of the Verre kitchen. That responsibility fell first to Angela Hartnett, and, when she left to claim her own Michelin status back in the UK, Jason Atherton stepped up to the pass. 

Atherton, who had joined Gordon Ramsay’s team after working for big names chefs including Pierre Koffman, Nico Landenis, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adria, had never worked as far away from home as the Middle East, but “decided to give it a go”. 

“The first six months was really tough and I nearly came home a couple of times – I wasn’t really settling into the Middle East very well,” he explains. “Then once those six months had passed it was like my home, I loved it, absolutely loved the way of life, I loved the heat when everyone was complaining about it, I loved playing golf, my social life was getting better and better, my cooking life was going through the roof and we just had a wonderful time.” 

But, even though this was barely a decade ago, Atherton’s Dubai no longer exists. The chef recalls that when he lived in the city, “there was desert from [the start of] Sheikh Zayed Road all the way down to Emirates Golf Club”. 

Daily challenges included obtaining fresh supplies and training a multinational team, and, although Atherton was having “really good fun” and awards and recognition came his way, Dubai’s restaurant scene was still in its infancy. Atherton decided to return to London in 2004. “At that point in time, high-class restaurants in Dubai were still not as high-profile as they are today, and not as high-profile as in London, and I felt that my career needed to come back to London,” he explains.

As Atherton moved on to the next stage of his career in London, other prominent chefs had struck up their own relationships with Dubai. Another British star, Gary Rhodes, had been appearing at various food festivals in the city for some time, and he liked what he saw. Initially commitments in the UK kept his plate full, but despite this, his experiences in the emirate had “whet” his appetite for a restaurant in the “stunning city with a real wow factor”. 

It was the now complex general manager of Grosvenor House Dubai and Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, Pam Wilby, who convinced him it was time to open a restaurant in the emirate. “We came over in 2006 to prepare and in 2007 we opened Rhodes Mezzanine in Grosvenor,” Rhodes says. “It was only Gordon Ramsay already in town, but he was a bit more out of town and he was a good 40-minute drive away and we had our own styles.” 

Rhodes was juggling commitments in the UK and Caribbean, and despite a real love of flying, the 10 trips each year to Dubai were proving costly. It made sense, he says, to relocate to Dubai, which he did in 2012. So the emirate was attracting top names, but in 2007 British chefs dominated the culinary scene. 

Then multi-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire was approached by the then general manager of the InterContinental Dubai, whose “enthusiasm and his human qualities” immediately attracted Gagnaire to the idea of opening a restaurant in Dubai. One of the initial challenges was to introduce himself in a city that he felt was very British-oriented. 

“No one knew me and Gordon Ramsay was a star,” Gagnaire recalls. “I had my doubts over issues of getting the right products in that climate and was there a customer?” And his first impressions were “initially mixed”, as Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire at InterContinental Dubai Festival City opened at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. Dubai’s culinary scene had hit its first hurdle. 

Money is always a tricky subject, but any restaurateur worth their salt knows good food alone will not keep a restaurant afloat, and the financial crisis put the brakes on numerous names making the move to Dubai – largely due to the number of hotel projects that were shelved. 

Wolfgang Puck, like other star restaurateurs, was taking stock of what was viable, stating that there was “a bad tailspin” economically. With a host of restaurants in Las Vegas to look after, it was not the best time to plunge into a major oversees investment. Let’s not forget there was a genuine fear amongst many that the ‘Dubai dream’ may have turned into a nightmare.

Of course, when you are moving to further your career, money is not as high on the checklist, as was the case for Gordon Ramsay-trained chefs Scott Price and Nick Alvis. Price was charged with running Verre in 2010, and he asked Alvis, who he had worked with at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s restaurant in London, to come out and work with him. Alvis was in Dubai within two weeks. 

“When I arrived in Dubai much of the building and construction work had stopped, many buildings were only part built and it was a little eerie in a way,” Alvis recalls. “But I was excited to be here and not really phased by that. When I first moved here money was no object as I knew it was all about my career progression and my dream to run my own restaurant.” 

However, there comes a point when you start your own venture that economics becomes important. “As a chef you don’t start cooking to make money, it’s a passion,” says Price. “As you progress and improve your skills and knowledge and, hopefully, run a restaurant business, to succeed it’s ultimately about making money, which is never an easy task.” 

When Ramsay closed Verre in 2011, Price and Alvis, backed by Hilton Dubai Creek, opened Table 9 By Nick And Scott, which brought something new to the Dubai restaurant scene. Over the next two years the highly successful Table 9 won numerous awards and was hailed as the first home-grown restaurant to make a name for itself beyond Dubai’s borders. 

“We created a very recognisable name in the UAE in a very short space of time, but to achieve our own personal goals of having our own restaurant was just not possible for various reasons, so we made the decision to leave at the end of last year to start developing other ideas for the future with [supermarket chain] Spinneys and Albwardy Investment,” Price explains. 

However, the true strength of Dubai is encapsulated in the commitment to investment, according to Rhodes. “I didn’t come over here for the money, and what I love is the positivity and the whole approach to restaurants out here,” he says “Even when things take a hit, it’s a case of ‘let’s refurb and reinvest’ – it’s very positive.” 

Rhodes cites Wilby as instrumental in fostering this positive attitude and the initiative to find the investment that keeps customers returning to his restaurants and allows him to tap into new audiences. With this attitude, Rhodes Twenty10 was launched in 2010 at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, offering a more relaxed alternative to the fine dining of Rhodes Mezzanine.

Dubai certainly was one of the leading destinations in terms of speed of economic recovery, and it was this, along with a conversation with an Emaar executive in London, that persuaded Puck to seriously consider opening a Dubai restaurant. 

“I heard so much about it and thought I had to go and see what was going on, so I came out and thought it might be a good time to open as people were out and about and enjoying themselves,” he says. And it was this sense of fun he knew he could provide with his CUT By Wolfgang Puck brand at The Address Downtown Dubai. 

“We want people to have fun in our restaurants, it’s good food, good fun, rock and roll being played and I felt there was a great deal of synergy with what we were doing and what was happening in Dubai,” he says. And when it comes to assuring the quality of CUT By Wolfgang Puck, he has every faith in his long-serving team, coupled with new members of staff. 

“I thought it might be hard to get good staff, but we have found so many young, talented people, and because of this even after just one month of opening people seem to really like and enjoy it. It feels like the place to go as people move from table to table talking to each other – it feels like a party.” 

Also new in town is one of Europe’s most respected chefs, Heinz Beck, who saw an opportunity when the Al Habtoor family asked him to open Social By Heinz Beck at their Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah property. “It is a very beautiful modern product with timeless elegance, and being on a landmark such as the Palm and being a resort in the city is wonderful,” he explains. 

Social By Heinz Beck is the latest stage of Beck’s international expansion plans, as his portfolio spreads from Italy, through Europe into the Middle East and eventually in Asia. 

In terms of the Middle East, Beck says Dubai is the city where “you have to be”. And he believes his brand of healthy cooking will certainly find its place, as he has been working with health and nutritional experts to create dishes that “make your body healthier”. In a region that faces issues with diabetes, this is a welcome addition to the scene.

“I think we have a found a nice way to present an Italian European way of healthy light cooking and it’s a good fit,” he says. “Having food that is easy to digest is important when you have such high temperatures outside.”

Beck speaks to his team daily and will travel to the emirate at least once a month to oversee the progress of the restaurant. And speaking of progress, Price believes the culinary scene is not just growing, but developing, too. 

“When we first moved here there were very few people doing their own thing as investors were not willing to take a risk on an unproven brand,” he says. “Now there are lots of places and concepts being created unique to the UAE, which I find very exciting and can only be a great thing for the food scene.” 

With the arrival of new world-class chefs such as Heinz Beck and Wolfgang Puck, the broadening of Dubai’s culinary offering is clear for all to see, and while new names to the region seek to make their mark, old Dubai names are making their return. 

Jason Atherton will open in the upcoming InterContinental Dubai Marina, set to open in late 2014. Unbeknownst to him, the hotel owners were big fans of his restaurant Pollen Street Social in London. “When building their own hotel they decided they wanted a Social in the hotel, and we started talks and away we went – I was always desperate to come back to Dubai,” he says. 

Atherton promises a “high octane” restaurant with lots of design elements, a DJ booth and strong bar programme. “There will be sharing food, which I think is a big thing in the Middle East, as well as a beautiful terrace, and it’s just going to be a very cool space to hang out,” he says, adding that he is looking forward to joining the other big names in the city. 

“Just at the weekend we ate at Wolfgang Puck, La Petite Maison – all these big name chefs. Pierre Gagnaire, Yannick Alleno. We ate at [Alleno’s Dubai restaurant] Stay, which was a wonderful meal. There are so many great chefs working in Dubai today that I am happy to join that roster,” he says. “I’m just looking forward to being part of the Dubai culture again. I love the shopping, the beaches, the restaurants, the people and I think it is great we have many happy family memories in Dubai.” 

With rumours rife that Gordon Ramsay is planning his own re-entry into the Dubai marketplace, it seems that the growth of Dubai’s food scene is going to continue apace. As more names arrive it is surely time for the Michelin Guide to embrace this Middle East hub? 

Gary Rhodes believes so. “Michelin will eventually have to move in here simply and purely [because] as we grow we have other big name chefs [arriving],” he says. “It is a form of respect: here we are and with the right inspectors we can put Dubai truly on the culinary map.”

But whether Michelin decides to cover the region or not, there is plenty of scope for Dubai’s culinary offering to progress. Alvis would like to see more chefs and restaurateurs “doing their own thing” with the “food scene being less restricted”. 

“We need more street food style and chilled places with great food, without the need to be in a glossy hotel,” he says. “With all of these young chef competitions in the city there is definitely some talent here which needs a little more recognition and the opportunity from their employers to express and develop their own ideas.” 

Price is in agreement and hopes Dubai’s ethos of being at the forefront of design and architecture “will transfer through into the designers and restaurateurs to really create some unique, amazing world-class restaurants in the city heading into the future”. 

The pair is currently working on a new restaurant, The Taste Kitchen, which aims to be open after Ramadan. For Atherton, it’s just a question of time before home-grown talent emerges. “In the next ten years there will be chefs who are going through the system right now who will come out the other side who will be big name UAE chefs, who will take the local cuisine to a whole new level, and I can’t wait for the day for that to happen,” he enthuses. 

Rhodes has been involved with schools, attempting to engage and educate local and expat children alike. “It’s so exciting to see their responses to the demos, and they get to take home what they have made, so fingers crossed it will inspire them and it will develop,” he says. Gagnaire also believes the future is bright and has begun a new venture, a patisserie named Choix, in the city partly due to its “very positive energy”. 

“We’ve established our presence more in the recent months, and I foresee Dubai attracting more people craving ‘cultures’ and gastronomy and this will become increasingly important and diverse,” he says. “Today, Dubai is booming and there are a variety of products now available in the market, customers are present and so new names are also coming to town.” 

Rhodes says in the next five years there “will be a great change”, and this will only escalate on the approach to Expo 2020. Around 80 new hotels will have been built by then, with plenty of opportunities for chefs to cement their names or achieve star status. 

Rhodes is already feeling energised and looking forward to Rhodes Mezzanine, which is currently closed for refurbishment, reopening in September as Rhodes W1. The cooking style is going to be 100 per cent British and offer something very unique to the Dubai scene, a scene reminiscent of “the old London”, according to Rhodes, referring to the early days of the boom of hot British talent that sent London to the peak of world gastronomy. 

“Dubai has incredible leaders who want to make it one of the ultimate cities in the world,” he says. “I really do believe [that], being in the centre of the world, Dubai can also become, long term thinking, a culinary capital. If we have enough chefs coming out here, Michelin will come out with one, two and three-stars and create a whole new audience. It’s a long road but we are on this road.”

Words by Jamie Knights 


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