Time Out gets brave, takes a deep breath, and meets the next in command to Dubai's most notorious chefs for a quick chat and an unexpected chuckle.
Maitre d’ at Reflets Mentor: French celebrity chef Pierre Gagnaire
How did you get involved with Pierre Gagnaire? I’ve been an absolute fan of him since I was very young, about 12 years old. I had tasted his food, and read a lot of things he had written. You have fans of rock stars, I was a fan of a chef. When I heard that he was opening up a restaurant in Festival City, I wrote him a long letter, saying, ‘You will be very successful, but you will be much more successful if I am the one creating your restaurant.’ It took me four hours to write this letter, but I never sent it, because I felt a bit ridiculous. So I signed my contract to work at another restaurant and the next day I got a call saying Pierre Gagnaire wanted to speak to me. He saw my CV and wanted to know if I would like to open his restaurant. Obviously I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t even ask how much, or where. I said, whatever, I’m doing it.
That’s a crazy story. Did you ever tell him about the letter? I’m a very honest person. I make sure the people around me know whether I like them or not. One night, after service in Paris, I told him about the letter, how I wrote it and never sent it. I wanted to thank him for giving me this opportunity, because it was my childhood dream. He was really silent the whole time. Afterwards, he looked at me and said, ‘Thank you. Nobody ever said this kind of thing to me, it means a lot.’ He stood up and said, ‘It’s good you said it, but now that it’s done, let’s never talk about it again.’
Wow. What made you adore him so much? Your first encounter with his food must have been pretty special. To be honest, it was a really bad encounter, because I was not in a very good physical state to taste it. I was in Paris and I was visiting a lot of restaurants, and after a few of them, eating lunch and dinner, I couldn’t eat any more at all. That day, I was at a famous restaurant where I had a four-and-a-half hour lunch. I had a table at his restaurant for dinner, and I couldn’t eat at all, couldn’t drink alcohol; even water was painful. The menu was his tasting menu, which was seven courses and eight desserts. It was not the best situation when you’re not feeling well. I couldn’t finish the first two dishes. Pierre Gagnaire came out of the kitchen and came to my table. He said, ‘OK, so I see the plates coming back. You don’t like my food?’ He’s very shy and not arrogant at all. He really wants to please, it’s his only goal. So I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been eating so much the last few days, and now I’m here in your restaurant, and I can’t eat.
What a tragedy. What did he say? He smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll tweak the menu and do something special for you.’ I said, ‘You can try, but I don’t feel like eating.’ He came back with a coffee cup with a vegetable consommé with a little dice of scallops and plum, spring onion and pink grapefruit. It was the weirdest thing ever. From not being able to eat and being sick, I became extremely hungry. I finished the whole of the meal, including the coffee and the petit fours.
Gosh, it sounds like he’s more of a magician than a chef. The thing I admire about his food is that it’s more than eating, it’s creating an emotion. He has a real understanding of how someone feels when he eats, of how he would like someone to feel. It’s something I’ve never encountered before.
How do you move up the ladder in a Pierre Gagnaire kitchen? He is very keen on people who let their personality shine through. He hates it when he feels someone is faking it, when they’re not natural at the table. It’s the same in the kitchen. He wants people to just express themselves. Also, you can never be satisfied. Regardless of the food reviews or the comments of the guests, there’s never a moment when we feel, ‘God, we’re good.’
How do you keep from getting too comfortable? When we’re close to mastering something, he pushes us to put that thing aside, to forget it completely, and start with something we’re not as good at, from scratch. If we think a dish has reached its potential, we’ll remove it from the menu and start with something we can develop again, something we can try to master.
What are your career goals? I’m not thinking about the next step to be honest. I’m there in the restaurant, and I’m working like it’s the best job of my life and the last job of my life.
How do you like working in Dubai? It’s very exciting to be in the middle of a creative act. It doesn’t happen in Europe any more. When you’re in Paris and London you get an amazing sense of what has been created, but more as a spectator. Opening a restaurant in these cities is exciting, but here you’re bringing something new. You’re writing a little line of history in the place. It’s exciting to think you might create an institution.
How have you managed to put your stamp on Reflets? My stamp is all over. When we opened the restaurant, Pierre Gagnaire gave me minimal guidelines. He let me create the space. I’ve had the liberty to choose most of the things that we use today, and to recruit, organise and conceptualise. In a way, everything reflects what I do.
How appropriate at a restaurant called Reflets. Are you responsible for all the mirrors in the ladies toilet as well? [Laughs]. Does every article you write about us have to mention the toilets? We started with the idea of instinctive cooking, then the name for the restaurant popped up. After that, we thought, ‘how can we make the design correlate with the name?’ When we chose the name, the idea just started to develop, and started to lead. And that’s what the toilets reflect.
Executive chef at Verre Mentor: Scottish celebrity chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsay
How did you start working with Gordon Ramsay? About eight years ago I joined the kitchen at Claridge’s through a friend of Gordon’s. I went to the kitchen’s back door and got the job from there.
Were you nervous to start? I’m always really nervous joining any kitchen, and this was quite a huge thing at the time, so yeah.
What was the kitchen like to work in at the time? I was just too concentrated on my career, so it was very tense, and quite a difficult place to work, but it was good fun.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from Gordon? Pretty much everything I know I learned from him: the way he puts things on the plate; the way he tastes things; the way he treats other people; and how he deals with his customers. He always makes sure his customers have an amazing experience. He believes that when they leave the restaurant, they should be smiling, and that’s what he’s taught me, really.
What’s the best way to move up the ladder in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen? Just work as hard as you can and soak up everything you can along the way.
What do you admire about him? He’s quite a character. There’s a different story to tell about him every day. He’s so full of energy and we always have a bit of a laugh in the kitchen, especially when the TV and camera crews come in. Then he’s always running around the kitchen like a madman.
Is his on-camera personality different than his off-camera personality? Yeah. To be honest, he’s a really, really great bloke. He’s got an amazing personality. Obviously, when you stay with someone for a long time, it’s a loyalty thing, and you grow a friendship along the way as well.
How did you end up in Dubai? I was a sous chef at Claridge’s before I left. It was just an in-house opportunity really. The Gordon Ramsay company is huge now, but when I started, there were only two restaurants. As time went on, and as more new restaurants opened up, more opportunities came about. When the opportunity in Dubai sprang up, I was quite excited. I was very into the UAE at the time. I had come out to Abu Dhabi for a holiday and loved it, and since then I’ve had the Dubai bug.
How have you put your stamp on the menu? To be honest the whole menu is all my own stamp. It’s pretty much my food in a Gordon Ramsay style. Obviously we keep in with the Ramsay stylings – the way it’s plated, and the way that we take things to the next level – but the actual food itself is designed by me and the guys around me. We work as a team and get things on the plate and taste things all the time. It’s just about having your own individuality. I’m from Cornwall, I like my pasties and stuff like that, and I think that comes through on the menu.
What are your career aspirations? Just keeping people happy and maybe having a new opening one day, but really just to keep pushing the barriers with what we’re doing.
Will you stay in Dubai for a while? I hope so. I’m due to get married next year in April, so I’m planning on settling down and placing some roots here for a good few years.
Executive chef at Options Mentor: Indian celebrity chef and TV personality Sanjeev Kapoor
When did you start working with Sanjeev Kapoor? Nine years ago in Bombay. I worked as a researcher. We’d test recipes and put it in the book he publishes every year.
How did you meet him? He’s my uncle. When I entered the hotel industry, I went to him to learn about recipes and cooking.
What’s the secret to moving up the ladder in a Sanjeev Kapoor kitchen? The only key is to make your hands free. People will read a recipe and they’ll follow it exactly, tablespoon for tablespoon. But when you follow a recipe, you need to do it from your heart, and you need expect a lot of trial and error.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from Sanjeev Kapoor? Fewer ingredients make food better.
How do you put your stamp on the food at Options? I research all of the food in the restaurant and make it according to my own tastes. Then, I go to the customers and ask them what they think and adjust it to their taste.
How do you come up with new ideas for recipes? I keep reading books by great chefs and do a lot of trial and error.
Other than Sanjeev Kapoor, who else has inspired you in the kitchen? Whatever I’ve learned, I’ve learned from him. He’s my primary inspiration. I don’t have a second choice.
What are your career aspirations? I would like to open more restaurants.
Who’s your main competition here? Competition is there when you have two restaurants following the same recipes. There are so many restaurants here, and they each have their own recipes and own way of cooking. As a result, it’s not really like there’s a lot of competition.