Talking tomato torture, fatty fish and experimentation in the Atlantis kitchen
Last time Time Out Dubai caught up with Giorgio Locatelli, the Michelin-awarded Italian chef behind Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis The Palm, it was alongside his Dubai-based chef de cuisine Alessandro Bottazzi, to sort through local sourcing options for fish and fresh produce. Since then, there have been some changes at the Palm-based restaurant. After overseeing the kitchen for six years since its launch, chef Alessandro has said goodbye to Ronda Locatelli, leaving his sous chef, Matteo Giordi, to take up the reins as head chef at the restaurant. Just one of Matteo’s tasks since he took over in November 2014 has been to create the new season’s edition of the local menu we joined Giorgio in researching this time last year.
Dubai news aside, 2014, we learn, was not a great year for Giorgio Locatelli. Back in London (where the Italian chef lives) the kitchen of his flagship restaurant Locanda Locatelli inexplicably exploded, forcing the restaurant to close for refurbishment. The venue is finally due to reopen this month. ‘We are just lucky no-one was killed,’ Giorgio says. ‘Some staff were hospitalised and some are still being treated for trauma.’
But he believes this year will be a good one. ‘I was in such a bad mood on New Year’s Day. Then I got a text message from Matteo in Dubai, to say we took 770 covers [at Ronda Locatelli] on January 1!’
‘This is my personal record!’ adds new chef de cuisine Matteo with a huge smile.
Having worked at Ronda Locatelli for three years and at Locanda Locatelli in London before this, Matteo is already imbedded in the Locatelli way of doing things. But, as the new head chef, does he have a different direction or style planned for the kitchen? ‘Alessandro is really charismatic and always looked out for every single guy in the kitchen. I never saw him lose his temper. I won’t want to change that. We are continuing in the same way, aside from changing a few dishes,’ he says.
Unlike other celebrity executive chefs who keep a tight leash on menu changes, Giorgio tells us he’s happy for his chefs to take a little control in his absence: ‘We are not a brand in the way these other restaurants are. We have a restaurant in London and we have a restaurant in Dubai. It’s different. Matteo knows what we are all about.’
Since Giorgio is from the north of Italy, he says that what Matteo will do is bring some southern flavour to the menu. ‘Matteo is Sardinian. In Sardinia they have a very different take on cooking to anywhere else in Italy. So he will bring a little of this flavour to the kitchen of Ronda Locatelli. He has already brought some fantastic bottaga to the menu [grey mullet roe from Sardinia].’
‘I am also going to do something Sardinian with the fresh pasta on the menu,’ adds Matteo.
One menu the two chefs are currently working on is the locally sourced promotional list launched when we last met Giorgio in 2014. With the new agricultural season in full swing, Matteo and Giorgio have set upon tweaking the dishes developed for it last year. ‘We are still building on the work we started with Alessandro. Changing the dishes a little, working on the preparation, and the presentation,’ Giorgio says.
‘It takes time to build up relationships with suppliers,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes you can see what the farms grow and what they can specifically grow for you. You can say, “I want a really extra peppery rocket,” and they will grow this for you. But sometimes the farm gets greedy and will sell your crop to someone else. You know this when there are still two weeks left of the season and it runs out. Then we know they have been messing us about,’ he laughs. Local tomatoes in particular have impressed Giorgio. The pair have tracked down an Abu Dhabi-grown variety of cherry tomato, which Giorgio describes as ‘really sweet’ and ‘unbelievable’. ‘They are all different sizes and shapes and colours, so they would never find their way onto the supermarket shelves.’
With tomatoes seeming to be one of the UAE’s most successful (or at least most commonly found) home-grown items, we assume it is the region’s rich quota of sunshine that has a part to play in this. But, Giorgio corrects us – it is not the sunshine, but a little ‘torture’ that produces a great tomato. ‘The more the tomato suffers, the better it tastes. The best tomatoes in Italy come from Pachino in Sicily. Pachino is a volcanic area. Because it is close to the sea, and the sediment is very porous, the water there has a very high salinity; about 0.6 percent higher than anywhere else in Italy. When you water the tomato, you are giving it water with salt. It’s a little bit like torture. The more you are “nasty” to the tree by putting it under stress, but without killing it, the better the tomato will be.’
To some extent, Giorgio credits Dubai’s diners for making a change to the restaurant scene here. “Foodies’ have become more and more demanding in Dubai. There is a real understanding of ingredients now. When we opened in Dubai, we were the first guys to have burrata on the menu. People used to ask for mozzarella instead. Now, diners will judge you on the quality of your burrata.’
‘I think suppliers are making a difference now,’ Matteo adds. ‘When I came to Dubai three years ago, finding calamari was impossible. One year ago, we managed to get calamari from Italy once a week. Now we manage to get it twice a week.’ Most of the fish at the restaurant, Matteo reveals, does in fact come to Dubai from Europe; from France, England and Norway. This ingredient, Giorgio adds, is still an issue for local sourcing. Yes, there’s local fish, but it poses difficulties for the chefs. ‘There are only two or three months that you can work with local fish,’ says Matteo. ‘For certain types, the water quality is so hot…’ Giorgio adds. The water temperature, he explains, affects the fish’s fat content (the colder the water, the higher the fat content) and consequently affects the flavour of certain varieties. ‘Sea bass from the North Sea is so much better than sea bass from the Mediterranean Sea. This is only a difference of two or three degrees in temperature. Here the fish are completely different. Local mackerel works because it is already high in fat content, but the fat content is still not very high for a mackerel.’
‘A nice example is the lobster,’ Matteo adds. ‘Lobster is famous for being sweet – like Canadian lobster for example. Here, you can’t really taste the sweetness in the lobster.’
Sourcing fish aside, another task facing Matteo in his new role is sourcing new talent from within his own team. Giorgio reveals he is keen to see the kitchen at Ronda Locatelli reflect a socially mobile, multicultural society. Both of Ronda Locatelli’s head chefs to date, Giorgio points out, are Italian, and have previously worked at Locanda Locatelli in London. ‘Yes, 98 percent of staff in the kitchen at Locanda are Italian. But we had a guy from Helsinki work with us, who was promoted to sous chef. Here, we have come to the conclusion in the last few months that we would like one of the non-Italians in the kitchen to become sous chef. Matteo is working with a few chefs now, from Indonesia, India, Malaysia and the Philippines, giving extra training every week, ordering on the computer and tasks like this. We want to bring them up to a higher position, because at the moment, they look and think, “Of course, unless you are Italian and worked in Locanda, you can never make it to sous chef”. This is wrong. We are not running a restaurant from London. We believe we are part of society here in Dubai. The emirate is such a melting pot, allowing, for example, an Indonesian chef to be sous chef in an Italian restaurant. That’s what Dubai is all about, for me. The restaurant is like a social experiment. The only thing I can do is get people to grow within it. Obviously it takes a little time, though. Matteo and Alessandro have grown up eating pasta, so it takes a few years to catch up with them! But the moment we believe you understand in that way, it doesn’t matter where you come from.’ Ronda Locatelli. Open Sat-Wed noon-4.45pm, 6pm-10.45pm; Thu-Fri noon-4.45pm, 6pm-11.45pm. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).