It’s not every day you get the chance to step out grocery shopping with a three-Michelin-starred chef, yet here I am sitting in the lobby of the InterContinental, waiting to be joined by Pierre Gagnaire, one of the most famous chefs on the planet.
Pierre has just flown in from Japan, where he was visiting his restaurant in the capital, Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo at the ANA InterContinental, and is in Dubai doing the same with Reflets. In spite of the fatigue that comes with the 10-hour flight, I’m told that Pierre brushed off his jet lag in favour of a stint in the kitchen. I’m also told that he has already sat down with Reflets head chef Olivier Biles and pastry chef Sebastien Vauxion to brainstorm ideas for the new menu.
I look at my watch – it’s 9am. It’s clear the 61-year-old master chef has energy in abundance, which is just as well as we’re about to head to Dubai’s spice souk in rapidly rising temperatures.
Considering Pierre is one of the most-recognised chefs in the world, his entry is conspicuously absent of pomp or ceremony, as well as the army of anxious PRs requisite to, say, a Gordon Ramsay visit. To my relief, Pierre doesn’t appear to be at all inconvenienced by the fact he’s spending a morning with me trawling around the backstreets of Deira. In fact, he looks decidedly excited and has even brought his own camera for the trip.
Our journey to the Spice Souk gives me a window of opportunity to chat to Pierre about his work in Dubai. He’s here for six days working lunch and dinner service, as well as tinkering with the Reflets menu. Today, Michelin-starred chefs are brand names and I’ve always been curious about how much freedom is given to the chefs working in their restaurants abroad. In between apologising for his lack of English (Pierre excuses himself by pointing out that all French chefs have terrible English: Robuchon, Ducasse…), he explains that his role is to provide the philosophy, while the chefs provide the food. This said, the chefs at all 12 of Gagnaire’s foreign enterprises have worked with Pierre at some point and they regularly liaise with him to discuss new ideas for the menu.
So how do Michelin-starred chefs come up with their ideas? Pierre laughs. I appreciate he can never articulate where he gets his inspiration, it just happens, but he does his best to explain. ‘We try some things, they work. Other things, they don’t work,’ he says with a Gallic shrug. ‘A process of trial and error, then?’ I hazard, not wanting to imply that Pierre has stumbled on culinary greatness through luck alone. It’s not in Pierre’s nature to take offence and he laughs. ‘Yes, today we tried something with mussels. In concept it was very good; in practice, not so good.’
The driver stops long enough for us to dart out of the car amid a chorus of impatient horns, and I immediately lose Pierre in the crowd. I soon see him ambling across to the creek to marvel at the dhows being loaded with goods for voyages to Iran, Somalia and other exotic destinations. He comes back, eyes twinkling. ‘This is the real Dubai!’ he exclaims, before disappearing into a nearby store. I follow and find him studying a map, which the shopkeeper is using to point out the town of origin of the Iranian caviar he stocks.
‘Iran is so close!’ exclaims Pierre. For a chef who spends most of his year commuting between his 12 restaurants scattered across the globe, his disorientation is understandable. He returns his attentions to the map, the shopkeeper now explaining where the colourful rainbow of spices – saffron, nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, sumac, caraway, aniseed – is imported from. By his own admission, it’s rare that Pierre sees anything of Dubai outside Reflets, and he’s clearly impressed by just how much produce comes from the region.
We’re not willing to match the shopkeeper’s asking price of Dhs150 for the small pot of caviar, forcing the salesman to resort to desperate measures to make a sale. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is like Viagra. Very good!’ Pierre doubles over in laughter and the shopkeeper can’t help but join in. We politely decline his offer and wave him farewell before meandering down the shady alleyways of the Spice Souk, ducking into shops along the way.
Though no one recognises the chef, they’re taken by Pierre’s natural curiosity and infectious enthusiasm; each shopkeeper talking him through the different products, recommending dishes they’d complement: lavender buds in salad, the large cinnamon quills with baked apples. Aside from the spices, Pierre inspects the resin blocks of frankincense, myrrh and balls of powdery, electric blue indigo. Without fail each shopkeeper resorts to unveiling some sort of aphrodisiac in order to make a sale – one trader, speaking in fluent French, suggests Pierre buy something for President Sarkosy. As if French politicians needed any encouragement.
Next stop: the Fish Market. By this time it’s 10.30am and the temperature is already pushing the high 30s. Pierre chortles in anticipation of the market’s pungent aroma and I assure him it’ll be a quick visit. The chef seems almost disappointed by this. ‘But we will have a look?’ he asks anxiously. Relieved at his continued enthusiasm, I assure him we will, and we clamber in to the car. En route to the Fish Market, I ask Pierre whether he now considers himself as much a businessman as a chef. After all, his surname has become a globally recognised brand. He seems incredulous that he could be considered anything other than a chef – the only difference between his current position and how he was as a young man breaking into Paris’s restaurant scene is that he is more assured with his culinary creations.
We can smell the Fish Market before we see it, but this seems to heighten Pierre’s interest and once again he’s out of the car and into the throng before I can even unfasten my seatbelt. The vast majority of produce cooked and served at Reflets is imported from Europe and I ask Pierre whether he’d consider using locally sourced seafood. He shakes his head with some regret. ‘The fish here,’ he says, sweeping his arm across the mountains of snapper, hammour, crayfish and prawns, ‘is good [quality], but the taste is not the same. The waters here are warm and still, not rough and cold, so the fish does not have the same taste.’
We’re drawn towards the hammering and chopping coming from the market’s sizeable meat locker, where beef, lamb and goat are set about with heavy cleavers. Pierre is impressed by what he sees, again complementing the quality of meat and the knife-work of the butchers. ‘They cut the meat differently here – very skilful’ he says, as he watches a man in a bloody apron weave his sharp knife in and out of the grooves of a spinal column. ‘The quality of the meat is surprisingly good here,’ he continues, pointing to the rump of a hanging lamb carcass, ‘but halal meat tastes very different.’ All the meat served at Reflets is compliant with local law, but Pierre points out that it is transported whole – vacuum-packed, skin and all – giving the chefs as much to work with as they would if they were using locally sourced produce.
We spend five more minutes admiring the nimble handiwork of the industrious butcher, who is clearly enjoying the attention. ‘Very good,’ Pierre mutters to himself. ‘Very good.’
We leave the meat locker and walk blinkingly into the light of day. It’s 11.30am and our tour has come to an end – Pierre needs to get back to the hotel and start preparing lunch. For the first time all morning, he replaces the lens cap on his camera and takes a last look at the market. ‘This,’ he says with a satisfied smile, ‘is very different to the InterContinental. Thank you.’
The Menu Marche is now available at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1111).
Pierre’s pick of the local stores
Abdul Hamid Mohammed Ali Akbar Trading
Specialising in Iranian saffron.
Murshid Bazaar, Deira (04 225 3496).
Mohammed Ali Abbas Trading
For baharat (mixed spices), oud and Iranian saffron.
Old Souk, Bander Taleb, Deira (04 225 2988).
Sun Village Herbs Trading
As well as a huge range of spices, this little store also sells banana daiquiri shisha. Delicious.
Souk Al Kabeer, near Rado watch showroom, Deira (04 225 8280).
Dubai Fish Market
The earlier you arrive, the better the produce. The wholesale market opens at 4.30am, with the public market open from 6.30am.
Tip: wear old clothes and shoes.
Near dhow harbour, Al Mina, Deira. Open daily from 4.30am.