After two years of hype, planning and excitable phone enquiries from across the globe, another of the world’s best chefs – for many, the world’s best chef – is setting up camp in Dubai this week.
Renowned for his part-inspired, part-insane cooking style, Time Out put the French chef, Pierre Gagnaire, and his six Michelin stars to the test, during an exclusive preview of his latest venture, Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire.
I feel like I’m in the middle of a show set, mid-construction. In Paris. Perched on a bar stool, sipping a large frothy cappuccino (the bar’s first), a tornado of activity swirls around me. Men in hard hats stomp in and out carrying tables and cables, chefs dash in from the kitchen to snatch random cans and containers and an extremely French-looking little man with a curly moustache contemplates the exact angle at which each and every napkin and piece of cutlery ought to be placed.
The show? The birth of world-renowned French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s latest baby. Following epic success in Paris (his two restaurants there have garnered six Michelin stars between them), as well as in his London (Sketch), Hong Kong (Pierre à Hong Kong) and Tokyo (Pierre à Tokyo) establishments, news that the French gastro-hero was to make his mark in Dubai has riveted the Emirates’ foodies for months. Now, just over a week before Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire serves its most eager customers from its new Festival City location within the Intercontinental Hotel, I’m one of the first ever to snatch an early glimpse of its much-speculated design.
And, despite the fact that tables are still being shifted and espresso machines hastily unwrapped, the initial look is impressive. Flanked by two gleaming pearl walls, exquisite floral mosaics wheel over the bar, luxurious chandeliers hang low while a select 50 velvet chairs lend the place an exclusive 20s supper club feel. At once sophisticated, elegant and bohemian, there’s only one word that sums up Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire's design: Paris.
Then into this frenzy walks a smart, suave man, dressed in white, silver-haired and sporting an artiste’s facial hair, emanating calm. The Financial Times [UK] once described Gagnaire as ‘a jazz aficionado: loose and amused, with a palpable sense of peace.’ Instantly, the description fits.
After a warm ‘Enchanté’ (to me), a couple of table arrangement suggestions (to the moustachioed maitre’d) and an utterly professional photo shoot, we enter the kitchen. For Pierre isn’t wearing chef whites for fun. He has a Time Out challenge to face.
The restaurant is rammed; but the kitchen is like Dubai airport on a Thursday night – except full of Frenchmen. Pierre’s top chefs are completing a dress rehearsal of the Reflets menu together for the first time. The adrenaline is palpable. Yet again, Pierre strides in coolly, a duck to pancakes in the frenetic kitchen surrounds. After a quick introduction, Olivier Bilets, Reflets’ head chef (formerly of Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in Paris) leads me out back to the produce freezer where I select the least harmonious foods I can find. Today, for once, Pierre is not in control of the ingredients on the menu – we are. Returning to the kitchen, we lay down the gauntlet: beef, cabbage, grapefruit, berries and oranges. Could a man, world-renowned for his ingenious culinary combinations, create something divine from components so clashing even a pregnant woman wouldn’t eat them together?
Following a couple of minutes’ contemplation and no perceptible signs of surprise, alarm or intimidation, Pierre picks up the largest of the silver knives that Olivier has laid out for him and starts dicing. Our challenge has been accepted. Apparently he’s on autopilot now, and has no qualms about conducting an interview and being photographed while simultaneously chopping, peeling, simmering and dishing out the occasional order in soft French.
I wonder if Pierre has ever been stoked with ambition, fiercely driven like those of the Gordon Ramsay school, or whether his stellar success (‘the single French chef to carry contemporary cuisine into a new hemisphere,’ according to New York Times’ critic Patricia Wells, not renowned for her gushing) is simply all down to effortless talent?
‘No, no, no,’ he responds, halting his knife mid-strike. ‘At 20 I had no idea what I wanted to do. No dreams at all. Like everyone, I liked sport and music, but I had simply no idea,’ he says, instantly giving hope to 20-something drifters everywhere. ‘And now, 44 years later – here I am,’ he reflects. ‘I am so surprised because I am so happy! I have a family, I have a fantastic life!’ For a moment he’s so thrilled by it all he starts laughing. ‘I am so lucky!’
So what was it that drove him to pick up a ladel, rather than a football or guitar during those sleepy years of youth? As well as his family links – Pierre descends from a family of restaurateurs and practically has cooking oil in his veins – he puts it down to the power of ‘food’ itself. ‘As I got older I realised just how important food is. It’s essential – it is one of the most important things in life, as you have to sleep – you have to eat,’ he says with obvious passion. ‘I wanted to make peoples’ lives more pleasurable. Now, at this stage in my career I want to pass on my craft to my staff – the talent I find around me.’ He casts an arm around the culinary cyclone that’s whirling around him with a smile.
Talking to Pierre now, it’s hard to believe he struggled through more difficult times, so easy and assured does he seem grating orange and simmering cabbage. But he did. After years spent in roughhouse kitchens doing dull repetitive work, his first Parisian restaurant, St Etienne, earned three Michelin stars – only to go bankrupt in the mid-90s. How much value does he therefore attach to critics’ awards (Restaurant Magazine has placed his eponymous Paris joint third in the world for the past three years) and Michelin stars? ‘I am ’appy’, he answers, with a shrug so French it ought to come swathed in onions. ‘I hope to be within the best, and to be there a long time. But I don’t have to be number one,’ he emphasises. ‘I still think Michelin stars are extremely important – they are the world’s official food guide, non?’ Another shrug.
Something he doesn’t shrug about is Paris. ‘Paris is my town – it’s my art [or maybe ‘heart’ – with a French accent],’ he steps away from the hot stove, splaying his hands for emphasis. ‘My reputation in Paris is everything; if I not am in the top there, I go under.’ Evidently, he speaks from experience.
And how does Dubai rate on his importance barometer? He’s flown over his finest chefs to work in Reflets – does this mean cracking this market is imperative to him? ‘Oh yes, because I am the first French chef to come over here – it is a challenge.’ Ah, but we already have a French chef with an English accent leading the French food scene. ‘Gordon Ramsay? He’s a good guy. I ate at his restaurant in London and it was good. They did nothing wrong. Tell him I say “Allo.”’ A friend, then, rather than threat.
On that jovial note, he removes our dish from a toasting grill, garnishes with the orange peel and grabs a loaf of bread to serve alongside the results – which he decides to christen ‘Time Out’ and even perhaps add to the Reflets menu, because it ‘will be funny, eh?’ We just about believe him, since the menu (‘I have been preparing it my whole life!’), has already changed four times in the four days he has been in Dubai. Taking our places at the bar, we sample the restaurant’s virgin dish. I wolf it down – the tenderness of the strips of beef and the sharp bitterness of the grapefruit enjoying a happy symbiosis in my mouth. But how does the chef find it? ‘I think,’ he muses, ‘It needs more coriander’. But, yet again, he doesn’t let it get to him. Just like his career, this was an experiment, which just happened to come off rather well.
His next restaurant
‘I plan to open more places in Europe, with the next one in Barcelona. It will be lovely.’
His restaurants’ famous designs
‘A restaurant is like your body – you need a head, you need legs, you need everything. Design, food, service, it’s all important – you can not apportion percentages for each elements’ importance’.
How many restaurants he has ‘I don’t know, I lose count!’
The secret to his success ‘I always need time alone with a good book – for me it’s very, very important to be alone and quiet in order to have enough energy to keep meeting new people, to keep going. I am not a person who can be out all the time.’
Time Out recipe
120g Master Kobe beef
1x Couer de bouef cabbage
1x Spanish orange
1x Punnet of redcurrants
1x Thai grapefruit
1. Peel and slice the grapefruit and cabbage. Cook in a pan with olive oil.
2. Blend the redcurrants into a ‘jus’.
3. Finely chop the Wagyu beef and briefly put in a pan with caramelised soy.
4. Arrange the cabbage on the bottom, beef on top, decorate with the redcurrant jus and orange peel and serve.
Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire opens on May 8 for dinner only. Call 04 701 1128 to make a reservation.