As an important change of hands takes place at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, Penelope Walsh sits down with the new and outgoing chefs de cuisine to talk about the Time Out Dubai award-winning restaurant’s future.
Just in case you’ve missed the trophy-sweeping-tornado of a restaurant that is Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire; this fine dining, modern French establishment first hit Dubai in 2008, bearing the name of the iconic, three-Michelin star chef who is known as one of the founding fathers of the molecular gastronomy movement above the door. Winner of Time Out Dubai’s awards for Best French restaurant in 2014 and 2013, as well as Restaurant of the Year in 2013, chef Olivier Biles has acted as surrogate to Gagnaire’s philosophy, as the chef in charge at the restaurant, since before it even opened. Now, some six years since the restaurant launched, chef Olivier is heading back to the South of France, leaving his sous chef of the past four years, Francois Xavier Simon, to take the reins at Reflets.
Heading to Cannes, (not far from his home town of Nîmes), Olivier will be in charge of rebranding a popular French restaurant chain, soon to come under the Pierre Gagnaire fold. ‘I have been here for six years,’ Olivier tells us, ‘and my children are growing up. They are six and three now. I feel now it is the right time for them to be in France. Chefs work a lot, we put our work before family, before everything, but I think now is the time for me, for once, to bring my family a little bit more into the spotlight.’
When it was first proposed to Olivier in 2006 that he relocate to Dubai to open the restaurant (having never been to the emirate), he had already been travelling in a professional capacity, working for Pierre Gagnaire for several years. ‘It was the first chance for me to be more regular, in one place. Pierre Gagnaire offered me the position of chef de cuisine, and to take the project from the very beginning. The hotel was under construction, so I was planning the design of the kitchen, ordering the chinaware, everything. At the time I was 24. It was challenging. The Burj Khalifa was still not finished, there was construction everywhere. But this is what I liked actually, the feeling that the restaurant, and even myself, were growing at the same time as the city.’
Faced with this challenge, Olivier tells us this was ‘of course’ a little bit nerve-racking, but rather than being intimidated by the task, having already worked with Gagnaire for five years at this stage, it gave him confidence and a sense of support. ‘You still have this protective umbrella on top of you’, he adds. Besides, Olivier, jokes, he had cooked for Gagnaire’s wedding back in 2007, ‘so I must have done something right’.
As we sit with the chefs, Olivier has only three dinner services left in the restaurant before leaving and concedes that a little sadness is setting in. ‘I have a close relationship with my team. We have been through many adventures together. But at least my responsibility is going to Francois. I’ve worked with him for four years and I really believe there will be continuity at the restaurant. For sure he will bring his own personal style and point of view, as all chefs must do, but it will be in the style of Pierre Gagnaire, because Francois Xavier knows him and is part of the family.
‘I would take it badly if someone new was brought from France to take my place,’ Olivier adds, ‘I would not accept it.’ ‘He would burn it,’ chef Francois Xavier chimes in with a grin. ‘Yes, I would burn the restaurant’ Olivier agrees with a chuckle.
So, will Reflets’ new chef de cuisine, Francois, bring a new style of leadership to the kitchen? Cue silence and sideways smiles between the two chefs. ‘I think we have two different personalities,’ Francois Xavier begins, ‘but at the end of the day, we want to reach the same goal.’ ‘We have a different style,’ Olivier says, ‘Francois Xavier is more quiet. I’m more quick to react.’ Which of the two chefs is more likely to lose their temper with a staff member for being late, we ask. ‘I’d tell them to go back home,’ Olivier jokes. ‘Actually, regarding the way to treat staff,’ Olivier continues, ‘Pierre Gagnaire once said, ‘I love them, like my children, but I can also hate them, like my children.’ That is the nice thing about a family restaurant. You are all a part of the things that go well and like a family, sometimes it can go badly too.’
Despite the level at which Reflets operates, this analogy to family pops up constantly in conversation with Olivier and Francois. It is poignant, since there is an overwhelming sense from both chefs of huge respect for the Pierre Gagnaire name, as well as for each other.
Between the jokes and laughter that colour their conversation, there is a real brotherly warmth that is quite unanticipated. ‘You work so many hours of the day together. Then you even phone each other when you are not at work. At this level, it is different, it’s very personal, you work very closely together,’ Francois Xavier explains. ‘It will be a big loss for all of us when Olivier leaves.’ ‘But there is Skype...’ Olivier responds, looking at Francois.
‘I really learnt the Pierre Gagnaire style of how to cook through working with Olivier. When I came here, he really broke me and built me in his ways and now I feel proud, and if I am to be the next [chef de cuisine], it is because of Olivier.’ This style, they explain, is more a ‘philosophy, a feeling’, as Olivier puts it. ‘It is generosity’ he adds. ‘Pierre Gagnaire is someone who is very generous, he wants to give pleasure to guests. We treat guests like family.’
The style, he continues ‘can be confusing, because it is based on instinct. Everything can change, from one guest to another, this is really the Pierre Gagnaire style.’ While the menu at Reflets changes with each season of the year in line with French produce, the dishes themselves continue to evolve throughout the season Olivier reveals, treating each plate like a sketch within the creative process. The new menu is written down, approved by Pierre Gagnaire, but not actually tested until the kitchen begins to prepare it for the first guests. ‘We don’t know how the dish will be when the first guest orders it. Then, the dish will change one, two, three, maybe ten times. When the recipe is finished, when it is really ready, then it is time to remove it from the menu, because it doesn’t grow anymore. So then we try something else. This is very typical of Pierre Gagnaire.
‘If you came at the beginning and the end [of the menu season], it will not be the same in the restaurant. It’s an evolution. Even the ingredients will not be the same at the beginning or the end of the season.
The colour or texture may be different, so you don’t work with it the same way. It is about a feeling with the product. At the end of the day, to be a chef, we just exhaust the products, we are not doing magic.’
The first priority for Francois, he tells us, will be the continuity of this philosophy. ‘I don’t have the idea to straightaway have a revolution and say, we do this, this, and this differently. That’s not the point at all. The main thing will be to keep the same level, the same idea of Pierre Gagnaire, the same spirit, down to the presentation, how we cut the meat or how we combine everything.’
The next challenge, however, will be Gagnaire’s upcoming visit to Dubai in June to discuss the new menu that will launch after Ramadan. ‘The priority will be to really follow him, understand him, and make him comfortable. I don’t want to disappoint him, I want Pierre to feel, “okay, I can go home now”. This is my challenge now.’
It will be Francois’ first time working with Gagnaire on a new menu minus Olivier, is he nervous? ‘Yes of course!’ he laughs, ‘it would be super-arrogant if I say no.’ ‘Well, I’ll be on the beach with my children in June,’ Olivier interjects with a grin.
Once the new menu is in place, and Francois Xavier is firmly ensconced in his new role, is Olivier tempted, we wonder, to return to Dubai, and see how the restaurant is getting on? Maybe even make a surprise visit and turn up in the dining room unannounced? ‘Yes...’ Olivier responds, as his eyes light up with a mischievous glint. Perhaps Olivier could even visit in disguise, we add... ‘Great,’ laughs Francois, ‘thank you so much for giving him that idea.’
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire, InterContinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1127).