As Dubai welcomes its latest British restaurant, Penelope Walsh meets up with Simon Rimmer, the chef and TV personality behind it, for a first glimpse at his ‘very uncomplicated’ food.
This year, the British have well and truly arrived in Dubai. During the course of 2014 the UK’s contribution to the emirate’s dining scene has been the launch of English master chef Gary Rhodes’ latest venture, Rhodes W1, the opening of the 300-year-old Fortnum and Mason – for the first time outside London – and the arrival of British seafood concept Geales. Adding to this burgeoning British scene (and Dubai’s red-carpet-worthy roll call of UK-born celebrity chefs) is the recent launch of The Scene at Dubai Marina’s Pier 7, headed by chef Simon Rimmer. Also a popular face on the UK’s TV cooking show circuit, Simon is known for his restaurants Greens in Manchester and Earle in Hale, Greater Manchester. Now, having opened his first project in Dubai, The Scene adds his signature ‘uncomplicated’ style to the British restaurant repertoire here.
The first surprise upon meeting with Simon at The Scene – where he guides us through the restaurant with infectious new-toy enthusiasm – is that this is his first day in Dubai. Ever. There are plenty of well-known chefs who have launched restaurants in the UAE, placing their names above the door without having crossed the threshold, but few openly admit it. Did he not feel anxious opening a new restaurant without having visited the city first? ‘I was going to come out here before we started, but it never materialised. But I don’t think everything here is necessarily so entrenched that we couldn’t still tweak it. I think you have to say this is what we are. This is what we are going to do. If it turns out in six months’ time that we are wrong, well, then we have to make some big decisions,’ Simon candidly says.
‘The general manager, Nick Theaker, worked with me for five years in the UK and head chef Amy Tomkinson for two years. The nice thing is that my people on the ground [in Dubai] are people I know and trust. So I’m happy to come here from a long distance, knowing that they are running things.
‘If you look at the global brands that are in Dubai, the world has become a little bit the same,’ he continues. ‘If you came to Dubai and found that [International chains such as] Subway and McDonald’s, and pizza restaurants didn’t work here, then you would be scared. But Dubai is a global city and an international community.’
What works for restaurants in London or Los Angeles, he argues, also seems to work in Dubai. As an example, Simon says that Nick has already been keen to show him ‘something that is open, fully functioning and doing really well’. He comments on the popularity of places with ‘the same sort of causal feel’, such as Fumé (downstairs in Pier 7) and Tom&Serg (where Simon began the day with breakfast on the way in from the airport), both of which he could also see working just as well in London.
Both Amy and Nick have joined Simon’s Dubai project from Earle restaurant in Hale: a concept he describes as a ‘modern British brasserie’. Modern, yes. British, yes. But this is still not quite the concept Simon is aiming for at The Scene. ‘Modern British has almost become a cliché, where it is deconstructing British classics and then turning them into something that’s high-end. We’re not doing that at all. It’s modern in terms of the way we’re presenting it and the ethos behind it. But rather than deconstructing fish and chips, we are embracing the fact that if you have a great piece of fish with really good batter and chips, you don’t
need to fancy-up the batter and ponce up the chips. You just want to be straightforward.’
The Scene, he says, is about comfort food. ‘When UK chefs have set up joint ventures over here in the past, it has been in the fine dining end of the market. And that isn’t me at all. We wanted something more causal, fun, and not too serious. All my restaurants are like this – good brasseries or neighbourhood restaurants. They’re very much all things to all people. So if you want to go out and have a drink or if you have a business meeting, a night out with parents, or a date, we should be able to fit the bill for you. So, I think what we are doing is very uncomplicated British food.’
Talking us through a few signature dishes from the menu, Simon explains that these are his recipes ‘to start with’, in some cases with a few of head chef Amy’s touches. ‘While we will work together on the recipes, it is her kitchen. I think that is really important. It has to be her kitchen. The worst thing that could happen is that I roll up today and start being “the big I am”. It would undermine her position. And she’s a talent.
She’s absolutely fantastic.’
There have also been recipe tweaks, he says, due to the supply chain in Dubai. The smoked salmon lasagne, for example, has been designed to use a fish ingredient that the kitchen will always have a good, consistent supply of. ‘Ideally the lasagne would be made with Scottish smoked salmon, but this is something the kitchen is still working towards,’ he says.
Lasagne is, of course, a classically Italian recipe, but a hint of fusion is not something Simon considers at odds with British cooking. ‘I’m a classic Scouser, in that I’ll steal from anywhere, really. Greece, Italy, Spain, Jamaica, you name it,’ he jokes. ‘I think British food is actually very diverse, where Britain has done incredibly well with food, is that it has embraced multiculturalism more than any other place in the world. We’ll say, you know what, I like a bit of curry spice with my beautiful salt marsh lamb. It is really hard these days to say what British food is, because our food map is so vast.
‘Fish lasagne is something that traditionally you should never do, because Italians believe you should never have cheese with fish. But I think that rules are there to be broken. My dad’s family are Italian and my dad is actually horrified. My sister’s husband is Italian, too, and he is equally horrified. So, I think there is a certain level of defiance about it,’ he laughs.
‘But there is something nice about the smokiness and I find lasagne can be heavy, but the fish gives it a lighter feel. It’s like fish pie, in pasta.’ A more elegant version of fish pie? We ask. ‘I do not think elegant is a word I’d use for a great deal of what we do normally. Deliberately so.’
So elegant might not be Simon’s choice of word for his cooking, but there is some level of refinement in these recipes. The eggs Benedict chips, for example, are devised to be a kind of ‘ponced up egg and chips’, Simon quips. The other refining force in British cooking, he argues, is the focus on quality produce. ‘The French, Italians and Spanish would laugh at us. Then all of a sudden, we realised that we have great produce. I think that has been the regeneration of food in Britain.
‘In my restaurant in Liverpool, we have a speciality smoked dish that is made especially for us by the butcher four doors down. And the meat comes from a farm that is four miles down the road. That is exactly what Britain does really well now. No-one does food better than we do. No-one has better produce. From a commercial point of view, no-one embraces the local community in terms of food the way that we do.’
The Scene is now open. Pier 7, Dubai Marina (04 422 2328).