Ahead of a new opening in the capital and the launch of a menu revamp, Penelope Walsh talks exclusively to the Niçoise restaurant’s chef patron Raphael Duntoye and Dubai head chef Rory Duncan.
Over the past five years, you’ve read plenty in these pages about what Time Out Dubai thinks of La Petite Maison. But how would London-based, Nigerian-born chef patron Raphael Duntoye describe the French-Mediterranean restaurant concept to us? ‘Warm, fresh, homey, welcoming,’ Raphael begins. ‘Lights, sunny, healthy eating. Simplicity at its best.’
Awarded best newcomer in its opening year, this week at the Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards, La Petite Maison walked away with the prizes for Best French Restaurant, as well as Restaurant of the Year. This little Provençal-inspired bistro in DIFC has been enduringly popular and perennially busy since it first launched in 2010. Now, in addition to branches in London, Dubai, Beirut and, mostly recently, Istanbul, there is further global expansion on the cards. La Petite Maison’s first branch in the Americas is now due to open in October 2015, in Miami. Next year, in September, the UAE will be the only country in the world to have two La Petite Maison venues, with a second opening in the capital, next-door to Zuma Abu Dhabi.
La Petite Maison’s story began, chef patron Raphael Duntoye explains, in a little bistro in Nice, France, some 20 years ago. ‘The original owner, Arjun Waney, used to spend a lot of time in the South of France, and tried to get La Petite Maison to London. I met Ajun because I was the second chef running the kitchen in Zuma, London. He said, “What do you want to do next?” And I said, “I want to open my own restaurant”. Arjun said that he had his own idea for a restaurant and asked if I would be interested. I went to the restaurant in Nice, and fell in love with what they did, and with Mediterranean food. The agreement was a franchise to open around the world, except in France. We kept some of the original dishes on the menu, to keep the original spirit of the Nice restaurant. The green beans with foie gras, the black leg chicken, and in London, the artichoke salad. For this dish, I get the best artichokes in the world, which are from Sardinia, but it is too difficult to do this in Dubai.’
Working his way through mentors such as Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire, Pierre Gagnaire at Sketch and Reiner Becker at Zuma in London; Raphael’s life as chef was a jump from his intended career path as an engineer. ‘I’ll put it this way, it was temporary insanity, because, if I knew what I know now…’ he trails off, laughing, as an explanation for this change in direction. ‘I’ve been blessed.’ Raphael begins again. ‘I started cooking when I was 27 and I’ve never looked back from that. I paid my way through school working in a kitchen. My first job was pot washing. There was one day when the chef didn’t show up, and everybody panicked.
I said, “Don’t worry, I can do it.” So I did, and I got a lot of compliments from the customers. They said, “You should really think about being a chef.” And after graduation, I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing. I think it was a blessing in disguise.
‘I think my background in engineering has actually helped me in how I structure things in the restaurant. For me, it is almost like building blocks. There is always a pattern to how I put things together. It’s consistent. How I think about a dish, but also how I structure a kitchen so that it is able to cope with the volumes involved.
I never do anything that takes more than about two steps to put together. I think about a new dish, I put everything together in my head first, and then translate it into reality.’
This season, the restaurant has introduced an additional 12 new dishes to the à la carte menu, created, in collaboration with Raphael, by La Petite Maison Dubai’s head chef Rory Duncan. ‘The new dishes have been developed by my chef and my junior chef, who have been with me for four or five years. They have really grabbed the philosophy of La Petite Maison. Sometimes I might tweak the dishes here and there. But, this time around, everything has been on point.
‘Yesterday, I tried some amazing tomatoes, grown in Sharjah. I was like “Wow!” It is not just that it is organic, it’s the taste. They are growing some for us, this is quite encouraging. The thing is, you can only be inspired by what you have around you. And initially, getting the right fresh produce was something we really struggled with in Dubai.’
Chef Rory later adds that the restaurant is increasingly focussing on fresh produce (rather than freezing), commenting that the freezer in the kitchen is very small. ‘The scallops arrive moving, the crabs live, the fish comes here and has barely been touched by a human,’ Rory explains. The Sharjah farm mentioned by Raphael is part of Greenheart Organic Farms. ‘They are growing the tomatoes to go on the table for us,’ continues Rory. ‘But this will take time. It costs us a little bit more, but all their vegetables taste of what they are supposed to taste like.
I don’t announce that what we are doing here is organic, because at the moment I can’t guarantee that it is one hundred percent organic, all the
time. But eventually, it will be.’
La Petite Maison, DIFC (04 439 0505).