A restaurant scene matured is one that gives rise to stories of heritage and history. This chef worked here, and that chef worked there. Suddenly that name behind a name creates their own story and the dining scene gets that bit richer. In Dubai, table 9 at Hilton Dubai Deira Creek is one of the best examples of how the chef family tree works. There was Gordon Ramsay at the helm in the days of Verre. Then there was Gordon’s chefs Nick Alvis and Scott Price running table 9. And then, chef Darren Velvick – protégé of Gordon and of Gordon’s protégé Marcus Wareing – was in charge. Sometimes that history gets so complex there’s a feeling that it’s repeating itself.
Velvick took over table 9 from Nick and Scott in January 2014, but closed the doors of the venture at the beginning of Ramadan this year. The Hilton has yet another plan up its sleeves for a relaunched (but presumably not a new-look) table 9 version 3.0. In the meantime, Velvick has his own plans afoot for brand-new restaurant The Croft. Set in Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites in the space that was Spanish-Mediterranean venue Azur, this modern-but-casual British spot opens officially on Tuesday September 15.
Speaking to chef Velvick inside a blank canvas of a restaurant ahead of the opening, the question begging to be asked is, why did he leave table 9? ‘Coming to Dubai was a great opportunity for me,’ Velvick begins. ‘Obviously Nick and Scott did a fantastic job at table 9. My main reason for leaving London and coming to Dubai was that I had an opportunity to have my name above the door and showcase myself. I’ve always been the man behind the scenes – for Marcus Wareing and for Gordon Ramsay – and not really got any recognition for that. It was a great opportunity and an opportunity that wasn’t in London at the time.
‘Nick and Scott did warn me a little bit that the location is quite challenging, and we found it quite hard. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great, but there is nothing more irritating for a chef than standing there mid-week doing six to eight covers. I was listening to my customers at table 9. They were saying, if you were in the Marina, we’d be here more often. That’s where it is all happening. So, I had to really grab this opportunity with Marriott when it came by.’
The Croft, Velvick explains, has been launched with Canvas, a new initiative by Marriott to help entrepreneurs open new restaurants in a Marriott hotel. To do so, they are given a start-up grant of US$50,000 (Dhs183,650). ‘Being a chef, I wanted to put it all into the kitchen,’ Velvick laughs. Aside from The Croft, other examples of the Canvas project include new Peruvian restaurant Garden at JW Marriott Marquis Dubai (see our review on page 42), which replaces Nawwara.
Velvick explains that he has removed glass sheeting to make the kitchen more open and linked to the dining room. The walls have been painted a soft dove grey and vintage-looking tiles have been added to the room. ‘There are still a lot of touches to make it more British-looking. We’re adding British accessories to the room – a Union Flag, pictures of London. There will be some greenery with a wall of little pots with herbs in them and very rustic touches like aprons hanging on the wall. Because our budget is almost gone, this is going to be an ongoing project. We’re going to keep adding things to the interiors over time.’
The Croft also has an outdoor terrace and Velvick has plans to turn this into a verdant-looking juniper garden and bar. ‘The thing that was hard at table 9 was I got lots of bad press because the room didn’t change from when Nick and Scott took over.
I took in a lot of my own equipment, because there was no money being spent. When you work with chefs it’s not all money, money, money. You have to justify what you spend. But they understand. If you say, look, Marcus, I really need this for the kitchen, they get it. I did say, “I have so many ideas, I can do something a bit different from what Dubai is doing. But without money I can’t do it, my hands are tied.” There is no point doing something in Dubai that everyone else is doing. I don’t like to copy and paste. I like to lead.’
The Croft also gave him an opportunity to move in a more casual direction. ‘The problem with Dubai is, a lot of the menus are too expensive. You almost have to re-mortgage your house to eat out,’ he chuckles. ‘Dubai doesn’t really want that much fine dining. Even London is moving in that direction. Marcus changed the direction of The Berkeley. It was two Michelin-starred and he totally deformalised it.’
Velvick says that table 9 steered him towards seeing what people actually want in Dubai. ‘It was a fantastic learning curve for me,’ he says. ‘It has made me even stronger, and I understand the market a lot more. I can see what people want, and at what price. We are coming in at about half the price of table 9, but you are still getting the same product. We are still using the same beef, for example.’
Velvick explains that The Croft will be casual, modern and British, but absolutely not a gastropub. ‘My heart is in that style of food, but a little bit more high-end. I’m going to use the techniques that I’ve learnt over my career, but make it more fun. Casual service, but good service. That’s what Jane Nedanoski [restaurant manager at The Croft] is great at. He used to always bring people into the kitchen at table 9 and they used to love that. This is what I wanted to do when I first came to Dubai, something a bit more fun.’
Originally, the restaurant name was going to be Beechwood, inspired by the woodlands next to where Velvick grew up in Berkshire. ‘Those woods have actually had a lot of influence on my upbringing. My mum used to take me up there and we’d pick blackberries, wild mushrooms and wild strawberries. My mum used to pick wood sorrel and add it to salads. Even when I went back home recently, we went into the woodland, picked thistles and had thistle tea at home. My wife is very into herbal remedies. Thistles naturally detox your liver. So not only are they tasty, but they actually provide a purpose.
‘Beechwood was already being used as a name everywhere. My wife actually found the name The Croft. The street that I grew up on was called Beechcroft and my wife found out that “croft” is a Scottish word for a home farmland and community, where people live and grow vegetables. That ties in with how I feel about food at the moment. Even at home in Dubai we grow carrots, tomatoes.’
Velvick reveals that his own health issues and his mother’s diagnosis with cancer have led him to a second fresh start, this time with healthy eating. ‘I’ve lost about two stone [12.7kg] in weight, not really through exercise, but just eating more raw fruits and vegetables, and juicing them. This is what I want to start slowly bringing to the menu at The Croft. I don’t expect to change Dubai overnight, but, for example, I don’t see why we can’t bring fresh juices to the menu here.
‘As a chef, and as a father, I try to use more organic produce. At home, we try to eat as healthily as possible. For The Croft, I want to get in some organic chicken from Al Ain and work with local farmers for organic vegetables. I know not everyone wants to eat fully organic, but for those who do, I want to at least give them a few healthy choices on the menu,’ he says.
Velvick is also bringing English delicacies to the menu such as nightmare-to-source Tunworth cheese: ‘it’s a lovely cheese from Hampshire, like an English version of camembert’. There will be a ‘ploughman’s lunch’, served in a little basket with a red checked cloth, as if for a picnic. Inheriting his mum’s enthusiasm for foraging, Velvick is also keen to bring stinging nettles from the UK to make soup. More British touches on the menu will include ‘tongue and cheek’ beef pie and rhubarb and custard, both inspired by his mother’s recipes.
‘It’s a bit of a cliché. Lots of chefs say mum did this, mum did that, but hey, my mum did have a lot of influence on me. She wasn’t necessarily a great cook, but she used to make sure we ate healthily. It is really about getting childhood memories and bringing them into modern day food. This is really what my direction is.’
The Croft by Darren Velvick is open now in soft launch and opens officially on Tuesday September 15. Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites, Dubai Marina (04 319 4794).