Bice Mare head chef Francesco Guarracino: ‘I have tomato sauce in my veins, not blood’
If and when Michelin starts awarding stars to restaurants in the Middle East, Bice Mare could certainly be a contender. Tucked into a corner on the third level of Dubai’s Souk Al Bahar, the high-end Italian seafood restaurant has just re-opened with a new look and two new menus after a summer renovation. The restaurant seats 72 inside where a shiny, new open kitchen – part of this summer’s massive refurbishment – gives the guests and the chefs inside unobstructed views of each other. Slip through a set of multiple sliding glass doors to the 62-seat terrace outside and the view will take your breath away. With ultra close-up vistas of the Burj Khalifa and front-row seats to the Dubai Fountain’s nightly water shows, Bice Mare delivers.
But you can’t win a star or loyal customers on location alone. You also need exceptional cuisine and Francesco Guarracino, Bice Mare’s Italian executive chef, makes sure his team is on the case. Guarracino might be the hardest-working chef in the country. He works six days a week, often seven, for 15 hours a day. Even when he’s not working, he’s still working.
“I have tomato sauce in my veins, not blood,” he says. “My recipes come in the night. They come when I’m driving. My brain is working 24 hours.”
His passion and love for food are as fierce as a mother’s love for her child. He comes from a family of accomplished chefs: his father, Luigi, held two Michelin stars in Italy for five years. Guarracino’s pride for Italy shines not only in his own creations, but also in the products he uses. Nearly all of Bice Mare’s ingredients – from the tomatoes and the olive oil to the lemons and the fish – are sourced from Italy. He even has “a guy” who fishes off the coast of Sicily, puts his catch on a boat, then a plane, and delivers it to Dubai the same night. It’s on a guest’s plate in Bice Mare the next day.
“For me, the ingredient always takes centre stage,” Guarracino says. “The best pasta for each dish, the best tomato. I make everything around that ingredient.”
He goes to painstaking lengths to find those ingredients. This summer, he travelled 5,000km from Milan to Sicily in a camper van visiting small farmers and producers looking for Italy’s best products. He is now importing most of what he found on that trip and highlighting those products on a special new menu. Many of the products have never been in Dubai before and some of the farmers had never sold their product outside their small Italian towns. “I’m living outside of Italy, but I’m still an Italian,” says Guarracino. “My job here is to bring people closer to real Italian ingredients.”
Guarracino is just as particular when it comes to the chefs in his kitchen. Each summer, he puts out a call for young Italian chefs to win a spot in Bice Mare’s kitchen. This year, he received nearly 2,000 CVs for four available spots. Applicants are required to send a video of themselves cooking.
Guarracino is looking for personality, attitude, skills and passion. “I am not an octopus,” he says. “I cannot cook for 200 people each night by myself. I have to make sure my chefs’ hands are like my hands.”
His young chefs confess that Guarracino is a strict kitchen boss. He once made a chef personally apologise to a guest for overcooking his meat and making him wait while he re-cooked it.
Giovanni Cortese, a sous chef at Bice Mare, says: “Francesco always expects the best. He’s uncompromising about the rules. Not all make it; many chefs give up. But those who remain become the best.”
Five of Guarracino’s chefs during his four-year reign at Bice Mare have gone on to Michelin-starred restaurants. Guarracino insists on having 10 Italian chefs in his kitchen (because his favourite footballer, Diego Maradona, wore the number).
He says: “I know there is no one else in Dubai – or even outside of Italy – who has 10 Italian chefs in one kitchen.”
The new open kitchen was built, in part, to show off those chefs, but that’s not the only reason for it. When you dine in Bice Mare, rest assured, Guarracino is watching. He is obsessive about ensuring each person’s meal is worthy of praise: “I’m looking at customers to see what they’re eating, the expression of the face. I try to understand how fast they want their food.”
He changes the spiciness of a sauce or the doneness of pasta based on nationality.
“I will change it a little without changing the philosophy of the dish,” he says. “I’m cooking for specific tables. Armani makes dresses. It will always be a dress but he’ll make it to fit your body. It’s the same here. Same ingredients, same technique, but I adjust it to fit your tastes.”
That over-the-top attention to detail has paid off. Bice Mare is packed every night and you should reserve a table a week in advance.
“I’m very committed to this job,” says Guarracino. “It’s a kind of respect for the kitchen, for the food, for the guests. My worst moment is when the lights switch off and we need to go home. I’m not saving lives. We are only cooking. We are only chefs.” He pauses, then says: “But the day that Michelin comes to the Middle East, I will be ready.”
Bice Mare is open from 11am to 11.30pm daily. For reservations, call 04 423 0982
Updated: October 24, 2015 04:00 AM