x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Cooking from scratch

La Serre is that rare thing in the UAE: a homegrown restaurant which prides itself in showing off innovative cuisine rather than being part of an international chain.

The chef Izu Ani. Pawan Singh / The National
The chef Izu Ani. Pawan Singh / The National

It is 4pm and the dinner crowd has yet to filter in, but already the place is buzzing.

Yummy mummies chink glasses, bathed in the last of the day’s rays streaming in through the glass façade, while early diners sit expectantly at the chef’s table, watching cooks working alongside them in the open kitchen and nibbling on freshly baked bread from the in-house bakery.

When La Serre opened its doors onto Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard in Downtown Dubai for the first time, it didn’t simply mark a new addition to the city’s thriving restaurant scene. The French bistro is that rare thing in the UAE: a home-grown restaurant that prides itself in showing off innovative cuisine rather than being part of an international chain with a team of cooks drafted in from around the world.

Instead, the head chef Izu Ani, the former executive chef of Dubai’s hugely successful La Petite Maison, came up with the idea for an all-day diner and was integral to every aspect of the design and menu, drawing on the Michelin-starred kitchens he has worked in over the past 20 years in France and Spain.

The result was the two-storey, eye-catching La Serre, with its striking exterior and inviting Parisian decor. Named after the French word for glasshouse, it is part of a growing trend of original restaurants, following in the footsteps of Okku, Comptoir 102 and Fraiche, and signalling a maturing dining scene.

“I wanted a place where you can have great breakfast and great bread and go on to have good food until midnight,” says Ani, 36.

“At La Petite Maison, I started something that I did not finish. I wanted to take things to a different level here.”

On word of mouth alone, La Serre was packed within weeks of opening. An almost 24-hour operation, its doors open at 6.30am to the enticing aroma of the first batch of bread from its giant steel ovens and stay open throughout lunch and dinner service until midnight. It was only recently that the workaholic Ani, a father-of-two, stopped coming in at 4am to supervise the bakers.

It is a remarkable achievement for the chef, who scraped four GCSEs before leaving school at 15 and was sacked from his first job at Greggs – a British bakery chain compared to McDonald’s for its omnipresence and high-fat content – because of his poor skills in counting change for customers.

But if he is anxious to oversee every aspect of his baby, it is little surprise for one who has worked so hard and against such adverse circumstances.

Born in Nigeria, he moved to Britain when he was five, living in the poverty-riddled north London district of Tottenham, more renowned for its gang culture and gun crime than its fine dining.

Ani admits he first became interested in cooking because his mother Stella Brown, who was raising them single-handedly by working two seamstress jobs, had more pressing concerns than feeding her five ­children.

“She worked long hours and took care of us in every other way but in terms of making meals, we had to help her because she was already working herself to the bone,” he says.

An academic failure, the only lessons he enjoyed were home economics, where he survived being ridiculed as the only boy in the class and took pride in taking home the fruits of his labour.

A job at Greggs followed but he only lasted two months. Even after studying for an additional maths qualification, he was turned away by the bakery chain a second time.

It steeled his determination and he secured a job in the cafe of David Lloyd fitness club, making salads and sandwiches for a year before signing up for a pastry-making course at Thames Valley University. A succession of jobs in country hotels followed before he joined the kitchens of the two Michelin-starred The Square in London’s Mayfair.

Despite rising to the role of chef de partie at 20, he says it was “brutal. I had never experienced that level of intensity and cooking and nearly quit four times”.

But watching langoustines arriving by helicopter from Scotland, where they were caught two hours earlier, gave him a taste for fine dining: “It was a privilege to work at that kind of level.”

He hungered to learn the art of classic cooking in its traditional home of France and over five years, Ani worked in a number of acclaimed restaurants, from the three Michelin-starred Auberge de l’Ill to the two Michelin-starred La Bastide Saint Antoine in the south of France. He also met his French wife Carine, a 27-year-old events organiser.

“French cuisine is the base of cooking,” says Ani, who is now fluent in French, Spanish, German and his native Igbo. “That was what was drilled into you. Even at The Square, everything had a French terminology.”

The impact of that time is clear at La Serre, where Ani makes his own yeast after being inspired by a baker in the mountains near Alsace.

And when he first came up with the notion of the restaurant, he spent a month with the “Mr Miyagi” of bakers at a Parisian boulangerie just to learn his secrets. “For a month, he killed me,” says Ani, who quit La Petite Maison in 2011. “I woke every day at 2am and had to wash his floors to show I was willing. That is what gave him the heart to let me in completely to what he does. He is the one who gave me the base of what we are doing now.” That intensity comes through in everything Ani does, from his meticulous attention to detail – he went to Italy to source his own blend of extra-virgin olive oil while one kind of oil is only used for one dish on the menu – to the scrutiny with which he oversees everything in the kitchen.

“Everything has to be about the pleasure of the customer,” says Ani. “If you don’t look at the smaller details, you overlook the bigger ones.”

He is not beyond experimental food; a nine-month stint in Spain in 2006, where he worked for free just to gain experience from notable restaurants such as Arzak, Mugaritz and Akelarre, taught him molecular gastronomy. When he returned to London as the head chef of the restaurant Vanilla, he introduced a tasting menu showcasing the techniques he had learnt.

A move to Dubai followed in September 2009 for the launch of La Petite Maison. Ani hopes his latest venture will inspire others to take up the baton and create more home-grown offerings.

“I wanted to create something from scratch,” he says.

“There are people who have made this place their home and, at the moment, this is my home, so I am going to give back to it with simple but great food.”

• La Serre is at Vida Downtown Hotel, Dubai. Call 04 428 6969 or visit www.laserre.ae

artslife@thenational.ae