Ever felt the urge to taste a particularly delicious-smelling soap or cream? Chef Mohammed Islam has created a tasting menu inspired by the ingredients used in L’Occitane beauty products
Flavours and fragrances: L'Occitane-inspired menu at Atelier M
In the 1980s, Mohammed Islam, a young man from Bangladesh, set sail for Canada to pursue a career in engineering, only to realise very quickly that his true calling lay in cooking. In the same decade, in Provence, Olivier Baussan opened the first L’Occitane boutique in the village of Volx, initially selling steam-distilled lavender essential oil.
After “cutting carrots and onions and being yelled at”, Islam went on to work as a sous chef with the famous Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Chicago, before coming to the UAE where he founded the Atelier M restaurant. Meanwhile, Baussan expanded L’Occitane from a tiny village in the French countryside to a global beauty conglomerate.
Now the two concepts have come together, in the form of a unique tasting menu, infused with the botanical ingredients contained in L’Occitane products. The resultant dishes pop with aromas and flavours that hitherto were restricted to tasty-smelling, but strictly inedible, lotions and salves.
Chef Islam is a firm proponent of high-quality produce. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the chef has always maintained he will not buy local just for the sake of appearances or ease of access. Accordingly, he continues to source everything, from the hand-churned butter and best cuts of beef to the seafood, chicken and seasonal fruit and vegetables served in Atelier M, from France, Australia, Hawaii, Alaska and Japan.
“We have a lady in Al Ain who grows some herbs for us, but we only use these between December and May because it’s too hot to grow them here properly otherwise,” says the exacting chef in his quiet but firm manner.
Islam’s L’Occitane menu, then, is a delicious study in freshness, quality and creativity, with an almost poetic combination of ingredients. The three-course meal, priced at Dh199, starts with a choice of two appetisers: the pan-seared lump crab is a veritable explosion of flavours, served as it is with white asparagus, baby spinach, heart of palm, blood orange and – inspired by a L’Occitane fragrance – a honey-citrus emulsion; and the wild black rice risotto comes with petit pois and slow-cooked artichoke hearts, along with orange blossom and a sour cherry jus, the latter exuding a taste and scent that linger on the tongue and at the back of the throat.
Lavender and almond are perhaps the most popular aromas in the L’Occitane stable, and chef Islam uses these to great effect in his main dishes. It’s best to take someone along to share this meal with, because it’s almost impossible to choose between the lavender roasted chicken with truffle-lavender jus, and the seared salmon with pumpkin purée and almond compote. And then there’s the ylang-ylang-saffron fettuccine, served with crunchy black kale.
“I love the scent of ylang-ylang and really wanted to choose it from the list of L’Occitane ingredients I was referring to. But from a food point of view, I just didn’t know what to do with it – nothing worked. Then I happened to infuse two drops of ylang-ylang with 450ml of olive oil, and that tasted great. So I kept it simple with a homemade pasta drizzled with this combination. When you use strong essences in food, you need to be careful with the balance of the dish – it does not always have to be fancy,” says Islam.
He adds: “Lavender is actually one of my favourite fragrances. I have used it previously, specially sourced from a farmer in Portsmouth in the US and, again, after much trial and error, found that it works best with chicken, so that’s what we did for this selection.”
The aromatic flower features in the dessert section of the menu, too, which also explores flavours such as rose (in the form of a cherry parfait) and almond butter (which makes for a super-rich clafoutis). The chocolate lavender milk cake is moist and crumbly, held together by a thick lavender paste lavishly brushed across the top. It’s a surprisingly delectable combination, but I steered clear of the pool of milk and cream it came served on, which made it a touch too sweet for my palate; my dining companion lapped it up happily enough, though.
It’s a rare menu that can combine the flavours of food and beauty products. Chef Islam makes it work, though. Not only do the dishes taste good, they are also presented beautifully in an elegant ambience, with the heady scents of L’Occitane en Provence apparent throughout.
The L’Occitane x Atelier M menu is available at Pier 7 in Dubai until November 30, for Dh199 per person for a three-course meal and a gift voucher from L’Occitane.
Details at www.atelierm.ae