x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rhodes in Abu Dhabi: we examine why celebrity chefs are drawn to the UAE

What is it about celebrity chefs that we love so much here? And what is the lure of the UAE for names which are already established worldwide?

Celebrity Chef Gary Rhodes at his newest restaurant, Rhodes 44 at St Regis Abu Dhabi, Corniche. Ravindranath K / The National
Celebrity Chef Gary Rhodes at his newest restaurant, Rhodes 44 at St Regis Abu Dhabi, Corniche. Ravindranath K / The National

As the St Regis Abu Dhabi opened its doors on the Corniche last week, Gary Rhodes, the spiky-haired British celebrity chef, could be seen frantically putting the final touches to dishes before sending them out to diners at his new restaurant Rhodes 44, the latest of his three ventures in the UAE.

The champion of traditional British fare such as shepherd's pie and jam roly-poly has long been a familiar sight in Dubai, where he already runs two restaurants in the Grosvenor House and Le Royal Méridien hotels.

And he is in good company, with the UAE already host to a plethora of celebrity chefs, all hungry for a slice of the pie.

Giorgio Locatelli, Pierre Gagnaire, Nobu Matsuhisa, Yannick Alleno, Vineet Bhatia, Sanjeev Kapoor and Marco Pierre White all jostle for space in a market which, despite appearances, has not yet reached saturation point.

Jason Atherton, a former protégé of Gordon Ramsay, announced last week that he plans to open a restaurant-cum-nightclub in Dubai Marina.

And while his former boss abandoned Dubai two years ago when he closed Verre, it seems he just cannot stay away. Already established in Doha, Ramsay has signed a deal with Gates Hospitality to bring some of his gastropub-style ventures to Dubai.

So what is it about celebrity chefs that we love so much here? And what is the lure of the UAE for names that are already established worldwide?

The term celebrity chef is something of a misnomer. Once indicative of a chef who had become a TV personality - both Ramsay and Pierre White have fronted the show Hell's Kitchen while Locatelli is a regular on the UK Food channel - it has come to mean a well-known chef whose credentials are proven by their Michelin stars or similar culinary accolades.

As we have become more food-savvy and cookery programmes have gained popularity, so our icons have evolved from film and pop stars to culinary legends. And it seems they are as eager to set up base here as we are to sample their cuisine.

Scott Price, the executive chef at Table 9, trained under Ramsay for eight years and says there are perks on both sides.

"For big-name chefs, the chance to open a satellite restaurant is a great opportunity to spread their portfolio," says Price. "Dubai is constantly attracting a lot of these chefs and big-name brands. You associate them with quality or where you are from back home because you know what you are getting and it is less of a risk.

"It shows the economy is doing well and there is a demand for it."

For the Michelin-starred French chef Alleno, the move to open Stay in the One&Only The Palm, Dubai, was an obvious one.

"Dubai is the hub of the world and has become the place to be," he says.

"The quality of [fine dining] is exceptional. In 10 years it will be amazing. It is easy for us to get produce from everywhere in the world. There is a market here, a community of food lovers and a real interest around food."

Alleno comes about five times a year, spending a week each time in the kitchen training chefs and coming up with dishes. In addition, he flies key members of his team to train with him in Paris.

While he is a frequent visitor, there has been criticism of some celebrity chefs who are notable by their absence.

Ramsay was an infrequent visitor amid claims he was spreading himself too thinly between his TV commitments and overseas restaurants. As well as Verre, he closed outlets in Australia and Prague two years ago.

And Pierre White, who has already put his name to Wheeler's of St James, Frankie's in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and a steakhouse in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi, has yet more venues in the pipeline despite abandoning Titanic in the Melià Dubai, with a steakhouse due to open in Dubai's new Conrad hotel and a lucrative partnership with Rmal Hospitality.

While he makes no bones about franchising his name - the chef retired from the kitchen in 1999 - can a high standard of quality really be maintained? Or are diners buying into the name of a chef whose presence is rarely felt?

Alleno says any chef who does not ensure there is consistent quality behind the brand will quickly lose customers: "There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.

"The strategy, training, recipes and technique all come from the chef. It is not just about coming out here and taking the money."

Saba Wahid, a trained chef, food critic and culinary consultant for the Pakistan-based Hashoo Group, says there is a danger of consistency plummeting when chefs are absent.

"We associate their brand or image with good-quality food, but it has not been consistent here. I think a lot of restaurants banking on success based on a name alone are disappointed," she says.

"The chefs are not there to micromanage. It is not just knowing how to cook food but about knowing how to manage an operation and executing everything to a tee, from sourcing the olive oil to the nuts used and the herbs grown in the garden."

But having a booming dining scene has had its perks - by educating customers who "want good-quality food in a nice atmosphere and not have to pay Dh500 a head".

Wahid is currently planning to open a chain of restaurants with a modern take on South Asian cuisine because, she says, "people living and working here do not want a generic experience".

And therein lies the key: for while the celebrity chefs might be here today, gone tomorrow, what they leave in their trail is a legacy of a food culture and an appreciation of fine dining.

"The competition forces them to keep their game up," says Tiina-Maija Bergman, the director of Table4Me, an online restaurant reservation management firm. She says with 4,000 restaurants in the UAE, not including about 3,000 coffee shops and mall diners, the ever-expanding variety of restaurants on offer can only benefit customers.

Price says rather than driving out independent ventures and one-off restaurants, having an abundance of celebrity chefs is having a knock-on effect on the industry.

"Those big names are going to bring their own chefs, who will be living and working here and demanding good-quality produce.

"Suppliers will have to become more discerning and customers will get better value for money. That has to be a good thing."

He and his business partner Nick Alvis are the epitome of that maturing market. Once fledgling chefs brought to Dubai by Ramsay, Table 9 was their original creation with "our names on the door and either Nick or I in the kitchen every night".

The pair will soon be leaving to open a deli-style restaurant under the umbrella of the Al Bawardi Group, which owns Spinneys, adding another chapter to Dubai's home-grown offerings.

They are not alone: over at the newly opened Vida hotel, the much-fêted Nigerian chef Izu Ani, formerly of La Petite Maison, has opened his own French bistro with an attached bakery called La Serre, which is already being talked about in foodie circles.

James Brennan, a former judge for the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards and a former editor of the Zagat Dubai restaurant guide, says it shows a maturity in the dining scene, which is finding an identity of its own.

"The UAE is a young country but it is growing up fast," he adds. "I tend to think of its current phase as adolescence. Like any typical adolescent, it wants all the cool stuff.

"Big-name chefs have helped drive up standards and spark creativity in the UAE and now we are seeing homegrown one-off restaurants feeding off that inspiration and blazing a trail for themselves. It is all part of the growing-up process."


Celebrity chef restaurants in the UAE

- Pierre Gagnaire (above) - Reflets (InteCcontinental Festival City)

- Gary Rhodes - Rhodes 44 (St Regis Abu Dhabi), Rhodes Mezzanine (Grosvenor House), Twenty10 (Le Royal Méridien in Dubai)

- Marco Pierre White - Steakhouse and Grill (Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi), Frankie's Italian (Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai), Wheeler's of St James

- Giorgio Locatelli - Ronda Locatelli (Atlantis)

- Yanick Alleno - Stay (One&Only The Palm)

- Sanjeev Kapoor - Signature (Melià Dubai)

- Vineet Bhatia - Indego (Grosvenor House)

- Nobu Matsuhisa - Nobu (Atlantis)


And the ones that didn't last


- Gordon Ramsay (right) - Verre (Hilton Dubai Creek)

- Marco Pierre White - Titanic (Melià Dubai)

- Juan Amador - Amador (Park Rotana, Abu Dhabi)