Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal are the latest celebrity chefs to set up shop in Dubai.
Why do some British chefs succeed in the UAE while others flounder?
When it opens in The Royal Atlantis next year, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal looks likely to become the jewel in the crown of Dubai’s dining scene. Known for innovative dishes such as Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait that looks like a tangerine, the restaurant is already generating a huge buzz, pre-opening. But as the latest in a long line of openings by celebrity chefs from the United Kingdom, can it live up to the hype?
According to Jen Sahi, the blogger behind Dubai Food Diaries, having a famous name over the door is not the draw it was in 2001, when Gordon Ramsay opened Verre in the Hilton Dubai Creek. “There’s a huge amount of competition here now, and customers are hard to please,” she says. “Slap a celebrity name on a restaurant, and the expectations increase exponentially.”
‘The right location is more important than anything’
A TV chef who knows this all too well is Jamie Oliver, who has recently opened a pizzeria in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. A hugely popular figure at home, Oliver has struggled to succeed in Dubai so far, closing his two previous ventures in the emirate – both branches of Jamie’s Italian – after mixed reviews. This time, his team have chosen their location carefully, with a prime site facing Sheikh Zayed Road.“It’s in a really buzzing area of the city, and I just know it’ll tick loads of boxes for the people living and working in the neighbourhood,” Oliver tells me.
Finding a memorable site was the main reason for Dubai being chosen as only the second international outpost for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, says chef director Ashley Palmer-Watts. “For us, the right location is more important than anything, and when we saw this stunning place, we just knew.”
But a restaurant must also earn its place in the Dubai restaurant scene. According to Sahi, diners can tell the difference between restaurants such as those run by Gary Rhodes, who moved to Dubai to be able to oversee his kitchens personally, and those where “the level of involvement is often limited to a few token visits”.
Chefs who find themselves spread too thinly have struggled – think of Marco Pierre White’s unfortunately named Titanic, which sank in 2013.
Embracing many difficult cultures
Those who have prospered have created more locally tailored concepts. The former Verre head chef Jason Atherton, for example, has won awards and devoted fans at Marina Social. “We want to slot into the Dubai lifestyle,” he told The National in 2014, explaining his plans to offer the light lunches, late dinners and sundowners he had enjoyed here while working for Gordon Ramsay.
It’s a model to which the latest arrivals will be paying close attention. Oliver talks about embracing local flavours in pizza toppings like Paneer Piccante or Chicken Chilli Freak. “The thing I love about Dubai is that there’re so many different cultures and you guys really appreciate the importance of using beautiful fresh ingredients, like I do in all my restaurants,” he says.
Team Blumenthal, meanwhile, are combing the history books to bring their brand of gastronomy to Middle Eastern cuisine. “We are exploring the region’s food culture to see where that leads,” Palmer-Watts says. “We have a few dishes already pencilled down that we think will become part of Dinner Dubai’s core, as well as a few exciting differences with this restaurant from the other two in London and Melbourne.”
Adjusting to the market
To retain a presence here for as long as Gordon Ramsay, chefs must also move with the times. Having closed Verre in 2011 when the lease ran out, the famously shouty TV chef has taken a far more casual approach with his latest offering, Bread Street Kitchen. Located inside Atlantis, The Palm, Bread Street has none of the starchy, traditional atmosphere on which Ramsay made his name. Instead of carpets and white tablecloths, there are metro tiles and anglepoise lamps. Families are everywhere. And with a Josper charcoal grill acting as the centrepiece of the kitchen, the foie gras has definitely gone.
The mid-market, of course, can be a tricky place to be. Oliver has had to close about a third of his Jamie’s Italian sites back home in the UK, where a number of casual dining businesses are now struggling. While the international operations still make a profit, the Dubai Food Diaries blogger, who lives close to the new Jamie Oliver’s Pizzeria, sees trouble ahead unless the star chef can distinguish his offering from JLT’s other popular independent restaurants.
“I actually visited the pizzeria in the first week of opening and while the food wasn’t bad, the prices were on the high side for JLT and I didn’t find anything remarkable,” she says. “With literally thousands of other restaurants out there, the question Jamie should be asking himself is, is the proposition strong enough to sustain enough repeat business?”
Catering to a diverse and exciting restaurant scene
In Oliver’s favour is his personal brand, which is undeniably authentic (he recently admitted to having messed up about 40 per cent of his business ventures). Thanks to his years of campaigning for more people to eat freshly prepared food, the chef is strongly associated with the healthier eating that is now in vogue. His team are confident that his menu of hand-stretched pizzas, fresh sides and salads, and “full monty” breakfasts will win diners over.
“The brand has a strong demand in this market, and we expect it to grow across the GCC region in the coming years,” says a spokesperson for Apparel Group, Oliver’s partner in the venture.
For his part, Palmer- Watts is looking forward to getting a suntan as the plans for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal develop.
“I’ve been spending some time exploring and getting to know Dubai, and expect to be here much more in the next few months,” he says. “The restaurant scene is a major attraction; it’s so diverse and exciting. Plus the weather is incredible,” hesays.
But if we’ve learnt anything in the past two decades of British chefs coming to Dubai, it’s that even the most famous have to work for their moment in the sun.