x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hotshots du jour

Feature Celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay are flocking to the new kitchens and restaurants of the UAE in increasing numbers.

Illustrations by Matthew Kurian and Elysia Smith / The National
Illustrations by Matthew Kurian and Elysia Smith / The National

Build it, and they will come. It's a phrase that's often trundled out to make sense of the UAE's phenomenal growth. With every new luxury five-star resort, there also comes a slew of shops, boutiques, spas, clubs and fine-dining restaurants to attract the punters. And with every new restaurant, there comes a team of dedicated, hard-working and, hopefully, talented chefs. But it seems that's not enough.

"To really get your restaurant noticed these days, you need an altogether different animal - a book-writing, television-presenting, frying pan-endorsing, public-educating and occasionally free-swearing beast, better known as the celebrity chef. They're coming to the UAE in droves - but are they worthy of all the fuss? Last week, the British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay announced that he would quit his home country and "move to Dubai full-time in five years". The fact that the migratory habits of a cook should warrant a splash in the UK tabloids might have been considered strange in any other era.

But our current obsession with celebrity and fame, not to mention our voracious consumption of prestigious brands, has created a culture in which, thanks to TV shows such as Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, chefs like Ramsay are on par with pop stars and Hollywood idols. In a city like Dubai where profile is everything (see Burj Dubai, Trump Tower and Dubailand), surely that's a good thing? Or is it?

And what does it really mean to be a celebrity? There are those who are well known for their amazing food, and those who are renowned for their ubiquitous television appearances. Ramsay falls into both categories, for example. You don't need Michelin stars, however, to rustle up a quick crème brûlée in front of a TV audience. Likewise, you don't need a TV series about the search for the perfect onion to achieve kudos as a respected chef. Either way, when we talk about celebrity chefs, it simply boils down to one thing - fame. Though, as I discovered, there appears to be much bickering between the chefs as to which type of fame is creditable and which isn't.

Ramsay is by no means a stranger to this country. He was the first celebrity chef of international repute to open a restaurant in Dubai. This was in 2001, when most outsiders observed the burgeoning emirate at best with curiosity and at worst with disdain. In those days, the arrival of Verre by Gordon Ramsay at the Hilton Dubai Creek was a major coup for the city. At last local gourmands and epicureans could sample the food of a famous Michelin-star chef, albeit via the hands of one of his undoubtedly gifted underlings. Ramsay's role involves more managing and mentoring than cooking. So does dining here mean that we are tasting Ramsay's food, or somebody else's replication of it? According to Ramsay, nobody complains when their Armani suit isn't stitched by Giorgio himself, so why should his restaurants be any different?

Whether Ramsay cooks there or not, the restaurant was considered the best in the country for years, perhaps owing to a lack of credible competition. In the past 12 months, however, an influx of big names on the local restaurant scene has changed everything. One of the first to follow in Ramsay's size-15 footsteps was Gary Rhodes. Far from the aggressive persona that Ramsay has created, Rhodes is genial and approachable, yet no less committed. When he took the reins at Mezzanine in 2007, his celebrity chef status brought cachet to the contemporary British food on offer. But when I spoke to him in Dubai on the eve of the restaurant's first anniversary, he seemed wrapped up in his recent appearance on the British TV show Strictly Come Dancing.

"But what about the restaurant?" I asked repeatedly. Putting his new-found skills to good use, Rhodes neatly sidestepped the matter. "Well, the way I look at it is that dancing has a great relationship with food. I really felt that it's about getting the right ingredients. There are two main ingredients: your feet and your timing. It's almost like creating a dish - you'll have the main ingredients there, and everything else there is to complement it. The balance has got to be right. That extra bit of salt spoils the dish, just like that extra second ruins the dance. It was a foodie kind of thing."

In a previous interview, he had countered the common accusation that celebrity chefs rarely cook in their own restaurants by regurgitating the Armani line. When I told him that Ramsay had given me the same response, he was surprised. "He got that from me. I was at a function with Gordon and I told him the whole Armani analogy, and he said, 'You're right'. And now he tells it as his story." Oh well - it wouldn't be the first time that one chef has borrowed from another.

Naturally, there comes a point when celebrity chefs like Ramsay and Rhodes become celebrity restaurateurs. Their boundless ambition becomes an engine for an empire. But it's not that they stop cooking altogether, they're just physically incapable of cooking in two places at once. Or 20 places at once, in the case of Nobu Matsuhisa. One of the world's most talked-about chefs and restaurateurs, Nobu opened his latest outlet at Atlantis, The Palm last month, to the excitement of local scenesters. Nobu Dubai follows the same winning formula that has made the chain a multimillion dollar celebrity magnet across the globe. But is it any good? I don't know. I can't get a table.

Of course, a quick phone call to Nobu's public relations department might help in that respect. But in the interests of independence and impartiality, I'd prefer to wait in line like everybody else. Yet what is clear is that with every table booked for the next two months, Nobu Dubai is already a success. With that famous four-letter word above the door, did we expect anything less? It's a similar story at Nobu Hong Kong, which, when I ate there recently, was packed from its David Rockwell-inspired black river-stone walls to its sea urchin-spined ceilings. The executive chef, Oyvind Naesheim, gave me an insight into the Nobu way. "Nobu gives all his chefs a freedom to create. He's not here all the time, so he trusts us to select what we think would be suitable for him and his restaurants around the world. I can be creative with local products and cuisine because I'm here all the time. And so with the other chefs around the world. That's what Nobu restaurants are all about. It's not just Nobu - it's like a corporation with him and his chefs."

Indeed, it's not just Nobu. It's Robert De Niro as well. The legendary American actor championed Nobu's food in the early 1990s, giving the Japanese chef the financial backing and encouragement to unleash his creations on the palates of the world. It's a unique case of a high-profile celebrity creating a high-profile celebrity chef - a cult hero begetting another cult hero. And Nobu has another famous partner in Giorgio Armani (though we can't be sure whether the Italian fashion designer personally hand stitches the napkins at their upscale outlet in Naples).

Though the Nobu concept is a million miles away from the rather tacky Planet Hollywood formula of film stars and fodder, it appears that having the right names helps to reel in the celebrity spotters, as well as those more interested in ingredients, cooking styles and, well, food. Which may be why Atlantis, The Palm opened with a further three big names in its collection of Michelin-star toting culinary artistes: Santi Santamaria, Giorgio Locatelli and Michel Rostang. Perhaps predictably, you'll be hard-pressed to get a table at any of their restaurants.

The celebrity chef phenomenon isn't merely confined to our restaurants, however. Book shops are teeming with tomes from the likes of Ramsay, Rhodes and Jamie Oliver. The latter even has a range of non-stick frying pans in supermarkets. And, of course, Oliver has plans for three restaurant openings in Dubai over the next two years. So can we ever escape the pervasive influence of the celebrity chef? It would appear not.

In a city that already boasts its fair share of high-profile cooks, there is the Jumeirah Festival of Taste for which even more celebrity chefs are being flown in. The five-day celebration, which starts on Sunday, will feature gala dinners, cooking demonstrations, audience participation events and live entertainment in a host of venues around Dubai, from Vu's restaurant at Emirates Towers, to Bab Al Shams resort in the desert. It will feature such illustrious names as Michel Roux, Jean-Christophe Novelli, Brian Turner, James Martin and Cyrus Todiwala. Ainsley Harriott - of the British TV show Ready, Steady, Cook - will also be making an appearance.

Harriott, whose brand of instant cup soups is widely available in the UAE, has presented countless cookery shows on the BBC and has written 12 cookbooks. But he is not a Michelin-star chef and he does not own a restaurant. Subsequently, he has been in the firing line for his populist and light-hearted approach to cooking. One of his more vociferous critics is none other than the irrepressible Ramsay. "I'm not a fan. There are chefs in this industry known as comedians. We won't be exchanging cuddles," Ramsay once told me.

When I spoke to Harriott recently about his detractors, he was philosophical. "Well, it takes everybody. A lot of people go for the serious angle because, ultimately, that's what it's all about. But it doesn't necessarily mean that's the only way of cooking. When you look at people cooking in Britain - and Dubai, too - they're not that adventurous. They need to be encouraged somehow. And not everybody needs to be shouted at."

Harriott is mindful of the distance between himself and some of his more celebrated counterparts. "I've propelled myself into the media world and I've been able to get my style of cooking across with my personality. Not with Gordon's personality or Jamie's - all of them great chefs in their own right. "In terms of what Gordon does, he just likes to do that. I remember him having a go at [the celebrity chef] Gino D'Acampo about something and Gino got very upset. Gordon said he only did it for the cameras. He was aggressive in his tone and it was refreshing at first, but after a while people become uncomfortable with it. I'm a warm person and I like people to feel comfortable - if they're comfortable they're going to relax, cook and feel good."

Will there come a time when the public has had enough of celebrity chefs? "No, I don't ever think that will happen," says Harriott. "Unlike DIY or gardening - which are other lifestyle things - food is something that we deal with all of our lives. Two or three meals a day for a lot of people. I don't think we're ever going to tire of it." Jean-Christophe Novelli will be cooking on a luxury yacht as part of the Festival of Taste. The dashing French chef and erstwhile star of Hell's Kitchen is probably as famous for his smouldering good looks as he is for his food. Does his image ever gets in the way of his work? "I don't think it does," he protests in a heavy French accent. "If it did, do you think I would be able to work like I did all my life? When I was in Paris, I worked every day doing 200-300 covers at lunchtime. And my dream was to come to Great Britain, and then America one day. And I stuck to my dream."

Rubbing shoulders with Novelli and Harriott at the Jumeirah Festival of Taste will be the French chef Michel Roux. Alongside his brother, Albert, he is credited with reinventing the restaurant scene in London in the late 1960s. Their restaurant, Le Gavroche, became the first British restaurant to win three Michelin stars, and their Roux Scholarship continues to place talented young chefs in Michelin-star kitchens around the world. Michel Roux does not have his own brand of instant cup soups.

I asked him what he thought about celebrity chefs. "Not very much. But it is the media who have created that. They make cheap programmes on food matters at seven or eight in the evening. Who wants that? You should be cooking or eating with your family. Not eating packets of food and garbage, watching the television. I'm not against celebrity, I would just say it's gone too far. We are not in the business of entertaining. Cooking is for enjoying food, eating, and it's for the palate."

If the Roux restaurant renaissance in London took the best part of two decades, in comparison the UAE's transformation is happening in the time it takes to boil an egg. With the renowned and respected Michelin Guide rumoured to be coming to these shores in the near future, it can only mean more big names are on the horizon. Besides all the TV shows, cookbooks, food festivals, instant cup soups and celebrity-endorsed frying pans, this must surely mean our restaurants will get better? And perhaps it will inspire the next generation of chefs to achieve great things? Michel Roux remains unconvinced.

"They go into it for the wrong reasons, surely. So-called stars who obviously make millions from their products, and they're 25-35. So they want to be a cook - and the parents say, 'Be a chef, be a Jamie'. Well, well! And big supermarkets take those people on board because they've got the right image. "But I think we'll come back to basics, with what's happening in the world. I think people will have to can the beans and go back to what we call sanity. We've gone too far in many, many ways. And that's one of them. Enough mockery of our profession."

Put that in your pan and fry it, Jamie Oliver. jbrennan@thenational.ae