Is Dubai worthy of a Michelin Guide?
In the last three months of 2018, three big news stories about Dubai’s restaurant industry reignited a long-running conversation. The topic? The prestigious Michelin Guide. Will it ever come to Dubai? If so, when?
In October, Michael Ellis became Chief Culinary Officer for Jumeirah Group, a role created especially for the former Global Director for Michelin Restaurant and Hotel Guides, who has been charged with reinvigorating the luxury hotel brand’s restaurant offering. In November, British chef Gordon Ramsay opened Hell’s Kitchen in Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai, his second restaurant in Dubai; the other, Bread Street Kitchen & Bar, is located in Atlantis The Palm. Then, in December, French chef Alain Ducasse opened his first restaurant in Dubai, miX, in the Emerald Palace Kempinski Dubai, Palm Jumeirah.
Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse have 37 Michelin stars between them. Ramsay’s flagship restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in London, has held three Michelin stars since 2001. Ducasse is one of only two chefs to hold 21 Michelin stars during their career and was the first chef with restaurants holding three Michelin stars in three different cities. His flagship restaurant, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, in London, has held three Michelin stars since 2010.
Scott Price, Chef-Patron of Folly by Nick and Scott and The Lion in Dubai, worked for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s in London between 2004 and 2009. “There would be two or three ‘potential’ inspectors noted in the reservations book every day, so you always had to be extremely vigilant and the pressure was always there to maintain the standards and consistency,” he recalls.
“I was at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s in 2009, when we lost a star in the 2010 Michelin Guide and the whole team was absolutely devastated,” he adds. “Working for Gordon meant it was national news, which made it even more difficult. Every member of the team works incredibly hard and pretty much gives their life to the business, the restaurant is incredibly busy and successful, but you left feeling like a failure.”
Price left London for Dubai in 2010. He worked as Executive Chef at Hilton Dubai Creek, running Verre by Gordon Ramsay with his fellow chef, long-time friend and current business partner Nick Alvis, until it closed 2011, and the pair transformed the restaurant into the award-winning Table 9 by Nick and Scott. “If I’m honest I didn’t miss the pressure when we launched Table 9,” he says.
“It felt like we could just enjoy what we were doing and cook for our guests instead of having to constantly ask ourselves that question, ‘What would Michelin think?’”
Price believes it is only a matter of time before Dubai, a city with a desire to be a market leader, to “join its contemporaries at the top table”, has its own Michelin Guide. “It will happen sooner or later,” he says. Having the international standard in the city can only be a good thing for Dubai in the long-term and will ultimately raise the overall standard [of restaurants] in the city.”
Nick and Scott
It won’t be a happy experience for everyone though. In fact, it could be fatal to some. “In the short-term it would be a real leveller and a reflection of where the food scene really is,” Price warns. “It has the potential to destroy a lot of businesses if people immediately use it as the go-to guide [to dining in Dubai], which has the potential to happen as there is no real international guide in Dubai at the moment. The introduction of a Michelin Guide would draw a line in the sand for standards in the city.”
Ajaz Sheikh worked for global restaurant brand Zuma for nine years — first as Director — Middle East and Turkey, based in Dubai, then as Global Managing Director and finally as COO — before becoming COO of The Arts Club Dubai, slated to open in Q4 2019, in January.
“The impact of a Michelin Guide on Dubai could only be a good thing,” he says. “There is no questioning the level of excellence that it stands for, and that brings a new degree of discernment from the consumer, which in turn pushes restaurateurs to deliver better and better food. Dubai has already proven to be a world leader in the restaurant sector and [the introduction of a Michelin Guide] would give it the recognition it deserves. It will encourage the industry as a whole and allow a new generation of chefs and hospitality professionals to flourish.”
However, Sheikh does have some reservations. He highlights the fact Dubai’s restaurant industry is awash with big-name chefs. Tom Aikens, Yannick Alleno, Jason Atherton, Vineet Bhatia, Heinz Beck, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Nobu Matsuhisa, Masaharu Morimoto, Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw, Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes, to name just a few. Then there are the international brands such as Hakkasan, La Petite Maison and Zuma.
“If we are going to have a Michelin Guide here, I don’t think stars should be awarded just to the same chefs that get them around the world,” he says. “They should find something local.”
Troy Payne, a Dubai-based restaurant consultant and Executive Chef for Bull & Roo, the company behind popular café and restaurant concepts Brunswick, Common Grounds, The Sum of Us, Tom & Serg and Uncle Jheff, started working in high-end restaurants in his native Melbourne when he was 15 and admits he “grew up dreaming of Michelin”.
Payne came to Dubai to open Clé Dubai in DIFC with renowned chef Greg Malouf, who built his reputation as Executive Chef of MoMo in Melbourne, before taking the helm at Petersham Nurseries Café in 2011 and helping it retain its Michelin star. But Payne is now more interested in helping to establish the farm-to-table concept in Dubai and build a truly local culinary culture.
“I love living here,” he says. “I spend my time on local farms. We’ve just got our own oyster farm [Dibba Bay]. They are growing oysters here in the UAE. There are fish farms. There are growers of produce. It’s all here, but people haven’t embraced it fully yet. When they do, when they put local produce in restaurants and customers accept it, then you can bring something like a Michelin Guide to nourish it and support it and grow a food culture from that.”
Progress is being made, slowly, but Payne bemoans the fact that the spotlight is all too often on international star chefs.
“Alain Ducasse opened his restaurant here last month and it overrode everything,” he says. “Alain Ducasse is one of my heroes, but then I sat and thought, ‘Why is he opening a restaurant here?’ In interviews he admitted he had never been here before, that he didn’t know the clientele and didn’t know what was happening [in the food scene here]. That’s not cool. But if Michelin came, who would be the first chef they would look at? If you came from Michelin and you heard Alain Ducasse had a restaurant, you would go there, wouldn’t you? That’s why Michelin shouldn’t come here yet.”
For Payne, the Michelin Guide is still a “wonderful thing”, but its introduction in Dubai would not create a truly local food culture —
it would not be a magic bullet.
“That’s like saying, ‘Oh my god, our marriage is falling, let’s have a baby’. That’s wrong.”
If the Michelin Guide did come to Dubai, Payne would like its inspectors to look beyond the big-name chefs and international brands. “If Michelin is going to come here, it needs to go deeper,” he says.
Payne praises the “rawness” of Jay Fai, the street food restaurant run by a septuagenarian chef specialising in wok-cooked crab omelettes that was awarded a Michelin star in the first Michelin Guide Bangkok, launched in 2018. “We do have that here,” he says. “If Michelin wants to come here and see that, then cool, come.”
“You can’t bring Michelin to Dubai just because Michelin-starred chefs have restaurants here,” he adds. “That is not a reason to do it.”
British-born Australian chef Sean Connolly, who has successful restaurants in Australia and New Zealand, and until its recent closure ran Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera, doesn’t think local produce is key to attracting Michelin to Dubai. “Dubai wants to be self-sufficient, it doesn’t want to rely on the rest of the world, but it is built on imports – imported people, imported products, imported food and beverage,” he says. “It won’t matter to Michelin. You don’t have to have locally-sourced produce to have a Michelin Guide, you just have to offer great experiences.”
If the Michelin Guide did come to Dubai, Connolly doesn’t think its inspectors would award stars to restaurants just because they had the names of star chefs above their doors. “You wouldn’t automatically get a star because you have one in another country,” he says.
“Some of the restaurants seem to be of a lesser standard than you might find in the chefs’ own city, town or village. They are a light option. You don’t get the full weight of the experience you get in their home countries. The food is still of a high standard, but it’s dumbed down. When it comes to innovation, chefs are just trying to keep it simple, so it can be controlled from a distance.”
“Food is fashion,” he adds. “There are no surprises in Dubai. I’ve seen it all and Dubai has seen it all. Everyone is so well travelled. It’s a melting pot of ideas, but there’s nothing new there. Fashion repeats itself, or eats itself, if you like. You see it once and it’s everywhere. Everyone is copying from everyone else. It’s very hard for anyone to forge their own identity. The no-name restaurant is chasing the big-name restaurant. The restaurants all end up becoming similar.”
Nevertheless, Connolly believes the talent to attract Michelin is in Dubai. “There are some great chefs in Dubai who deserve a Michelin star, chefs who offer great ambience, great food and great service,” he says. “Those chefs would naturally rise to the top.”
“It would be enormously influential and an enormous bonus if Dubai had a Michelin Guide,” he adds. “It would drive restaurants to achieve higher standards.”
There is no Michelin Guide in Australia or New Zealand. Instead there is the Good Food Guide, which awards chef hats instead of stars. “Hats create the same pressure as stars,” says Connolly.
“When I went to open restaurants in New Zealand, they didn’t have hats. I thought, ‘This is great. We can still be good, but there will be less pressure’. Then about three years into the eight years I’ve been there now, they brought out the Good Food Guide, and everyone was saying, ‘Isn’t it fantastic, chef?’ I said, ‘You poor *******. You’ve just entered the gates of hell. You have no idea’. They looked like I had just shot their dogs. My American friends say, ‘Next level, new devil’. I said to my team in New Zealand, ‘I’m going to do what I have to do, but I am going to drive you ******* mad now.”
There might be a Michelin Guide Dubai in the near future, but whatever transpires, Connolly issues the same warning to the city’s chefs and restaurateurs as Price – be careful what you wish for.
“There would be a new wave of pressure that would wash over restaurateurs in Dubai,” he says. “People want them, but they don’t realise the extra money and time it takes to gain one and then retain one. It’s a huge investment.”