Dubai-based chef Tom Arnel on going solo
People were kicking and screaming for what we were trying to do,” says Tom Arnel. He’s not speaking literally, but figuratively about why the launch of his first restaurant took Dubai by storm. “The whole ‘café culture’ and casual dining scene around the world was really starting to pick up steam, and we knew we could be at the forefront of it.” Of that, they certainly were.
To the casual diner, Arnel is more widely known by his first name and by his association with long-time business partner Sergio Lopez— or as he’s better known, ‘Serg’.
In November 2013 the duo debuted their first café, handily named Tom&Serg, which helped foster in a new era of casual-cool, ingredient-focused, casual-dining restaurants in Dubai.
It was at a time when the city’s food scene was dominated by a host of imported paint-by-numbers franchises, and fancy fine-dining restaurants tucked away within the bowels of enormous hotels. The city’s multicultural, cosmopolitan crowd were calling out for places where they could order quinoa salad and cold-brew coffee, and wanted to wear trainers and Lululemon sweatpants while consuming them.
Despite being tucked away in a corner of Dubai’s unfancied Al Quoz warehouse district, within weeks of opening, Tom&Serg’s reputation spread like wildfire throughout the city, predominately via word of mouth and, crucially, through social media.
“I remember the second Friday that we were open. I looked out from the kitchen and saw this massive line out the door. It shocked the hell out of me,” recalls Arnel, now 34-years-old. “Even though we were confident it was going to do well, it still shocked me. That was a pretty cool experience, and just knowing that we got it right was amazing.”
It was the sort of success that the UAE’s hundreds of restauranteurs dream of having—a steady, and loyal stream of customers who would generate the kind of feedback and publicity that money couldn’t buy.
“The rise of native talent and locally developed owner-operated concepts allowed the city’s dining scene to mature,” notes Samantha Wood founder of Foodiva.net, the impartial UAE-based restaurant review website. She cites the likes of Arnel and Lopez, as well as chefs turned restaurateurs Nick Alvis, Scott Price, Reif Othman, Akmal Anuar and Colin Clague as the main protagonists.
Arnel and Lopez’s holding company Bull&Roo—a portmanteau of the two men’s nationalities (a Spanish bull and an Australia kangaroo)—would go on to open six more restaurants including The Sum of Us, Common Grounds and Brunswick Sports Club Bar & Eatery, as Dubai’s close-knit restauranteur community would praise them for having the “Midas touch”. To the outside world it seemed like they had the perfect partnership, Arnel would handle the creative side of things while Lopez, would look after the business.
But, as with the story of Midas, not everything should be made of gold.
Despite having more than a decade in Dubai, Arnel hasn’t lost his unmistakable Melbourne twang. Hugely passionate about cooking from the time he was young, he is one of those enviable few who knew what his calling was, and never looked back. When he decided to leave Australia, he recalls that he was presented with two life-changing options: moving to the UK to work for celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal at the then-world number one restaurant Fat Duck, or moving to Abu Dhabi as the executive chef for Jones the Grocer, an Australian-based fine food retailer and restaurant— a restaurant that he says “was definitely not a top 100 restaurant in the world, let alone the number one!”
While friends and family were baffled by his choice to work to move to the UAE, he says he did it to gain experience that he could use to help him open and operate his own restaurants. It was experience that he put to good use. It was during his tenure there that he met Lopez—working as the F&B manager—and soon learned that they shared the same ambition by identified a gap in the market that people were crying out for.
“We knew that we could do something different, and be more specific to people’s needs,” says Arnel. “Unlike most places in Dubai, Tom&Serg closes at 4pm. We knew that the city needed a place that did great breakfast, lunch and specialty coffee that wasn’t in a big hotel or shiny mall. So we made one.” Their next project, The Sum of Us, was an evolution of that success—based in an urban area it included an in-house sourdough bakery and a micro coffee roaster.
Again the customers flocked to the unexpected hidden gem, tucked away behind a business tower on Sheikh Zayed Road—proving that if the food and experience was good enough, people would gladly travel.
From there, five more concepts popped up in quick succession, some of them building on the company’s popular aesthetic—eg. Mall-based café Common Grounds—and some bizarrely off piste ventures including a Mexican cantina-style venue (Muchachas), and a South East Asian street food pop-up, Uncle Jheff.
Given Bull&Roo’s success record, it came as a shock to many when it was announced that Lopez was leaving in 2017. No explanation was given, and
the industry was left with a vacuum of whispers and rumours.
“When you open something initially that goes really well and then you figure out you have to grow, it’s never an easy experience,” Arnel says. When put on the spot he explains, in a very roundabout way, that while it may have looked like plain sailing the duo had to navigate a fair bit.
“I have been through a really major learning curve over the last couple of years since my partner stepped away from the business operations,” he says. However, adding some context he says it was tough when the decision was made. “This business is not for everyone, I guess. It is something you have to be totally ingrained in and totally passionate about.”
Lopez eventually broke his silence in an interview with Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National in September 2018 saying that his decision to leave was “a business decision and a personal decision; probably more personal.”
It was "a business decision and a person decision; probably more personal” says Serg after his split from Tom & Serg - the wildly successful Dubai food scene twosome https://t.co/TLGzAAqa3t pic.twitter.com/hu0kVnwxZ8— The National (@TheNationalUAE) September 1, 2018
And while the article claimed that there was “no beef” between the two former partners, Arnel eludes that the they have since more or less lost touch entirely. “It’s purely business, and that’s okay,” says Arnel shrugging off any request to divulge more.
For his part, after taking some time off to heading back to his native Madrid to recharge his batteries, Lopez returned to the UAE to start up a new boutique hospitality consultancy, The Pangolin Group. Its first project was to open Sanderson’s, a charming health-focused café headed up by a couple of former Bull&Roo-ers, located n The Walk at Al Seef Resort & Spa. Responding to a request by Esquire for this article, a spokesperson stated that the company plans on opening new concepts in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai this year, as well as expanding Sanderson’s to new outlets.
Arnel has helped alter Dubai’s food industry once before and he has set his sights on doing so again. As part of his newly instigated project, Eat DXB, he has joined forces with some of the city’s best known ‘homegrown’ chefs to shine a spotlight on the talent and resources that already exist in the city.
Choosing to disregard previous Game of Thrones-style battle lines, a clutch of the city’s most notable chefs including Mohammed Orfali, Nick Alvis, Scott Price and Reif Othman are putting their collective might together.
Based around a series of pop-up events that have specialist menus and host forum discussions on the state of the city’s food and restaurant industry, Eat DBX ultimately looks to open a dialogue on pressing grass-root issues.
“There are a lot of world class chefs that work here, and this is designed to celebrate that,” says Arnel. “The more we continue to raise the bar in Dubai, the more we are going to see a huge amount of respect. The people here are recreating the scene for themselves and that’s a huge thing.”
Does he think that people, and the industry has grown tired of the celebrity chef merry-go-round?
“There are plenty of big developers who open hotels and immediately look at what international chefs they can bring in. We’re trying to work with them to show that the talent already exists here and in most circumstances offers less risk and more local knowledge.” Although he does admit that he doesn’t know if it’s the chefs who want to come to Dubai or the developers who are just trying to fill massive restaurant spaces.
“We saw this recently, one of the most high profile chefs in the world come here for a weekend, open a restaurant and leave. I don’t think he’s been back,” he says emphatically.
Inevitably the conversation evolves into the eternal question of whether the famed Michelin Guide should or shouldn’t come to the UAE, to which Arnel answers frankly: “Why would they come here if we can’t fill a book with restaurants that are owned by chefs?” It is a very valid point, and one that is reinforced by his concerns of how Dubai is expected to compete with the likes of Massimo Bottura or Heston Blumenthal, who all own and operate their own businesses and who, most importantly, are present in the kitchen. “If you [want to] be the best in the world, you’ve got to be in the kitchen all the time”.
It’s the last statement that Arnel makes before he is rushed off to the opening of another new Common Grounds outlet in Dubai’s JLT area.
While his name will forever be linked with his former business partner, today’s Tom Arnel shows a level of maturity that had arguably eluded him in previous years. One thing is for certain though, as the UAE’s food scene continues to evolve, it seems that both Tom and Serg will still have big part to play in it.