Is the era of the celebrity chef over?
Celebrities are part of our landscape, but one man’s celebrity is another man’s nobody. There are so many variations. Take for example Wolfgang Puck; he has an empire of restaurants around the world, then at the other end of the scale, there’s Alain Passard’s L’Arpège restaurant in Paris, his only establishment where he is in the kitchen every day. And in between we have many chefs who are well-known in some places and less well-known in others, plus we’ve seen the rise of ‘celebrity chains’.
In a world with so many restaurant choices, media platforms and changing consumer tastes, having a big name is understandably appealing for operators and owners. It ensures a level of exposure and competitive security—presuming the chef remains on his or her ‘A game’, which isn’t always a given. I can’t see that changing, particularly in an image-conscious, outlet-covered city like Dubai, where we have more than 18 leading chefs affiliated to venues at the last count.
What is changing are consumers’ tastes and perceptions surrounding the restaurant experience and all outlets, regardless of profile, having to perform to meet consumer’s expectations.
Dining is one of Jumeirah’s three key ‘pillars’, so we’re constantly scrutinizing concepts, dishes and service. As Chief Culinary Officer, I insist that all our chefs and F&B teams keep focused on three key areas—our customers, price points and restaurant atmosphere—and if you tick all three boxes you will be successful.
At Jumeirah, we are approaching it from a different angle by creating ‘destination restaurants’ first and foremost, supported by the best chefs; for us, it’s not about recruiting personalities with the biggest Instagram followings but employing those who have consistently delivered quality over many years and creating elevated dining experiences. Success and quality will always be more important yardsticks than any sensational headline or celebrity claims.
Francky Semblat and Kim Joinie-Maurin arrived at Burj Al Arab last year and together with Marco Garfagnini and Christian Goya we now have four chefs with Michelin-grade experience. Semblat and Joinie-Maurin are proteges of the late Joël Robuchon, who received the ultimate ‘celebrity’ tag when he achieved the amazing feat in 2016 of winning a total of 29 Michelin stars in his 26 restaurants around the globe. Their experience helps develop our own internal talent pool, and we spend a lot of time recruiting the best kitchen teams as well as service staff, essential to impart knowledge to guests – again, teamwork is more important than a singular name.
We give the same level of attention to our suppliers of ingredients, and regular guests tell me they have noticed a difference, not just in the ‘headline’ restaurants but at the beach, pool and in all-day dining venues as well.
We are working more with local growers to have organically grown produce, developing more plant-based dishes and eliminating single use plastics. Veganism is now a lifestyle choice and it’s no longer about window dressing, and when people go out in a group they are mindful of those who are vegan; I can see a time when we’ll have vegan options in a steakhouse. You have to cater to what people want; we are noticing food sharing continues to be one of the biggest trends that appeals to both Middle Eastern and European visitors.
Social media platforms, together with increased competition, ensure promotional elements will only intensify and the notion of a celebrity chef is likely to remain a useful marketing tool. But that’s all it is. It’s not a sustainable business plan. Some visit once a year, others not at all.
While a name may help draw people through the doors, it’s no guarantee they will return – and that means food quality must always be your primary focus.
Michael Ellis is the Chief Culinary Officer of Jumeirah Group