Welcome to my new feature! A feature that celebrates the chefs of Dubai who are clearly doing something right – the chefs that people are talking about, the chefs that are pushing boundaries and helping shape the landscape of Dubai.
The Dubai restaurant scene is richer because of characters like this who find their voice through food. Restaurants play an important role in helping define what Dubai becomes, not just in the realm of food, but as a city. Chefs operate from a position of privilege and the very best ones should be proud of their contribution. Here are three of my favourites at the moment – in no particular order and with no hidden agendas.
Liam Breen – The Canadian Rebel
Chef Liam complains of boundaries and cooking ‘by the book’ so it is no wonder that after his time with the underwhelming F&B of the Conrad hotel, Liam took a risk and helped launched The Maine Oyster Bar. It was here where he really found his voice. Liam cooks with a certain nostalgia – a reflection of simpler times, and a surprising command of subtlety and finesse. Liam understands that food shouldn’t be some sort of pretentious torture. It’s got to be something uplifting, and fulfilling and delicious, and it should invigorate people.
Always tattooed and often bearded, Liam is the new wave of James Dean chefs – not afraid to break the rules, but respectful of the traditions that came before him. His cooking marries intense flavours with deep technique, yet it is often presented with humble abandon. Liam produces tightly controlled, well-ordered, imaginative dishes beautifully presented at the peak of their form.
Take, for example, his “surf and turf” dish – a pan-seared black cod with duck rillette agnolotti and beurre blanc with charred broccoli. A far cry from your frozen lobster tail and choice filet medium rare.
Liam is the new breed of chef – that blend of hard taskmaster and inspirational teacher all rolled into one. It’s difficult to get that right, and the key measurement is how consistently good the food is. Liam’s food is consistently good.
Now for the bad news – as of going to press, Liam no longer cooks at The Maine Oyster Bar. He has once again decided it was time for another adventure. The good news is that he’s keeping his considerable skills within the UAE. Watch this space.
Colin Clague – The Genius Interrogator.
Colin’s skill comes from his ability to interrogate and empathize with a cuisine. This is a chef that has been on a journey of discovery for most of his career. This wonderfully eclectic curiosity could be seen at the much loved and often missed Qbara restaurant, where Colin delivered a menu that was more than just the mastery of recipes – it showed an intense understanding of culture too. He then moved to the Jean-Georges restaurant, where, in my opinion, he was under-utilized and lost his way somewhat – following someone else’s work is clearly not playing to Colin’s strengths. This is a chef that needs space to explore and room to express. Thankfully, Colin has relaunched himself, with an almighty Ruya roar and his current menu is like a tour de force – confident, demanding and incredibly craveable. Colin’s cooking resonates across borders – it is egalitarian and populist.
With Ruya, he has immersed himself in Anatolian cuisine, heritage and culture – showing again how interrogation and empathy are his biggest weapons in producing world-class menus. You never get the feeling with Colin that he is half assesly interested in doing anything. With the arrival of Ruya, he took a country’s cuisine by storm – a cuisine that does not get taken by storm by outsiders. He gets under its skin – he breathes it and lives it, and the output of this is a wonderfully eclectic interpretation of Turkish cuisine. Thankfully without any ridiculous meat slapping or seasoning techniques.
Take his Keśkek, for example. A slow cooked lamb barley risotto, a delightfully elevated interpretation of a culturally important food that shows tremendous understanding, creativity and respect to a nation’s cuisine he has adopted as his own.
Like many great chefs, Colin is a disciplinarian – he takes no prisoners and suffers no fools – traits he learned from past masters, such as Langan, Hollihead, and Sir Terence Conran. His team knows where they stand with him, and they do not take him lightly. He is the master of the ship, of that, there can be no doubt. As with all creatives, there is also a touch of madness to him – clearly evident in his support for Arsenal. 🙂
Colin can be found at Ruya Restaurant at The Grosvenor Hotel.
Reif Othman – The Creative Educator
Leaving the safety and security of Zuma epitomizes the belief that Reif has within himself. At one moment Reif is simply updating the Zuma brunch menu, the next he has an opportunity to explore and establish his own unique style, and with Play restaurant, his journey into the future has begun. To leave a high profile job, walking away from the helm of arguably Dubai’s most famous restaurant because you think you can ‘do better’ is exactly why Chef Reif makes it onto this list. That same courage and confidence scream from every dish of his new menu at Play restaurant.
Reif is a supremely gifted individual, and by combining his Asian background and his Dubai knowledge with classic Mediterranean techniques, he has created a cuisine that has become a very strong personal message. He is clearly one of Dubai’s most innovative chefs behind a set of pans at the moment. However, there is a distinct feeling that he is cooking for himself first – but only because he knows his customers so well.
There is a hint of well-directed arrogance in his approach too – a responsibility and desire to educate. Ultimately, Reif wants to teach Dubai how to eat. His ambition to educate and inspire manifests itself through his private table called The Experience. Twelve students sit in for a masterclass of cuisine exploration and with Reif as the professor, those students are in excellent hands. When it comes to his food, his personal favourite, which also happens to be mine, is the popular pita surprise dish. Puffed pita bread wrapped with heavily marbled beef slices and truffle butter. Simplistic on paper, anything but when tasted.
Reif leads by example – he has spent years chopping onions, deboning chickens and whisking egg whites to the highest of standards – so he has no qualms in demanding the same from his team. He is serious about his kitchen, approachable to his staff, passionate about his creativity and of course, a little bit OCD. Order his salmon tartare if you don’t believe me.
Reif can be found at Play Restaurant, H Hotel, SZR
If there are any other chefs that deserve some attention because of their cooking, drop me a line – i’d love to explore them further.