A home grown restaurant – a home grown destination restaurant – a home grown fine dining destination restaurant – a
Michelin starred Chef’s home grown fine dining destination restaurant (striking the previous part after a Michelin controversy that ensued with a comment left behind by a very respected food expert and some email exchanges wit the restaurant PR) – the tags had been increasing with each passing day and the curiosity that had been building up surrounding Greg Malouf’s Clé Dubai, was unlocked to the public on the 13th October, 2014. For me, the excitement that leads to the build up of a restaurant is gaining more momentum than the launch of the restaurant itself (much like this one). Exactly a month back, I was chatting with Greg Malouf in the posh lounge of Clé Dubai, which was still undergoing some last minute touch up. Clé Dubai promises to showcase Greg Malouf’s award-winning contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine in its home turf. Having had a taste of Greg Malouf’s creativity earlier in Nawwara in JW Marriott Marquis during a Taste of Dubai event last year, I am absolutely certain, that he will be doing a great job of ‘selling ice to the Eskimos’, as The Hedonista puts it. She further writes… ‘Dishes like hummus, moutabel, muhammara, fattoush and tabbouleh are recipes we eat constantly in the region, and those which many of us will gauge a restaurant’s capabilities by. They set a benchmark, and by giving us his versions, Malouf has painted his own standard.’ I have immense belief in Greg Malouf, despite the chaotic media preview night where the only dish that stood out was a shankleesh salad.Contrary to the celebrity halo surrounding Greg Malouf, the man seems so reclusive and shy, preferring to toil away in the kitchen rather than pose in front of flash bulbs. In Nawwara, he was busy preparing the food rather than mingle with the guests, much like Pierre Gagnaire. And in the launch of his restaurant, he seemed pretty out of place posing with the supermodels Alessandra Ambrosio and Irina Shayk for the high profile restaurant photos that would appear on page 3 the next day (apparently ‘the most glamorous launch party of 2014’!). So, imagine me directing Greg Malouf to pose for this interview! The only place where he came out of his shy armour, was in the kitchen (above) which he proudly showed me around. This says a lot about the Chef – leave Greg Malouf in the kitchen and and let him create his magic. It will be a shame if Clé Dubai resorts to celebrity diners to stand out (we don’t want a Cavalli Club) rather than the food it serves. After all, the man been the head chef at the award-winning restaurant MoMo in Melbourne for 11 years before leaving in 2012 to take over the famous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, UK. His Middle Eastern take on seasonal dining had earned the latter a Michelin star.
Greg Malouf in conversation (he is a very soft spoken man, and describes himself as ‘a humble Lebanese-Australian boy from the suburbs’ doing what he loves to do best: cook and eat!’):
It’s always such a delight to have chef – driven restaurants. And also to see a resident chef, not just a celebrity chef lending his name and moving on. Welcome to Dubai!
I am a hands on Chef and I am more comfortable in the kitchen. I have always wanted to cook in the Middle East because of my roots – Beirut, where I still have my family. I have been in Dubai for some time now and I am coming out of my shell only now – I am a bit of a recluse you see (he laughs). I have been visiting the markets to check out food suppliers. I have also been dabbling my hand in a bit of pottery – creating my own tagine. This tagine has a round circular lid on top, rather than the standard conical one, more like a flying saucer. I found a potter here who could translate my ideas and design into reality. (I ask him to etch his signature on a tagine and then burn it for me, but he suggests that he could sign his name with a golden pen on the ceramic – which might look great as well). The idea of a tagine is that it creates vapour and condensation which drips back into the food that is being cooked. The tagine that I have designed, has more surface area. One could use this ornamentally or actually use for cooking up a slow stew. It will be sold from Clé Dubai and if it does well, I will definitely look for commercializing it.
Since you have lived outside the Middle East (your association with Momo and Petersham Nurseries), you have a different perspective to Middle Eastern food. Will you be bringing all these back into the Middle Eastern food that we know?
Australia is a new country with different values and has got an incredibly mixed culture. This is fantastic and that’s why we have such a diverse food culture in Australia. People are willing to try new food, they have got fantastic produce and is surrounded by the oceans. It is very different in Dubai – nothing grows here. The population is mixed between the Emiratis, the business travellers, the resident expats and tourists. Each restaurant will have a different way of dealing with this, depending upon their own target audience.
Dubai diners are always wanting something new, a new brand. So what are your plans for Clé Dubai?
Yes, I hear about different restaurant openings all the time. (He asks me which are the new restaurants that have come up in the recent times). Are there any restaurants which are closing down? (And when I say, yes constantly, the Chef says ‘Ouch’! I also tell him about the different hotel restaurants that are being revamped). I think the latter is a great thing because that means that there are free standing restaurants which are shaking up the hotel restaurants a bit. And there is a scope for both. I think most people don’t understand brands. I am not a hotel chef and I most certainly don’t want to be a brand. All I want to do is to try and alleviate the food I cook and put Middle Eastern food on a pedestal. I still have a long way to do. I am still learning, I am still writing books, I am still travelling and I am still cooking in the kitchen.
Is Clé Dubai going to replace Q’bara as the current new Arabic fine dining venue? Are you also incorporating Emirati cuisine like Chef Silvena is doing? Is your food going to be contemporary or very traditional?
I like Q’bara and I know Chef Collin quite well – he’s been supportive of what I am doing. We cook very differently and while he approaches Middle Eastern food from a British point of view, I come from the other angle of having a Lebanese palette and paying a lot of homage and respect to Middle Eastern and Lebanese dishes. I try to look at the produce itself and then try to use it in a dish, try to elevate it and create an architecture by adding a few more layers to it. Q’bara is a lavish restaurant and there is a lot of Western technique used to create food. Coming to Emirati cuisine, it is a hidden cuisine and one doesn’t have much of an opportunity to taste Emirati food outside an Emirati kitchen. I think Silvena is doing a great job here. Silvena, Collin and myself – we are very different in our approaches in what we do, the common thread being the interpretation of Middle Eastern food in a modern way. A lot of my dishes have evolved from my memories of childhood and my travels.
We have tasted your food in Taste of Dubai last year. When you serve traditional food to people who are already used to eating that food, it shows a lot of confidence.
I know Hummous is Hummous. But half the Hummous in this city is full of Tahini. So it is actually Tahini with Hummous. Part of my menu is traditional but it is presented beautifully. There is a lot of quirky things in there that would be exciting. So this is Middle Eastern food as presented in 2014 as opposed to 1896.
Dubai has started its quest on local and organic produce. You have Farmers Markets here too. How much can we see your support here?
I know Silvena is trying to do this. But I am a bit skeptical. I would love to use local produce but I have been around for a while here and I have used local produce – it hasn’t convinced me at all. For example, the local fish or the lobster – it is warm water fish and there is no fat content. Onions – I have used them for cooking, used them raw – but I still don’t think that they taste good. I will definitely use produce from around the region – Lebanon and Iran. I think the issue lies in the way produce are handled. If you have a beautiful produce that has been handled properly, packaged beautifully and transported with care and delivered to the kitchen, you get very excited. Not when some produce is dumped into a box and dragged in the 40ºC heat, it’s not the same. You can’t be running a fine dining restaurant without A-quality produce. (Much like Zuma, I would say).
What else are there in the pipeline?
I have got a bit of a retail outlet for a Spice Range that will be sold within Clé Dubai and there’s a new book coming up as well (he’s collaborating with his ex-wife Lucy Malouf on their new book, based on Middle Eastern vegetarian cuisine and this is due to be launched in November 2014).Post-Qbara, the Middle Eastern fine dining scene is getting hotter and more attractive – Chef Silvena’s Omnia opening soon in Down town Dubai (it will be unlicensed though) and Aseelah, the top end Emirati restaurant opening in Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek. After the brouhaha over the guest list of the launch party fizzles down, its time to head down to Clé Dubai to taste the food from Greg Malouf’s kitchen – because that’s where he is most comfortable in!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
PS: For those who are curious about how Cle Dubai is faring post launch – do read the review on FooDiva. And the December issue of Food e Mag dxb captures Greg Malouf taking us through his favourite 5 dishes from the Cle Dubai menu.
Disclaimer: I was invited for Cle Dubai media preview (above two pictures – Dave Reeder with Paris Hilton, Samantha with Khloe Kardashian, Dalia Dogmoch with Akon, Sally and Sam with Greg Malouf and myself with Hrithik Roshan). The interview however, took place a month back and all the above photographs have been taken by me. Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. You can catch my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.