Inside Osteria Funkcoolio restaurant, where chef Akmal Anuar reaches 'peak creativity'

The Singaporean cook, behind 3Fils and Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire, is ready to build his own empire in Dubai

Hungry for success, Dubai's star chef opens a new concept

Hungry for success, Dubai's star chef opens a new concept
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Walking into Osteria Funkcoolio in Dubai feels like stepping into a vintage Italian postcard.

The ceiling is green. The mirrors are subtly frosted. There are floral wallpapers, enormous chandeliers, greyscale portraits, marble-top bars and booths with red leather seats. And the tables are covered with a white cloth.

The name doesn't offer sufficient clarification, either, but that's just how its owner – Akmal Anuar, the experimental chef behind award-winning 3Fils and Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire – prefers it.

Opening mid-March, the restaurant is tucked amid the quaint low-rise buildings of Port De La Mer in Jumeirah 1, a new waterfront development inspired by the Mediterranean, think terracotta roof tiles, rustic stonework and pastel exteriors.

Osteria means tavern or simple restaurant in Italy – after all, this is an Italian restaurant, kind of. It is also Japanese, but not quite fully Asian.

Above all, it's characteristically Anuar, who exudes funky and cool vibes in his green cargo pants paired with his white chef's coat. He removes his black cap and says “salt and pepper”, referring to his wavy dual-toned hair. He poses for the camera, opting for a spot in front of his portrait.

Peak creativity

In many ways, Osteria Funkcoolio is a peek into Anuar's riotous imagination – one that has been shaped by his previous ventures that achieved paramount success. Unlike these restaurants though, the Port De La Mer dining spot is a solo project, allowing him to “push the envelope” even further.

“I started with a passion for cooking, but now I think I hit my ceiling,” he tells The National. “I need to do more – build my own repertoire and really find out what makes me 'me'." Funkcoolio, as he refers to it, speaks to his “ongoing discovery” of himself, not just as a chef, but as a restaurateur.

“I could cook well, but that's it." he adds. "It was about going from one place to another just negotiating salaries. I had to ask myself what else I can bring to the table."

Anuar has been enjoying not being tied to partners so far, saying: “Before it was just me curating menus, doing a little bit of design while somebody else looks over – now I have to decide on even the smallest thing, like what glasses to use.”

Asked whether he's finally found his own brand, he says: “It's still in progress. I still can't define the right 'Akmal' way. I'm just going where creativity takes me, and the sky's the limit.”

It's also this aversion to stagnancy, Anuar implies, that led to the birth of Osteria Funkcoolio, describing the restaurant as his boldest play on creativity so far. From the name to the dishes, as well as the “conscious decision” to choose a small venue with only 34 covers, the Singaporean chef-restaurateur wants something borderline anomalous.

“Many people will expect me to open a bigger venue, especially after 11 Woodfire, but this is way smaller than many of my other restaurants,” he says. “I need to pull back a little bit, and focus on very good quality when it comes to the food and service.”

Itameshi cuisine

The choice of exploring the Itameshi – or Japanese-Italian – culinary concept also falls into Anuar's experimental pursuit. Although the fusion is not new, he says the UAE hasn't acclimatised to it yet.

“I've trained in a few Italian restaurants, with Italian chefs who add Japanese touches," he says. "I think there's nothing like this in the region so far. The flavours are very light, and you will not expect certain things to be on your plate.”

On the menu, this means pasta dishes may have a dashi or five spice. There is a risotto made of Koshihikari rice, the short grains are more commonly found in sushi, as well as a sea bass pasta dish with spring onions and sudachi, a lime-like fruit from Shikoku Island.

“I've travelled extensively in Japan and Italy, and these are two of the best places when it comes to premium ingredients,” says Anuar, who still expects detractors in his quest to play with two popular cuisines.

But he adds: “I don't care what people think. This is what I want to do. I have the fundamentals of Italian cooking. If it's good pasta from northern Italy, I will not touch it. What I do here is out of that context. It's our own recipes and combinations of flavours.

“Nobody can come and say 'this is not Italian' because it's never been just Italian. Simply put, it's an Italian restaurant with Asian food.”

Looking up, but grounded

Although Anuar has been known for his at 3Fils (currently sixth on Mena's 50 Best list) and Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire, he says for him ambition doesn't start with an accolade in mind.

“We will open the restaurant, and we will do our best," he says. "If it comes, it comes. We'll take it as a bonus. What's important is that we build a good culture, and find our own way."

Even before the Michelin win in 2022, he was already acquainted with the demands of big-ticket restaurants.

“I know the pressure. I have an idea of what works and what doesn't," he adds. "My focus is on our people. Everyone needs to be happy. Everyone needs to love their job, because that will elevate many things, and guests will feel that energy."

Undue pressure, Anuar explains, could even be detrimental to restaurants. “Sometimes you walk into a three-Michelin-starred venue and it feels stiff. We don't want that here,” he says.

Asked whether he's concerned about the increasing competition within Dubai's gastronomic scene, the chef replies: “I am not going to worry about that. I'll do my own thing.”

Exact opening date not yet announced, more information at funkcoolio on Instagram

Updated: March 03, 2024, 9:57 PM