Exclusive: What chef Sean Connolly plans to bring to Dubai Opera's first restaurant

The Dubai Opera is to get its first restaurant in September, thanks to Sean Connolly, a chef who aims to make his food rock and the atmosphere hum

Chef Sean Connolly inside his new restaurant. Courtesy Nik and Tam
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Despite its highbrow location, it’s hard to imagine a cooler, less stuffy restaurant than Sean Connolly’s upcoming eatery at the Dubai Opera. The Yorkshire-born chef, who is now based in Australia, readily admits: “I never thought my name would be associated with the opera. It’s cool, right? But it’s a landmark location, and I was honoured to be asked.”

Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera will officially open its doors in September. The twinkly-eyed chef was in the UAE last week finalising the menu and overseeing finishing touches to the decor.

Known for his superlative steak and seafood restaurants across Australia and New Zealand, Connolly will offer his signature protein-driven offerings here, too.

“I’m more of a seafood guy myself, and I’m mad on oysters. I get most compliments on my oysters, of which we serve up to 75,000 a month in the restaurants back home.”

While he has yet to finalise the menu for Dubai, Connolly insists that fresh produce will be key. He will offer up his signature dishes, an oyster bar and a few Italian options, the latter being a cuisine he serves at Gusto in Auckland. In fact, the chef maintains that his whole approach to food stems from Italian cooking and Antonio Carluccio, the chef known as the “godfather of Italian gastronomy”.

“I am trained in classical French cooking, but one time I went truffle-hunting in Asti during Terra Madre [a Slow Food event] with Carluccio, my childhood hero. Those two days I spent with him were a masterclass in Italian cuisine. And what I came back with was the philosophy of clean food.”

Clean is a word he uses often, to describe both the simplicity and the standard of fare he serves up. “I think the less I do to food, the better it tastes. I’ve made a career out of keeping things clean.” And, alluding to dietary constraints, such as gluten-intolerance, that a growing number of diners are now faced with, he adds: “There’s always something on my menus that everyone will feel comfortable with.”

Connolly also produces his own self-branded range of products, and while these won’t be up for sale in Dubai just yet, they will be part of the food in his restaurant. “Everyone does olive oil, but not many have their own duck fat, which we use a truckload of in all my restaurants,” says Connolly, who describes himself as a “product junkie”.

He also does his own hot sauce, alcohol-free Bloody Mary sauce and a whole range of olive oils. Connolly lists star anise as his favourite ingredient to work with and says that while “every chef needs a good lemon tart on his menu”, he will keep the desserts simple, like everything else.

In fact, the forthright chef claims that the food is third or fourth on his list of priorities when opening a restaurant. “I think the important thing is to choose well when you’re cooking. Let the produce speak for itself, keep the food super-simple, and the floor all-singing and all-dancing.”

That last bit is no exaggeration. Connolly’s restaurants are known as much for their salads, steaks and seafood, as for their preppy music and merry staff, himself included, mingling with guests on the floor.

The chef involves himself in the set-up of each of his ventures, and has brought on board an architect friend he’s worked with before for the Dubai Opera restaurant. “The restaurant space in Dubai, it presented what I call the vanilla box – a blank canvas.”

HMBW71 DUBAI, UAE - NOVEMBER 9, 2016: Night view on iconic dhow-shaped building of Dubai Opera is a masterpiece of contemporary design. Dubai, Opera. (Nadezda Murmakova / Alamy Stock Photo) *** Local Caption ***  HMBW71.jpg
The new restaurant will be inside Dubai Opera. Nadezda Murmakova / Alamy Stock Photo

While the interior is being kept under wraps, Connolly gives me a sneak preview. The pearly grey, pink and cream colour theme is reminiscent of an oyster, he points out, while the round tables, open-shell-like seating and alternating rough and smooth textures complete the illusion. Seating about 340 guests, the sweeping expanse of the 12,000-square-foot space has two bar counters, a chef’s table, private dining room, outdoor terrace with lounge-style seating and little nooks for those looking for a more intimate evening.

Interiors aside, Connolly also rates music as an integral part of the dining experience. “Each of my restaurants has got a different vibe going on. The Grill in Auckland is quite a blokey restaurant – and we play Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones. Sean’s Kitchen in Adelaide and The Morrison in Sydney are more about tunes from the 1970s, 80s and 90s – a bit of funk and pop – which is where I’m probably going to go with the Dubai restaurant. At Gusto, we do drum and bass, which is weird but it works.”

“The lighting, the sound and a big broad smile from my staff – that’s all I care about, and then the food will speak for itself. I only deal in the best produce, and that’s the key.”

A happy team of staff is essential, he says. Connolly is a big believer in what he calls “charisma programmes”, where he mentors his staff to get the best out of them. “Growing up, my mentor was a bloke called Jim L’Estrange, a cross between Donald Trump and Steve Irwin – you didn’t know if he was going to sack you or wrestle you. But he stood by me, and I think it’s so important to help people up through the ranks.”

The Eat Strong, Play Strong charity that Connolly is part of lends credence to this philosophy. Through the initiative, Connolly uses sport to encourage indigenous children in Australia to eat right. “Through this programme, I tell them that the better you eat, the healthier you are, and there’s a higher chance that you’ll get picked at sport and get more opportunities. It’s been inspirational, and a whole lot of fun for me.”

Fun clearly rates high on the chef’s list of priorities. Referring to Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera, he says: “I can’t imagine filling this space if it were only about formal fine dining. It wouldn’t work – for me or for Dubai, I don’t think. This restaurant is about making the opera accessible for people. It’s going to be a place for good times.”