It was three years ago that the rumour mill really got going, as the international director of Michelin Guides, Michael Ellis, told the Global Restaurant Investment Forum in Dubai that his company was well on its way to bringing its prestigious restaurant ratings system to the UAE. Then, just a few months ago, Ellis was appointed as chief culinary officer for Jumeirah Group, in charge of breathing new life into the hotel group's outlets.
At the same time, we're seeing an influx of Michelin-lauded chefs backing new restaurants, including famed Frenchman Alain Ducasse, who is one of only two chefs in the world to have been awarded 21 Michelin stars. It's all seriously raising the bar for fine-dining here and making the country's culinary scene even more exciting than it already is.
As we wait impatiently for those stars, we asked chefs Vineet Bhatia and Gary Rhodes what they think about it all. Both of them have long-standing, well-regarded restaurants here, and both have been at the helm of Michelin-starred hotspots in the past. So, who better than them to solve the conundrum?
Vineet Bhatia: ‘Michelin Guide’ will definitely come to the UAE
In 2001, Bhatia became the first Indian chef-restaurateur to be awarded a Michelin star, for his London restaurant, Zaika. Back then, he had taken the city's culinary scene by storm and revolutionised the way foodies perceived sub-continental cuisine. He'd formerly despaired at the sight of simple street eateries serving up dishes such as vindaloo, and set about raising the bar in terms of what could be achieved with Indian food.
He took this vision further in 2005 and opened his first restaurant in the Middle East. Fourteen years later, Indego by Vineet at Grosvenor House Dubai is still going strong.
It's where we meet to discuss Michelin matters. "I was asked the question [about whether or not the guide will come] three or four years back and I remember saying there's not much here that deserves a star," he says, just after the launch of his second UAE restaurant, Indya by Vineet, at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa. "Now, lots of chefs are coming in.
Standards have gone up – you’ve got Yannick Alleno, you’ve got Alain Ducasse, Heinz Beck, and more coming. There is so much happening, it’s just a matter of time before Michelin looks at it.”
Bhatia's reputation in London went from strength to strength. He opened Rasoi in a 100-year-old Chelsea townhouse in 2004, a restaurant that maintained one-Michelin-star status for 12 years. In 2017, it was rebranded as Vineet Bhatia London, but less than one week after it was awarded its first star, it shut down.
"That was a shock for everyone," Bhatia says. "We cried over that for two days. It was very hard for us to close it down, but we had no option and we had to pull out."
Bhatia and his wife, who works with him closely, had fallen out with the investors. "They had no understanding of the industry at all," he explains. "Within three months of opening they asked where the profit was. They were very shortsighted, so we couldn't work with them."
Thankfully for Dubai's diners, that's not the case here, and it seems he's heavily investing his time and effort in the region. He has a four-year-old Rasoi in Bahrain, two popular spots in Saudi Arabia, with another to open in Jeddah later this year, and he also has his sights set on Abu Dhabi (although he says he can't disclose more details on this project quite yet). He's also opening a new restaurant in London's Harrods this summer, and this year hopes to refurbish Dubai's Indego by Vineet and recreate some of the magic of his London restaurant through a chef's table concept.
"In London, there was only a tasting menu," he says. "It was a complete experience. When people walked in, they knew they were in for a magic carpet ride of spices – that's what we said it was. We changed the menu every two months, along with the crockery range, everything, so there was no repetition."
Perhaps if they do bring some of that to Dubai, Indego will be one of the first restaurants in line for a Michelin star – not that Bhatia is too concerned about that. "Don't forget, it's good to have Michelin stars in the country, but it's also a curse," he says. "It's a curse for the restaurant and a chef because the pressure is immense."
He says that young, ambitious and naive chefs can soon start cooking just for those stars, forgetting why they got into the industry in the first place. "I've never cooked for the guides," Bhatia says. "We got the stars and accolades purely for what we have done and been consistent in over the years. You don't open a restaurant to get stars."
As some diners rock up to enjoy a quick meal at Indya by Vineet, which opened on January 22, sitting around a communal table, dressed in flip-flops and board shorts, it is clear that it's the experience that is first and foremost on his mind. "Indya is our little sister to Indego," Bhatia explains. "A lot of Indian restaurants are opening up in Dubai, but they're all very gimmicky. We've taken all that out and are offering proper food."
With more than 70 dishes on the menu, spanning various regions of India, and often taking inspiration from good, old street food or home cooking, there's something for everyone. "It's very family-orientated, it's a relaxed place, a fun and very vibrant place, but at the same time it's slightly outside of the box in the way we put things together," he says.
The same could be said of the UAE. "I think this is a phenomenal place," he says. "Compared with where they've come from, where they are and where they're going, it's astounding."
Hear that, Michelin?
Gary Rhodes: I’m not so sure Michelin will come to the UAE any time soon
The British celebrity got his first taste of Michelin success as a head chef in 1986. Since then, he's been at the helm of six one-star restaurants. Nearly a decade ago, however, he decided to leave all that behind and move to Dubai, where he runs RhodesTwenty10 at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, and Rhodes W1 at Grosvenor House Dubai, as well as his in-theatre dining concepts in collaboration with Vox Cinemas.
"After all these years of hearing about [the Michelin Guide coming to the UAE], and then hearing it's been postponed, you get sick of the same old story," he tells The National.
We're at Siddharta Lounge by Buddha Bar and he looks happy, relaxed and extremely tanned against the sparkling white sofa he's sitting on. He seems very comfortable with his decision to live in the UAE. "I'd like to think it'll come, but you're not going to have a guide for Dubai or just for the UAE. I don't think it's big enough," he says.
Unless there's already a full team of inspectors working here at this very moment, he says, it'll take at least another couple of years before it arrives. "Just to prepare the very first copy would be an enormous amount of work," he says.The guides in Great Britain and France, for example, are massive, he explains. "So will they treat it as a Middle East guide or will they look at other Gulf countries, too? Possibly. But I think that'll take time."
None of this is to say that Rhodes doesn't have faith in the UAE's restaurants. In fact, he adores living here, often eats out and thinks the quality is high in some places. "I'd like to think that Dubai alone could end up with maybe two or three Michelin-starred restaurants," Rhodes says.
However, he admits that he's not entirely sure how inspectors actually view restaurants. Indeed, there are some places that he thinks are great, but have never had any stars. He also talks of restaurants that had a star but no customers. So, who knows?
What Rhodes knows for sure is how to make a place stand the test of time here. As Rhodes W1 turns 12 this year, the chef reflects on why he thinks other restaurateurs have not fared as well in the city.
“In the last three years, the market has slightly changed,” he says. “It takes you a little while to realise and recognise there’s a slightly different audience, different demands and different expectancies of what your operation is about.”
Dubai's restaurants are evolving constantly and are catering to a multicultural clientele, just like in London or New York.
"It's just like fashion. When something makes big news and big noise, everybody wants to go there. When there's another one that comes on the scene, they want to go there," Rhodes says. "It's very difficult for any hotelier or restaurateur to try and find a happy medium that's going to keep people coming back, and that's something we try to do."
Rhodes and his team do that by avoiding the trap of trying out new-fangled food trends. He's currently in the process of creating new menus and while he'll inject fresh elements, he sticks largely with what he's always done – reworking great British classics with a European touch.
That includes catering to the growing vegan market, with the introduction of a separate menu of plant-based dishes that'll change regularly. He's presently in the process of trying and testing those recipes.
Rhodes explains that he goes through a series of trials when he creates a new dish and then spends time teaching his team about it. Every single detail of the cooking method and preparation, alongside photographs of the finished plate, is put into files and on USB sticks that are handed out to staff. "That's the only way I've found that you can hold some form of consistency," he says.
Perhaps it's that rigorous training and level of consistency that won his restaurants those stars in the past. "I've got to admit, I never in my life thought I'd get a Michelin star. In those days, it was always a chef's dream," he says.
"I want to cook and draw attention and draw in customers, then I want to please the customers. If we do all that, and if that then warrants some kind of award or recognition, then I think it's well earned. I still believe in it, but if I never get another one in my life I can't really complain."
And if Michelin does eventually come to UAE? “I’d be hoping for the best.”
A dozen more Michelin-lauded chefs with eateries in the UAE
The celebrity chef who hosted TV show Kitchen Nightmares may be best known for his short temper, but he’s also behind one of the few London eateries to boast three Michelin stars. In total, Ramsay’s restaurants have been awarded 16 stars. In the UAE, he has two spots: Bread Street Kitchen at Atlantis The Palm, and Hell’s Kitchen at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai.
Another chef best known for his TV appearances, starring in Japanese cooking show Iron Chef and its spin-off Iron Chef America. He’s also made a name for himself with his unusual style of presenting food, as well as his Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant. In the UAE, his Japanese restaurant, Morimoto Dubai, occupies the 23rd and 24th floors of the Renaissance Downtown Hotel.
The French chef holds more Michelin stars than any chef in the world, and he’s just opened up a three-level restaurant at the Emerald Palace Kempinski Dubai, called Mix by Alain Ducasse. “It’s about a mix of events,” the chef told The National after the opening. “Different experiences, different spaces, different culinary experiences, combined with my French DNA.”
The German chef is behind Rome’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant, La Pergola, and he describes his style as “light and healthy cooking of Mediterranean flavours”. Here, we have Social by Heinz Beck, a Italian restaurant at Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah.
With a string of restaurants across the world boasting a dozen Michelin stars between them, the Frenchman is exacting. So it was interesting when his fine-dining Dubai eatery shut down in 2017, only for him to return and open a more casual spot. But don’t worry, Pierre’s Bistro & Bar in Dubai Festival City doesn’t compromise on quality.
The Englishman became the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star when he earned the accolade aged 26. Now 48, his first foray into the UAE came just four years ago, when he opened the casual Dubai eatery Pots, Pans and Boards. Most recently, he oversaw the menus for The Abu Dhabi Edition’s three signature restaurants.
Since 2007, the French chef has had three Michelin stars pegged to his name and his Paris hotspot made its debut on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017, at number 31. For a taste of what he has to offer, head to One & Only The Palm, where you’ll find the stylish, fine-dining spot Stay by Yannick Alleno.
The man behind Bouchon and five cookbooks also has seven Michelin stars across three of his restaurants (two of which are three-starred). He made his Dubai debt in 2017, opening a Bouchon Bakery at Jumeirah Beach Residence, where classic dishes are served in a super-casual setting.
The American chef behind two venues at Renaissance Downtown Hotel has successful restaurants in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong, too. Here, the stylish spot Bleu Blanc by David Myers serves up “southern French farmhouse flair”, while Basta! by David Myers aims to be more of a Roman trattoria, Florentine steakhouse and Neapolitan pizzeria in one.
Bottura almost became a lawyer, but thankfully for us he brought new Italian gastronomy to the world instead. His Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena quickly received three Michelin stars. In the UAE, he just opened Torno Subito at W Dubai – The Palm.
Also new at W Dubai – The Palm is the eponymous Akira Back by the snowboarder-turned-chef, who has brought his signature Japanese cuisine with a Korean twist to the region for the first time. He has one Michelin star already, for Dosa in his hometown of Seoul.
The Portuguese chef whose Lisbon restaurant Belcanto was the first in the city to have two Michelin stars, made his UAE debut with Tasca at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, which serves classic dishes from his home country, with a contemporary twist.