At the age of 45, with three Michelin stars and a bucketload of critical acclaim under his hat, Pierre Gagnaire was broke. Aux Passementiers, the French fusion kitchen that he headed in the city of Saint-Etienne, may have impressed food inspectors and critics alike, but it proved to be ahead of its time for most of his staff and patrons.
"Few people understood my food at the time. It was totally new, especially for a small city. I was in a dark tunnel with no light," he says. As it transpired, bankruptcy turned out to be the making, not the breaking, of Gagnaire, evident by the chain of restaurants that the 68-year-old chef now runs in Paris, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul, which have earned almost a dozen Michelin stars and many other awards.
Gagnaire seems to be reliving a microcosm of his experiences right here in the UAE. When he opened Reflets at Dubai Festival City in 2008, it quickly became the city’s go-to for fine French cuisine. The eatery closed in November 2016, with Gagnaire promising he would open another restaurant in the same spot by May last year, a month that came and went with little news of the new venture. This wasn’t exactly surprising; after all, for every eatery that launches in the fickle food mine that is the UAE, there are many others that are forced to lock larders for good.
However, in Gagnaire's case, it was a simple delay as he put his busy schedule and exacting plans in place for Pierre's Bistro & Bar, which opened in Dubai last month. "Honestly, we don't make mistakes," Gagnaire says, clear despite his heavily accented English, when I ask him about the challenges that led to the closure of Reflets. He puts it down, instead, to a matter of timing, suggesting that when he first came to the UAE in 2006, he gauged that the market was ripe for a fine-dining concept, but that it has since evolved to channel a more laid-back, but no less luxurious vibe.
And that’s exactly what Pierre’s Bistro aims to offer – a relaxed ambience with Michelin-level dishes, service and attention to detail, right down to its “gold-legged chairs and Hermès-quality cutlery”.
"After almost 10 years, we had two options: refurbish the restaurant, or close and create another place. After many discussions, now it's done, we are here and we offer a whole new experience where the approach is more relaxed. Bistro. The name is important, it's one that's light, airy, comfortable and joyful, with good company, good music and not expensive but good-quality food to share," he says, arms gesticulating dramatically each time he can't find the right word fast enough.
He’s not joking about that food. This is particularly fancy fare for a bistro, and features the innovative chef’s tuna or beef tataki with crispy rice (Dh80); madeleine with rosemary and Parmesan (Dh30); oysters with lemon gel, sardines rillette and banana (Dh100); eggplant mousse with miso and barley chips (Dh60); lobster tortellini with mint and orange butter (Dh85); and the elaborate meringua tarta, made of sponge, biscuit, sorbet, fresh, marinated and confit fruit, meringue, lemon and orange citrus jellies, and garnished with olive oil, herbs, aloe vera and rocket.
Perhaps paradoxically, the chef, who once described the turnip as the poor man’s truffle, says: “I believe a good chef can make exceptional dishes with the simplest of ingredients. It’s how I did it 40 years ago, when it was difficult to find good products. New flavours have to be coaxed out of the ingredients at hand.”
Quality of service is another area of expertise. So well-trained are Gagnaire’s staff that, the story goes, the maître d’ of one of his restaurants was poached by a high-end watchmaker to interact with customers at its Swiss boutique. “I am not always in the white jacket, but I am always in the kitchen – close to the team there. That proximity is the key to a restaurant’s success. As a mentor, it’s my job to find good, talented people, and help them find their own resource.”
Gagnaire was also closely involved with the Dubai restaurant’s design. With high tables and lounge seats, an artistic bar and DJ corner, floor-to-ceiling windows and interesting mood lighting, this is one Bistro that exudes reflet.