"Everybody you talk to knows at least something about MasterChef," notes chef Margarita Vaamonde-Beggs.
With more than 300 million viewers in 200 countries around the world, MasterChef is one of the most successful cooking series on television. And it's chef Vaamonde-Beggs's job to take that popular concept and turn it into a real restaurant.
In April, MasterChef, the TV Experience, will open at the forthcoming Millennium Place Marina. The screen-to-plate restaurant has been three years in the making, and will be the first in the world based on the reality cooking show.
The concept of MasterChef, for those unfamiliar, puts amateur cooks through their paces as they create menus and dishes for a panel of celebrity judges. And for the first time, fans will be able to sink their teeth into some of the winning dishes at the Dubai Marina restaurant.
“It’s an amazing concept and experience,” says Vaamonde-Beggs. “We are bringing food from actual people who went on the show and won. With the restaurant, you get a little bit of the show because you get to see us cook the dishes, and then you can be the judge.”
A new challenge
The chef, alongside the show’s production company and Dubai developer The First Group, has worked with previous winners and finalists to create a menu that will journey back through some of the series’s best dishes. “Each recipe is going to have a little bit of storytelling behind it. Chefs have shared with us recipes that have a memory for them from the TV show, like, ‘the dish that Marco Pierre White loved the most’, or, ‘the one that made me win the competition’,” Vaamonde-Beggs explains.
"Some of the dishes were passed down from grandparents and, for us, that's one of the main things about MasterChef. It is literally about a passion for cooking; it's about people who grew up with this and it comes from the heart, you know?"
While Vaamonde-Beggs has not been a MasterChef contestant herself, she knows a thing or two about handling the heat in the kitchen, landing her first head chef position when she was just 25. Since then, she has worked in some of the best restaurants in Latin America, before moving to the UAE and making a name for herself at eateries including Pierre Gagnaire's Reflets and Morimoto.
At 33, the MasterChef restaurant is her biggest challenge yet. And while having the weight of a global fan base on her shoulders might be enough to faze some chefs, for Vaamonde-Beggs, it’s all part of the fun. “Of course, I feel the pressure,” she says, “but I embrace a challenge, I’ll take it. It’s interesting, especially as a woman, to have the opportunity to do this. I also think it’s a refreshing change for the Dubai market.”
What to expect
As the name of the restaurant suggests, the format of the show will be incorporated beyond the menu. The decor has been designed to emulate the set, combining the industrial look and colour palette with some more recognisable elements, such as the famous MasterChef clock and an open-kitchen environment.
"We are going to have a table that is directly in front of the kitchen, so you can just sit there and look at everybody cook, which is fun for the chefs. It's a bit intimidating for some – but it's nice," Vaamonde-Beggs says. "It's part of the experience, and it gives them a taste of the pressure the contestants feel."
Vaamonde-Beggs will also try her hand at the MasterChef experience, taking on one of the challenges contestants are regularly faced with. "One of the main things we are bringing from the TV show is the Mystery Box challenge," she says, excitedly. "That will be my chance to shine."
While she is unable to elaborate further (I’m told it’s “still in the planning stages”), in the televised challenge, contestants are presented with a box of random ingredients from which they are tasked with creating a dish from scratch. The suggestion is that guests will be able to put Vaamonde-Beggs to the test if they choose to take a gamble on the Mystery Box menu option.
What the chef can tell me about, though, is one of the dishes that will be on the menu. "It's a very nice pea and truffle soup, with Parmesan and some sauteed peas on the side. It's silky, it has texture, it's full of spring flavours," she says.
“I had a moment,” interjects Duncan Fraser-Smith, vice president of The First Group’s food and beverage division. “A real moment. This is something we have been thinking about for three years and it was one of the first dishes I actually tasted that was going to be on the menu – I haven’t tasted food like that in Dubai yet. It’s extremely exciting.”
Creating an emotional connection
Vaamonde-Beggs adds: “It is going to be something very new for Dubai. Our menu is going to be so eclectic, with tastes and chefs from everywhere around the world – a bit like the people who live in Dubai.”
Some of the restaurant's other dishes will debut at Taste of Dubai, which runs from March 7 to 9. These include: confit duck leg with jalapeno, tomatillo sauce, sour cream, pickled onions and mango salsa, a recipe by Shaun O'Neale, a MasterChef USA champion from 2016; crispy fried chicken marinated in spicy buttermilk with red chilli, tamarind, Thai herbs and chilli caramel sauce, a recipe by Tamara Graffen, a MasterChef Australia contestant from 2017; and mixed mushrooms and glass rice noodles tossed in laksa, and topped with a soft-boiled and fried quail egg, a recipe from Ping Coombes, a MasterChef UK champion from 2014.
Vaamonde-Beggs will attend Taste of Dubai alongside MasterChef Australia judge Matt Preston. "He is going to be overseeing one of the dishes Margarita is going to produce in his very judge-like way," Fraser-Smith says with a smile.
After the food festival, the team will add the finishing touches to the menu ahead of the scheduled opening at the end of April, including ensuring all staff are familiar with MasterChef through the years.
"We've made a lot of the employees watch MasterChef episodes, because it's about creating an emotional connection," says Fraser-Smith. "People are connected through food and that's really the story with this restaurant."