Fare do’s: Khalid 'Mr Gold' Dahbi dishes it out as good as he gets

The Moroccan-born celebrity chef, entrepreneur and philanthropist on his gift that keeps on giving - and the legacy he wants to leave behind

Khalid Dahbi might be 'Mr Gold who sells caviar' but, at the Final Judgment he says he wants to be recognised for the importance he places on creating a better tomorrow. Photo: Mark Chilvers
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Six blinis are lined up before Khalid Dahbi, each topped with folds of the finest Highland smoked salmon, a dollop of creme fraiche, a spoonful of glistening grey caviar and a chervil garnish.

Dahbi takes the top off a glass shaker of edible gold flakes, leans over the little works of art on their rectangular porcelain canvas, and delivers the crowning touch.

“Caviar is a passion of mine and a true love affair,” he tells The National. “I love the taste, the freshness and the sensation you get from eating freshly harvested sturgeon roe. The first time I had caviar, I was 10 with my father and I have been hooked ever since.”

We are in the kitchen of Quintessentially, the luxury lifestyle and concierge group headquartered in a chic residential area of London’s West End, where the Moroccan-born chef now has a celebrity status to rival that of his many famous patrons.

In the same imposing mid-terrace, Grade-II listed Georgian building, Dahbi has an office, all wood panels and crystal sconces, from where he operates many business projects.

One, Touche, organises exclusive experiences for wealthy clients, many of which take place in the vibrant city of Marrakesh that he would one day like to make a television programme about as an eat-out guide for British audiences.

For Khalid Dahbi, above in the Quintessentially kitchen in Marylebone, London, caviar is a 'passion of mine and a true love affair'. Mark Chilvers

KD Luxury is another of his ventures, a purveyor of prized food and beverages sourced from small artisan producers around the world.

Among its premium wares are the 24-karat flakes, available in small or large, which rather fittingly have become the signature form of adornment for a cuisinier whose surname in Arabic means “golden”.

There are also black truffles from de Perigord in France and white from Alba in Italy, as well as various types of caviar such as those from a sturgeon farm in Bulgaria.

The latter are a travel essential for Dahbi. On a recent trip to the British embassy in his home city of Rabat, airport officials might have been forgiven for a double-take at the tins and tins of Beluga and Oscietra constituting 2kg of his hand luggage weight allowance.

“I will never let caviar out of my sight,” he says, with a laugh at the thought of checking-in the precious cargo.

That journey was made as part of celebrations at the ambassador’s residence for the 300th anniversary of the first commercial treaty between Britain and Morocco.

To mark the milestone, Dahbi played, as he has many times in the past, an integral role as a sort of unofficial diplomat renewing relations between the two kingdoms by showing off the choicest ingredients of both.

His ambitions for using food as a means of bringing people, businesses and cultures together are unfettered by Brexit, which he thinks has ushered in bountiful opportunities for gastronomic exchange.

The quest is to help the British see beyond couscous and tagine to “the best of what Morocco is all about”, and vice-versa.

“I think the Moroccans would certainly enjoy exploring British tastebuds,” he says. “Yes, Brie is nice but I, mean, if they taste cheddar, they would love it.

“There's a lot to gain. There's a lot to explore. And I think the public can discover a huge amount of positive elements out of Morocco, whether that's cultural services, gastronomy, and the list just goes on,” he tells me, with a zeal for his homeland of someone who only found it recently.

In some ways, he has. It seems that the journey of self-discovery he took on leaving Morocco for Europe decades ago ended up bringing his roots to the fore along with the confidence to shine a light on them.

“Sounds spot on,” Dahbi says when asked if this would be a fair assessment.

The young Khalid, in his beloved Morocco aged six, grew up wanting to extricate himself from the privileges of wealth accumulated by his family. Photo: Khalid Dahbi

His father, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Health, drove Khalid to Casablanca, from where the then 14-year-old flew off in search of a different kind of occupation to that of Dahbi Snr.

Far from making a bid to escape an unhappy childhood, the precocious first of three siblings and only son wanted to extricate himself from the privileges and other trappings of wealth accumulated by others.

“I was just super ambitious from a very early age and creative,” Dahbi says. “I had a great upbringing, a great family, all foodies, and a very well-known, respected and cultivated father. I suppose I just wanted to explore as many options as I could. I wanted to create my own success…

“The one major element that I regret in my life is not going back and seeing him before he passed away.”

Initially, as “a long-haired hippie” in a leather jacket, Dahbi exchanged Rabat for Rome, applying three times for a place at the film school at the Cinecitta Studios renowned as Hollywood on the Tiber.

In spite of a happy upbringing by what he describes as a 'great' family, Khalid Dahbi, above pictured right, left Rabat for Europe on a journey of self-discovery. Courtesy: Khalid Dahbi

While waiting for an acceptance that never came, he lived in Naples, working in a car wash and candle factory and as a life-guard. From day one, though, he was nearly to lose his own life or liberty several times in the Campania region through various dramatic scrapes, alternately with the Camorra and the Carabinieri.

“There’s quite a romantic story to it,” he says of the time that the criminal organisation shot him in the leg in the mistaken belief that he’d been pilfering animals from a smallholding owned by an old woman.

The dangers became ever-greater, “and that’s when I said bye-bye Naples and Rome and went to Lido di Jesolo in Venice.”

This time, as Dahbi continued his peregrinations through the food capitals of Europe, he ventured into one of the kitchens in the beach resort on the Adriatic Sea, quickly climbing the rungs from washing dishes.

In Switzerland, he was to become executive chef before making his way via Michelin-starred restaurants Le Meurice and L’Arpege in Paris to Claridge’s under Gordon Ramsay, and working with Marco Pierre White – “great personality, great foodie” – and Jamie Oliver in London.

As his peregrinations through the food capitals of Europe continued, Khalid, above aged 15 in Switzerland, climbed the culinary rungs from dish washer to executive chef. Courtesy: Khalid Dahbi

He was founder chef for Beso on Shaftesbury Avenue, described as a contemporary take on the Mediterranean kitchen by “offering North African dishes instead”, and executive chef at the Old Vic Theatre during the tenure of the actor and producer Kevin Spacey.

Throughout his career, catering for high-profile clientele has been a constant, but Dahbi has remained unfazed by the long A-list that features former US President Bill Clinton, actors like Julia Roberts and Jude Law, and British royalty such as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles.

“I tend to sort of keep my distance, not come across as somebody who likes to pursue them,” he says, “and that's one of the reasons why I've kept the relationships because they’re quite guarded,” he says.

“I'm comfortable around them and most of them are comfortable around me, and it's a good relationship with my celebs. That's it.”

At the age of 41, Dahbi now spends much of his time on Quintessentially, the private concierge club with big hubs in London, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Dubai that have a remit described by some on the outside as wish-fulfilment for the super wealthy.

The many culinary concoctions he creates and posts on Instagram are delicious-looking delicacies such as Miami sea urchins, Alaskan crab and Orkney scallops frequently with a regional twist of Argan oil or rose harissa, and almost always featuring sturgeon roe and precious flakes.

Dahbi muses that those who have not met him might assume him to be a completely different person but he insists that he is just a “simple man” who believes that food should look and taste elegant.

He says that he eschews designer clothing and once gently rejected the offer of the use of a private plane by a very famous star in favour of flying with EasyJet.

In the past, he commented that he might be “Mr Gold who sells caviar” but at the Final Judgment wants to be recognised for the importance he places on creating a better tomorrow.

As he puts it now, what drives him is the deep desire to give back and be remembered with “a good phrase, a good word”.

“If these other businesses generate something that I can go and help others with then that’s the satisfying aspect to it,” he says, citing his KD Foundation, a non-profit which among other activities works alongside local charities to relieve hunger in deprived communities in the UK and Morocco.

While Dahbi has never cooked for the Duke of Sussex, his philanthropic work was honoured by Harry and his wife, Meghan, above, during a visit the royal couple made to the UK Ambassador's residence in Morocco in 2019. Courtesy: British Embassy, Rabat.

“I am humble in my own way and do a lot of charity work. It gives me such pleasure to help others,” he says. “It’s always been in my DNA. I'm not going to take whatever I created in my lifetime with me [when I die], that's for certain.”

While he has never cooked for the Duke of Sussex, his philanthropic work was honoured by Harry and his wife, Meghan, during a visit the royal couple made to Rabat in 2019.

“When we greeted, Prince Harry said to me, ‘Your face is quite familiar,’ or something like that, and I said, 'Yeah, I did go to 151 [nightclub on the King's Road in London] a few times,' and he just winked at me,” says Dahbi with a trademark giggle.

During the early spread of Covid-19, as eateries across Britain closed, Dahbi and his team in the Quintessentially kitchen cooked and personally delivered 150 restaurant-quality meals a day to those health workers on the frontline of the pandemic.

Police officers, ambulance drivers, NHS staff and even the homeless he happened to pass en route opened care packages to reveal portions of truffle mac and cheese, 12-hour braised short rib of beef, or red velvet cake.

With Cop26 in Glasgow as a backdrop to our conversation, Dahbi says that environmental concerns such as sustainability are high on his action list, and he hopes to direct more energy towards these causes.

“I love fish,” he says, by way of example. “I grew up visually enjoying the parades of different colours of fish, prawns, what have you, the different spices, the different textures, but we are eating ourselves to death.” People are, he adds, consuming for the sake of consuming.

He is clearly brimming with ideas, such as plans with the UK ambassador to Morocco, Simon Martin, for a Manchester to Marrakesh car rally, and a “fashion and gastronomy” event for next year.

With his strong work ethic that makes him begin each day at 5am, it’s a wonder that he is able to retain his jovial nature and that charming propensity for giggling.

I still haven’t achieved anything. It’s nice to be appreciated but I’m nowhere near what I would like to be

Watching nature documentaries in the little spare time he has helps, he says, bringing him “calm and serenity”, and allowing a chance to draw on his thoughts.

In spite of all the accomplishments and accolades, though, Dahbi feels that there is more to aim for.

“I still haven’t achieved anything,” he says. “It’s nice to be appreciated but I’m nowhere near what I would like to be. Not that there’s a deadline.”

When his teenage self struck out from Rabat, he was determined to “hit the road, to go and explore different avenues and countries” in the pursuit of success.

As it turns out, those streets have been paved with golden opportunities and good intentions. For the ever-ambitious Dahbi, there is much traversing of them yet to be done.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:03 AM