Restaurateur makes Dubai his own Big Apple

A war veteran from New York who worked in the World Trade Center, Anthony Soethout was one of many touched by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he did not let it steer him away from his dream to make a culinary mark in the Arab world.

DUBAI // Like most New Yorkers, Anthony Soethout was personally affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in his home city.

Before becoming a restaurateur in Dubai, the former US army engineer who served with coalition forces in the first Gulf War worked in the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. He lost many friends when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building.

But it did not deter him from his goal. He had already laid out a 15-year plan to pursue a career in the Gulf and was not going to be put off by the hundreds of comments he heard every day against Arabs.

"Of course I was upset and emotional about it in the beginning, but personally it didn't make me view this part of the world any differently," he said.

"I had Arab friends in New York, I went to shisha cafes in Queens and the bigger picture was something I couldn't control. It was just the way of the world. What I could control was my decision to come to Arabia, and that's what I did."

In October 2001, Mr Soethout, 41, arrived in Dubai to work as the chief steward at the Fairmont Hotel. With a Dutch father who was a Swiss-trained chef and a Trinidadian mother whose passion was cooking, Mr Soethout has always been attracted to the hospitality industry.

But his first visit to the region had been 10 years before, in an entirely different capacity.

"I dealt with dynamite and det cords [detonation cords] and I had to be good at my craft," he said. "You don't get many chances to go wrong when you are dealing with high explosives."

Mr Soethout decided to learn how to make and defuse bombs after joining the army at 17.

First he was deployed to South Korea for 18 months, working as part of the security team for the Olympics before returning to the US state of Georgia.

He had barely unpacked his bags before he was told he would be leaving for a small country he had never heard of called Kuwait.

He was 19 when he arrived in Saudi Arabia for desert training. Later, he entered Iraq with the French and British armies through Basra, and headed back towards Kuwait City.

"It was my job to go out with the infantry guys and remove any obstacles in their way," said Mr Soethout. "Travelling through the region like that exposed me to a whole different side of the world."

Not all his memories are positive.

He remembers when he was in a grocery shop seeing a Saudi man beat his wife for looking at a group of American soldiers. The shop owner told them to leave without paying for the groceries just to stop the beating. He said it was a moment that was difficult to forget, but he did not let the incident colour his view of the region.

"I think it is an amazing place," he said. "I don't regret for one minute moving here permanently. That was the worst of times and these are the best."

He got off to a bad start, disliking his first job. He wanted to leave after three months, but then he met his Kenyan wife. They married in 2004 and have two children: a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.

At the beginning of the year, Mr Soethout took up his current position as general manager of The Gramercy, an American-style bar that opened in June in Dubai International Financial Centre.

It is an upmarket sports bar with classic wooden decor and a varied menu of generous hearty "man-sized" meals.

"The idea is to present good food in a New York-style atmosphere. We don't have brunch, we have a New York late lunch and we don't pretend to taste berries exploding in our mouths when we taste the wine. We just know what tastes good with the food."

As the general manager, Mr Soethout is about as New York as they come, down to his accent and attitude.

"I live my life in reverse," he said. "When others clock off for the day mine just gets going, when people take a break at the weekend I gear up for my busiest three days. It can be tough. Sometimes I don't see my kids for up to three days but I like to challenge myself. I don't like to get too comfortable. Besides, this is just what I have to do. I can't see myself ever doing anything else."