Nathan Outlaw’s new restaurant, Al Mahara, in Dubai is accessed via a Trump-esque gold-plated lift and has within it a 900,000-litre fish tank that requires no fewer than seven full-time staff to maintain it.
It’s one of eight restaurants within the Burj Al Arab, a ‘seven star’ hotel with an iconic sailboat design that’s among the most expensive in the world with an entry-level suite (there are no regular rooms) spread over two floors and costing almost £1,500 a night.
As a business it couldn’t be any further removed from Outlaw’s operation in Cornwall, which comprises a pub, a mid-market brasserie and one of England’s most understated two Michelin-starred restaurants (he and his wife whitewashed the walls themselves).
Why do it?
So what, aside from the obvious, possessed him to take on the fish restaurant in Dubai’s most opulent hotel? Outlaw admits that the Burj – a favourite of Russian oligarchs, sheiks, Chinese businessmen and the occasional A-list celebrity – isn’t quite his normal scene.
“It makes The Dorchester look like a Travelodge… it’s for certain tastes,” he says, diplomatically. “But I am wowed by the scale of the operation. I’d never even considered opening abroad before. Great fish is central to what we do. I wasn’t convinced the product would be good enough but after visiting Dubai last year I found that it was, although I’m not going to say it’s as fresh as what we get in Cornwall. The other big factor behind me putting my name to it is that Pete Biggs (one of Outlaw’s long-serving lieutenants) was keen to come out here and run it day to day.”
"Makes The Dorchester look like a Travelodge" The Burj Al Arab
Outlaw was headhunted to run Al Mahara by the Burj’s general manager Anthony McHale, the Englishman who oversaw the launch of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London. The Kent-born chef’s brief was to create a luxurious but fairly relaxed and – relatively speaking – affordable experience with a similar menu to that at his Port Isaac flagship, which was one of two UK restaurants to achieve a perfect 10 in the The Good Food Guide 2017 (see Outlaw sails east).
Outlaw is by no means the first British chef to have been lured to the restaurant capital of the Middle East. Indeed, nowhere else on the planet has attracted so many top UK-based chefs. Gordon Ramsay, Jason Atherton, Tom Aikens, Giorgio Locatelli, Michael Caines, Vineet Bhatia and Gary Rhodes: the list goes on. A handful have got their fingers burnt, including Marco Pierre White, whose aptly named Titanic closed after just one year’s trading. He has since made a comeback and now has three restaurants in Dubai.
A tricky market
Business is tough in the city at the moment. The number of restaurants in Dubai has doubled within the past three years and while some are reliably busy – including English imports La Petite Maison and Zuma – many others are eerily quiet. Casualties have so far been limited because most restaurants are based in hotels and are being propped up by bedroom sales.
Tricky trading conditions aren’t deterring new entrants to the market, largely because chefs are being brought over on management contracts and consultancy deals that carry little to no financial risk. Peruvian restaurant Lima and The Galvin Brothers will make their Dubai debuts within the next few months.
Along with over capacity, another key challenge in Dubai is the city’s ever-changing geography. Huge developments and hotels come out of nowhere and render others (and even whole areas) obsolete. The city’s limited public transport system and notoriously bad traffic exacerbates this problem.
Darren Velvick came to Dubai in 2013 to run Table 9 at the Hilton Dubai Creek, which is located close to the airport in the northern portion of the city. It’s a noteworthy site in Dubai’s restaurant history having once been home to Ramsay’s Verre, one of the very first restaurants in Dubai to be run by a big-name chef (it opened way back in 2001).
“Table 9 was good in many respects as it got my name out there, but the location proved tricky,” says Velvick, whose CV includes chef de cuisine at Marcus Wareing’s restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel. “Most of the expats have now moved to the other side of the city near the marina so they only came at the weekend. We were very quiet on weekday evenings.”
Velvick recently moved over to the Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel in the marina to devise and run a more informal restaurant called The Croft that majors on high-quality renditions of British classics. Business is apparently booming with expats hungry for a taste of home.
Bread Street Kitchen Dubai
Gordon Ramsay Group is also operating in the marina area under a deal with One & Only Group, which operates Atlantis The Palm hotel, a lavish marine-themed hotel and resort. Undeterred by Dubai’s capacity excess, Ramsay and his managing director Stuart Gillies have taken on a space that seats up to 400 people for Bread Street Kitchen Dubai.
Street smarts: Gordon Ramsay Group's Dubai restaurant
“We know things have been tricky in Dubai and also how quickly the market can change so we wanted to be sure,” says Gillies. “We took a step back and waited. We would never have done a 14,000sq ft site in a stand-alone location in Dubai. But in a hotel with that footfall and with one of our more all-day orientated and accessible concepts we were confident it was a safe bet.” The pair’s bullishness has paid off with Gillies happy with the performance of the site a year in, not least because 80% of its business comes from non-residents.
Labour in Dubai is extremely cheap, but staffing is a headache for many. Most hospitality workers come from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Philippines, and are willing to work long hours for very little, usually under £50 per week. Skill sets tend to be limited both front and back of house with some restaurants making up for this by employing huge teams.
This is not the case at The Croft. Velvick says the number of staff working there are comparable to a London restaurant. “Aspects of staffing out here are refreshing,” he says. “Back in London, I’d have gone through a brigade’s worth of chefs by now because you lose so many to new openings but, in Dubai, people are loyal despite all the new places. I’ve only lost a handful of chefs since I’ve been out here. The trade-off is that people don’t question things, which makes some aspects of quality control tougher, and you won’t normally get much in the way of innovation and new ideas.”
As operating margins are squeezed, some businesses have responded by getting rid of highly trained western staff, who are, comparatively speaking, extremely expensive. This has apparently led to a drop in the quality of the food and service at some restaurants. “Even simple stuff like an English-style roast potato or fish and chips is difficult to get right if none of the team have a frame of reference for what they should be like,” adds Velvick.
Catering to local tastes
Clearly, pork dishes aren’t going to go down too well with the locals, but there are a number of less obvious cultural quirks that restaurateurs in Dubai need to be prepared for. Emirates and people from the Middle East generally don’t care much for menus and will often ask for dishes and ingredients that aren’t even listed “We often get requests for a plate of prawns or a piece of grilled fish. In London, we might not have done that but here there’s no point fighting it, if we can do it, we will,” says Biggs.
While Table 9 was one of the highest rated restaurants in Dubai under his tenure, Velvick is not entirely convinced that the Emirates like fine dining. “Table 9 was a tough sell for people from Dubai and the surrounding area. Generally, they want the food to come quickly and to be able to share it, which is far removed from a western tasting menu experience,” he says. Gillies is more confident about top-tier dining in Dubai and says his group is likely to open a fine-dining restaurant in the city soon.
Alcohol can be served in most restaurants but the licence is costly. If a dish contains alcohol, it needs to be stated very clearly on the menu and there are a few days each year when no alcohol can be served in the restaurant at all. Outlaw and Biggs mainly use verjuice in their sauces to make these dry nights less of a headache.
Local produce is limited to camel milk, spices and dried fruit. The latter is of high quality – dried figs have found their way into the sticky toffee pudding at Outlaw’s new restaurant.
If you’re willing to pay a premium and don’t mind about the air miles, anything is available in Dubai, with many local companies supplying upmarket restaurants with suitably lavish produce from all over the globe.
Dubai is a place where money talks. That golden elevator is a metaphor for the city – obscenely expensive, gaudy and, in many respects, not very practical. It’s not for everyone. But for the right chef or concept, Dubai has the potential to be very lucrative indeed.
Outlaw sails east
Shelling out? Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara
The signed stacks of Nathan Outlaw’s Everyday Seafood look somewhat incongruous next to the solid bronze hostess stand at the front of the chef’s first international restaurant. You wouldn’t think to look at it, but Outlaw has actually worked with the Burj Al Arab to dial down the décor at Al Mahara a notch or two.
“It was practically psychedelic before,” grins the seafood chef. “We’ve changed some of the furniture and all the tableware. This has brought it down to earth a bit. The aquarium is the focal point so we made sure nothing distracted from that.”
Said fish tank emits a soft blue light lending the restaurant an other-world feel. Filled with exotic-looking fish – apparently some customers have been disappointed to find they’re not on the menu – it is an Instagram favourite, with the majority of diners snapping themselves in front of it at some point.
Outlaw's man on the ground
Outlaw’s man in Dubai is Pete Biggs, the former head chef of Outlaw’s at The Capital in Knightsbridge. Outlaw is a consultant with Biggs, the rest of the staff employed directly by the hotel’s owner Jumeirah Group. His contract with the hotel is unusually lengthy – 10 years with a five-year break clause. Outlaw is contracted to go to the hotel roughly every seven weeks (handily the busy times in Dubai coincide with the quieter times in Cornwall). Biggs wanted a new challenge, and he’s certainly found one at the Al Mahara. The space can seat 120 diners at once (The Capital’s seats just 34) and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. He’s been in Dubai since September and is yet to have a day off.
Like a lot of chefs working in Dubai, 36-year-old Biggs will be able to save much more cash than he could ever hope to working back home. He is being put up by Jumeirah in a hotel for the duration so his cost of living is virtually zero, meaning that he’ll take home almost all of his (largely tax-free) salary. He jokes he wouldn’t have time to spend it anyway.
There’s an understanding between the pair that Outlaw will help Biggs launch his own restaurant upon returning to the UK.
Outlaw and Biggs have been lucky with staff. Almost all of them have worked at Al Mahara for a number of years so they possess a lot of the requisite skills for working in a top-flight fish restaurant. Biggs is assisted by his former sous chef at The Capital and two front-of-house staff that have held senior roles with Outlaw in the UK. Other team members are mostly from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.
“Overall, I’ve been impressed by the standard,” says Biggs. “The staff we’ve inherited work hard and what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. The really big difference is that they don’t have much ambition or interest in food or the industry. It’s just a job to them.”
On the menu
The menu is similar to that at Outlaw’s two-star restaurant, although for the moment it won’t change as much as it will in Cornwall to allow staff to get their heads round the menu. The five-course tasting menu is 850 Emirati Dirham (around £180) which, in the context of the hotel, isn’t too bad with the starters in the restaurant at the very top of the Burj priced at £60 to £80 a throw.
The pair’s biggest supply related headache is having to go through Jumeirah’s central purchasing team. In theory, Biggs isn’t allowed to speak to suppliers directly, but he’s had to break the rules in order to secure the right produce for the restaurant.
Outlaw and Biggs are sourcing fish from all over the world, but are doing their homework and making sure everything on the menu is sustainably caught or farmed. “This is by far the biggest restaurant we’ve done so we’ve been careful,” says Outlaw. “We’re using a lot of quality farmed fish and are looking at species that improve with age. Not all fish is at its best straight after being taken out of the water. “
Some of the produce, including the tuna, is sourced from nearby, but the majority comes from further afield, with some seafood, including dover sole, brill and Porthilly oysters, sourced from Cornwall, some 3,500 miles away.
This article originally appeared in the February issue of Restaurant magazine. Click here to subscribe