One of the best things about our jobs is that we get to spend time in some of the world’s best restaurant kitchens. One of our most memorable experiences was a night behind the scenes at Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire in Dubai. These are my reflections from a Michelin-starred chef’s kitchen.
Literally months after opening in Dubai, Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire slipped onto the San Pellegrino World’s Best 100 Restaurants list. It was the only restaurant from the Middle East to make the grade back in 2009. In doing so, it became the restaurant that set the standard for fine dining in Dubai, a city where the term had been used far too loosely.
On the first night of a weeklong visit by the fêted French chef to his Dubai restaurant, Lara and I got to slip behind the velvet cocoon of the dining room into the kitchen with the man himself. Our aim was to see just what makes the restaurant – and the chef – one of the world’s best.
Notebook in hand and my camera around her neck, Lara was a fly on the wall for the night. I was hands-on in between taking photos, learning how to prep a dish or two, and by the end of the night actually prepped Chef Gagnaire’s dinner. But that’s another story. Here are our observations from that night…
In the Kitchen at Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire in Dubai
It’s 8.30pm. Orders are starting to fill the board at the pass — the area where the chefs plate the food and the servers take the dishes headed for the elegant dining room beyond the swinging doors. An order comes in and as soon as Chef de Cuisine Olivier Biles reads out the dishes the whole kitchen team yells loudly in unison “Yes, chef!” It’s the loudest sound we’ve heard since we arrived at the restaurant.
Two hours earlier, when we took the private elevator to the restaurant, it was calm and quiet. The restaurant looked perfect but the assistant restaurant manager Dennis Tels was doing last minute checks, painstakingly checking every table, adjusting the blinds, positioning plates, straightening cutlery, and straightening his own tie in the mirror. The hostess was lingering near the elevator waiting for the first guests to arrive.
“After the pre-service briefing everyone knows which section they’ll be working so they prepare themselves and familiarize themselves with their area,” Dennis explains. “We change their sections every night to keep them on their toes,” he grins.
The previous night had been tough, with most tables of diners arriving at once, making the waiters quietly scramble and the order board in the kitchen instantly full with dockets. It was the kind of night that restaurants fear, especially a fine dining one.
The first customer arrives, the team jump to attention, and Dennis hurries to greet him. Chef Pierre Gagnaire arrives soon after, freshly showered after a workout at the gym straight off the plane from Paris. He slips on his chef’s jacket in the kitchen and joins us in the private dining room, where he meticulously folds a crisp white scarf and ties it around his neck, so I can first shoot his portrait.
At the helm of an empire encompassing several highly regarded restaurants around the world, Chef Gagnaire says he chose to open in Dubai because “it’s a special place, a unique city”.
Another reason was Tom Meyer, General Manager of the InterContinental Dubai Festival City where Reflets resides. “Tom loves to eat. He loves Reflets,” Gagnaire confides to us. “If we don’t have the support of these kinds of people, we can’t succeed.”
But the real secret to success, Gagnaire tells us, is the staff. “My staff – especially my chef de cuisine Olivier Biles, the pastry chef Sébastien Vauxion and my restaurant manager Etienne Haro – have the right personalities and a connection to the city.”
“They’re enthusiastic, clever, and they love people. Our team is very multicultural, they want to learn, and they want to give pleasure. Know-how, personality, years of experience, people who represent my values to carry on my philosophy, consistency… these are all important qualities I look for in staff,” Chef Gagnaire says.
Gordon Ramsay was one of the first Michelin-starred chefs to do something in Dubai when he opened Verre many years ago, which was the city’s first real fine dining restaurant, and in recent years a handful of other Michelin-starred chefs have also opened restaurants. Yet Reflets has easily been the most successful, consistently busy since day one.
Chef Gagnaire is not so sure: “…to say Reflets is a success… well, it’s still too early. We need to wait another year and then we’ll judge if we’ve been successful or not. Dubai is special… the climate, for one, makes it unique. It’s a business, so success is not our decision, but is based upon the expectations and reactions of the customers,” Chef Gagnaire says.
While not dismissive of the global expansion of other chefs coming to Dubai, Gagnaire says he simply can’t replicate his Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris in Dubai, nor does he want to.
“For me, it’s impossible to do what Nobu is doing,” Chef Gagnaire elaborates. “I’m not a concept man. I’m personal. I’ve created something for Dubai, for this hotel, for this produce. I give directions and guidelines but the chefs have freedom too. Especially because I’m not here every day.”
With this, Gagnaire rises, keen to get to the kitchen, and we follow. For the first twenty minutes or so he simply stands and observes. “When I arrive, I just watch what’s going on,” he explains. “I just look at everything and watch everything. I watch. I watch.”
There is a real energy in the kitchen and it quickly verges on being frenetic, but it’s not quite there yet. The chefs are still in control. The preparation of dishes is very exacting. The finishing touches are being made to several plates when Chef Gagnaire intervenes to reposition a garnish on one and then follows another out with its server.
When he returns he says, “When I’m here I go to the tables with the waiters and make sure they are putting everything in the right place. It’s about showing the guest respect.”
While the chefs wait for an order, benches are wiped, trays are put away in fridges, and the mise en place (the ingredients, seasonings, sauces, and spices at hand) is refreshed.
Chef de Cuisine Olivier is borderline obsessive – everything must be in its right place. He admonishes a chef for borrowing his favourite ‘duck saucepan’ and indicates to another chef that he’s breaking his heart by not putting trays back in the fridge immediately. Chef Olivier fetches a crisp white scarf and ties it around his neck in exactly the same manner as Chef Gagnaire.
After a brief period of calm, it’s clear why Chef Olivier is so particular. Several tables are ready for their next courses and the chef is deftly searing off duck breasts, a côte de bœuf (a cut of beef for two) so large it must have been sourced from a brontosaurus, as well as lovely pieces of venison.
The venison dish smells rich and wonderful, its daube (stew) featuring fragrant braised dates. The dates are from “here” Gagnaire tells us, pointing up towards the hotel entrance – they have quite literally come from the palm trees lining the hotel driveway. During the next few hours Gagnaire finds time to share cooking tips and off-cuts of meat to sample. “Taste, taste, taste!” he says, offering us spoons, as he finishes sauces. He never has to ask twice.
An order comes in that increases the pace even more: two tables have ordered degustation menus at once. Chef Olivier calls out the order. There’s silence. “Hello?” he says, and the kitchen team yells out “Yes, Chef!”
The chefs are deep in concentration, all working feverishly, but generally in silence. Each move appears choreographed and practiced. Each cook is aware that the different yet often complex components of each dish have to be completed in unison. Astonishingly, they commonly are.
It’s now 9.45pm and Chef Gagnaire has tasted every sauce resting on the stove, watched every plate heading out of the kitchen, and pitched in when a particular station has fallen behind. He brings us over two spoons of creamy foie gras on a crispy wafer with fine pieces of frilly lettuce. It’s sublime.
So is the langoustine and red pepper ice cream he proffers with a smile. The kitchen is now at the busiest it’s been all evening. Chef Olivier, who has been flitting between the pass and the stoves, is now firmly at the pass and Gagnaire is plating dishes.
The dreamy, eyes-closed sensation of the ice cream is broken by the shouts of Chef Olivier. “Allez! Allez!” (Go! Go!) he yells to kitchen expediter Kim Queroljico, whose job is akin to a ‘go-between’.
Queroljico makes sure the trays are ready, dishes are plated correctly, and that there’s someone poised to run the plates to the tables immediately. It’s a job few envy or can handle, despite the adrenalin rush.
The other chefs are checking the dockets themselves to double-check orders. There are never more than eight orders at once, but the restaurant is full so there’s a constant stream of dockets.
A bread board about to go out to the restaurant catches Gagnaire’s eye. The stainless steel edges have finger marks on them. Gagnaire doesn’t yell. He doesn’t say anything. He merely stops the waiter, removes the bread, wipes the tray down, and rearranges the bread to show the waiter what he expects.
Restaurant director Etienne Haro, who has been in the dining room all night, enters the kitchen. He watches the chefs in action with some pride as service begins to wind down. We met Haro months before the restaurant opened. He oversaw every aspect of its development, from building plans to plates.
We spot Haro scrutinising one of the less experienced chefs at work. “He started off very nervous,” he confides in us in a whisper. “He wasn’t sure of himself. Yet some people find their confidence in all of this and lift themselves. Now we can rely on him. It’s a big leap,” he tells us, smiling.
Just as big a leap was taking the ‘Gagnaire experience’ to a city like Dubai, where sourcing ingredients, dealing with bureaucracy, and keeping staff happy can be problematic.
But how much further can a chef like Gagnaire expand his empire?
“I see a limit,” Gagnaire admits. “With this type of quality, you cannot recreate it easily. Here in Dubai, I have Olivier, the head chef, who was like a cowboy in the beginning, a bit crazy, and Sebastien, who is very talented, but now they are calm and focused. And me, I’m the guardian of the temple.”
“I know my people have talent. I trust them. It’s for this reason that I prefer gastronomic restaurants. Because after 50 covers, they might only have prepped a dish four times. In big restaurants, they might make 20-30 of the same dish. It gets boring. The staff are thinking about going home,” Chef Gagnaire explains.
While Gagnaire is renowned as a creative chef whose flair for boldly matching unusual ingredients is a key to his success in Paris, perhaps finding, motivating and then giving freedom to the right human beings is the true secret to the success of Reflets in Dubai.
“Human beings are always at the centre of the cooking story,” Chef Gagnaire says with a smile.
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire