French flavour

Izu Ani and Cedric Toussaint discuss La Petite Maison's success so far

Executive chef Izu Ani and general manager Cedric Toussaint
Executive chef Izu Ani and general manager Cedric Toussaint

Executive chef Izu Ani and general manager Cedric Toussaint tell Louise Oakley how they have established La Petite Maison as one of Dubai’s most popular eateries within its first year of operation.

There is no denying that La Petite Maison has been a hit with Dubai’s dining elite. When Caterer Middle East arrives at the restaurant, located in Dubai’s International Financial Centre (DIFC), on a Monday afternoon at 3pm, the outlet is full, loud and lively.

The last lunch guests don’t trickle out until 4.30pm and even these seem reluctant to leave. As a result, La Petite Maison has already become renowned for its jovial atmosphere, while its use of fresh, quality ingredients has ensured a loyal regular following — 40-50% of guests are repeat diners.

Its DIFC location obviously assists with this, as does the connection with neighbouring Zuma, which is owned by the same company, backed by Arjun Waney.

However, the success of La Petite Maison Dubai must be attributed to executive chef Izu Ani and general manager Cedric Toussaint, who moved to Dubai in August 2009 to set up the Mayfair export and opened the restaurant a year later in August 2010.

Since then, La Petite Maison has been named Time Out Dubai’s Best New Restaurant and been recommended to Caterer Middle East numerous times.

But what made this pair leave behind careers in Michelin-starred establishments to launch something that is essentially unfussy, simple Niçoise cuisine in a semi-formal setting? We sat down with Ani and Toussaint and discovered a background in the business that many twice their age would be proud of.

Nigerian-born Izu Ani grew up in London and has since travelled extensively around Europe mastering his art. He started his career at The Square in London, winner of two Michelin stars, and after four years there travelled to France for six years, which included a stint at the world-renowned, three-Michelin-starred Auberge de L’Ill.

He also garnered valuable experience in Spain, where he worked for free for nine months at multi-Michelin-starred establishments including Arzak, Mugaritz and Akelarre, adding molecular gastronomy to his repertoire.

He took this experience back to London and relaunched the menu at Vanilla, where he become well respected for his inspirational creations.

It was here that Ani met La Petite Maison London executive chef Raphael Duntoye, who dined at Vanilla two days in a row, and later asked Ani to set up the Dubai branch.

It wasn’t a simple decision, however; Ani had also been approached by Jason Atherton to open Maze by Gordon Ramsay on The Pearl in Qatar. We know his decision of course, but why step away from the opportunity of working with a Michelin-starred chef after so many years pursuing that route?

“All the work is done in the kitchen with the flavours and the combinations — my years of experience haven’t gone to waste, they will still be used,” says Ani. “I take all my background and knowledge and understanding, but I keep it simple on the plate.”

Surprisingly for someone that worked unpaid learning the molecular craft, Ani is now somewhat disparaging of this style of cooking.

“It was nice to see what the fuss was all about and break inside it and find out whether it was worth it or not and it wasn’t worth it. It was a good experience because then you say ‘that’s not what food is all about’. I had to see it for myself to really understand it.

“When people do molecular gastronomy they never look at the sense of the taste, they look at the sense of the wow, of the dramatic effect. They look at the impact it has on the table, not the impact it has on the mouth. For me that’s the most important thing. I managed to bring the two together because I love to eat good food, it doesn’t matter how good it looks. That’s one thing that never changes about my food, the flavour. I learned that at Auberge de L’Ill — that’s classic cooking.”

This is one thing that appealed to Ani about La Petite Maison, which offers Niçoise fare similar to the traditional cuisine offered at the original La Petite Maison in Nice, which Zuma owner Arjun Waney used to frequent regularly before buying the rights to expand the restaurant.

“I used to work in the south of France, I understand the flavours of the south of France — it’s delicate, subtle. My wife is French, people think I am French because I love the culture,” says Ani.

“Sometimes we put too much emphasis on a concept instead of the food,” he observes. “The culture of Mediterranean cooking and eating is lightness, and the produce is of the utmost importance.”

It’s a philosophy that sits well with Toussaint, himself a chef who studied hospitality and began his career as a chef in hotel restaurants in his native France.

Like Ani, he has a varied past, including the position of executive chef to the French ambassador in Colombia, managing restaurants at a 500-room Sofitel hotel in France and working as assistant manager for Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing at The Savoy Grill in London.

“It’s all about experience; Izi [as chef Ani is known] went to different restaurants to learn cooking, I went to different restaurants to learn management,” comments Toussaint, who talks modestly of his subsequent experiences managing the fifth floor restaurant at Harvey Nichols in London and the city’s Conran-owned Skylon Restaurant and Le Pont de la Tour, now part of D&D Restaurant Group.

When approached by the team at La Petite Maison — which was looking for a French national to open the overseas restaurants — Toussaint had a difficult choice.

Accustomed to running restaurant, bistro and bar combinations with a 500-person capacity, he was initially unsure of taking on a smaller 150-person establishment in Dubai. He also had to overcome a move from Michelin style service — where everything is “very square” — to something which is “less precise”.

As with Ani though, what clinched the deal was La Petite Maison’s loyalty to its Niçoise roots and the commitment to fresh, quality food.

“I had eaten there [La Petite Maison London] about 10 times, I loved it, it reminded me of when I was young,” says Toussaint. “It’s back to basics,” he says.

“My previous company was much more focused on finance, La Petite Maison is focused on product.”

Opening obstacles
Both Ani and Toussaint acknowledge that they faced their fair share of challenges during the opening of La Petite Maison. Firstly, for Ani, the produce available to him initially was just not up to scratch.

There were some items he wouldn’t even touch, let alone eat. With the quality of the food absolutely critical to the restaurant’s success, finding and funding the right supplies was an all-encompassing job at the outset.

“You should have seen me, I had less hair then than I have now,” laughs Ani. “Luckily I made some good contacts when I worked in London, basically there’s a consolidator who delivers loads of palettes here so he did my shopping for me — it cost me an arm and a leg.

He gets it, packs it, ships it here, I pay three times as much as I would for the local market. The produce the local market was giving me was rubbish; I wouldn’t accept it.”

Daily calls to suppliers improved the situation and Ani succeeded in bringing new sources to the Dubai market; he now gets his burrata direct from Bari in Italy for example and has introduced fine foods supplier Oakleaf European — which provides fresh produce from Paris’ famous Rungis Food Market — to Dubai.

The produce required for Ani’s recipes may now be available, but the restaurant’s food costs are “very high”, he says.

“Nothing’s local. Everything’s got airmiles on it. It’s not cost-effective, it’s not environmentally-friendly, but we’re in the middle of a desert. Getting all the ingredients together has been a painstaking process, but now we’ve done it we have to go to the next step,” says Ani.

The ‘next step’ isn’t cost reduction, however, rather ensuring quality is maintained.

“We’re here for the long duration, we’ve got competition left, right and centre, but at the end of the day we keep to what we do,” asserts Ani. “A lot of people have told me about restaurants that open for three months and then start going down, changing personnel and it impacts on the food; if I’m here it won’t change because I believe in what I cook — if I didn’t believe in it I wouldn’t do it.

“We’re not perfect, we’re not going to satisfy everybody; my main aim is to satisfy 99% of the people. There’s no way I can do 100% — if I do close to that I’m happy and that’s what we try to achieve,” he says.

While Ani was struggling in the kitchen to find the necessary ingredients, front of house Toussaint had his own challenges — from explaining the sharing concept of La Petite Maison, to enforcing the two-hour table policy, to ensuring the service matched the quality of the food.

“We had difficulty at the beginning with people saying ‘the service is not as good as the food’,” recalls Toussaint.

“We did a lot of volume at the beginning, we wanted to see if the restaurant could cope, and now because we know we can do well, we’ve increased the number of people working in the restaurant from 65 to 85; everyone wants to deliver a better service constantly. The hardest thing in a restaurant is to be consistent and that’s what we want to be, and always improving — if you think you’re the best, it doesn’t work.”

When it comes to the menu, which recommends that plates are for sharing and that dishes will come to the table as and when they are ready, Toussaint explains that this enables guests to spend what they want.

“You can come here and spend a lot of money or you can come here and not spend any money, it’s up to you,” says Toussaint.

“For lunch you can have a Salad Nicoise and one dessert to share, for AED 150 (US $40) per person. Or you can come and have starter, main course, dessert and spend AED 400 ($108). That’s why our concept is to share,” he says, adding that menu engineering is very important at La Petite Maison.

Ani explains: “We haven’t got a lunch menu, everyone said ‘you have to do a lunch menu to get everyone in’, but I said ‘no, there is one menu’. I refuse to do a lunch menu because I don’t believe in cheapening what we do. If you want an AED 110 ($30) menu you can do it, but to do that you go to the fridge, brush out all the rubbish and use that — there’s no way [I would do that] .

“What you do is you engineer your menu to be able to satisfy everybody’s whim. It’s up to the individual,” says Ani, who prides himself on using the same ingredients for lunch as for dinner.

The sharing concept, which originates from Nice, also contributes to the convivial atmosphere at La Petite Maison.

“The French love to enjoy their private time with their family and friends; that’s what we try to create here. If you look at someone’s plate and think ‘that looks nice’, here it looks nice and you can taste it. You share. If they’re not sharing they don’t like each other!” says Ani.

Future plans
Four things have been critical La Petite Maison’s success — including the sourcing of fresh produce, the lively atmosphere and clever menu engineering. Last but by no means least is the team, which is predominately European and comprised of people that have worked with either Ani or Toussaint in the past.
“Without them we couldn’t do what we do now,” says Ani.

With the restaurant approaching its first birthday, Toussaint says one of his main objectives is staff retention: “My greatest skill is to create teams and that’s why I’ve been successful. The most important focus as a manager is retaining staff — sometimes people want to see something else, so you have to enable them to progress”.

This is where La Petite Maison’s expansion plans will come into play — the group is opening a restaurant at Le Vendôme Beirut Hotel in Lebanon by the end of the year.

“We’re going to recruit people and train people for Beirut — Dubai is going to be the training centre for other restaurants,” says Toussaint.

“You need to notice when people are bored or they want to learn something else, then send them to a different restaurant, you know where they are, you can always take them back.”

Despite numerous approaches to expand the La Petite Maison enterprise, Toussaint says that growth will be “slowly but surely”.

“Every year we want to do another, but we will do each one properly, one after the other,” he says, explaining that training different restaurant teams will be the most important element of growth.

With the front of house team setting up the tables, Toussaint returning countless calls and chef Ani disappearing into the kitchen, a salivating Caterer team decided it was time to leave this wonderful ‘little house’ in DIFC ahead of the regular dinner service stampede. One thing’s for sure though, we’ll be back…

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