F&B Focus: The Enigma Code

Uncovering Palazzo Versace Dubai's mysterious new pop-up restaurant

Palazzo Versace hotel manager Patrick Robineau
Palazzo Versace hotel manager Patrick Robineau

The opening of the Palazzo Versace has been long awaited. Developed in joint venture with Enshaa Group and designed by Donatella Versace, the hotel is located at the centre of the new Culture Village, on a waterfront plot with unobstructed views of the Dubai Creek. The hotel offers 215 suites and 169 condominiums together with several signature restaurants, and a spa.

Its F&B outlets include the all-day dining concept Giardino, with marble flooring and columns, and walls decorated in a special edition of the iconic Jungle print from the Versace Wallpaper collection. The Italian pescatarian Vanitas restaurant is designed to resemble a classical Italian palace, with handmade wall decorations featuring the Grottesche Italiane. The lobby lounge is called Mosaico, and it also has shisha lounge Gazebo, pool restaurant Amalfi, and two bars, La Vita and Q’s, the latter of which is owned by music producer Quincy Jones.

In an interview with Hotelier Middle East, Palazzo Versace Dubai hotel manager Patrick Robineau says: “Versace as a brand is known for a lot of things except food and beverage, and it was very important for us to position our food and beverage outlets so that we are recognised for gastronomy in the region.”

Highlighting that the local F&B scene is very competitive, Robineau explains that it was essential to offer a product that directly engages with the consumers. He says that this was the reason why, for example, rather than opening just another Italian restaurant, Vanitas was classified as a pescatarian concept. Saying the focus is more about the product, the general ambience also played a role, with all the glassware and tableware produced by Versace.

But the focus of the F&B, at least during the opening, is Enigma. The restaurant claims to be the world’s first to change its dining concept and chefs four times a year — this includes cuisine and tableware. The premise of the restaurant is that each chef tells a story, with the menu remaining a secret until guests arrive. To enter the restaurant, guests have to pre-book their seats just as one would for a theatre performance. The launch chef on January 10 was three Michelin-starred and World’s 50 Best chef Quique Dacosta, who will stay at the venue until April 12. Enigma will then close for eight days, after which the next chef will go live on April 20. At the time of going to print, the next chef’s name had not been made public.

Robineau calls Enigma the “big launch” and says: “It’s a disruptive concept, it’s a concept which evolves.” He reveals that in order to be approached for the concept, the chef needs to feature in the World’s 50 Best list, as well has have Michelin stars.

The intent behind this venture was to create a concept that would be recognised at an international level, says Robineau. “That was really important for us, as opposed to just be something that would have marketing value in the GCC,” he adds.

Changing customer profiles was also a consideration. “The citizens of this world are borderless. Why have rigidity in the restaurant with such an eclectic audience? The beauty of the concept is that it allows it to evolve and change. It gives us the opportunity to be the latest culinary experience on the market. We can go in any direction that we wish because what’s trendy today may not be tomorrow. For example if you open a French restaurant, guess what. You’re stuck with the concept for the next few years to come. With Enigma, we can change and evolve as we go along.”

A bold idea, going where no one, certainly in this region, has gone before. Is the market ready? Robineau thinks so. “The proof will be in the pudding. We already have a lot of reservations, which we are so excited about because it’s building trust with the consumer.

“Dubai has greatly evolved. I used to be here 16 years ago and Dubai has changed tremendously. We are just around the corner from 2020 and Dubai is a hub for innovation. You have D3 promoting art and design and fashion, so it’s definitely come at the right time. People are becoming a lot more demanding with products because there’s so much choice. For us, it’s about quality in experience throughout — the food and the service.”

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Longevity, Robineau says, is important. There is no reason to create something that will not stand the test of time. “I am convinced that it will inspire other people throughout the world to be different. It’s very daring, it’s a very daring project.”

He admits that the logistics were challenging; however, the key to the project was complete organisation. With Dacosta (and this will be followed through with all the subsequent concepts), a front-of-house and back-of-house team was sent to his restaurant in Dénia, Spain to work with the Michelin-starred chef for a period of time. Once they returned, a full debrief took place, and then the purchasing team got to work on executing and sourcing products.

“Sourcing the products is huge; we have an amazing purchasing manager and I give him so much credit for what he’s done. There were so many products to source from different parts of the world — the whole team has been very hands-on. He pushed the doors, he spoke to the suppliers... yes logistics are huge but it requires a lot of preparation.”

He adds: “We understand that it’s a costly exercise but ultimately, in terms of the P&L, you have to see in the long run, not with just one chef. And it has a huge marketing value. We are making headlines on an international level, with Forbes and CNN. It’s not just about the profitability you get from the consumer.”

What’s also different is the pre-booking model. In this region, restaurateurs are somewhat inured towards no-shows from customers. In Enigma’s case, anyone wishing to attend must purchase a ‘ticket’ online which will cover the cost of the food and water — alcohol is extra.

Talking about the ticketing, Robineau reveals the platform is currently being developed with a company that works with restaurants in the US, like Thomas Keller and Alinea. He says of the move: “It allows us as a restaurateur to secure the table booking because we know you have paid, we know you will be coming. It’s an educating process, and people have to get used to it. For the consumer it also has the advantage of knowing that they have secured the seat.”

The educating process goes across the board, with hotel team members, suppliers and owners getting involved. “The backup from the owning company is huge. It’s all very good having great ideas but you need financial backing behind this venture.

“When we first discussed the idea, a lot of people were in tune, but asked if we could really do this. Is it feasible? So we had to crunch numbers and show that it made sense in the long-term, and it’s a venture that will benefit us as a business. So once we passed that stage, everyone was on board and was really excited.”

He claims that from the time the second chef comes on-board the restaurant will “start seeing profitable numbers in terms of the exposure and marketing value — that will be considered as a return on investment”. Declining to share financial investment numbers, Robineau says another factor contributing to profitability was supplier co-operation.

When procurement began, convincing suppliers was slightly difficult. “It’s incredible, we are seeing suppliers knocking on the door saying: ‘I want to give you my product, can you use it?’ You will see a natural effect that people are wanting to be part of the venture. We’ve already put a dollar amount on the exposure that we’ve received internationally and it’s substantial.”

Some of the changing items in the restaurant including tableware have been leased instead of bought, while other suppliers are providing it FOC just to have their products in the venue.

Robineau concludes, smiling: “We have a long-term strategy as opposed to a short-term strategy.”

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Five minutes with… Quique Dacosta

The first of Enigma’s chefs is Quique Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant in Dénia, Spain holds three Michelin stars and is included in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list

What was attractive about opening a concept in Dubai, and with the Palazzo Versace?

We are ambitious as a team, and the project is ambitious. It’s not every day that you have the chance to be able to participate in such a big project, and being linked to such a fantastic hotel and brand like Versace.

The concept is called Vanguard; what can diners expecT?

What they can expect is a cook with a vision and mission to enhance the evolution of cooking. It is something I always try to do wherever I am.

What has your experience been, working with the Versace team?

It’s been one year of organisation, going through all the details and preparation. I won’t say that it’s been easy but it’s been fantastic and enjoyable – especially now that we’re just about to begin. The fact is: it’s a unique project, and it is something you cannot find anywhere else in the world. And the fact that I am the first chef is fantastic. Now that we’re here, the point is to be dynamic. Versace didn’t make any conditions about what I had to do, except to be myself and build a good story, which is what we’ll be trying.

How has it been for your team to relocate to Dubai for the duration of this project?

When I say the word ‘I’, I speak on behalf of the whole team because they have been working with me for quite a long time. When I start a project, we all start a project. The team is happy to be able to have a new experience, see a new country, and see new people. We are always learning, and you learn more by travelling as well.

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