Interview: David Myers
David Myers talks about the three new concepts that he's bringing to Renaissance Downtown Hotel
His sense of wander is probably what initially steered David Myers to pursue an international business degree. However, instead of studying, he found himself cooking dinner for his fellow students at Ohio State University and reading cookbooks. Eventually, a girl he was dating said ‘David, you really should just go for it and be a chef,’ so that’s what he did.
After a stint at a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, he was hooked. Myers had found his calling and, two years later, had worked his way up to sous chef. Then came the journey that would trigger his Marco Polo-style culinary exploration of the world: “I decided that I was going to go to Chicago and work in the best restaurant in the country at the time. It was called Charlie Trotter’s and it was a dream of mine.”
Myers was deeply inspired by Trotter, who was known for colouring outside the lines when it came to his gastronomic approach: “He came out with this beautiful book and he was quoting Goethe and Dostoyevsky and he was really about perfecting and creating an unbelievable experience. I was moved by it. This guy was speaking to me. Whatever he was saying was exactly what I was thinking and what I was feeling so I went there.”
The young chef showed glimpses of the drive that would eventually propel him to the global stage: “I knocked on the back door and said I’m not leaving unless I get a job. So I tried out for a few days and they told me to go work at some other places. I said ‘I’m only interested in working at your restaurant in all of America’.”
Myers eventually got the job but by no means was it smooth sailing: “I started my excursion into hell. It was brutal, it was so tough every day. I thought to myself, ‘can I make it? Should I quit?’ But I don’t like to quit. I like the challenge and ultimately it was the greatest experience of my life. I learned so much and was inspired by Charlie every day.”
The training that Myers gleaned from Trotter has stayed with him to this day: “He taught me about experiences and how to deliver something great to the guest, how to make them happy, how to make them smile, how to go above and beyond and blow them away. That was always his thing - ‘blow them away’.”
It was during this time that Myers also learned how to taste and create dishes using ingredients from all over the world, a rarity at the time. Myers recalls: “We were creating and weaving these dishes, ingredients and flavours together to create things that nobody had ever seen before on a nightly basis. We were creating new menus every single night.”
Though the time eventually came to move on, the chef looks back on that experience with “pure fondness” saying: “Those really tough experiences are what build you. That’s what makes you tough and what makes you better. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
After Charlie Trotter’s, Myers went to France to work at three Michelin-starred restaurant Les Crayères. New York City was next where he worked with Daniel Boulud at his flagship restaurant, Daniel. Myers then moved to Los Angeles, the city which has since become his base, in 1998 where he worked under Joaquim Spichal at the acclaimed restaurant Patina.
Four years later, the chef struck out on his own: “That was always the plan. I was never going to get into this business and just work for somebody else. It was always in the plan to have my own restaurant and I got really lucky. I moved to LA and I got the opportunity to open my restaurant.”
Myers opened Sona in 2002 when he was just 27. Speaking about his restaurateurial debut, Myers says: “It was the greatest thing ever and the hardest thing ever. Everything you can imagine about opening your own business. That’s what it was. It’s where I got my ‘Best New Chef’ from Food & Wine, my first Michelin star. It was my baby.”
Like most offspring, the restaurant required constant supervision. Myers explains: “I worked there for the first couple of years every single day, I never missed a service. If I flew to New York for an event, or a TV appearance, I flew back that afternoon to be at service that evening.”
Myers went on to open Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa and French bistro Comme Ça in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. After those formative years, it was time for another move, even further west, to Asia. “Asia for me is like a second home. Singapore was the first stop and I loved it. It was so different to anything back home in the US. For whatever reason, I completely resonate with it. Whether it’s the food, the smells, the richness in the air, the cultures…”
In fact, the Nipponophile has five outlets in Japan — David Myers Café; Salt Water and Sola, a patisserie in Tokyo; Salt Water Kitchen in Nagoya and 72 Degrees in Ginza. Elsewhere on the continent, the chef helms Adrift in Singapore and AnOther Place in Hong Kong.
This brings us to the present day where, in another westerly move, the chef has landed in the Middle East, namely Dubai, to open three distinct concepts at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel this month. Set in Dubai’s Business Bay district and perched on the Dubai Water Canal, it’s an area rife with openings and activity. Speaking about his impressions of the emirate, Myers says: “Dubai is such a hub. It’s a melting pot of cultures and it’s such a cosmopolitan city. It’s been developing year on year in such a fast, trend-setting fashion. If you’re going to be considered a global restaurateur and you’re not in Dubai, then you’re not a global restaurateur.”
Myers places great importance on being part of Dubai’s maturing culinary scene and sees great potential in his partnership with the property that houses his venues: “You’ve got to be here. You’ve got to be on the map, so when this opportunity came up for this particular project, it just fit. It’s a boutique hotel, 300 rooms; all the other hotels are really large with large restaurants, but to be able to bring three really cool, unique, authentic concepts to this hotel and to this location is exactly what we do.”
As was the case when the chef began travelling to Asia, he is inspired by the local culture and the food. He explains: “For me it’s a real honour and a pleasure to be able to go to another country and be a part of it for a bit and to learn and be a guest here. I really appreciate it. In fact, I’m starting to learn some Arabic words. I’m at my peak when I’m in a new country and learning.”
Talking about his Italian concept, Myers explains: “Basta is focused around three distinct areas of Italy. For Rome, we’re focusing on the classic pastas, so the amatriciana, carbonara, really simple, pure, classic dishes. I wanted the buzz from Roman-style restaurants to be here. I want it to be fun and high energy and vibrant. That’s why we picked Rome as the heartbeat.”
The two other parts of the Basta equation are pizza inspired by Napoli, and from Tuscany and Florence, bistecca fiorentina. Myers explains: “In that region it is very common to have steak. They grill it over vines and it’s beautiful, thick juicy slabs of beef, spicy pickled onions and just olive oil, a little bit of parmesan and some rocket. It’s a perfect dish. It’s very authentic in the sense of how we’re delivering it but it’s through my filter as a chef and as a creator.”
Staying in the Mediterranean, Bleu Blanc will focus on French cuisine and is reminiscent of a Provençal–style farmhouse. Myers says: “I‘ve always envisioned it in my mind as this beautiful white old farmhouse that’s been modernised inside so you have a mix of old and new. And you’ve got all the new things on the kitchen but you’ve got the mirrors from the 1800s and silverware from the 1900s.”
In terms of cuisine, the chef affirms that the concept is also a blend of modern and traditional. Most dishes will be prepared on a mammoth, state-of the-art grill that dominates the dining room. Myers says: “It’s all about cooking over a live fire. Everything in Bleu Blanc is about our grill. Ember roasting everything from the meats to the seafood and the vegetables, even some of the desserts. There’s something so beautiful and satisfying and pure about cooking over a live fire and there’s really no room for error. It’s the original way to cook.”
The ambiance at Bleu Blanc is equally rustic. Myers says: “It’s meant to feel like you’re at my house. This rug is an exact replica of what I have in my home. It’s really a home setting; that’s what I wanted to capture. The food here is meant to be shared and it’s meant to be a relaxed environment. Whereas Basta has the energy and excitement, up here it’s more chilled.”
Reflecting the bistronomy trend that has been building momentum over the past year, the chef explains: “The cuisine we’re going to be doing is fine dining but the ambiance, the way we deliver it is going to be very casual. To me this is the new modern fine dining. You won’t see white tablecloths, you won’t see anyone very stiff walking around. It’s very casual, very relaxed but ‘on’ in the style of plating and cooking that we do.”
A lot of thought has gone into the tableware: “All of our plates are handcrafted by artisans in the US. We have 15-20 different vendors that we purchase from just for our plates alone. So when you lay out all the plates across a table, it’s art. It’s a beautiful selection. It’s very real and very raw so you can touch and feel. It’s approachable.”
This is reflective of how Myers wants guests to feel in the spaces that he’s conceived: “I want them to feel relaxed here. They’re going to have an epic experience but they’re not coming in and having any preconceived thoughts about having to act or look a certain way. It’s not about that. Look at me. I am Bleu Blanc with my white T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes.”
Myers’ third concept, Poppy — a speakeasy–style bar/lounge will feature soulful music played on vinyl into the early hours, and drinks curated and created by mixologist Sam Ross.
In a restaurant scene that many insiders say is saturated, Myers is aiming to fill an untapped niche: “Dubai has a thriving restaurant scene already and I think that with Bleu Blanc and Basta we’re really positioned nicely into the market for something new. I think that our style is a bit different. I haven’t seen anybody focus entirely on the live fire and ember-oriented cooking. We’re trying to bring our own style.”
When it comes to sourcing ingredients, the chef, who is used to having markets on his doorstep both at home in LA and in Asia, admits that there has to be a different approach in this region: “Of course we would love to have a farmer’s market right outside our door with amazing product coming through but we don’t and it’s ok. We’ve got Europe which is just a stone’s throw away. It’s the same [distance] as flying between LA and New York. So I don’t believe that getting great product is an issue here.
“We are going to focus mostly on European product because we are European restaurants so with our Italian and French concepts it makes sense to be able to utilise that. We’ve already reached out. We have an incredible chef, Gilles Perrin, on property here who’s made connections. He’s been in Dubai for nine years and he’s dealing with the vendors and getting product in, so I’m really confident about the product that we’re using.”
Speaking to Caterer about the operational structure of the venues, Myers explains: “We have a mandate. We’re operating them as if they were independent restaurants that happen to be a part of this hotel. So we have a GM, executive chef, sommelier, sous chefs, mixologists, the whole range, for each of the projects. Still, we’re very proud to be a part of the hotel. The F&B team here are all from restaurant backgrounds so they’re all switched on and dialed in to the market.”
Looking forward to the venues’ November openings which coincide with Dubai’s high season, the chef says: “I hope that the guests are as happy and excited about them as we are. There’s nobody more excited to be out there and talk to our guests than our team. They are pumped, they are ready to go. We get joy out of making people happy. We get joy out of creating great memories.”
When asked about what inspires him Myers says: “I’m a gypsy chef. For me it’s about travel, inspiration from that travel, and applying that to my restaurants, concepts and ideas.”
In true gypsy fashion, the chef already has his next destination (or destinations) in mind: “Europe. To make the complete circle, Europe is on the list. London, Berlin and Zurich are three destinations that I definitely want to get in on. At some point maybe Paris because I’m very fond of it and Barcelona could also be one. But I’d say London, Berlin and Zurich are hot on the list.”
Myers, who is one of the most laid-back and charismatic people you’re likely to meet, is realising his vision: “I wanted to travel the world and I wanted to run my own companies. That was always the plan.”
You could say that, although he swapped grey suits for more comfortable attire, he did end up doing international business.