Are Dubai restaurants ready for the Michelin Guide?

The recent appointment of an ex-Michelin executive at Jumeirah has triggered the discussion on whether Dubai is ready for its own guide 

Afternoon tea at Ossiano.
Afternoon tea at Ossiano.

From Jason Atherton and Morimoto to Nobu and Sean Conolly, Dubai has no dearth of celebrity chefs, with news of more joining the fray almost every month.

With Jumeirah’s appointment of ex-Michelin Restaurant and Hotel Guides executive Michael Ellis as its new chief culinary officer, the debate has resurfaced once again: is Dubai truly ready for its own guide?

Brendan McCormack, hotel manager at the W Dubai — the Palm hotel that is slated to open its doors early next year with celebrated chefs like Akira Back and Massimo Bottura, believes that it would be “great” if the Michelin guide came to Dubai.

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“We have so many great venues across the city, so many in fact it is hard to choose where to go. The Michelin guide would help people, both tourists and those who are locally based, to make informed choices,” McCormack added.

And he isn’t wrong. Most destinations with Michelin stars have seen a rise in tourist numbers in direct correlation with the publication of the guide.

Related: Here are the top 10 chefs in the Middle East in 2018

The tiny city of Aarhus saw a 17% rise in the number of guests in the city’s hotels after three of the city’s restaurants made it to the Michelin Nordic Guide 2016. So it’s no surprise that tourism boards pay Michelin to launch guides in their cities. Eater reported earlier this year that state-run Korean Tourism Organisation agreed to pay Michelin nearly 2 billion won (approximately US$1.8 million) to bring the Seoul guide to the country, while the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly pledged 144 million Thai baht (approximately $4.4 million) in financial support to Michelin for five years, beginning with the first Bangkok guide in 2017.

However, while the debate has raged on for the last five years, Dubai still hasn’t seen the launch of a Michelin Guide yet. Ellis stoked the fire in 2016 at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum when he said Michelin was on its way to creating a guide specifically for Dubai, but remained tight-lipped on the details.

So what is it that Dubai restaurants are lacking? According to McCormack, “In times gone by, we [Dubai] lacked authenticity. There were too many poorly executed venues and 'copy pastes', if you will. But the evolution of the industry in this city over the last five years has produced some phenomenal venues.”

He also believes that independent venues have stolen the limelight from luxury five-star hotels and have upped the stakes.

However McCormack believes that Dubai restaurant pricing is a “problem”.

“One thing we do need to address, is the price. The value proposition offered by Dubai venues versus even cities like London, Hong Kong and New York is a problem. Especially as we want to be a tourist destination, we will always be compared to our peers in other great cities around the world,” he said to Hotelier.

Reiterating McCormack’s comments, Naim Maadad, the chief executive and founder of Gates Hospitality, believes that authenticity is a major component that the market genuinely lacks.

“When one concept is successful, then others try to copy the same without any understanding or minor concept changes. Brands succeed due to their uniqueness,” he said. “We see people with no experience or knowledge go out and invest in cookie cutter concepts with no research or basic due diligence.”

According to Maadad, another missing key factor is the service culture, which is in its infancy as the cost of living, along with visa limitations, imposes steep curves and non-viable commercial propositions for both employees and employers.

Ben Tobitt, group executive chef at JRG Dubai, noted that the emirate has quite a few venues that are close to the high levels of quality needed to be awarded a Michelin star rating.

Tobitt emphasises the point that “should restaurants hope to apply for the coveted Michelin star, renewed focus on enhancing quality across the board needs to come into play – it’s not just about the food, but equally strong quality of service. Personally, I feel there should be more focus on getting the basics right collectively, before setting our sights and focus on Michelin star recognition.”

However, he adds, while there are many chefs coming to Dubai who have helmed Michelin-starred venues, which offer discerning diners a plethora of opportunities to enjoy the skills of some of the world’s finest, they aren’t really bringing Michelin concepts to the region.

“However, you’ll also notice they are not necessarily bringing Michelin star concepts to the city, just yet. Personally, I don’t believe guests are after an extensive selection of fine dining restaurants that are quite expensive for the regular foodie. I believe there is an appetite for food that is well sourced, well cooked, well presented, well served and reasonably priced. This doesn’t need to be expensive, it just takes skill from us as chefs and committed front-of-house staff to make a meal truly enjoyable and memorable – it’s about the food and the entire dining experience,” Tobitt adds.

However Tobitt makes a valid point: not all restaurants “have the desire” for a Michelin star.

“It’s extremely expensive to put together a team to deliver. It’s not just about the head chef and manager, ultimately every team member has to be able to deliver without exception. This expense is another impact on the guest; at JRG’s signature restaurant Pierchic, we don’t have the desire for Michelin stars. Our passion lies with quality ingredients, sustainability, provenance, seasonality, local produce (where possible) and training. Every day we strive to get better at what we do, there’s never a moment our teams rest on their laurels and expects to deliver the best in quality without effort and commitment,” Tobitt adds.

He personally believes that Dubai would be more suitable for the AA Rosette guide. “It’s far more achievable and ticks the right boxes when it comes to price point and quality.”

This sentiment is echoed by chef Izu Ani, known for his innovative restaurants in Dubai like Carine, Izu Brasserie and Gaia.

“For me it doesn’t bring any additional [value]; it’s a bunch of men coming to taste your food and saying "oh, it's wonderful, I’ll give you two stars." If they ever come here, I’d tell them please leave me alone, because it’s not a criteria that I want to live by,” Ani said in an interview to Hotelier's sister publication Caterer Middle East.

“I want to live by the criteria of guests coming in, thanking the chef and leaving with a smile because at the end of the day, that criteria of Michelin is so subjective. I’ve been to France and eaten at one star-and two star-restaurants and thought, 'what is this?'” he said. 

“I don’t get why we always have to pigeonhole everything or say this is a barometer that you have to live by. Michelin makes money from this. I work 18-20 hours a day, sleep for two hours and I have to live by a red book? Why?” Ani questioned.

He also believes that the Michelin Guide creates a preconceived opinion of restaurants.

“I spent 650 euro on a meal at a three-Michelin star restaurant for a meal that honestly wasn’t even average. Good quality product, but my little kid could cook that better,” he said.

Questioning the nature of the guide, he says “If other people tell us something is good, we trust it. That’s just how humans are.”

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