The chef who gave up his Michelin star to move to Dubai
December 30, 2014
Dubai is more accepting of my style of contemporary Lebanese food, as opposed to Beirut where it’s steeped in its own food culture and it’s pretty hard to budge. It’s very slow to make things happen there with their cuisine; the Lebanese will always go back to what they love and to what is traditional. I want to put Lebanese food on a bigger stage and Dubai is a lot more open to that.
Moving to the UAE
There are some great chefs, with great reputations, who live out here so I’m not in the minority. But there are certainly big names who come in, set up a restaurant, drop a puppet in to run the place and come every now and then to tweak things. I don’t do satellite restaurants and I’ve done all I can in Australia. This is a white canvas.
I’m only as good as the meal I put out on any day and I’m only as good as the people surrounding me. I don’t like to cook alone; I want to have people who want to be with me to learn the craft, understand the career, understand me and try to support what I do. I like to be challenged and I need to challenge others as well.
Growing up my influences were from my home life and from my travels across Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and North Africa. If I look at a traditional dish and try to reinterpret it, the first thing I do is respect the origins of the dish, and then I look at it in terms of a Westerner thinking ‘how can I make it look a little more architectural’. Some Middle Eastern dishes taste better than they look, so you have to make them look pretty as well.
Musakhan is a Palestinian/Bedouin chicken dish that has been slowly cooked with lemon, sumac, onions and garlic and is placed in the middle of baked Saj bread, and you break pieces off to share – you need your fingers. With Clé’s menu there are traditional dishes, which are done correctly, and while they might look different, they’re traditional in essence. Then there are other dishes that are quirkier, such as smoked lamb’s tongue with freekeh.
Earliest food memory
I had a massive appetite as a child, particularly for Lebanese food. There’s a snack called Arous Labneh, which is Arabic bread with yoghurt, cheese, olive oil, sometimes there’s sliced tomatoes or cucumbers or fresh meat, and it’s rolled up and eaten as a snack. We used to have that coming home from school. Lots of black olives, lots of raw meat, lots of kibbeh and lots of raw diced lamb's liver. Lamb’s brain is on the menu – as children we’d have brain omelets with Gruyere. Delicious.
My last meal would be meat-stuffed vine leaves, a big bowl of labneh, some fresh Arabic bread straight out of the oven, kibbeh, raw minced lamb, some knife and fork ice cream that’s made in Turkey. This is all homely stuff; it’s mother’s food but it needs to be made properly. That’s how you find a good bride in Lebanon, by the way they make their kibbeh.
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