Ollie Dabbous is a hard subject to track down for an interview. He’s a man, one suspects, not entirely comfortable in the public eye. It’s tricky when your first restaurant Dabbous opens (in January 2012) and the UK’s foremost food writers – Fay Maschler, Giles Coren, AA Gill and Jay Rayner among them – all proclaim it to be one of the dining destinations in the capital and its chef the hottest new thing in British food.
A Michelin star followed later that year and the reservation book began to chalk up bookings months in the future, while Dabbous was invited to cook alongside two of the world’s leading chefs Brett Graham and Thomas Keller for the prime minister at 10 Downing Street for a 2012 VisitBritain event. For most young chefs, these moments would have been seized upon, the PR machine kicking in, grabbing all media opportunities.
Dabbous, however, is much more considered. He’s clearly not in the game for the adulation. We finally get to meet at Oskar’s Bar, named after his business partner, mixologist Oskar Kinberg, underneath their Fitzrovia restaurant. Dabbous proves to be thoughtful in his responses. He looks almost embarrassed when I ask what it was like to receive such glowing reviews, from the critics who can easily sink a newly-opened restaurant with a few caustic words.
“Obviously, first of all, I was very flattered,” he says. “Ultimately you have your own standards, so irrespective of what people say about me, I judge myself and I’m very harsh. So yes, it was lovely hearing all the nice things they said, because we set up on a shoestring.”
Previously, 33-year-old Dabbous was head chef at London’s Texture. Before that experiences in the kitchens of a trattoria in Florence and with top chefs Rowley Leigh, Guy Savoy and Raymond Blanc may have honed his talents in the kitchen, but his reputation outside of those culinary institutions remained low-key – a potential problem when going it alone with a restaurant that bears your name.
“Our goal was just to be open by the end of the year,” he says. “No one had heard of me, I’d never bothered with PR or pursuing any personal profile. It was just a case of giving myself the tools I felt I needed to run my own business. I felt exposed in that I had limited resources, limited staff, and we rapidly had to grow to meet the demand and to evolve to meet the standards I wanted to achieve.”
Quality on the plate
Winning a Michelin star within the first year will have shocked nobody that has eaten at Dabbous, but the owners were thrilled nonetheless. “I was surprised and grateful. Grateful because, [Michelin] obviously saw the quality on the plate as opposed to the lack of fuss in the service and the surroundings; and yes, surprised because we hadn’t been open very long.
“Obviously, I want to keep [the star] because I think we can keep improving, both front of house and in the kitchen. I look at it as a bonus. It was never a ambition before we opened. I know for a lot of young chefs it is. Freedom of expression was something I craved more than recognition, infinitely more. But, yes, it was reassurance, particularly when what we were doing was very austere.”
I query his use of “austere”. He says it is a description of the industrial chic, deliberately rough-around-the-edges design of the restaurant. “We weren’t confident people would like it being devoid of any sense of luxury,” he says. But Dabbous was adamant that, in “deformalising” the interior of the dining room, the only sense of luxury left would “be on the plate”.
Dabbous was heavily involved with the restaurant design. “I had the overall experience and aesthetic in my mind before we even raised a penny,” he says.
“Obviously the interior is crucial to me for being part of the experience. It’s not just the food, it is layers of attention to detail that create this kind of personality of a place and define the experience for the customer. So, the thinking was a design that wouldn’t age, one that would gain character with age and looked untouched by human hand. I wanted a sense of the organic that would be shared with the food.
“I also wanted a juxtaposition in that there’s a kind of brutality, almost masculinity to the interior, and yet the food on the plate has finesse or femininity. I like that contrast.”
And what food it is. Some of the finest cuisine served in a city now awash with Michelin-starred eateries. What is his starting point for making dishes that “have wow factor but look effortless”?
“Basically you look at what’s in season, what’s at its very best,” he says. “Then you ask yourself why you like something. Every ingredient has inherent qualities so it’s about highlighting those qualities in the most concise manner. It’s not taking A and saying that goes well with B, C and D. It’s about taking that prime ingredient and just turning it into the best possible form of itself.”
Dabbous has described himself as possessing something of a “girly” palate. “In general I like things very balanced, harmonious, delicate,” he says. “A lot of flavours that people might describe as ‘big’ I would describe as clumsy, perhaps. I just like things to taste of themselves, but very clean and quite understated, even. I like simplicity, not too many flavours at once.”
For Dabbous this approach is all about the chef being “subservient” to the ingredient. “You do as much, or preferably as little, as you need to make that shine,” he says. “It’s not me utilising the ingredient to show what I can do or what equipment I have. It’s me, a chef, taking what I think is a true role, but perhaps the humblest, working to showcase ingredients.
“So, I think sometimes you can have a great deal of thought that goes into a dish, but the overall effect will be implicit, not explicit. You have that wow factor because there’s been a long and involved thought process and attention to detail, but in a minimalist way. So, I think doing something that looks effortless, but you could never recreate, is a beguiling combination.”
A world of influences
Dabbous grew up in Kuwait, due to his father’s job. Did the culture influence his cooking style?
“I don’t think a great deal,” he says. “I mean, it opened my eyes, I’ve always been interested in trying different types of food. I think that comes more just from an enjoyment of food than growing up in Kuwait. I didn’t come from a culinary family, both my parents worked so cooking was just fish fingers, chips and peas, or stock cubes. The food was always healthy in general, always a lot of fruit and vegetables, but my dad lived abroad, my mum worked, so there wasn’t the time to create any sort of masterpieces.”
Fish fingers notwithstanding, a burgeoning interest in food and cooking led the 15-year-old Dabbous to a hugely formative experience of working in the kitchens of a trattoria in Florence where his father’s cousin was a waiter. “I loved it. It was a nice change of scenery from school. As a kid you always get a bit bored in the summer holidays. I liked the fact it was a completely different life for me, it felt quite escapist,” he says.
“I’d always enjoyed cooking, but I think that helped reinforce that desire to do it professionally. The ingredients were incredible, it was the first time I’d been exposed to that level of quality of produce and the fact that this marvellous produce was simply treated. They were a really friendly bunch in the kitchen, too. I’m going back there next year, hopefully.”
The experience of cooking with Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place and Guy Savoy in Paris, served to harden his resolve and prepare him for striking out on his own. The first lesson he learned in both places was that “you don’t know as much as you think you do,” he says.
“Kensington Place was a completely different style of cooking to the trattoria in Italy, but had a similar sense of simplicity and respect for the ingredients. It was a good place to learn. Guy Savoy was the first sort of Michelin experience I had. I was 17. It was a slap in the face being exposed to that – the number of chefs, the level of fastidiousness. It was definitely an eye-opener.”
Working under Raymond Blanc at the two Michelin star Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire was where Dabbous felt he essentially learned how to cook. “I hadn’t gone to catering college. I dipped my toe in the water in the previous work experiences, but Le Manoir was full-on, getting thrown in at the deep-end. I felt out of my depth from day one, but that’s the best way to learn, to raise your game to the required level and hope no one notices in the meantime.”
Two years of being the head chef at Texture on Portman Street taught Dabbous to get to know “all the suppliers in London” as well as to get used to the lack of space synonymous with London kitchens. Perfect training, then, for opening his own restaurant, which he and Kinberg developed from a derelict shell site. But why Fitzrovia?
“It was pretty much the only place we could afford that ticked the boxes, it was that simple,” says Dabbous. “We knew we wanted to be in central London. I like the area. I like being in the mix but having a less overt presence, it kind of fits with how we run the place. The site was set over two floors, so you got the restaurant and the bar. There’s a nice corner frontage, so aesthetically it appealed. And size-wise it was very suitable.”
For Dabbous one of the most important things success has brought him in the last two and a half years has been the fact that finally he has been able to get all his chefs “on a rota so they’re not working five doubles any more. They’re getting an extra day off one week, then half a day off the next, so that was a big thing,” he says.
Flag in the sand
Otherwise, what of the key challenges he faces with the restaurant in the future? “The primary answer to that question would be if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, hopefully getting a little bit better at it. I think we’ve maximised what we can do in terms of all the things that we wanted to at the beginning, but didn’t have the money. We’ve now done them.”
As well as working on a cookery book, earlier this year Dabbous also opened Barnyard, a new 50-seat restaurant less than half a mile away. Under general manager Charlie Bolton and head chef Joseph Woodland, Barnyard is relaxed, fun and upbeat and deliberately not interested in appealing to a Michelin inspector. On the surface then, perhaps an odd bedfellow to Dabbous?
“I can see why people think that. Essentially it’s home cooking, but fast food,” Dabbous explains. “It’s comfort food but done to a level that your mum or gran never did, or if they did I’d like
to meet them.”
As for his cookery book, painstakingly compiled and launching in September, Dabbous is hoping that it will serve as “some form of tangible legacy” for his unique approach to cuisine. “It’s nice to plant your flag in the sand regarding certain dishes that I think are original or I haven’t seen anywhere else, it’s nice to have that portfolio, as such. I don’t want to cook forever so if I can set up a few things it will make the retiring process a little bit easier, hopefully,” he says.
While it might sound extraordinary to hear a 33-year old chef talking of retirement already, Dabbous’ success has been incredibly hard-earned and nothing like the instant hit it has been portrayed in the culinary media. “It’s a bit like when you get the 18-year-old kid winning a tennis Open and people talk about an ‘overnight success’,” he says. “But that kid has had no social life and been playing tennis since the age of six.”