23 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Ollie Dabbous


ollie dabbous 2012 - Ollie-Dabbous_2_resized.jpgLondon’s hottest chef right now is 31-year-old Ollie Dabbous. His self-named Fitzrovia restaurant has had the critics swooning since opening in January, and dinner is fully booked until September. Square Meal meets the chef of the moment to find out what he thinks about all the fuss, as well as his opinions on everything from bloggers to the ‘best’ restaurants in the world.

What do you make of the hullaballoo surrounding Dabbous at the moment?

It’s something I haven’t really considered. We don’t think about it – we’re just reacting to it and making sure we’re ready for our customers every night. At the moment it feels borderline overwhelming. It would be nice to step back, enjoy it and regain a bit of perspective, but all I can see is where we need to get better.

Your fennel and rose petal salad was well received by almost everyone; likewise the coddled egg with smoked butter and mushrooms. Did you expect certain dishes to become ‘signatures’?

It’s funny: you don’t pick the things that are going to become the signature dishes – the customers do. We’ve just changed the menu and the salad’s off. I would prefer not to have any signature dishes because I think all the dishes are of merit – I wouldn’t put anything on the menu that I didn’t rate.

What do you think will be a big hit on the new menu?

Hopefully the iced lovage. It’s a deliberately off-kilter sorbet – it’s a bit icy so that it brings out the grassy flavour of the lovage. It looks simple but there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into it, and I think it massively delivers. Those kind of dishes are not the typical crowd pleasers – they are very light and clean but they are the hardest to get right because they are so delicately balanced.

Which chef has had the most profound influence on you?

Career-wise it would probably be Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons – taking that job was the best decision I ever made. I learnt the basics, the discipline you need in a kitchen, and I also learnt respect for ingredients and technique. But stylistically, all the ideas for the food at Dabbous are based on my own likes and dislikes. I’ve got quite a ‘girly’ palate – I like lightly seasoned food without too much acidity or fat. A gentler touch.

You’ve worked at lots of restaurants considered the best in the world, including Mugaritz in San Sebastián and Noma in Copenhagen. If you were sitting on the panel for the World’s 50 Best, which restaurant would you crown number one and why?

I don’t really agree with lists so I would prefer to stay away from all that. Those sort of awards are good because they make people talk about restaurants. But I wouldn’t join the panel – I think the notion is quite unsavoury. There’s room in the industry for everyone.

Do you have any golden rules in your kitchen?

We have a very composed, focused kitchen. I want to be fair and I don’t shout much. The key is to have your brigade be self-critical so that people work out of pride, not fear, and every member is invested in what they are doing. There’s no point trying to cut corners or just survive. It’s about personal investment.

What do you make of bloggers who make pilgrimages to restaurants like yours and take photos of every course?

To be honest I read the reviews in the press but I don’t have time to read bloggers’ stuff. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and as long as they’re happy I don’t mind. A lot goes into food photography so it does the dishes a slight disservice when bloggers take photos in the restaurant – the lighting is never right. But if you have paid for the meal you can do what you want as far as I’m concerned. You can let it go cold, you can go for a cigarette – and you can take photos of it.

Affordability and accessibility are an important part of the Dabbous experience. What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought or done?

I don’t need a great deal. My biggest extravagance are nights out – they’re cathartic. But as soon as I get drunk I let myself think I’m a millionaire – I’ve spent four figures on a night out before.

Tell us about your biggest kitchen disaster.

When I was growing up and cooking at home I made the naffest show-off stuff. I would try to cook proper nouvelle cuisine but would do it really badly with none of the equipment. I would see something on the telly and think, ‘Oh yes, I can do that’, but there would be mess everywhere and it would look like a car crash.

What would be your alternative career if you weren't a chef?

I’d work in design of some sort – interiors or jewellery. I wanted the interior here at Dabbous to look a certain way and I’m very particular about the presentation of my dishes.

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