Meet the chef-cum-restaurateur behind Atelier M
Grandiose is perhaps an understatement for Dubai’s latest dining spot. The elevator opens on the seventh floor directly into an old-world restaurant reminiscent of The Great Gatsby era – minus the flapper dresses.
I am faced with an Art Deco-inspired dining room and terrace dotted with much-coveted round tables and intimate booths seating 140, plush champagne-toned velvet gracing the chairs, statuesque mirrored columns and glorious crystal chandeliers. Discreetly amidst all this bling sits a simple open-plan kitchen and traditional marble-topped ‘pass’.
Take the ornate circular staircase or the elevator up one level to a retro bar and lounge, whilst further atop sits a sleek rooftop terrace. All three storeys have sweeping 180-degree views across Dubai Marina. Meet newly opened Atelier M at the Pier 7 dining destination, the creation of 48-year old chef Mohammad Islam.
Born in Bangladesh, Islam moved to Chicago aged 17 to study engineering, a career he soon ditched for his love of cooking. “I didn’t have enough money to go to cooking school and started working as an apprentice for well-known chefs cutting their carrots and onions in the basement and being yelled at. That was 25 years ago.”
He moved on to learn the basics of cooking at Ritz-Carlton Chicago before working for his now mentor and famous chef-cum-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. “Jean-Georges told me ‘you have already given me a tasting menu so I can see you can cook and I don’t need to teach you that. But I will teach you something that will always be beneficial. It’s called management.’ I learnt how to balance the boat, the business, manage the team and cook; a beautiful puzzle and only then do you become a successful chef.”
Fast forward to 2009 when Islam arrives in Dubai working for Capital Club and then consulting for the yet-to-open Versace hotel, before beginning work on this restaurant concept that has taken two years to come to fruition. “Dubai does not really have chef-driven restaurants. I am physically present. I wanted to make something unique that isn’t a franchise, a home-grown product.”
Dubai does in fact have a number of chef-driven restaurants already; Table 9, Tomo, La Serre and Qbara to name a few (more below). But by Islam’s own admittance he’s also a restaurateur, yet you will still find him in the kitchen after 5pm every day with his team, helmed by executive chef Owen Stewart. The menu’s direction is naturally Islam’s, but his chefs have created their own dishes.
Atelier M’s cuisine uses French cooking techniques, sous vide included, to create contemporary dishes with a twist, marrying Islam’s passion for Asian culinary methods. Light and healthy like the signature main course of poussin with Asian radish salad and plum puree; food he says you can eat every day without feeling you have to lie down. Something Gordon Ramsay also claims. The every day sharing-style fare is reflected in the reasonable price point with starters and desserts around Dhs40 to 60, and main courses from Dhs125 to 250.
“I have been sourcing produce for a year now. Australian Blackmore beef, Hawaiian tuna and pomfret, Alaskan king salmon and crab. Seasonality is very important. It’s only now that this crab is fresh.”
But what about using local sustainable seafood? “I go to the fish markets in Deira and Fujairah. Boat fishing too. There’s local tuna and Omani shrimp and lobster. But it’s difficult to build a menu around local fish because the supply is inconsistent. Last week we had some squid from Oman; tiny and delicious. We’ve been trying to get them again but it’s impossible.”
A daily rotating special perhaps? Islam smiles cheekily. 25 per cent of produce used at Atelier M is locally sourced. All herbs, carrots, onions, zucchini, capsicums and eggplant arrive from Al Ain’s farms.
“We have been talking to an Australian farmer to take a patch of land at an existing farm here on a hill with a lot of sunlight, but cooler at night. So we will start growing our own heirloom tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and strawberries.”
His ongoing passion for local, organic, seasonal produce and the slow food movement is inspired by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, ‘a mother to us chefs’ he says. “Years ago, I was in San Francisco having dinner at Chez Panisse and for dessert she presented me with a peach and a knife. The peach came from Frog Hollow farm and the day she wants to serve peaches, she hand picks only those completely ripe, washes and plates it. I have never had a peach so delicious in my life. It’s like a jewel, to die for.”
Dubai’s other chef-driven restaurants:
- As of January 9th, Table 9 at Hilton Dubai Creek will have a new chef at the stove, Darren Velvick, replacing Nick & Scott who have moved on to Albwardy Investment Group, the owners of Spinneys, the local rights to Waitrose supermarkets and Desert Palm resort. Darren is another Gordon Ramsay protégée and moves across from Marcus Wareing’s restaurant at The Berkeley London where he was Executive Group Chef. Expect a rebrand to Table 9 by Darren Velvick.
- The new Arabesque Qbara restaurant with Middle Eastern-inspired contemporary fare at the Wafi Fort complex is the work of chef Colin Clague of Zuma and Ivy Dubai fame.
- French-Mediterranean La Serre at the boutique Vida hotel in Downtown Dubai is the brainchild of chef Izu Ani, the opening maestro of La Petite Maison.
- Dubai’s Japanese restaurant Tomo atop Raffles is fronted by Chef Takahashi, the father of Japanese chefs in Dubai. Only here can you truly eat authentic national dishes like you would in Japan. Even Nobu agrees, choosing to dine here on his visits to the emirate.
This interview was first published in The National – Arts & Life here.