Meet chef Quique Dacosta at the world’s first changing restaurant in Dubai
Chef Quique Dacosta’s avant-garde restaurant in the village of Denia, in the south-east of Spain boasts three Michelin stars and sits at number 39 on the World’s 50 Best restaurant list. He also owns one Michelin star El Poblet, and a couple of other restaurants in Valencia. Born in 1972 in the south-west of Spain, Quique started cooking in restaurant kitchens at the age of 14. Three years later in 1989 he moved to Le Poblet, and within a decade he had worked his way to head chef and owner renaming the restaurant Quique Dacosta. He is completely self-taught, yet holds an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts bestowed for his contribution to culinary artistry. He is now in Dubai with his team helming a three-month pop-up at Palazzo Versace’s Enigma restaurant which will change its chef four times a year – a ground-breaking concept that is not just a first for Dubai, but the world.
Quique’s interactive dining experience, just open, unearths an ‘untold story’ themed ‘vanguard’ and surprisingly, given high team and produce import costs is only slightly pricier than dining at his restaurant in Denia (AED738 for a tasting menu in Denia, versus AED750 here on weekdays and AED850 on weekends – or even cheaper with an AED650 early bird price if booked by tomorrow). The humble, calm and collected chef reveals more in our interview here, including his wish for his own restaurant in Dubai. At the same time, we also chat to the brains behind the concept, French-Spaniard Patrick Robineau, Palazzo Versace’s hotel manager, to probe on who the next chef might be, and how the restaurant will achieve consistency.
With Quique Dacosta, and his restaurant manager-cum-Spanish interpreter Didier:
- Can you explain your Vanguard concept, and what diners can expect over the next three months? From the dictionary definition Vanguard is a person or a group of people who are a little bit in advance of others, and in our case, cooking.
- So will you take guests into the future with the dining experience? The future is the next second. The menu is something that has never been experienced before; something very new. The magic will pop up every night with the combination of service and food, but with the help of the diner. The magic and the soul of the experience will be different every night; for us as well.
- Will you offer a choice of two menus here in Dubai like you have in Denia? Here it’s going to be something that has nothing to do with Denia. We designed the menu to give emotion, to seduce people and to show them something different that they have never seen before. We wanted as well to challenge, using new techniques and new textures that maybe in this part of the world guests are not used to. Things vanish in your mouth and produce will remind you of your childhood, but with a complete twist.
- Your main restaurant in Denia is closed until next month. So how long are you here for? We have 15 people from our team here for the whole three months, and I am here until the 18th [January] and will then visit regularly.
- Your cooking style only uses local ingredients from a 75 kilometre radius. Are you importing ingredients for Dubai or are you going to be inspired locally and source ingredients here? It’s going to be a combination of both, because obviously Denia is not Dubai and Dubai is not Denia. We will bring some produce, and we will also use local ingredients to incorporate a vision of both worlds. Depending on the ingredient, where you get it from is not relevant.
- Surely it is relevant? It’s not relevant in cooking. For example, if I take local tomatoes, cucumbers, some bread and olive oil, I can make a Spanish gazpacho with only local produce.
- But when ingredients are imported here you often lose flavour? Or not depending what you import. In the 12 hours you are travelling, there are things that don’t even move and you don’t see changes. There are enough options around the world and we have enough recipes and experience to make sure what we serve is going to be high quality. Basically there are three steps in cooking – first use the best produce you can; secondly the manipulation and the technique you are going to give it; and finally what you are going to serve with it. So you want to have everything under control and to make sure you first have the basic produce and then you can elaborate your own cooking.
- Can you give some examples of local ingredients on the menu? I can tell you that we came only with herbs from Denia; the rest is local.
- But surely it won’t just be UAE local, you must be importing from elsewhere in the region and the world? Yes.
- What’s more important to you, to retain the three Michelin stars or to rise up the World’s 50 Best list? The most important thing for me and our restaurants is the three stars.
- Is that because of Michelin’s prestige and heritage factor or because it drives bookings? When any chef opens a restaurant, he does not think first of the 50 Best; the big goal is the Michelin star for the prestige and history. Bookings is a sum of consequences. Obviously we know that the 50 Best is very important and it drives a lot of bookings if you are at the top of the list. We also won for two consecutive years the ‘best restaurant in Europe’, by Opinionating About Dining. So obviously all these awards are very important. You don’t want to get rid of any. The good thing is we are in all the good lists so that means we are doing a good job. But you cannot be the puppets of the critics or the awards lists. If my restaurant is full and my clients are happy, then so am I.
- Do you walk in the restaurant every night when you are there and think one of those guests could be a Michelin inspector? Heinz Beck does. I never think about Michelin until someone asks me. We are always thinking of the comfort of the customer and the experience we are going to give. The only thing we want is to offer high quality in the way we think we should do that, and we’ve broken a lot of rules along the way.
- I hear that your compatriots Mugaritz and El Celler De Can Roca are opening in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. Would you consider opening a restaurant here? I did not know that, but we would consider it as well. I think that anyone who wants to open a fine dining restaurant in Dubai will have to look at Enigma; it will be a good thermometer for local acceptance. From what we see from the bookings, it looks like the restaurant is going to very popular.
With Patrick Robineau:
- How many people do you have front and back-of-house including Quique’s team? All together it’s about 30 people. Plus we have a production kitchen that supports because a lot of the work with Quique’s food is prep.
- In my trends round-up, I question whether changing a chef every three months is going to hinder consistency in service and food for both front and back-of-house. Even the world’s best restaurants take time to settle in. How will you ensure that the service team adapts to a new chef from day one? We always send a team to the visiting chef, so we had the team from front and back-of-house go to Denia to work with the chef for at least one week. Before they go, we give them a list of questions and they really embrace the spirit of the visiting chef. They see the service experience; they take notes; they take videos; they record and they engage in conversation. When they come back here, there is a debrief session. Dishes are adjusted. It’s about making sure that it’s well executed consistently. It’s not like you have an a la carte menu with different dishes; in essence the complexity is less and the risks are less with a tasting menu. The most difficult part is to make it different, surprising and engaging. During the evening you will interact with the experience. The team we have recruited has international experience, Michelin stars, and great attitude. They are so passionate. Passion is a number one priority when we recruit people, and I make sure I interview every single person, whether they work in the kitchen or wash the dishes, I want that passion. If you don’t have a spark, you are probably not for us.
- Do you have plans to use Enigma to invite local chefs to participate and learn from these pop-ups? Yes. We are currently in discussion with one of the upcoming chefs, to actually work with him to position it in such a way that it is an opportunity for people to be educated. Whether it’s in the schools in Dubai, or whether it’s engaging with other chefs. Quique will potentially be judging one of the gastronomy competitions here. There are a lot of things that we want to do with Enigma, but we will make sure we do it progressively instead of being all over the place.
- Can you reveal who the next chef is and the calendar of chefs? At this stage it has to remain an enigma [he grins], but what I can tell you is that it will be very different from what Quique is doing. We have already committed to the next chef and his food is equally interesting but from a completely different angle. Both him and the third chef visited us a few weeks ago. There will be an eight-day gap between chefs when the restaurant will close.
- Is the criteria for selection Michelin stars or World’s 50 Best or both? It has to be a combination of both.
- Will this concept continue year after year or will it evolve into something else? We worked very closely with house of Versace to design an interior to be very neutral. So it’s very much a blank canvas, that we will take one step at a time. But ultimately what we want to do is to take those young upcoming chefs who have great skills, great gastronomy, creative minds and give them a platform. Obviously Dubai is becoming a hub with gastronomy, creativity and innovation. With 2020 around the corner, it’s great timing for us to be doing what we are doing. There are a lot of great restaurants but consistency as you have mentioned is hit or miss with a few exceptions. From a marketing perspective it gives us an opportunity every three months to go back into the market and be the latest restaurant in town.
Let’s see if they can pull it off. As the idiom says, proof is in the pudding. I am heading to Enigma for a media dinner tonight, so more on FooDiva’s social media channels tomorrow. [13th January update – click here for a peek into my experience. And here is Ishita Unblogged’s take on the dinner.]
Who’s dined at Quique Dacosta in Denia? My sister has and rates it far higher than some of the top five in the World’s 50 Best. When I tell Quique just that, he laughs and says “she must have dined with us on a good night.” Humble to the core.
Are you tempted to give Enigma a taste?
— FooDiva SamanthaWood (@FooDivaWorld) January 12, 2016