Making waves in the Middle East

22 January 2003
Making waves in the Middle East

"Can you get clams locally? I never knew that," shouts Jason Atherton to his fish supplier, Gerard Vouyoukas, striving to be heard above the clamour of Dubai's fish market. Vouyoukas yells back: "Yes, but you can only catch them over two months - around September/October - when the season changes from summer to winter."

The two men are showing Caterer, and Atherton's sous chef from the Hilton Dubai Creek, Nathan Johnson, the catches brought in daily from the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Johnson hasn't had a chance to explore the market to date - he's in charge, under Atherton's watchful eye, of the hotel's brasserie, the 85-seat Glasshouse, which has more freedom than its fine-dining outlet, Verre, to serve native produce.

The sleek 55-seat Verre is where Dubai's great and good hang out to eat Gordon Ramsay signature food, and so focuses on perfecting the master's modern European cuisine with European ingredients.

Dodging out of the way of a barrow-load of fish wending its way to a stall-holder, Atherton explains: "It's very important to use local ingredients in the Glasshouse, not only because it's cheaper than importing turbot and halibut, but also because it gives a local feel to the food. So I check out the market from time to time - it gives me an insight into the culture, too, because the locals only buy fish from here."

A fishmonger calls out: "Want to buy? Tell me what you'll give…" as the three glance at his table of slowly moving blue-swimmer crabs. "Not buying, just looking," responds Atherton. At 7am, it's far too late for the best produce anyway - Vouyoukas, a Greek who has been in his family business in the UAE for the past eight years, gets down to the market at 3am to get first bite at the best catches for his customers.

Those catches deliver local swimmers such as kingfish, a large, predominantly silver, torpedo-shaped fish not unlike barracuda (also on the slabs in the market). "That's the best local fish for me," Atherton says. "Its dense texture's a bit like tuna, but it's white-fleshed. You have to cook it all the way through, though - it doesn't take tender. You can't serve it rare."

Also jostling for room on market tables are rabbit fish ("very boney, only locals buy it," says Vouyoukas), sea bream, prawns of every shape and size from nearby Omani waters (Atherton substitutes the large ones for langoustines in the Glasshouse), small sharks, skipjack tuna and golden trivali.

And then there's hamour, a type of grouper (members of the sea-bass family), the only local fish to make it on to the main menu at Verre. Mottled grey, with thick lips and a big head, the fish reaches the table as a braised fillet served in its own brandade accompanied by vinaigrette of peas, fàves, asparagus and truffled pea velouté.

The question we all want answered, of course, is: how does working for Mr Ramsay shape up? After all, Atherton was a name in his own right at L'Anis in London's Kensington before linking up with Ramsay in Dubai. He was creating his own dishes; now, he's putting out the Gordon Ramsay experience for his diners - cooking another chef's creations.

"People slag Gordon off, but he has given a lot back to the industry," Atherton says. "Sure, he's a bit of a bugger at times, but I came out here because there were gaps in my knowledge and I've learnt, big time, just by cooking Gordon's food. I'd have come on board just to learn his sauces. They're so clear in their flavour, you know immediately when they've got too much shallot, too much salt."

He adds: "Menu structure - he has taught me that, too. How to balance things technique-wise as well as ingredient and flavour-wise. I always had the meat, two fish, game and vegetarian thing, but I never used to have something simple and elegant as well as dazzling listed. To start off the meal with something simple, then build up to a structured, amazing dessert, and finish off with very simple petits fours…"

So, who decides menus - Atherton or Ramsay? Initially, it was completely Ramsay but, as Atherton has settled into his role of executive chef (he arrived 18 months ago as head chef of Verre, then took over the bigger job last year when Angela Hartnett headed to London's Connaught), he has injected a shot of his own personality. The core menu has to be recognisably Ramsay - that's what people pay for - but Atherton, with the boss's blessing, has adapted one or two dishes to suit the Dubai climate and availability of produce.

Two hours on from the fish market jaunt, and a 15-minute dash to Dubai's spice market, Atherton lounges on one of Verre's black banquettes and, with a menu in front of him, runs a finger down the dishes, identifying those he has tweaked - tartare of salmon ("Gordon does that as scallops"), best end of lamb on a bed of new potatoes, baked in stock with braised root vegetables and rosemary jus ("that's got a little bit of me"). The "me" bit is a potato dome on which the meat is placed - thinly sliced potatoes layered with a little lamb sauce and then baked in the oven with thyme and rock salt. Chocolate fondant is a trademark Ramsay dish, of course, but the fondant has morphed from hot to cold, for understandable reasons, given the local climate.

What about the velouté of cauliflower served around a scallop mousse? ("Entirely my own," says Atherton). Bite into the plump scallop mousse and you get a burst of basil and langoustine. And a velvety lemon bavarois served with palate-cleansing citrus fruit salad and gritty granité is Atherton's, too.

The dish is being photographed as we speak, and Atherton jumps up to have a peek at it through the camera lens. Satisfied, he stands back to let the photographer get on with his work. Is this a good time to ask him a personal question? OK, Jason, is it true what the boys in the kitchen have told me - you play air-golf instead of air-guitar when you think no one's looking? "Yeah, but only sometimes. You've got to have an interest of some sort and, as you grow older, you grow out of the pub thing."

But golf is all about dodgy clothes and stuffy clubhouses, isn't it? "The first day I played, I turned up in white shirt, black trousers, black shoes," he says. "I looked like John Travolta and I was wet through with sweat. Now I play in shorts, polo shirt and golf shoes. I love it."

His current job is the first executive chef post that Atherton has held and, apart from the two restaurants, Verre and the Glasshouse, he's responsible for room service, a bar and a deli bar. It's all a bit of a leap from running just a fine-dining restaurant and, given that he had never been a hotel chef, it could have been a daunting proposition. However, he is methodical by nature, and that's half the battle.

"Anal retentive, yeah," he says, "but if you're an untidy chef then you'll never be able to run a hotel like this. Before I leave tonight, I'll plan my day tomorrow - give myself a list of six or seven things that have got to be done. GP forecast for the next month, staff costings, manning - whatever. Then, if I have to, I'll come in early to give myself three hours at the paperwork before I get started in the kitchen. Actually, working at Coast in London [as Steve Terry's sous chef] in the mid-1990s taught me how to organise and do food for a lot of people."

The responsibility is clearly filling a gap in his cheffing experience and maturing the 32-year-old, both as a manager and as a craftsman. In the short term, Atherton seems content in Dubai, but his long-term goals remain unchanged. The Holy Grail of three Michelin stars is not unrealistic for someone of his talent, but he wants that to be allied with financial success.

"There's no point in getting the glory if you suffer financially," he says. "I just have to be financially successful - not to go out and buy a Ferrari to say how cool I am (before you ask, I drive a VW Golf) - but to provide for my family, when I have one. Of course, I don't want to shovel rubbish or work with people who can't cook a piece of lamb, but I'm in no hurry. I'll do the Michelin thing when the timing's right."

Who was there?

The London contingent…

* Andy Rose, head chef, Butler's Wharf Chop House
\ John Sheriden (purchasing co-ordinator), Dave Miney (head chef) and Jeremy Bloor (senior sous chef) all at Oxo Tower
* David Massey, head chef, Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols
* Dennis Mwakulua, head chef, Avenance (Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw)
Chris Dines, head chef, Tate Britain gallery

And from the rest of the UK…

* David Roberts, head chef, St Hugh's College, Oxford
* Caroline Forestier-Walker, pastry chef, Chequers Inn, Woburn
* Nick Evans, head chef, Newbury Manor, Newbury
* Peter Cuss, head chef, Holiday Inn, Telford
* Andy Bowden, head chef, Edgewarebury hotel, Elstree
* Stephen Judge (general manager) and Adam Saville (head chef), both at Cricklade Hotel and Country Club, Swindon
* Alex Templet, sous chef, Linton Lodge, Oxford

The next Advanced Chefs Management course is due to take place on 23-27 January, with a further one scheduled for 29 May to 2 June. Cost is £550 excluding flights.

For more information about this and other Emirates Academy courses, contact: Hugh Forestier-Walker on 01873 736900.

Sheik attacks

Most of Dubai's hotels are owned by prominent local businessmen, often sheiks. They are enthusiastic hoteliers, and they like to entertain at their properties. It's not unknown for a sheik to ring up and drop a gem like: "We will be arriving in 20 minutes with a party of 60 for a six-course meal." In Arabic culture, saying "no" is not an option.

How do chefs cope? By making a note of each sheik's food preferences, keeping the relevant produce in stock and having specially loaded trollies on standby at all times. Then, when the phone call comes, everybody's ready to rock and roll…

Working in Dubai

You can't work in Dubai without sponsorship for a work visa from your employer, so don't jack in your job and go there without sorting employment out first. However, you can go to the emirate on a visitor's visa (which you get at Immigration when you arrive), but if you find a job you'll have to leave the country and return once your employer has guaranteed your stay and sorted out visa requirements. (Information supplied by the UAE Embassy, Prince's Gate, London SW7. Tel: 020 7581 1281.)

War zone

People in Dubai seem remarkably unfazed by the dark cloud of war hanging over nearby Iraq. It's a case of, yeah, Iraq's in the Middle East but it's about as close as Greece is to Norway, so there's no need for panic. Emergency plans? No one admits to having them. "Last time round [in the Gulf War], Dubai picked up loads of business because the servicemen came here on their leave," says Jason Atherton. Everyone's more worried about how a war would affect the tourist business.

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