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Food & Health

Meet the world-renowned chef who is baking up a treat in the Middle East

Thomas Keller poses outside his first-ever outpost in Dubai. (Photo supplied)
DUBAI: For a chef of Thomas Keller’s caliber — he has multiple restaurants with long-held three Michelin stars, has concepts that are regularly rated among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and he has several James Beard awards under his belt — entering a new market is no light matter. With a successful career spanning more than 40 years behind him, and his name firmly embedded in the culinary world’s hall of fame as one of the greats, he probably does not even need to expand across the globe.
However, he has entered the Middle East region for the first time with not one but three outlets of Bouchon Bakery — one in Dubai and two in Kuwait — and he credits this entirely to Mohammed Al-Shaya, scion of the Al-Shaya retail and F&B empire that brought the franchise here.
“He made me come here. His organization and team gave me a great sense of confidence for us to be able to execute what we do at home, here,” said Keller, who made a whistle-stop trip to the region to officially launch the Dubai outlet recently.
“It’s all about relationships for me. Ours began over three years ago and he’s proven to me that not only is he a wonderful human being, we have a wonderful friendship that’s come out of this, but his business sense and ability to perform is unparalleled.”
Keller’s first encounter with the region was, in fact, nearly 10 years ago, when he had come here on a recce trip, during which time he had advised the authorities that they need to invest in farms and education to develop the culinary scene.
While that side of the industry has definitely evolved, he still feels that it might be a bit too premature to think about bringing some of his other upscale restaurant concepts — like The French Laundry and Per Se or even Bouchon Bistro — to the region.
“Right now, this is the right brand for me to put my foot into the Middle East, without becoming too ambitious,” he explained. “A restaurant is very different, you have to get too many different (fresh) ingredients and that requires a lot of time to source from the right people. It’s too early to start thinking about bringing other concepts here. We have to think about building relationships with suppliers, with the farmers and fishermen.”
Describing Bouchon Bakery as a traditional French boulangerie, Keller states clearly that he is not reinventing the wheel. “I’m trying to create a café that you would find in Paris, or Lyon or Marseilles… that’s always been what Bouchon Bakery is about, it’s what you would find in an urban area in France. And it’s nice to see all the little details we worked on come together here.”
All the Middle East-based locations manage to recreate that authentic French café vibe quite successfully — from the elegant, warm décor complete with bistro chairs, coffered walls and vintage lamps to the fittingly-traditional food.
The menu includes delectable pastries, artisanal breads, a selection of salads and sandwiches and mouthwatering macarons (they do gift boxes too) all freshly made on-site, plus Keller’s custom coffee blend created by Equator Coffees and Teas.
Some tweaks tailored to the region have been made, however.
“We’ve made certain modifications and introduced some things specifically for our Middle East outlets,” he said. “The rosewater Paris-brest or the mango éclair, for example, is very regional for us, but apart from a few items on the menu, most everything else is exactly as it would be at home (in the US).”
The standard of food and service is also on par with his international outlets, something Keller appears to be very happy with. “I’m so proud of the quality of work the team here does — the kitchen team, the baking team, the service team — I think they are doing an extraordinary job,” he says. “I had this meal prepared for me by some of our chefs in Kuwait and I was blown away with the food. The chefs here, they get it.”
This humility and generosity of spirit seems integral to the success story of this no-nonsense chef and astute restaurateur, although he puts it down to hard work and dedication. Passing on most of the credit to the team on the ground, he uses the analogy of a sports team to define his trajectory.
“Being a cook is exactly like being an athlete. We practice and practice, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t — but we always want to come back and do it all again tomorrow. Every athlete is emotionally attached to their job — that’s what cooking is like,” he said. “And the other aspect is having a strong sense of collaboration with the team. I believe in recognizing people for what they’ve achieved, because the more elevated you become in your career, your job becomes that of being a leader, of teaching and mentoring and that’s very important. The chefs in my team are better than I am — if they weren’t, that means I haven’t done a good job.”
If his measures of success are a strong team and “giving guests an experience they will remember,” then do the numerous awards he has garnered mean anything?
“I can’t explain why I’ve got all these awards — I go to work, do my job. Someone wants to give me a medal, I say thank you very much and go back to work,” he said matter-of-factly. “But remember, every award that you receive is for what you did yesterday — what are you doing today and what you are going to do tomorrow, that’s more important. We’re working on today and tomorrow.”

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