From Bistro Des Arts founders Jonathan Vercoutere and Julien Pilard comes Publique, Dubai’s first après-ski gathering hub
Jonathan Vercoutere and Julien Pilard are opposites in every way, and not just in terms of appearance. While Jonathan comes from Lille on France’s border with Belgium, Julien is from Cannes, a resort town on the French Riviera. Jonathan admits to being a loud and strong character whereas Julien is the easy going, Mediterranean one. They both worked at Atlantis, The Palm as restaurant managers, but at opposite sides of the hotel –Julien in Nasimi Beach and Jonathan in Rostang the French Brasserie. What brought them together was a shared dream to open an authentic French bistro, something they believed was missing in Dubai. When they met Naim Maadad, CEO of Gates Hospitality – an investor who shared this vision – the dream soon became a reality.
“We want to allow people to gather in big groups on a night out. It’s a multi-experience concept where you don’t have any obligation to dress up or spend a lot, and you can come at any time of the day and appreciate the product” – Jonathan Vercoutere
Just 15 months after the opening of Bistro Des Arts on Dubai Marina, the pair are now set to launch their second project with Gates Hospitality, and are honoured to have the opportunity. “We are very proud because it means Gates Hospitality trusts us. We visited this site back in February 2016 just five months after we opened Bistro. Naim came to us and said he had a second project for us – we gained his trust through opening and operating Bistro,” says Pilard.
Publique is Dubai’s first ‘après-ski’ chalet, which the partners insist will “breathe new life” into Madinat Jumeirah, being an independent homegrown concept in a resort packed with leased, international brands. However, Vercoutere and Pilard have no pretensions about the originality of the idea on a global scale. “We do understand that people in Dubai will say, ‘what do you mean by after-skiing?’. It is a bit unusual, but there are ‘après-ski’ concepts in London and they work perfectly so why not bring this to Dubai? We will show that if we believe in it, and if the marketing is done properly, people will follow it.”
The restaurant is located in the space previously occupied by British concept, Rivington Grill. While Publique is set in the downstairs section of the space, upstairs houses another new Gates Hospitality investment, Folly by Nick & Scott, operated by Gordon Ramsay-trained chefs and restaurateurs, Nick Alvis and Scott Price, best known for their success in transforming Table 9 at Hilton Dubai Creek into one of Dubai’s most sought-after eateries during their tenure. Despite being co-located with Folly, Pilard and Vercoutere are confident there will be no competition between the two outlets, particularly given they are backed by the same investor. That said, they are happy to be in the downstairs section of the space, which they believe will offer a number of benefits.
“When you enter, you see Publique first and feel the atmosphere,” says Pilard. “Even if you go to Folly for dinner, people would tend to come back down to Publique for another round of drinks. We intend to work together with Nick and Scott as we really complement each other and have totally different concepts. We met about a year ago and have a very good relationship with them.”
Vercoutere and Pilard learned a lot from the opening of Bistro Des Arts, and were better equipped this time around to overcome the pre-opening challenges familiar to most restaurateurs who have launched a concept in Dubai. “We learned a lot,” comments Pilard. “We learned about the pre-opening process with Bistro Des Arts and how to run a business in Dubai, because I think doing business here is very different to Europe. Communicating the idea of an après-ski chalet to the designer and the contractors was of course the first priority.
“We know the concept perfectly,” Pilard continues. “We lived in France as children but when we want to explain it to someone who hasn’t, it gets complicated. To make sure the designer and contractor have the same vision as us, this is where the challenge is.”
Emirates Design Solutions was brought on board to design the kitchen and Pilard and Vercoutere consulted closely with chef Stephane Cedelle, Bistro Des Arts’ head chef, who will also oversee the culinary operations of Publique. “Every time we start a new project, we look at the available drawings of the kitchens, we brainstorm with our chef on where we want everything, we give them the vision, and then they come up with the specific design. Then we go into the specifications of each item and branding,” comments Vercoutere.
And while Publique will be unmistakably French, the concept is completely different to Bistro Des Arts, with the focus shifted to the beverage offer and providing an alternative nightlife venue to bring Dubai expats back to Madinat Jumeirah. Vercoutere explains: “The only issue with going out in Dubai is you have to go to a nightclub, get a big table, spend a lot of money and you’re not able to communicate because the music is so loud. We want to allow people to gather in big groups on a night out. It’s a multi-experience concept where you don’t have any obligation to dress up or spend a lot, and you can come at any time of the day and appreciate the product.”
“It is a bit unusual, but there are ‘après-ski’ concepts in London and they work perfectly so why not bring this to Dubai? We will show that if we believe in it, and if the marketing is done properly, people will follow it” – Julien Pilard
While Vercoutere admits that they team wasn’t able to take the Publique concept as far as they would have liked to, given the location and the subsequent need to attract a broad spectrum of expats and tourists, they have gone to some lengths to create an authentic après-ski look and feel. They have trawled eBay for decorative elements to create a 1970s ski resort feel, and have imported retro ski lifts and a gondola lift from Austria, which doubles as the DJ booth. The objective is to create an environment that will transport guests back to childhood skiing holidays – a common activity among European families.
“The rustic and authentic is very important and that’s across design and food,” comments Pilard, adding that they had to be careful not to veer into parody. “We don’t want to be too much, it’s not a theme park so we didn’t want people to be shocked.” That said, they are looking forward to introducing a range of theme nights with a music and movies element – perhaps screening French classics, such as ‘Les Bronzés Font Du Ski’ – and offering props at the door, with those donning hats, goggles or snowboards to get special treatment from the staff. “We want our guests to really enjoy the atmosphere – that’s what you’ll remember,” says Vercoutere.
The menu is equally daring, with a focus on mountain dishes from the French Alps, including raclette, fondue savoyarde and fondue bourguignonne. Of course, introducing such a niche offering means thorough staff training will be crucial. However, Pilard and Vercoutere have already gone through the same process at Bistro Des Arts, training a team of waiters – not one of whom is French – to understand the very French menu off-by-heart. “Two weeks ago, we put Mont d’Or cheese on the menu,” Pilard comments. “If you do that nobody will buy it other than French people from the Alps but we explained it to the staff and they were able to sell all of it. This is why the service philosophy is so important for us.”
The outlet will be open for lunch and dinner, with the menu – created by Vercoutere and Pilard – split into various sections. It includes “Frenchies”, terroir food, highlighting French delicacies specific to certain areas of France; Bistro Des Arts favourites brought in from the Dubai Marina restaurant; and casual burgers and pizzas, with a focus on high quality products. The dessert menu – “You shouldn’t but you will” – reflects the outlet’s fun element with decadent American-style treats laden with ice cream, cookies and Oreos.
Already partnering with some trusted French suppliers, Vecourtere and Pilard are confident they will be able to source the unusual ingredients they require for Publique, and have even had some of their partners make suggestions for items that might fit with the concept. “We have two or three suppliers managed by French people, so when we come to them with an explanation of our concept, we just need to say two words and they instantly understand us,” says Vercoutere.
The beverage menu, also created by the duo in consultation with the previous head bartender of Bistro Des Arts – who has just been promoted to assistant manager of Publique – is also split into sections: Artistic; Rustic; Authentic; Fanatic; and Classic. The venue will do cocktail and food pairings, with some of the beverages taking inspiration from savoury items. Vercoutere explains: “There are a lot of herbs; we developed a cocktail around the coriander which is really nice. Some of the others, we go with the fruity aspect, which includes cherry brandy or cherry flavour; that is the kind of thing we do. Most of our sweet beverages work very well with our deserts.” The team has also imported grape and liquors from the French alpine region of Savoy, adding another new offer to the market.
And so with a successful concept up and running for more than a year and a bold new venture opening its doors this month, Vercoutere and Pilard have their hands full and are understandably reticent to discuss their next move. Pilard hints: “The dream of everyone in this industry is to get a restaurant, to get a bar, then a beach club and a hotel. So that’s the dream and we will see what’s going to happen.”
However, with the Expo 2020 Dubai fast approaching, the pair are keen to have their business well-positioned in order to take full advantage of the influx of tourists and expats expected around the event. To this end, they hope to have a third venue opened ahead of this milestone.
“I think we need to be focused on 2020 because all of the marketing of Dubai has been done in line with the Expo,” Pilard says. “I think that will have a strong impact so we hope we can get a third restaurant by 2020 as there will be so many places opening close to that time. We still don’t know exactly what we are going to do, but we may take the risk.”
For the moment, however, the focus is firmly on introducing the Dubai market to the fun of après-ski’ and continuing to build their names on the Dubai restaurant scene. “In 12 months’ time, we’d like to be recognised as people who are offering an alternative in the market,” comments Vercoutere. “It’s not about doing the same things as the others. Julien and I have the same vision – sometimes we’ll try a week of discussions and not come up with anything and then one day, everything comes together.
“We just want to be open and to be packed.”