As he prepares to open new restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, American celebrity chef Todd English explains why the UAE is becoming more relevant on the global F&B scene.
American celebrity chef Todd English has won a string of awards, authored several cookbooks, and has hosted and produced a number of television programmes, however, he claims his biggest achievement to date has been the creation of Olives, a brand first launched in Charlestown Massachusetts in 1989, which garnered positive reviews and media attention for its ‘interpretive Mediterranean cuisine’.
He went on to open additional Olives locations in the W Hotel Union Square, New York and The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas before exporting Olives overseas with an opening at Abu Dhabi’s Venetian Village in June 2015. “Olives was inspired by my travels and my family who always had stories about the olive orchards they owned in Italy, so that was my inspiration – there’s a touch of the Mediterranean but also Californian,” English tells Catering News during a visit to the UAE.
“You’re only as good as your last dish. You have to always update your offer and the UAE has a big presence in the world and people look to it and wonder what’s going on here, so you have to take it very seriously”
“Now that Olives is open we’re really focused on promoting that restaurant and Venetian Village,” says English. “It’s been open for over a year now and every month it gets better and better. It’s a beautiful restaurant with a classic, Gatsby-era feel. There are different rooms which is really interesting, and each has a different vibe. We’ve got a bar, a cocktail lounge and the outdoor area, with 90 seats inside and 110 outside.
“We’ll be talking about some new things, we want to promote different nights and see what’s working and trying to grow those things that have been working and maybe introduce some new things like an outdoor barbeque. The brunches have been really big so we’re going to expand on that and then there’s a ‘Lipstick’ ladies’ night we’re introducing and we’re excited about that.”
In addition to Olives, English has two franchises of his second brand, Figs, operating in Kuwait. The more casual concept serves traditional and eclectic pizzas, flatbreads and pastas. He is also preparing to open two new UAE restaurants this year, including his first ever Dubai venture.
To be located in The Dubai Mall extension, it will be a food hall, similar to the chef’s New York venue, The Todd English Food Hall, a European-inspired specialty outlet offering fresh, prepared, and gourmet foods. Covering 12,000ft2, the food hall will feature a large terrace and is expected to open at the end of 2017 in line with the launch of The Dubai Mall extension. English comments: “We have a lot of selections covering an international spectrum of food. Everything is made in-house, so it feels very much like a market.
The new Abu Dhabi outlet will be located in the AED 10.8 billion Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport and is a pub concept modelled on Todd English P.U.B. in Las Vegas, but with a market element. “We have signed a deal to do a market and pub in the new Abu Dhabi airport terminal. It’s a pub and market; we’re hoping that it will open when the airport opens, which would be late 2017,” says English.
“The food hall is more of an international, European-inspired food market, whereas the pub is more an American take on traditional pub fair and international cuisine. Also, being at the airport, it will serve a different purpose. You’ll have the ability to grab and go and take it on the plane, whereas with Dubai Mall it will be more of a sit-down experience,” English explains.
In addition to these openings, English hints that he would like to open “something more fast-casual”.
“We have a bunch of fast-casual brands we’re working on now in the States and maybe one of those would pop and we could bring it here,” he reveals.
Explaining why, after operating two Figs franchises in Kuwait for five years, he has developed a renewed focus on the Middle East region, with a string of openings in the UAE, English says: “You’re only as good as your last dish. You have to always update your offer and the UAE has a big presence in the world and people look to it and wonder what’s going on here, so you have to take it very seriously.
“We have a bunch of fast-casual brands we’re working on now in the States and maybe one of those would pop and we could bring it here”
“With globalisation a lot of people come to the Middle East and I think these markets – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – have gained relevance globally.”
Comparing New York to Dubai, English sees a lot of similarities between the two markets. “There’s enthusiasm for new brands, and a lot of new ideas come out of New York but you can see that here in the UAE too. I think once you start creating an extremely competitive environment, you can’t just rest on your laurels.”
And this is one thing English knows well. Having enjoyed plenty of success and media attention as a young chef, he believes it is important to stay relevant and continue to stand for the same causes he has always believed in, such as the farm-to-table movement he was part of in the 1980s, and which has grown from strength to strength in the US and abroad.
“I see the future as food and health,” he comments. “When I first got out of cooking school in the 80s it was hard in the States to get fresh tomatoes and herbs. We saw this whole shift and as chefs we were very involved in supporting our local farmers.
“You can’t really do a restaurant now without the buzzwords. You don’t want to be preached to while you eat but the millennials want to know – they are a huge consumer group in the States who spend $100 billion going out. They want to know that what they’re eating is organic, fresh and harvested with no pesticides – they’re becoming more sophisticated.”
To ensure he continues to stay on top of the latest developments, English travels often to the markets in which he operates, including the Middle East, the Philippines, and China and the Caribbean, where he is considering new projects.
“I think one of my biggest fears is becoming a dinosaur,” he comments. “I travel a lot, I stay on top of what’s going on and use my imagination to see how I can keep going.
“We’ve done a lot and sometimes I still pinch myself thinking about it – the things I’ve done and been able to do in my life just because one day I decided I wanted to be a cook. It’s really expanded from there.”