Interview: Play Restaurant & Lounge

Elie Khoury, Reif Othman and Jean Marc Petrus discuss the new Dubai concept
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(L-R) Jean Marc Petrus, Reif Othman and Elie Khoury
(L-R) Jean Marc Petrus, Reif Othman and Elie Khoury

The brainchild of Treenergy Management and Absolute F&B facility management LLC, Play Restaurant & Lounge is the one of the newest additions to Dubai’s nightlight scene.

Just five days after its New Year’s Eve launch, Caterer Middle East sat down with three key members of the team behind the concept.

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Managing director Elie Khoury, general manager Jean Marc Petrus and head chef Reif Othman make an experienced trio. Working in Dubai hospitality for 12, 15 and seven years, respectively, certainly works in Play’s favour as the venue sets out to make a name for itself amidst the numerous other concepts set to launch in Dubai this year. The three believe their combined social networks will also help successfully establish the concept.

“We know a lot of people and we have to make sure they feel at home. For the past five days, people have been coming in and feeling relaxed — it’s a very positive energy,” Khoury, who is also managing partner of Treenergy Management, says.

Elaborating on how their amassed experience is beneficial, Petrus adds: “There are a lot of new concepts coming into Dubai and they’re bringing new people; one of the greatest things about our team is that we are familiar. We have run successful places over the last few years so we know a lot of guests. Whether it’s the food, service, atmosphere or ambience, they trust us because of what we’ve done in the past.

"You’ll see people come in and say hello to Elie then realise they know me, and vice versa. In the last five days we have realised that the amount of people that we all know in common is huge. Combined, we’re talking many years in this country. Guests’ expectations are met just by knowing we are involved — they feel that they are at home.”

Talking Caterer Middle East through the concept, Khoury comes back to the word energy several times, namely when he is describing Play as having more of it than the normal dining set-up. He feels this makes it ideal for people who “do not feel old but are not into nightclubs anymore”.

Explaining, he shares: “There are many categories in this market for dining experiences and there are nightclubs in this market. Play is exactly coming between all of these. In a normal restaurant we go to dinner, we sit, we drink wine, we feel a little sleepy, we go home and that’s the end. Play is a little bit more towards [diners] still being here [after eating] and enjoying the music. We are open until 3am and people can gather around the bar, so it doesn’t cut the dining experience at its end.

“Play is for customers who are in the mood to cross the night over, from dining to lounging to dancing.”

Indeed, the venue has various areas designed specifically to cater to guests’ varying moods, though it is also still very much an open plan venue where people can flow between their table to the lounge to the bar.

The interiors, designed in contemporary art deco by design firm Gregory Gatserelia, feature sharp cut brass walls, marble flooring, and signature Colossal Baroque sculptural chandeliers cascading in gold and black Swarovski crystals and pearls.

Khoury says the restaurant area seats 190 people but could have seated many more: “We have space for a minimum of 300 people sitting but we spread out the tables. Play is like a social club and when people go to restaurants they don’t like people next to them to be in on their conversation. Here they feel more relaxed — our aim is to make sure that people feel at home when they come here.

“We are a very friendly team and all the team training is geared towards creating a very friendly atmosphere.”

With regards to Play's team, Petrus says that one or two people were brought in from other countries but mainly management looked closer to home.

“We recruited quite a few that had worked with us before and it’s quite a young management team because I wanted a team I could develop — to give them the chance for to be promoted from within. A lot of people start work and there’s no real progression, so we wanted to create an environment where no matter which level you come in at, there’s room for progression.”

Asked about their backgrounds and experience, he reveals: “Our staff come from a myriad of environments, from restaurant to lounge to late night venues, because Play is so multifaceted and we needed to have different characters and skillsets to make the place work.”

Training the team has been an integral part of getting Play ready to launch and Petrus says he has high expectations of his staff members in terms of their ability to deliver a high-end guest experience.

“There are restaurants where after the chef has spent a massive amount of time preparing a dish, the waiter simply puts it down. For us, the waiters need to know the ingredients and details of the dish as well as the chefs do, so that the menu and product knowledge is there.

“There are a lot of people who sit down at dinner and want to ask questions and at least then our waiters can speak about it. Reif spends a lot of time on the food so he wants it to get to the table with the same love he uses to prepare it. There needs to be a love of the product and a total understanding [of the concept and cuisine],” Petrus says.

Reif is, of course, Reif Othman, ex-regional executive chef of Zuma Restaurants for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, who also oversaw Miami and Hong Kong operations.

Asked what attracted him to leave a well-established brand for a start-up venture, he reveals: “I can do whatever I want here and I can try new things. I can do what the market likes — that’s my main focus — and spread my wings.

“I have done a lot of start-ups back home in Singapore but this is my first one in Dubai, so I’m out of my comfort zone and that’s a good thing.”

Discussing what excites him most about working at Play, he tells Caterer Middle East: “It's all about me trying to expand and develop dishes that have been kept in my head for years. It’s time for me to show what I can do. I want to be the next leader, educate people on proper food and not rip them off with prices. We are not that cheap and we are not that expensive; we are in between, and guests will come back — that’s the whole idea.”

On the subject of the level of price point where the venue should be operating at, Khoury concurs, stating: “We decided not to be the most expensive place and we really studied our pricing. When you are in a place you feel is too expensive then by default you will not choose it as your frequent place and you’ll use it as a special event place, for birthdays and anniversaries. We don’t want to do this and that’s why our name goes along with our concept — ‘as comfortable as play’.”

Elaborating, he adds: “We [the team] consider ourselves at an age where this is the only time we go and play. What better fun do we have more than meeting people and talking to them? This is the game that we play every day. The comfort zone begins with the name.”

The theme of being multifaceted as a venue carries through into the cuisine, which brings together various tastes and styles to present ‘Mediterrasian’ food to guests. Othman comments: “We have Greek, Spanish, Italians, French, Japanese, and Asian, so why not just compile everything?”

Discussing how he created Play's menu, he shares: “My travels inspire me and, of course, living here I see what they have in the market. Our pita surprise and escargot are popular so far. Everybody loves the food so far, but I want to put new dishes on the menu already. We will do this quarterly following the seasons from Europe — in winter we’ll have more wintry dishes and in summer lighter, citrus [dishes]. I understand the market pretty well from the food side and I know what I want to give to the customer.”

He says his priorities lie in keeping the menu fresh, yet stable in terms of quality and meeting diners' expectations. “I have to keep on being innovative and bring new things to the table while maintaining consistency. This is very important — consistency is the name of the game. If you can’t keep the food consistent, then you’re done for. I have to make this happen and, with the team we have, I have no doubts [we will be a success].”

Of the 44 people in the kitchen, who he helped handpick, Otherman says: “I trust them and they can run the place without me around, if I step out, which is important.”

The significance of bringing Othman on board is evident, no more so than when Khoury jokes “a miracle happened” when asked how he felt about signing up the in-demand chef.

Khoury reveals: “Definitely with all the expertise of Reif on the table, we are focusing on the whole experience. If guests do not have a nice dinner, my whole concept is gone. The food in Play is 90% important and the rest comes from nice atmosphere, nice music and nice cocktails.”

While Petrus takes care of the floor and Othman controls the kitchen, Khoury is the one in charge of making sure the concept is aligned with his team’s original idea.

“The challenge with any new project is you always have in mind a certain concept that you want to reach. Sometimes during the operation, people can forget the goal and they divert. Our goal is to always remember.

“It is not easy to make people feel relaxed and at home — it takes a lot of effort— but the reaction of people leaving so far has given us such a good feeling. Everyone is going away satisfied, and I’m talking about foodies who love to go to Zuma, La Petite Maison and Coya. Those brands are mature and already guests are comparing us to them. Without Reif I don’t know how we could have done it. We got so lucky to have all the team together to build this place.”

Competing with Dubai’s big hitters is not for the faint hearted. Reiterating the Play team’s collective experience and confirming that he has done his homework ahead of branching out with a new concept, Khoury says: “We have studied the market for over 10 years and we are evolving with the market. We believe, first of all, [you need to decide] who is your database and who are you targeting? If you know, then it will be much easier to create a concept. Some competitors just launch a concept not knowing who’s going to be there.

“Our whole concept is about having good food, good location, beautiful venue, and a great team. This makes us strong.”

No doubt the venue offering guests views from both sides of the restaurant, so that they take in the city skyline from one side and sea views from the other, was a factor in choosing this location. Asked what else contributed to the team choosing the H Hotel, Khoury notes that “the whole strip of Sheikh Zayed Road is easy to reach from anywhere in Dubai” and makes the point that had they focused on a specific area, such as Dubai Marina, they would attract mostly people who live in that part of Dubai.

“We all use Sheikh Zayed Road in our daily lives, so wherever you live you feel this is a close by area — people can feel comfortable reaching us. Dubai has a lot of new people coming and it is growing so fast, but it’s always easy to find Sheikh Zayed Road,” he asserts.

In the interest of creating a comfortable base, Play opens at 6pm to tap into the post-work market, with Khoury stating that part of Play's concept is being “an early place to relax, that feels like home”.

This means, of course, that Play will have a captive audience to dazzle with food, cocktails and music, with the aim of enticing them to stay until the early hours.

Khoury smiles: "People don’t want to leave a nice atmosphere with music they don’t hear every day and nice people around them. You cannot find this everywhere.”

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