Interview: Kenza and Patrick Jarjour on getting Inked in Dubai

Kenza and Patrick Jarjour talk about good vibes, challenging times and their proudest meoments.
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Kenza and Patrick Jarjour.
Kenza and Patrick Jarjour.

A lanky cactus serves as a landmark for the otherwise non-descript entrance to Inked in Al Quoz’s Alserkal Avenue. Opened in September 2016, it’s not just a restaurant, or an incubator or a performance space; it’s all of those things and the brainchild of Kenza and Patrick Jarjour.

To design their visionary concept, the Jarjours hired Beirut-based studio Far Architects, led by Karine Fakhry and Diane Sawaya. Inspired by a warehouse typology in the industrial district of Dubai, the steel construction of Inked inside Alserkal Avenue’s aluminium warehouse recreates the interstitial spaces where people tend to gather and socialise — stairs, floating platforms and courtyards.

The project was designed as a flexible 750 m2 (8,000 ft2) space with the ability to house a diverse roster of concepts from conferences to fashion shows, each with its own setting. The vast unobstructed main space comprises a 9m (29ft) high ceiling with a skylight.

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The founders, who’ve known each other since childhood, promised themselves that they would have a restaurant one day not knowing where, how or when.

Kenza says: “I was in finance and then I decided to take a jump and do what I actually wanted to do. I did an MBA in hospitality management at IMHI in Paris and after that I worked with Alain Ducasse, opening his restaurant Edam in Doha at the Museum of Islamic art.” Meanwhile, Patrick, who had worked in events for years, made the move to Dubai to work in real estate with his brother.

The couple started dating in 2012 and it was while walking around Berlin on their honeymoon in 2014, that their entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.

“We discovered the underground food scene in Berlin and decided that we wanted to do something in Dubai around that,” says Patrick. “We had another project that didn’t work out. It was a very simple concept that we wanted in malls and they were not a fan of the concept because it wasn’t a franchise and five or six years ago everything was a franchise. So this is how we created Good Vibes Market. And we said that if you’re a franchise, you can’t come. The newer you are, the better. We wanted to show people that it’s completely different when the owner is behind the counter explaining what’s happening.”

The street food platform, also based in Al Quoz’s Alserkal Avenue, served as a meeting place for food-based entrepreneurs to connect with the local community and spread “the good vibes”. Though the market is no longer up and running, Patrick is proud of what they achieved saying, “There are a few concepts that kicked off nicely after Good Vibes Market and we’re super happy for them.”

Building on the success of their first venture the Jarjours felt Alserkal Avenue was also the right location for the next one. Kenza explains: “When we decided to do this project, it was here or nothing. This was the only place where we felt we could connect and be able to say what we had to say because it’s authentic and at the same time we have the freedom to express ourselves. The founder of Alserkal Avenue is a great supporter of home-grown concepts so we had no doubt that this is where we wanted to be. Being surrounded by different artists and creatives makes it so interesting.”

When they went in to present the concept to Al Serkale, they still hadn’t come up with a name but, in keeping with their spontaneous MO, it came to Kenza one morning at 6am. “I open my eyes and she says ‘what do you think about Inked?’ The moment she told me I said ‘done’. It resonated so we went for it,” says Patrick.

Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the pair who entered into discussions with Alserkal in August 2014 and opened just over two years later. Patrick explains: “I didn’t know if we were going to have a restaurant licence here because it’s Al Quoz, no gas, no electricity so everything was a big challenge but at the same time our goal was ‘let’s start’. Let’s start and then we’ll figure it out.”

Kenza adds: “We took a big leap of faith because we had no benchmark. Not here or abroad. There was no one doing the same thing where we could say ‘ok let’s look at this’ or ‘they did it like that’ so we said ‘let’s try our luck’ and we started working on it.”

The next step was to hire people that were right for the project. Nine people make up the Inked team — three helpers, a sous chef, chef, event director, operations manager and the Jarjours. The lean team model seems to be working. “There’s an amazing synergy among us. If you’re not passionate about what you do, no matter which department, you wouldn’t put that much effort in being able to think about a concept, to change yourself continuously and at the same time keeping a strong DNA,” says Kenza.

Creativity and adaptability and personality were key attributes when it came to their hiring strategy. Patrick adds: “You can’t have a chef who likes his routine. You can’t have an operations manager who’s very stiff and can only work with one type of food. If it’s a fashion show, there’s a way of serving, if it’s Dali, there’s a way of serving. We have a lot of private events that change as well. Sometimes it’s going from room to room, sometimes it’s a simple conference. So it really depends.”

Open for little more than six months, the concept has all at once captured the attention of the local food, art, culture and fashion scenes. Kenza explains why: “Food is one of the mediums that we all share and when you want to talk about someone’s culture, history or even personality. When you start to understand what a person’s preference is, you start to understand a lot more. I think it’s more than entertainment or feeding ourselves. Food tells a lot about someone and people and creativity, a story. And linking it back to Inked, this is what we’re trying to do. We’re always trying to tell a story and it’s supported by the experience that you have during your dinner.”

An event that embodied this sentiment, and one of the first held at Inked, was Tawlet. The mothers and grandmothers of Souk El Tayeb’s Kitchen, a.k.a. Tawlet, flew in from Lebanon and were based at Inked for a week of dinners, brunches and cooking workshops. Meaning “tables” in Arabic, Tawlet is an all-day farmer’s kitchen based in Lebanon that has gained international acclaim for serving traditional Lebanese home cooking in a non-traditional format. Everyday a different farmer, producer, mother or cook from a region of Lebanon tells the best of their history and land through the food they prepare.

Speaking about the event, Kenza says: “They were sharing their recipes and the way they do things. It was a beautiful project. That was one of the most heart-warming projects for us. And the founder, Kamal Mouzawak has a very strong message which is “make food, not war”. It’s about gathering people around food and food has this power to bring people together not matter where you’re from.”

The same can be said of the founders who each bring distinct attributes to the table. “The beauty of this partnership or collaboration is that we’re very different. And we complement each other. We have two different brains which make it one good brain to create a concept like this,” says Kenza.

Patrick adds: “My best quality is to be able to anticipate what could go wrong. In events you have one shot so I always look at it from a customer’s point of view. Yesterday there was an agency that came with a huge plan and I changed it completely because were things they didn’t think about. If you look at the whole chain between the creation and the ideas and then the execution, Kenza is more at the beginning of the chain. I’m more at the end and we are both somewhere in between.”

There’s no denying that the Jarjours have struck a chord but they are cognisant of the fact that there are still challenges to be overcome. Patrick explains: “Today we still have people who don’t understand exactly what we’re doing which is understandable because it’s a concept that has so many facets. But hopefully there will come a point where people tell us ‘this is what we want to do’ and we do it.”

And why Inked? “Because it’s about marking a moment and creating indelible experiences,” says Kenza.

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