Outlet 360: The Experience

After making its debut at the end of last year, The Experience by Reif Othman, is back following a summer break
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Othman was heavily involved in the decor.
Othman was heavily involved in the decor.
Serving dishes and implements are displayed on open shelves.
Serving dishes and implements are displayed on open shelves.

Front of house

Previously the regional executive chef for Zuma, covering Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Miami, Hong Kong, New York, and Istanbul, the Singapore-born chef Reif Othman left to the join RAW Galadari Holdings and Absolute F&B Facilities as chief culinary officer. The chef opened Play on the 36th floor of Dubai’s H Hotel in 2015, and The Experience, a private dining concept, followed a year later.

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Having struck a chord with the city’s gastronomes, The Experience is back for its second season after taking a break over the summer. Speaking to Caterer about how the concept was conceived, Othman says: “We opened up Play first and let everything get to the point where it was running smoothly. The kitchen at Play was pretty small, so I thought of having a research and development (R&D) kitchen. We had the 37th floor that we were using as a storage area, so I made it into an R&D kitchen. Then I thought, let’s do a small place, like my apartment.”

In fact, the chef was heavily involved with the look and feel of the restaurant. With help from the group’s in-house designer, he sourced most of the pieces from Marina Home and The One: “You’ll see we have the lounge, the dining area, and the balcony. You basically feel at home. It’s not a restaurant or a chef’s table.”

Othman hosts 12 diners per seating, with two seatings per night. His approach is hands-on: “Front-of-house doesn’t serve the food, it’s me and the chefs. I explain the food to the guests, so it’s very personal; I want to engage with my guests.”

For Othman, this was a way of not losing touch with what drew him to the industry in the first place — relating to people through food:  “I have to make sure that I’m the host. The majority of chefs don’t do that in Dubai. It’s good for me to get close to my guests because I’ll know what their preferences are for the next time, and they also get to know who I am. So far, the majority of our guests have come back, and a lot of them were surprised that such a place existed in Dubai.”

Despite the success of both venues, simultaneously running a restaurant and personally hosting up to 30 guests a night is not without its challenges: “I’m not going to lie, it’s hard work, but I’m a cook and this is my craft. I’m not the kind of chef who walks around holding a file and calls himself a chef. I feel like this is me. I love to cook. I don’t want to lose my touch.”

Back of house

As is the case with Play, at The Experience, Othman focuses on French techniques combined with Asian influences, or ‘Meditterasian’. The chef bases his dishes on his own experiences, often recounting the inspiration behind each dish.

In a bold move, Othman doesn’t disclose what he’s going to cook for his guests ahead of time: “There’s no menu. When you book a table, my staff will ask if you have any allergies or dietary requirements. Once I have that information, when the guests arrive they can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the food.”

The chef devises a new menu every day. This is partly because he’s led by the quality of the available ingredients on the day, and partly because he wants to create distinct experiences for his guests. No two dinners at The Experience are the same, giving guests a reason to return: “I don’t want my customers to get bored when they come back. If I’m paying that amount of money, I want to make sure that I want to go to the next one, and that I won’t know what Reif is cooking this time around. That is a very nice way of bringing them back.”

With the use of local produce a hot topic in regional F&B, Othman continues to import most of his produce: “I would love to support local produce but it hasn’t reached the level of quality that I want it to be. I would love to, but it’s not there yet. If it’s not there, I wouldn’t want to introduce my cuisine on the plate and charge that kind of price. It’s not fair to my guests.”

Local produce may not be up to the chef’s standards, but there are some local items that he doesn’t mind using. The chef is a fan of locally sourced chilli and coriander powder.

When it comes to proteins, Othman sources the majority of the products he uses from Japan, France, and Ireland, with specific and distinct suppliers for meat, fish, and vegetables. As the only ingredient he always uses on his menus is caviar, the chef serves his own bespoke variety of the delicacy to his guests: “The caviar that I have, they make exclusively for me in Bordeaux, in France. I personally selected the ratio of salt and the size of the eggs.”

The design of the kitchen was also bespoke. Othman was heavily involved in the design, working closely with industrial kitchen solutions and service provider, Technical Supplies and Services Company (TSSC) to create a space specifically suited to his requirements. According to Othman, the kitchen works as a unit, with no single piece of equipment taking precedence over another: “The whole design of the kitchen has always been the machine. Every element that I have in the kitchen does its own job, so everything is very important here.”

The team at The Experience is just as streamlined as the kitchen. During service, there are four people in the kitchen, including Othman, with two members of staff overseeing front-of-house. This stripped down set-up allows the chef and his craft to take centre stage: “The whole character of the place is me. That’s my personality.”

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