Interview: Galvin Dubai

Galvin Dubai will join Lima and Toro + Ko, in what is becoming the city's new dining destination
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The lounge at Galvin Dubai has a sumptuous yet casual vibe.
The lounge at Galvin Dubai has a sumptuous yet casual vibe.

Opening in City Walk, Galvin Dubai, by chef brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin, is a new licensed venue and the pair’s second Dubai-based restaurant. The Galvins, who have two Michelin-starred restaurants in London — Galvin at Windows and Galvin La Chapelle — opened Demoiselle by Galvin earlier this year, just a stone’s throw away from their latest project.

The culinary team will consist of executive chef Luigi Vespero, executive pastry chef Ryan Harris, restaurant manager Corrado Farinola, and general manager Eric Handtschowercker. Galvin Dubai will mark the first licensed Galvin venue in the city, with a drinks menu developed in collaboration with mixologist Giancarlo Mancino. With Jeff Galvin tending to commitments in London, Chris Galvin and Vespero sit down to talk about the new launch.

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Galvin’s enthusiasm for this project is palpable, but it’s not just for Galvin Dubai; it’s the opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded yet distinct concepts: “I was saying to the guys how excited I am about The Square, because London doesn’t have it. You’re pulling out a lot of firsts in Dubai now. We’ve made a point since the year dot to work with our neighbours and always being supportive. I think that’s what hospitality is all about — if someone goes a man down, if equipment goes down, if ice machines run out, we help out. It’s part of our DNA.”

After a sleepy summer, there are big plans for the major names that have taken up residence in the culinary enclave located off one of City Walk’s pedestrianised streets. Galvin says: “The brunch is going to be great for us in this little area. You can move around between the venues, so it’s going to be a kind of roving feast. We know the Lima guys well from London, they’ve got a great product. And then there’s Toro + Ko, which also complements Galvin Dubai. ”

The fourth, yet-to be named concept, will presumably also participate in this collaborative dining experience. Galvin has thoughts on what should occupy the vacant space: “I would like to see something really big from New York or London, and I would love to see young talent in Dubai given a chance to operate in a space. I was talking to a consultant who’s got a group of 20 spaces in an old meat market that young sous chefs can [rent] for GBP 2,000 (US $2,710) a month, to set up a restaurant. I think that would be fun.

“Dubai is so fast; it’s so exciting. Talent is growing, and home-grown talent is a pillar of gastronomy in Dubai. We’ve got to stop bringing everything in.”

According to Galvin, similarities between this concept and his UK-based restaurants start and end with the seasonally led and ingredient-driven menu, which is an innovative yet accessible take on British fare fused with Mediterranean flavours. Galvin describes the food as “cuisine of the sun”.

“It’s warm, and I love the description ‘Mediterranean basin’, because it frees us up from the French theme and allows us to delve into Italy, Spain, and Morocco.”

There may also be some North African influences on the menu, he adds: “Restaurants are all about evolution. We’ve talked to as many local people as we can about what they want, and what they would like to see more or less of, to give people what they want, but we have to keep the DNA of who we are and what we are, because otherwise it becomes a mish-mash.”

It’s clear that Galvin has faith in the team that he’s assembled for the brand in Dubai. Vespero worked with the Galvins for four years in London, as the sous chef at La Chapelle, followed by Galvin Bistro de Luxe as the head chef. Galvin says: “I would trust Luigi with my life when it comes to representing us, so I have to [free] him to work in his own way. Luigi is going to be cooking for people day and night. As much as we can [be involved] from London, it has to be him. He’s one of the greatest chefs I’ve ever worked with. And we have Corrado heading front-of-house. They’re my family. In Dubai we’re lucky to have these great guys. We have some special people.”

Taking the lead, Vespero has made his mark on the menu. Galvin explains: “When Luigi’s in Naples, he opens his window and he sees the sea. So, we have the crustacean bar. What better way to start a meal than with [seafood], or to just sit at the bar and have some oysters?”

Vespero names other pillars of the Galvin Dubai menu: “We have the crab lasagne, the escargot, the tagine, and the beautiful seabass. Everything is shareable, as per the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern cultures — they like to have a feast at the table.”

As society becomes more fragmented, Galvin sees the dining experience as a way to bring people together, saying: “I think we need that in our lives. I think we hark back to being around a table and having fun.”

Also bringing people together is the Galvin Chance charity, which has been running for nine years in London. The organisation was founded by Galvin and his partner Fred Sirieix, general manager of Galvin at Windows (and the host of the First Dates TV show), to help young people aged 18 to 20 to get into work in front-of-house positions. Speaking about what inspired him to start the charity, Galvin says he believes that “99.9% of people have goodness in them”. “It’s our job to find it,” he adds.

“In nine years, we’ve had a 130 young people who are now working in top jobs around Britain. We can be the first to do it here in a collaborative way.”

Collaborating is also something the chefs have had to do with their suppliers, and the groundwork was laid with Demoiselle earlier in the year. Vespero says: “Demoiselle was a good learning [experience] for us, in terms of discovering who to work with. One thing that we’re definitely doing — and looking to develop more — is working with local suppliers and producers. The season is about to start, so there will be some beautiful local produce like vegetables, and we’re working with local poultry farms. Why bring a frozen chicken from France when I can get an equally beautiful fresh product here in Dubai?”

Though Vespero is already working with local produce, obtaining the right ingredients in this region isn’t without its challenges. He says: “The sourcing is always a challenge in Dubai — we’re in a desert, after all.”

Nonetheless, Dubai’s strategic position means that chefs are spoilt for choice when it comes to importing ingredients. Galvin says: “I think we’re lucky because we can get the best from around the world. The fish that you’re getting here sometimes arrives more quickly than in London.”

The chefs emphasise that this isn’t common, however, and is just one of the advantages of having connections that have been built over decades. Vespero explains: “We need to have strong relationships with the suppliers and be able to talk to each other about what’s best now. That’s something that I learnt in London from Chris and Jeff, and it’s something that I’m doing my best to bring here as well. I would say 50% of our success as chefs is down to the suppliers.”

For Galvin, it’s important to be transparent when it comes to ingredients. Now, through media — especially social media — there’s almost nowhere to hide. Galvin says: “We have to be honest with what we’re doing. We have to employ best practices; we have to make sure farmers are employing best practices. Media helps us so much. If you do your homework, go out to a farm, travel, read, and discover where things come from, social media helps you to share all that with your customers.”

Vespero recalls: “I’ll never forget, when I would finish a long day at 11pm and I would get a call from Chris saying, ‘Luigi, meet me at the market at 5am’, and I would say, ‘Yes, chef’. That was the best thing. Going to the market, packing our cars, and then going back to the kitchen to cook. It was amazing.”

If a 5am trip to the market was to happen now, it’s likely that their social media followers would be privy to what the chefs were taking back to kitchen. Indeed, Caterer Middle East’s Head Chef Survey indicated that increasing numbers of chefs are using social media as a direct line of communication with their customers. Vespero and Galvin are part of this movement. Galvin says: “It’s [popular] in London, because chefs get to see a box of tomatoes from a volcano that no one else will. A picture of that on Instagram lets the customers share it with you. Otherwise, they would have never seen that box. There’s so much we can share from a visual point of view.”

Be it through social media, their food, or both, connecting with their guests is key for the chefs — their approach is personal. Galvin concludes: “Have you ever seen Ratatouille? The food inspector goes into a time warp when he tastes the food. It has to be that way. If we can’t evoke feelings and memories, we’re doing the wrong thing.”

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