Chef Interview: Akmal Anuar
By all accounts, unless you have deep pockets or an investor who has them, opening one’s own restaurant can be challenging. So when a chef or restaurateur makes it in a tough market, it’s hard not to applaud their success. Akmal Anuar, the chef and founder of 3 Fils restaurant in Dubai, is a chef-preneur who has seen the lows and highs of running his own restaurant.
It’s a cool morning as we settle down for a chat in his restaurant overlooking the Jumeirah Fishing Harbour. Anuar, who was the head chef of award-winning restaurant Iggy’s in Singapore, moved to Dubai in late 2013 to open Richard Sandoval’s concept Zengo’s at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa. More than two years later, Anuar started getting the itch to open his own space. Initially, Singapore was on the cards, but back to Dubai he came. After meeting and signing with his local partners in early 2016, 3 Fils opened its doors on November 24, 2016.
Not many know that the menu concept was originally going to be fairly simple, with ‘safe’ food like burgers and sushi. But it evolved to becoming the modern Asian cuisine offer the restaurant serves up today, and has won multiple restaurant awards against its name.
But the restaurant was not an overnight success; rather, it was a long and hard trek to the top. Anuar is completely frank, making the tale almost painful to hear. He says, candidly: “When we opened, really, nobody came. It was a complete mess.” With the team welcoming perhaps 10 guests all day and making under AED 1,000 a day, the prospects were not looking good.
Anuar continues: “When we opened for real customers, we were losing money. I was begging my suppliers’ friends to help us.” But some suppliers refused to do business with him, leaving him without essential ingredients on some days. With little to no budget for marketing, the team decided to go down the blogger and influencer route to drum up interest — but invites for free meals were ignored, and those who responded asked them to pay up significant amounts for one Instagram post.
But Anuar kept going. He reveals he insisted on high quality produce, knowing that if the reputation of good food and quality got out — there was still a chance. Japanese tuna, for example, was one of the products on the menu.
But the last day of 2016 proved to be a challenge, more than Anuar and his family expected. Anuar says: “New Year’s Eve came, we were open from noon onwards. The whole day only four people walked in. That point was very depressing. I was hoping that by evening someone would come in. But nobody came. I then said to my chef, ‘In 2017 we will hit it hard’.”
And things did begin looking up. By January, the market started to hear about the restaurant, including sister title Time Out Dubai which reviewed the outlet — and also awarded the restaurant the title of Best Newcomer – Casual Dining in 2017. Gradually, business began to improve.
However, the real key moment for 3 Fils was, unexpectedly, the summer and Ramadan period of 2017. Anuar laughs and tells me: “By May, Ramadan was around the corner, and we wondered whether to close [for that period] or stay open. I decided to stay and keep the restaurant open. Ramadan started, and in the first week there was no one in the evening. In the second week, there was a queue and we were full every night. From Ramadan onwards until today we have been full every night.”
The restaurant saw a steady stream of guests after that, including celebrities like Nancy Ajram, along with footballers, and many more. The influencers came in as well, he says wryly, with some paying for their own meals, which he appreciated. Some, however, decided to try their luck another way. He reveals: “Now after 1.5 years, they reply to the invite we sent in November 2016 and say can we still come? We say no, and they say we are ‘proud’? Look, you didn’t respond to our invites, so who is ‘proud’ now?”
While, during the Caterer Middle East: Food & Business Conference 2018, Anuar said that “being a chef, I only care about what I do and my ego,” he isn’t too proud to admit that he had to struggle to get the restaurant to where it is today. He comments: “[Before you start your own business] you will never imagine how things will be. It will be a risk and gamble, but you have just got to know your voice. You need to develop your identity. There is no point swaying left and right.”
He says there’s an inherent difference between Singapore and Dubai’s eating out culture, with the diners in the former being much more critical. He comments: “Over here, people are more about lifestyle. They are not amateurs at all, but when they are going out to eat it’s a different mentality. Over here, the most amazing thing is that people have spending power. Here, people with money will spend. They know value and quality.”
The restaurant is now profitable, and made its return on investment from the summer of 2017. He reports that while weekday lunches are not packed, every day the restaurant is full during dinner with at least one turnover, and around two to three turnovers minimum on weekends. But even with that success, naysayers still exist. Anuar takes it all in his stride — he has witnessed people complain because there’s no alcohol served at the venue (“We don’t need it,” he says), and people walk out because they think the restaurant is too small (it seats 65 in total — inside and outside).
But, investors are interested. Anuar reveals: “Now people want to sit with us, like developers. They want 3 Fils.” However, he doesn’t know yet whether he’s keen to expand the brand. “We are still young but it’s good to listen and understand what they want from us. But if the company needs to grow, I think it will be another concept. Anything that happens after 3 Fils will be something totally different.”
He is honest, and adds: “Some people want to open restaurant after restaurant. You have to be careful. You don’t want to destroy its soul, split its energy into two.”
An outcome that involved further cash injection into his ideas and projects seems almost unthinkable when you find out Anuar never wanted to become a chef in the first place. After almost accidentally getting into culinary school and unfortunately not doing as well as he hoped, Anuar gave up a relatively well paying job in the kitchen of a club to join Les Amis in Singapore at a hefty pay cut and started from scratch. It was after that, and with the help of mentors along the way, that he found his calling. And he’s keen to pass on his knowledge. Even his team at 3 Fils is testament to that. With only three experienced staff members when he opened the outlet, he found people from all walks of life — not necessarily with any F&B experience — who have now become integral parts of the team through his training and mentorship.
He concludes: “I didn’t come in and tell my chefs I am passionate about cooking. Most students or people who graduate from culinary school talk like this. You know what is passion? Passion is when you go through your lows, when you are standing for 14 hours, you have back pain and you get constant s*** from everyone and you’re still there — that’s passion.” And with that, this passionate chef moved to his next meeting — a developer we are told — to see whether he can find more avenues through which to share his passion for good food with the world.