In-depth interview with Jumeirah Group's chief culinary officer

Read our June 2019 cover feature with Jumeirah's Michael Ellis
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Michael ellis, Jumeirah group, Burj Al Arab
ITP Media Group

The first big decision of Michael Ellis’s fledgling Jumeirah Group career has taken place. British chef Nathan Outlaw is out at Al Mahara. Three chefs with experience at Michelin-starred restaurant experience are in to rejuvenate the Burj Al Arab’s offerings.

It’s exactly why Ellis was hired. As a former international director of the star-setting Michelin Guide, he has first-hand knowledge of what gives restaurants that special something to make them stand out.

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To become Michelin-starred, restaurants must fulfil five criteria based on: quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and consistency between visits.

There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Dubai — because the guide isn’t here yet. But Ellis’s task is to ensure that when it does come, Jumeirah’s restaurants are ready for it. And until then, that their quality is spoken of widely enough to attract visitors to Jumeirah’s hotels.

“One of my key objectives is to elevate the overall dining experience at the Jumeirah Group,” he tells me. “To make the dining a keystone of what we offer.”

With 62 food concepts across Dubai, Ellis already accepts that Jumeirah’s “restaurant outlets are a very important part of the Dubai dining scene”,  and his first six months have involved visiting all of the outlets “and having a look as I would when I was at the Michelin Guide”. In other words, checking if they satisfy the five criteria above.

And so far, so good, apparently. “I’ve been very, very surprised, agreeably so, at how good the level is here at Jumeirah,” he says.

But there’s always room for improvement. “Another of my goals was to attract some of the best talent in the world toward Jumeirah. Jumeirah is very well known here in the Middle East, especially in Dubai, but I think the brand is not quite as well known outside of the Middle East so what I’ve been doing is going around talking to some of the people I knew in my past life and encouraging them to come and with us here in Jumeirah — and I think I’ve been quite successful in that.”

The result is Francky Semblat, Kim Joinie-Maurin, and Kasper Kurdahl all joining the Burj Al Arab.

All highly experienced, between them they have led restaurants with seven Michelin stars. Now they will form the core culinary team at Jumeirah Group’s shining light, and Ellis believes they can reverse Dubai’s fortunes in fine-dining.

He explains: “Dubai is not considered today as a fine-dining destination. People do not come to Dubai as they would go to Paris or Tokyo or New York or Hong Kong. Today that’s definitely true. However, I do think there’s a place for that, I know today there’s a place for that, and that’s in Jumeirah’s Burj Al Arab Hotel.”

Recruiting both internationally and locally, Ellis says the ultimate goal is to create a “great team” because “great food is about great teamwork, it’s about having the right people in place. It’s about having chefs who have charisma, who have leadership skills, who are able to infuse the team with enthusiasm, to be able to transmit knowledge, show them how to do things. So we bring people from outside but also elevate those people we have from within our teams. We think we have never been stronger.”

The appointment of Ellis to take Jumeirah’s F&B to the next level should have given the rest of the team a boost. To have someone of his calibre and with his CV at the rudder must have breathed new life into the group?

Ellis thinks so. “I think that what we’re seeing is a new energy, a new dynamic within the F&B department. Our staff members are excited about what we’re doing, they’re enthusiastic about our ability to elevate the F&B offering, to make it that much more of a something that people come for.”

And, he says, it’s happening already. “We’re obviously very impatient to see things change. I do think we’re already seeing quite a bit of incremental change throughout the group. I think the overall levels virtually everywhere are improving, and we’ll continue to do that.”

So how exactly is the Jumeirah Group going about that? What are the steps you need to take to improve your concepts?

Step one is the food itself. “I learned at the Michelin Guide how important ingredients are. How product is so important. I want to help our chefs come up with the best products, to use the supply chain and find the best producers.

“I’ve started to take a close look at some of the locally sourced, organically produced produce and there’s quite a bit. Our conversations with the producers have been very fruitful. They’ve made it clear to us that if the demand is there they are able to increase their supply, so that’s very encouraging. In terms of locally produced fish on the coast, there’s quite a bit of aquaculture going on. Also oysters being grown in Dibba. So we’ll be able to integrate an important part of locally produced and environmentally friendly produced product in our recipes in a short period of time.”

The availability of this fresh produce in the region means Ellis isn’t concerned about being located in the arid Middle East, saying it hasn’t hampered the group’s search for ingredients.

“We have the advantage here at Jumeirah Group of being one of the largest, if not the largest, hotel groups in Dubai,” he tells me. “We have the purchasing power and the contacts and the pull to access virtually all of the products that we want. I’m quite sure we’re always looking to do better but we’re quite satisfied.”

Ellis admits, however, that to take his restaurants to the level expected of them by CEO Jose Silva, more will be required.

He says: “To be successful in Dubai, having good food is necessary but not sufficient. It has to be an experience, people have to be comfortable. It’s about look and feel, it’s about the way you’re sitting, it’s about the lights, it’s about the music, it’s about the service, it’s about the welcome. The entire experience needs to be something that’s memorable and needs to be something that people want to come back for.”

And for Jumeirah it’s about reaching the broad and transient Dubai community. “We obviously cater for our hotel guests but we also want to continue to welcome people from the outside community, whether they are local expats, the Emirati community, or guests staying at other hotels. We’re going to contribute to having unique restaurants that offer great guest experiences and a good time.”

Having written about experiential dining in last month’s issue, I ask Ellis if that’s a road he wants to take Jumeirah down, citing the likes of Fairmont Dubai’s Noire: Dining in the Dark.

Unsurprisingly for someone engrained in the classical Michelin structure, it’s a firm no. “I think there’s a fine line between experience dining and gimmicks, if I can say it like that.

“I certainly encourage any restaurant and entrepreneur if they think that’s what people want then by all means give it to them. At the end of the day the consumer will decide what they want. I don’t think we’re going down that road. We have put significant investment into the interiors, into the design, into the look and feel of our restaurants. That’s part of the dining experience. We think that we have a very attractive offering in terms of the environment that we can offer guests and as the cuisine continues to be elevated, we are convinced the experience will be a very positive one.”

It will need to be exceptionally positive to make the Michelin Guide take notice. Back in 2016, Ellis told the Global Restaurant Investment Forum (GRIF) that the guide would be in Dubai ‘very soon’. Three years later and there’s still no sign of it. Perhaps Dubai’s scene just isn’t good enough for it?

“Obviously I’m no longer part of the Michelin organisation,” he says. “But I can say this. I’m still in contact with them and the evolution of the dining scene in Dubai gets better and better every year. The number of restaurants that are opening every year is phenomenal. The number of new chefs, both who are here already and who are coming from abroad, is amazing. So I’ll repeat what I said at GRIF: It’s only a matter of time before the Michelin Guide arrives here.”

It’s Ellis’s job to make sure Jumeirah is ready when the time comes.

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