How can you make your hotel’s restaurants stand out in one of the most crowded marketplaces in the world? Well, “it’s the details that make the difference.”
So says Renald Epie as we sit on the top floor of Fairmont Dubai, one of the city’s most storied hotels.
At the turn of the year he was appointed its executive chef, bringing with him a storied past of his own. He is the son of Gilles Epie, the youngest chef to win a Michelin Star for his restaurant Le Miravile, and a close family friend, and apprentice, of Alain Ducasse, the most highly recognised chef in Michelin terms still operating in the world today.
Yet Epie has always worked hard to escape his father’s shadow.
When he first arrived in Dubai in 2013 at Burj Al Arab, he kept his provenance a secret, saying “for maybe four or five years no one knew my father was a chef. I tried to protect that.”
He adds: “I wanted to be Renald, and to learn as Renald. Not to be ‘the son of…’
This has been a lifelong struggle for Epie. As an apprentice he was singled out by his colleagues when Ducasse kissed him as a welcome rather than shaking hands as he did with everyone else. To escape accusations of favouritism he decided to strike out on his own. But he returned to Ducasse because he knew he simply couldn’t find a better teacher.
Now in his first role as executive chef, Fairmont Dubai is a chance for Epie to make his own name. It’s celebrating 17 years in operation, which in Dubai terms is about as longstanding as it gets, and has managed to reposition and remould itself to keep up with its fast-moving competitors.
Epie admits that the challenge is strong. He says: “I think today the competition is very high and it’s very challenging for a lot of us." But now he has noticed that “fine dining is not working the best. There are a few fine dining outlets where the hotels have revamped the restaurant into a brasserie or a bistro.”
That’s why at Fairmont Dubai, he is focusing on different experiences. “We have Trophy Room which has just been revamped last year. It’s an amazing sports bar and we have a very nice menu as well. We’re trying to attract the right people again in terms of demographic, in terms of age, and we need to find the food that people want to eat.”
That includes introducing the vegan-alternative Beyond Burger to the menu of Trophy Room. Not necessarily what the old-fashioned view of a classic sports fan brings to mind, but Epie is all about changing with the times.
Noire: Dining in the Dark is an example of how Fairmont Dubai offers guests something they can’t get elsewhere. As the name suggest, diners enjoy a surprise three-course meal in complete darkness. An environment change that plays havoc on the senses.
“We play a lot with the palate,” Epie explains. “We try to have crunchiness, acidity, sourness, but also something smooth, or something that is hot or cold. We try to find different aspects and not be bored by eating something that you’ve already figured out. We’re trying to break that barrier of ‘oh I know what it is’ because no! It’s something you thought you ate but it’s actually something else.”
He adds: “It’s funny – you think you are eating carrot and it’s actually celeriac. You think you’re eating beef but you’re actually eating lamb. The whole idea is that after the dinner is over, they go outside and we showcase all three dishes and explain what they ate and it gives interaction. Most of all it’s an experience.”
That concept of experiential dining is what Noire is all about, and despite his Michelin background, Epie is just at home focusing on the overall experience as ensuring each dish is perfectly cooked.
Unlike Jumeirah Group chief culinary officer Michael Ellis, who last issue told us that they wouldn’t be going down the road of using “gimmicks” like dining in the dark, Epie is willing to look outside the box.
He says: “Copy and paste is not the best way to do things. We need to find a new way to do things. I’m trying to find new things on the market, and not necessarily be the first one, but be part of the people that steps up to make a difference for our guests.”
But you don’t grow up with a father like Gilles Epie and a mentor like Alain Ducasse and expect second best. Ensuring that the standard of quality is maintained — and increased — is key to Epie’s plan.
He says that he has “been working on getting the right products to enhance what is on the table. It can be a piece of bread, or an olive or a balsamic — it’s the details that make the difference. That’s the same when we talk about the plating. If we take care of the way we are making the mise en place or the way we are plating the food, the combination and the synergy of the dish will only bring positivity.”
Top of Epie’s list when arriving at Fairmont Dubai was updating the menu at The Exchange Grill. Recognised as an award-winning steakhouse, Epie has shaken it up, and says “the menu is a mix of what I’ve been learning in the past and what can be feasible for The Exchange Grill.
“It’s mainly a meat restaurant but I’m trying to break that barrier and do some fish items as well. The menu is based on the mix of demographics that we currently have in Dubai. Right now we have people from Asia so my idea was to try and satisfy them as well, because this is the market for tomorrow.”
That means the introduction of soy sauce, wasabi, turmeric, and other Far Eastern flavours to “work the palate differently” compared to what The Exchange Grill was previously known for.
Having spent six years at Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Al Naseem, and Atlantis The Palm, Epie comes into the role at Fairmont Dubai with a strong knowledge of local suppliers to help him get the best products to enhance these flavours. But it also gave him much-needed experience in working with chefs from all over the world — including no less than 13 nationalities in seafood restaurant Al Mahara.
His culinary background meant he was a senior figure in the kitchen, and he took his role seriously.
“I learned to be like kind of a father to the chefs,” he tells me. “Above cooking, if they have issues you need to listen to them and be more attentive as well. What I learned is if you take care of your colleagues you can help them reach a higher level themselves and this is how they grow.”
He adds: “This is what I’m trying to build here. I’m trying to be as human as possible. The generation when we used to scream at chefs to make sure that they perform well is over now. We need to be a bit more human. By doing that people will do more actually than what you expect of them.”
Epie admits that when he was learning his craft he came across the more vocal types of chefs, as made famous by Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, but that times are now changing.
“Gordon Ramsay is more like a character than anything else, even though it does exist,” says Epie. “Those people now understand they have to see what’s going on. There’s so many policies that are for the employees not for the employer so those people are changing — not because they want to but because they have to.”
While the kitchen is still a highly-charged environment, Epie believes in taking the time to cool down and explain himself to his charges, ensuring he is understood and that they learn from him. “By doing that, the people will do more actually than what you expect of them, and that will reflect in the operation.”
He is full of praise for his colleagues, citing them as the most positive part of his start at Fairmont Dubai. The way they interact with guests is what he believes keeps them coming back.
Despite his wealth of experience in Paris, Monte Carlo, and now Dubai, Epie is still new to the executive chef role but his positivity and the encouragement he shows his staff should bode well for Fairmont Dubai.
He says it could take up to a year to see the changes he is making bear fruit but he is hoping to put a new level of standard into the hotel’s almost two decades of operation.