Five minutes with… ME Dubai executive chef James Knight-Pacheco

What to expect from the newly-opened hotel's F&B
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James Knight-Pacheco
James Knight-Pacheco

Pre-opening executive chef of ME Dubai housed in the already iconic Opus Building by Zaha Hadid, James Knight-Pacheco tells us what to expect from its F&B

What was the situation when you came into the role?

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When I came in, around October time it was rough and ready, nothing had been done yet in terms of menu design so I literally started from zero. I had to look at the kitchens to see what I was working with and the other restaurants that are here because we don’t want to be clashing in terms of food.

Even down to ordering plates for an entire hotel – everything had to be done from scratch, so it was quite intense. When you work for a brand like this, there’s only one in the world, so the challenge is do we get the same as everyone else? No. So then how do you source suppliers? Huge challenges, but at the same time an incredible opportunity to discover different things and that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Tell us about the hotel’s F&B.

Central is our signature restaurant and we take influences from the flavours of Spain. So we’re inspired by Spain but we’re not a traditional Spanish restaurant whatsoever. Central is what we call a cosmopolitan tapas and bar. We are based in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and that’s exactly what we wanted to achieve. The tapas and main courses are all inspired by Spain with a little twist: for example mackerel is huge in Spain and we’re going to do some really cool things with it.

Then we have the lobby lounge which is called the Opus Studio. It’s the epicentre of everything because as soon as you walk in you have this incredible grand atrium and I think everybody will want to come and see that place – it’s very special and definitely not seen in Dubai and the Middle East.

We have the pool, dishes with super cool funky names like Life on the Veg, Lifesaving Snacks, Nacho Libre, all very pool based. Then Relax and Refuel which is right next to the gym. It’s based on clean-eating, a lot of vegan items, protein energy balls, but all house made.

Do you want the F&B to compete with other high-end restaurants?

We have Roka here. It’s a huge name and a sister of Zuma. We have Maine Land Brasserie. These are quite prominent names and we are incredibly proud to have them in our vicinity, but at the same time we need to have a signature restaurant that people don’t just come to because they’re staying with us. We want that place to be a destination, somewhere you come not to just have incredible food but to meet incredible people and have an amazing time. Maybe you start in Central and have tapas then you want to go have some sushi in Roka then you finish in Maine. Amazing. Then we keep the entire vibe here and that’s the aim. But definitely for Central the aim is to really stand out and not just be another Spanish restaurant. We know that Dubai has incredibly talented chefs and homegrown concepts and that’s ideally what we want to be.

You previously worked at Six Senses Zighy Bay, how was that different?

With a resort like Zighy Bay it’s just there and the guests that are there are there for a reason, whether it’s for wellness or just to stay and enjoy the food – we did not have any completion at all in Zighy Bay. You could literally do whatever you wanted to a degree. Then coming to Dubai you are in a city that is surrounded by restaurants, that is surrounded by competition, so you have to be super smart to attract the right type of people. It’s a completely different ball game and a completely different way of thinking.

It’s inspired me and scared me in equal measures, I’m not going to lie. I know all the top boys, I know who I’m in competition with, so the pressure is there, but the pressure is something that I welcome because without pressure you’re not going to perform. It’s inspiring to come into a project and lead the whole thing from a culinary point of view. Nobody was here before me, so it’s amazing to be involved from day one and set the standards.

Are you continuing your work on sustainability?

Melia is a brand is one of the most sustainable in the world. This is exactly what we’re looking to do here. We’re doing our own composting, the uniforms are all sustainable, we’re not accepting plastic or polystyrene from our suppliers. We’re trying to get homegrown as much as possible. Sustainability plays a huge part and you’d be silly to ignore it from a chef’s point of view. We’re doing everything we can to be zero-waste and I’m really hammering it and talking and educating the team about why it’s so important to think beyond chopping an onion and throwing it in the bin.

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