Ollie Dabbous stunned the capital’s foodie scene when he closed his self-named restaurant, Dabbous, last year. It had retained its Michelin star ever since opening in 2012 and securing a reservation was as easy as breaking into a high-security bank vault.
Now into his next phase, the Kuwaiti-born chef’s benchmarks of culinary boldness and ambitious financial risk-taking have led him to his new £20m restaurant, Hide, which has been brilliantly received since opening this spring.
In-between anecdotes and stories from his youth and his kitchens, Dabbous reveals he has a distinct formula for success: refined contemporary food served with a crucial side of friendliness.
“When we opened Dabbous, the London dining scene felt flabby and bourgeois,” he says. “What was key for me was that the harder it was for people to get a table, the better their experience had to be once they arrived. That begins with a smile and a warm welcome, because if they don’t come here, there’s a tonne of other restaurants they could go to.”
A poster boy for British cooking, Dabbous confidently predicts a strong future for his new restaurant amid the sea of closures across London and the surge of street food outlets.
He talks to Food Spark about nurturing kitchen talent, cooking on wood and why the current restaurant crunch isn’t a bad thing.
Dabbous was the right thing at the right time. Offering something more streamlined, more contemporary, where quality wasn’t diluted, and offering value on top of that as well as friendliness – those are the foundations of why we were well received. We were then seen as exclusive as there was more demand than supply, but we never set out to be an exclusive restaurant.
When I closed Dabbous, I felt guilty. I felt sad that I was closing the regulars’ favourite place, but you have to do what’s right for you. I felt staff could grow somewhere bigger; there was a limit in a small restaurant. Hide has solved a lot of those problems.
After five years at Dabbous, I fancied putting myself out of my comfort zone, with the aim of having two statement restaurants, which either defined the landscape or changed it a little bit. I wanted to surpass what we did at Dabbous with this place, and create longevity, which we didn’t have at Dabbous as we ended up outgrowing it.
I liked the ambition and the scale of Hide. It was a unique chance to set up a unique restaurant and one I probably wasn’t likely to get again anytime soon. It might have been overly confident but better to fail big than not try.
There’s a lot a young chef can learn at Hide. We have amazing facilities. We cook a lot over charcoal, make our own jams. There’s a broad spectrum, so we’re an attractive choice.
In terms of new ingredients at Hide… we’re using a wild pea flower tea in one of our desserts – we haven’t seen that in many other places. We’re cooking on different woods in the kitchen too. Salmon on soaked cedar wood, for instance. And we’re using acorn flour for the pain au raisin, which has a smoked caramel sauce with a real nuttiness, like buckwheat, and a slight adult bitterness. We also add Mariage Frères tea to our breakfast jams.
We treat staff well, with three days off a week. Apart from developing great dishes, I want to develop great chefs. Everyone likes their weeks condensed and having their three days off. Also, everyone gets a daily breather in Green Park [across the road]. I want this place to be sustainable; I don’t want people to get ill.
As soon as we changed to three days off a week, the working environment lightened. Everyone was healthier, a bit fresher, much better versions of themselves. When it’s two days off, you sleep the first day, socialise the second, but collectively it can grind people down. So when we opened here, it was always on our rota and staff planning that we wanted to have three days off a week.
About 75% of the chefs here are male, but that doesn’t come across in the food. There’s a relatively light touch on the menu. I don’t know why it is at college level, but 17 years ago I started at Le Manoir and the figure has always been there or thereabouts in terms of female chefs.
With the Hide tasting menu, I wanted it to be more like you’re on holiday. Giving you the best of the seasonal offerings. It’s not technique driven. Tasting menus are quite liberating, you can be a bit more expressive.
I’m not a monster in the kitchen. I want people to feel like they can enjoy work. All the waiters have tasted every plate of food, so they can put plates down with pride and full knowledge of what’s in dishes.
I keep service as light-handed as possible. I don’t have a protocol to pour from one side or another; pour from whichever side you’re least in the way.
The atmosphere at Hide is key, it ties into the design. We have nothing too overly formal or suffocating.
I’d rather make a bit less profit... and have the customer think Hide’s good value and want to come back. You can’t be fleecing the customer, they’ll never want to come back and they’ll resent going there.
In general, my style has been shaped by where I’ve worked. At Le Manoir we focused on vegetables, on the purity of flavour and the importance of seasonality and lightness. Mugaritz was more striking, bold and minimalist – we got rid of the fluff and got to the core of the dish.
As an eater, I prefer gentler flavours. There’s something innate about liking and disliking food. Like kidneys – I find them too strong. And liver and some offal, which is too metallic tasting.
Appreciate the customer. If you don’t it's a slippery slope. With Hide and Dabbous, the best thing is the amount of repeat customers we get. It’s nice there’s a broad demographic, it’s not a specific clientele. It’s nice they get to know the restaurant, often myself. It's the fun bit, having the familiar feel to it.
I’m happy in the capital. It can be hard finding staff out of town, but in London you’ve got a pool of chefs willing to work. It’d be nice to have a veg patch, that is the only thing I am jealous of.
You get more educated chefs these days. Whereas in the past no one who went to university would become a chef, nowadays people want to turn cooking into a profession. I’ve seen people entering cooking that you might not have done 10 or 15 years ago. More people eat out now, so it feels more like a plausible career path than it did 20 years ago.
My advice? Only set up a restaurant if you can afford to lose the money. Secondly, every penny you spend you’ve got to make back. My preference is quality over volume. I’d rather set up a high-quality product than the McDonald’s-type thing where you’re doing thousands of customers but it’s pennies each time.
You can offer good value at £10 a head or £100 a head. But there’s so much competition that value is more important than ever from the side of the customer, so you have to see things from a customer’s point of view.
There’s room for everyone, restaurants and street food. For me, I like to sit down, I like someone to bring me the food, I don’t want to stand up and eat, I don’t want to queue, so for me a restaurant is about treating yourself.
There’s a lot of people who spend too much money and don’t get their sums right, and who set up and aren’t good enough. That’s not meant to sound bitter or condescending, but why would you enter a competitive arena if your food isn’t good enough?
I don’t think the [restaurant] bubble popping is a bad thing. It’s part of the evolution that will lead to getting rid of deadweight restaurants, which will be replaced by better operators.