“No one knew me and the site was derelict. We had scraped together the money and were down to our last two pennies, and it was like, ‘sh*t, we’re gonna run out of cash,’” recalls Ollie Dabbous of opening his eponymously named, Michelin-starred London restaurant. “Then, people started talking about us and suddenly there was all this demand. It was a bizarre juxtaposition from being bankrupt.”
The hype surrounding Dabbous, which debuted in Fitzrovia in 2012, was unusual. Dabbous, who was reared in both Kuwait and Guildford, England certainly had a solid pedigree—Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Hibiscus, Mugaritz, and Texture, with stages at the Fat Duck and Noma—but the young, talented chef was far from a celebrity. That changed quickly once the restaurant opened its doors.
Once the first review came in, “it all just snowballed,” he says. Soon, there were six-month waits to sit amid minimalistic concrete and metal and sample his original, unfussy tasting menus. “Usually, fine dining means certain kinds of trappings. I wanted a fluff-free environment devoid of ceremony. The vibe is quite clubby, with the music up and the lights low,” says Dabbous.
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His cooking, at once inventive and simple, revolves around dishes like house-cured goose with fenugreek and Perigord truffle mash and gravy, all flaunting fresh ingredients, clean flavors, and visually arresting presentation. This approach was undoubtedly first inspired by his time in the kitchen at Trattoria Cammillo, an eye-opening experience that instilled the teenager with a precocious reverence for quality. “I always enjoyed food as a kid, but cooking was a natural progression for me and my interest was self-propelled until I just picked up a frying pan,” he reflects.
That evolution led to Dabbous’ first roller-coaster year, when the chef got four hours of sleep a night. “It was relentless pressure. We felt like we were under a magnifying glass. We needed more cutlery and staff and we didn’t have the space to be that busy that early. It was like being caught with our pants around our ankles,” he explains. “But it was a nice problem to have.”
The restaurant’s popularity hasn’t waned, but Dabbous has found his groove—so much so that he and partner Oskar Kinsberg opened Barnyard, a more casual destination peddling shandies and sausage rolls, last year. Releasing the glossy Dabbous: The Cookbook (Bloomsbury), with recipes arranged by season, has also kept him focused.
“I’m too busy to think about it much,” he says of all the attention. “Really, I just started at the bottom of the heap.”
From a life-changing bowl of ribollita, to his signature coddled eggs served atop nests of hay, here are 10 of the dishes that have helped catapult Dabbous into the unexpected limelight.
Growing up in Kuwait, we used to eat flatbread all the time. It was rustic and like naan, leavened and cooked in a tandoor oven. It puffed up a bit, had a hint of charcoal flavor, and it was really moist. It was huge—about half the size of me—and I shared it with my brother. Eating something that fun always impacts you when you are young. (Photo: travelingeast.com)
All kids have a sweet tooth. There aren’t sharp knives and hot pans [when you’re making them], so desserts are the first thing they learn how to make, not sea bass or duck. My mum was strict about not giving us sugary sweets. Because I grew up abroad, I didn’t meet my maternal grandparents until later. When I did, I remember they brought me toffee from this really old English company, Thorntons. I was obsessed with them. For a kid who ate carrots instead of candy, it was like, ‘Where have you been hiding all my life?’ (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Ribollita at Trattoria Cammillo
I was 15 when I went to work at Cammillo, in Florence. It was the first time I’d been exposed to such a level of respect and care for food. It was impossible to find bad stuff there. The quality was phenomenal and I remember even the staff meals being better than most things I had eaten at that point. It wasn’t a jazzed up menu, but you wanted to eat everything on it. Their ribollita was a great example of how amazing food can be with simple ingredients like bread and olive oil when they are respectfully treated. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Chilled Tomato at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
I was pretty young when I worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and had the false confidence that most 18-year-olds do. Then I had this dish, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was so simple, but it was just a wake-up call of how pure an ingredient could taste. Holy sh*t—it was like I was punched in the face by a thousand sweet cherry tomatoes, and it had a little bit of fennel, celery, garlic, thyme, basil, salt, and sugar. It was a mix of amazing and depressing, because it was better than anything I’d ever made. (Photo: Visa Signature Hotels)
Beef Ribeye at Etxebarri
There’s no real kind of assembly at Extebarri; it’s a product-driven restaurant. There are so many steakhouses out there, but their steak, with aged meat cooked over the coals, just takes things to a whole other level. The setting in the Basque [Country] is also quite romantic. You’re driving in the middle of nowhere asking locals if it’s the right way. Context is everything. You have a great dish when on holiday and then it never tastes the same again. (Photo: Twitter/@DrTomostyle)
Coddled Egg with Mushrooms and Smoked Butter
There are different kinds of counterpoints within the tasting menu, and the third course is always something immediately gratifying, like the coddled egg. It’s kind of like a runny scrambled egg, and it’s stirred constantly with the smoked butter and the crispy mushrooms, so what you get is a nostalgic, rich kind of bonfire taste. It’s a flavor you haven’t had before, but it feels like something you know. We serve it in its shell on a nest of hay and it’s homey and cute, so it resonates with guests. You never know what your signature dishes are going to be; they all kind of jumped on it. (Photo courtesy Dabbous)
Mixed Alliums in a Chilled Pine Infusion at Dabbous
We infuse white onions with pine, and then it has red-garlic mayonnaise and chive flavors. It’s a great example of cooking with ingredients everyone has had before, but giving them something better than they can imagine. Yes, it’s a bowl of onions, but it’s more than that. Onions are very much like the supporting actor taken for granted, but in this dish, they get the leading role. (Photo courtesy Dabbous)
Iced Sorrel at Dabbous
Originally, I was looking to do a dish with a frozen leaf that could act like a crunchy and crispy tuile that wasn’t made from biscuit. This couldn’t be simpler. It’s just a frozen sorrel leaf dusted with sugar, but its flavor profile is both savory and sweet, which is beguiling for guests. The less bells and whistles a dish has, the more amazing the impact it creates. (Photo: Bloomsbury)
Canelé at Dabbous
We didn’t know what to serve at the end of the meal with coffee. Chocolates? Nothing? We decided on canelé, the traditional French dessert from Bordeaux. We make them with rum and vanilla, and bake them in the hot oven in molds lined in beeswax. They crisp up so they have a dark crème-caramel finish on the outside and are custardy and melty inside. Even if our food is modern, I spent quite a few years working in a traditional French kitchen. Not everything we do has to be new and original. There’s a reason these cakes are still around after hundreds of years. We serve them on an old-fashioned blue and white grandmother plate. It’s basically just missing a doily.
Waffles with Maple Syrup
It’s a simple thing, really, but it means I can have breakfast in bed. It symbolizes the weekend and a much-needed day off. I associate waffles with not having any responsibilities or having to worry about staff. I can just wake up and eat. (Photo: Leite’s Culinaria)