Ollie Dabbous: Magnificent simplicity

12 September 2014 by
Ollie Dabbous: Magnificent simplicity

Ollie Dabbous has had a tremendous couple of years since launching his debut restaurant Dabbous in London to immense critical acclaim. While a five-star review by Fay Maschler is widely credited for propelling this young chef into an overnight sensation, he is keen to point out that success was never pre-ordained. As he prepares for the launch of Dabbous: the Cookbook, Dabbous tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford about the journey from start-up to Michelin star and beyond.

Much has been written about the electric start to Dabbous the restaurant. Talk me through the aftermath of ‘that' review.

Obviously we didn't have any choice in the matter. You just react to the cards that you get dealt and make the best of it. Luckily I had a good team.

It's been pretty constant. You get the people who come because they've read a review and they just want to check the place out and tick a box - but the best is the return customer. That's key to any business. We're not a frivolous dining experience in any way. We'd always set out to be more like a neighbourhood restaurant that over-delivers, as opposed to a destination restaurant.

You've an enviable professional background that many chefs would love to emulate. How have your experiences shaped you? Well, they all can… You're naturally going to be affected by your previous experiences but I like to think that what we do here isn't a derivative combination of where I've worked before. It's important to see things you like as well the things that you don't want to replicate. I'm enjoying having that freedom of expression at the moment. But everywhere I've worked has offered something to learn there, otherwise I wouldn't have gone.

You've also done numerous stages at world-renowned restaurants including Noma, WD50, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire and the Fat Duck. Do you consider stages to be important to a chef's development?
Massively, yes. There's more than one way to do something well and every kitchen has its own way of doing things. If you've got some basic knowledge and your eyes open then you can pick up a lot, even if you're only in that kitchen for a small length of time - I think it's healthy.

The more you expose yourself to different viewpoints and perspectives as a young chef, the more information you're going to have with which to make your own decisions.

How do you describe your food style?
I think the food is very humble, almost introvert. It's not cheffy, showy or bombastic in any way, it's just showcasing the ingredient in the most celebratory, concise and respectful manner. Sometimes that takes a lot of work; sometimes very little.

I look at what's best right now, what's the best thing about an ingredient and how I can showcase that inherent quality to the diner. It's about taking that and elevating it, especially if it's pedestrian, quite mundane ingredients that people are really familiar with. If you can make that something special then that's more emotive than doing something jazzy and exotic. For me, it's that juxtaposition I like of real simplicity combined with an effortless magnificence almost.

Tell us about Dabbous: The Cookbook. It seems to be very much aimed at chefs rather than ambitious home cooks.
For the restaurant, it makes complete sense to celebrate what we do. Even if you're not going to cook it at home I think there will be people who will be interested to see how we create the dishes. And we do give an alternative method as well.

In the kitchen we've got an ice-cream machine, blender, bread mixer, water bath, barbecue and a vacuum machine. There are no centrifuges - no liquid nitrogen. We don't have the space, we didn't have the money and we get on fine with what we've got. It's important that the food we serve isn't over-processed or over-refined otherwise things can be a little bit soulless and inorganic.

In general, I don't need a huge amount of laboratory equipment to do what we do - it's just attention to detail within each process, respect and being really demanding with suppliers, in a nice way. It's more carrot than stick!

How did you find the process of producing the book?
I worked well with the photographer [Joakim Blockstrom], who's a good friend of mine. His style really suits us because it has an inherent serenity and tranquillity to it that really befits the food that we do here.

I also wanted to de-romanticise the story of setting up the restaurant. After the reviews came out a lot of it was written as if success was pre-ordained based on my CV. But given the lack of finance and the struggle that it was, it never, ever felt like that to me personally. Bricks were falling down, leaks were happening, bank balances were getting smaller as we opened the doors. I talk about setting up a restaurant when no one's heard of you and you're in the middle of a recession.

How did you and your business partner, mixologist Oskar Kinberg, meet?
I worked at Mugaritz near San SebastiÁ¡n for about eight months. I wasn't getting paid there and came back to London with a head chef job at Texture lined up but things weren't signed, sealed and delivered back then so I needed to earn a living, especially after all that time working for free.

It was a case of getting settled back in London with a flat and a job, so I started working in a small kitchen in the Cuckoo Club to pay the bills. It gave me enough freedom so that when things did start at Texture I could join that straight away. That's where Oskar and I met. I ended up working there again for about a year after Texture. I needed to get the funding [for Dabbous] and I wasn't going to get that on top of an 80-hour-week job. After Texture, I just literally had to stop and decide that the next serious restaurant I was going to work in would be mine.

How did you finance the restaurant?
We had minimal bank debt because obviously timing sucked, but the majority came from investors, made up of anyone and everyone. I don't enjoy asking for help but with this, I'd never wanted anything more so it was a case of putting pride to one side. I was too humble from the outset though and when looking for investment you soon realise that if you act like that, then no one is ever going to give you any money. I had to convince people that I was offering them an opportunity to be part of something special and make some money and if they didn't invest then they would miss out. I didn't figure that out right away, unfortunately.

Tell me about your involvement in Barnyard. How did that come about?
It's a side project. Some friends came to me to say they wanted to open up a restaurant with my help. We liked the idea of doing something a bit nostalgic and wholesome. There's a lot of fast food that I think is quite dirty and celebrates that. I wanted something that people maybe had a fond memory of but that we'd execute it better than they'd had it before.

The food we serve at Dabbous is pretty considered; a little bit esoteric, maybe, or sort of ascetic in its approach, with a waiting list because of demand for tables. With Barnyard [run by head chef Joseph Woodland and general manager Charlie Bolton] we wanted to do something light-hearted, with a sense of charm; almost tongue in cheek. The food is very inexpensive; I think it's very tasty.

It was fun doing something completely different and I enjoy going there on my days off. People look at me as a Michelin-starred chef who makes this type of food at Dabbous - but I see myself as this 33-year-old guy who doesn't cook at home but would like to be able to get that sort of food at a restaurant.

I don't go out foraging for f**king unicorns on my days off. I watch a DVD or see mates. Everyone gets a bit wrapped up in the person as a chef and not as a human being.

What are your future plans?
I've got another book to write but hopefully I'll have a little bit of grace before that! I'm looking to open up another site, hopefully next year, with my current head chef Ross [Gibbens]. He's incredibly talented and has been very loyal, so we're looking to do something with him. It will be the official sister restaurant to Dabbous, remembering what's made Dabbous successful and keeping the offering very simple and good value.

If people like Dabbous, they'll definitely like the next place. And even if they don't - not everyone is a fan - I know they'll give it a go because it will be different enough.

We're not looking to just repeat and roll out. I'll do a couple more but there's no master plan as such. I don't plan on doing it forever.

Ollie Dabbous' career

Ollie Dabbous started cooking as a kitchen hand in Florence when he was 15. He went on to work at Kensington Place for Rowley Leigh, but it was his years spent working with Raymond Blanc at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons that he says most profoundly influenced his cooking. He went on to be head chef at the Scandinavian-influenced Texture in London after a stint at Mugaritz near San SebastiÁ¡n and numerous stages at world class restaurants across the globe.

Coddled egg, smoked butter & mushrooms

Serves 8

Eggshells 12 large free-range eggs

Using an egg topper, remove the top of each eggshell. Empty out the egg and set aside. You will need eight eggshells - but it's useful to have a few extra to allow for breakages. Place the shells in a large pan of salted water (3% salinity).

Bring to the boil to sterilise the shells, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Take out the inner membrane from the eggshells. Clean them thoroughly and leave to dry.

Nests 8 handfuls hay
Mould the hay into 8 nest shapes, using your hands and a pair of scissors, and place in earthenware bowls
Fried mushrooms
250g smoked butter
650g button mushrooms, thinly sliced

Heat the smoked butter until foaming, add the mushrooms and fry over a medium heat until golden, crisp and completely dehydrated. This process will take at least 20 minutes and the mushrooms should have reduced greatly (you will need 65g). Drain them thoroughly.

Egg mix 600g whole eggs (from leftover eggs)
65g fried mushrooms
1g salt
120ml whipping cream
150g smoked butter
1tbs chopped chives

Place the 600g of egg, the fried mushrooms, salt, half the whipping cream and half the butter in a bowl.

Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water and heat it very gently until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of smooth porridge. Stir the whole time with a spatula, scraping the bottom of the bowl.

The egg should be mousse-like and have very few lumps.

Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter and cream, along with the chives.

Pour the mixture into the prepared eggshells and sit them in the nests.

Serve immediately.

Braised halibut with pink purslane

Serves 8

Pickled garlic 750ml water
250ml white wine vinegar
125g caster sugar
40g salt
8 garlic cloves, peeled and neatly sliced across 2mm thick
2 leaves red perilla, bruised

Put the water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a pan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Place the garlic in a separate pan, add three litres of cold water and bring to the boil. Drain, and repeat twice. Transfer the garlic to the pickling liquor, which should be warm. Add the bruised red perilla and leave overnight. The perilla will stain the garlic pink.

Braised celery
8 celery stalks
1 litre water
15g salt

Peel the celery, cut it into 7cm batons and place in a bowl. Bring the water and salt to the boil and pour it over the celery. Leave to cool, then drain.

Sauce 60ml olive oil
250g banana shallots, finely sliced
6g salt
600g button mushrooms, finely sliced
Juice 1 lemon
750g halibut bones, chopped small and washed
300ml white wine
200ml Noilly Prat
250ml milk
250ml double cream
4g lemon verbena, bruised

Heat the oil in a large pan, add the shallots and 2g of the salt, then cover and sweat for between five and 10 minutes, until soft.
Add the mushrooms, another 2g salt and the lemon juice, mix well and then sweat for another five minutes to release the juices from the mushrooms.

Season the halibut bones with the remaining salt, add them to the pan, cover and sweat for five minutes. Bring the wine to the boil separately, then add it to the pan. Boil for 30 seconds, add the Noilly Prat and boil for another 30 seconds.

Add the milk and cream and simmer very gently for five minutes. Remove from the heat, add the lemon verbena and infuse for two minutes. Pass through a fine sieve, pressing down hard on the solids. Chill immediately over ice then transfer to the fridge.

Halibut 8 Á- 70g pieces halibut fillet (taken from a large fish) skinned
400ml sauce

Season the halibut very lightly. Place each piece in a vacuum bag with 50ml of the sauce, seal and cook in a waterbath at 46°C for 12 minutes. Alternatively, heat the sauce and very gently braise the halibut in it for about five minutes, until just cooked through.

To assemble
Lemon juice
24 sprigs pink purslane
15ml lemon dressing (see below)
16 oyster leaves

Remove the halibut from the bags or the sauce, place it on a baking tray and flash under a hot grill for a few seconds. Squeeze over a little lemon juice. Lightly dress the pink purslane with the lemon dressing. Place each piece of halibut in a serving bowl on top of two oyster leaves. Top with the celery, pickled garlic and pink purslane.

Reheat the sauce, lightly froth it with a hand blender and generously pour it over.

Lemon dressing
65ml lemon juice
20ml Chardonnay vinegar
20ml water
4g caster sugar
4g salt
200ml extra virgin olive oil

Mix together all the ingredients except the oil, then slowly mix in the olive oil with a hand blender to emulsify.

Mara des Bois strawberries with Tahitian vanilla ice-cream

Serves 8

Tahitian vanilla ice-cream
1 litre milk
300ml whipping cream
100g dextrose
30g milk powder
4g ice-cream stabiliser
1g xanthan gum
100g caster sugar
100g liquid glucose
1 Tahitian vanilla pod, slit open lengthwise, seeds scraped out

Put the milk and the cream in a pan and heat to 84°C. Add all the powders, along with the sugar and glucose, and combine with a hand blender to dissolve. Add the vanilla pod and seeds, remove from the heat and transfer to a container.

Cover with cling film and leave to cool. Leave to mature in the fridge overnight.

The next day, remove the vanilla pod and blend the mixture with a hand blender to emulsify. Pass through a fine sieve. Churn in an ice-cream machine, then transfer to a chilled container and store in the freezer.

Strawberry juice
500g strawberries
250ml water
50g caster sugar
1 lemongrass stick, bruised and chopped
½ vanilla pod, slit open lengthwise
30ml lemon juice

Purée the strawberries in a blender until they are smooth. Pass the purée through a fine sieve. Bring the water and sugar to the boil, then remove from the heat and add the lemongrass and vanilla.

Cover with a lid and leave to cool. Add the strawberry purée and lemon juice and chill overnight.

Pass through a fine sieve and store on ice for 30 minutes before serving.

To assemble
32 Mara des Bois strawberries, cut in half, plus 8 small strawberries, stem on, to decorate
Icing sugar
Lemon juice
24 basil leaves

Remove the ice-cream from the freezer and beat it to soften it a little. Season the strawberries with icing sugar and lemon juice, then leave for two minutes to macerate.

Divide between eight glass dishes, top with the basil leaves and spoon over a little of the strawberry juice. Place the ice cream in a piping bag with a star-shaped nozzle and pipe on top. Top with the strawberries with stems on.

Serve the Tahitian ice-cream with a jug of the strawberry juice.

The Caterer Competition

WIN A WEEK'S STAGE AT DABBOUS Would you like the chance to learn from Ollie Dabbous in the kitchen of his Michelin-starred restaurant? To celebrate the publication of Dabbous: The Cookbook we are offering one lucky winner a week's stage at Dabbous, as well as a signed copy of the book.

To enter, simply answer the following question in 25 words or fewer:

How you would describe Ollie Dabbous' style of cooking?

Please send your answer and a copy of your CV to Ollie Dabbous Competition, The Caterer, Terminal House, 52 Grosvenor Gardens, London, SW1W 0AU or email janie.stamford@thecaterer.com with Dabbous Competition in the subject line.

Terms and conditions

1. Competition closes at 11.59pm on 14 November 2014.

2. Prize consists of a one-week stage at Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF and a signed copy of Dabbous: The Cookbook.

3. Prize to be taken at a time agreeable to both the Dabbous restaurant and the winner, subject to availability.

4. The prize must be taken between 1 January 2015 and 30 June 2015.

5. Prize does not include travel costs, meals or accommodation during the week's stage.

6. This prize is non-transferrable.

7. Prize is for one winner who must be aged 18 or over.

8. Only one entry per person. Entrants must answer the question in 25 words or fewer to qualify, and include an up-to-date CV with their entry.

9. Competition is open to UK residents only.

10. The winner will be notified within 10 days of the closing date.

11. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and The Caterer are the promoters of this competition.

12. Entries will be passed on to Ollie Dabbous for consideration.

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