At Ossiano located in Atlantis Dubai fine dining is an immersive experience. Imagine dining on caviar and avant-garde creations in a romantic underwater restaurant as stingrays, sharks and fish glide right past your table. Here, we catch up Chef de Cuisine Grégoire Berger, one of the world’s top chefs, to find out about his inspirations and creative process.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
My experience is somewhat unusual. I knew I liked food just from being around my grandmother. She was a wonderful cook and the food at home was always delicious. She used to make this amazing Rhubarb Tart and I still remember the smell. It’s my oldest memory. However, in my early years, I did not consider cooking as an essential part of my life. Aged 16, I had the opportunity to start as an apprentice at La Closerie de Kerdrain [a gourmet restaurant in Auray created by Martine and Fernand Corfmat], and walking into that kitchen was like experiencing real magic. That’s really when I knew what I wanted to be. The smell, the hum, the vibrations – I just watched them create this art from simple ingredients and it blew my mind.
Was there one person who had an impact on your decision to become a chef and who are your culinary inspirations?
My grandmother. I’m also a big fan of Alex Dilling of two Michelin-starred Greenhouse restaurant in London’s Mayfair. He creates modern interpretations of classic dishes and his style is very slick and chic.
Who do you admire most in the culinary world, and why?
I would say that Benoît Violier has certainly influenced me. What he did was genius and I think to reach his level of classic fine dining would be a dream. I’m also a great admirer of Michelin star chef Stephane Buron and, obviously, Daniel Humm, who is the chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison and The NoMad in New York City. The dishes he creates with simple ingredients and seasonal flavours are astonishing.
What is your favourite cuisine to cook at home?
I don’t have a favourite cuisine but certainly dishes. I love good lasagna and a rhubarb tart. I don’t really cook at home thought to be honest. My wife is an amazing cook. She’s from Morocco, so one of our favourites is couscous.
What’s the greatest honour or compliment you’ve received as a chef?
Being listed amongst the top 50 chefs at the Best Chef Awards 2019 takes things to a whole new level. Winning this award has absolutely been a highlight of my career. I put 100% into everything I do and professionally I am always seeking to challenge myself, to constantly achieve my goals and consistently raise the bar. Therefore, to be recognised for an accolade of this level was most gratifying to know that my hard work has not gone unnoticed. To be positioned amongst so many talented chefs that I really admire is a dream come true.
I was also so honoured to have won the ‘Fol-LOVERS’ award for the second year running. To be recognised by the public, media and my peers as a deserved winner of this accolade meant so much to me. With something like this you award you don’t just compete with regional peers; you are thrown into the ring with all of the world’s greatest culinary stars so to come out in the top 50 is mind-blowing. It also serves as an amazing opportunity to meet, and be inspired by, the world’s best chefs – such as chef David Muñoz, the creative force behind Madrid’s three Michelin star restaurant DiverXO, and chef Björn Frantzén from Stockholm’s Frantzén/Lindeberg.
What food trends do you think we can expect to see in Dubai in the next six months?
The culinary scene in Dubai is still very young and is still in the process of finding its personality. The diversity within the city is fantastic and, very soon, the culinary scene will mature into something well-rounded and confident. Diners are becoming more and more open to new ideas and ways of dining, and it’s been a pleasure to watch it evolve. For example, four years ago, I could never have only served a set/experience menu as we do now.
The vegan/plant-based dietary requirements of guests are also something we see more and more of and if I’m honest it’s something we find very difficult to cater to. While we always try to accommodate food intolerances and allergies, Ossiano is a very unique and niche restaurant and it can be a challenge to make something vegan and not compromise on the dish or taste.
Do you have any quick advice for young budding chefs?
To learn the basics. Learn the basics from the best, because that’s the foundation of your career.
Training is very important. In my kitchen, I have eleven different nationalities and I make sure that each individual knows the basics. I am very proud of my team — they are very strong, passionate, and hard working. That is the key to success, and to me, Dubai sets a high benchmark; people are very hard working here.
I’d also like to think that my journey and my growth will inspire young, up-and-coming chefs. In 2016 I was a competitor in the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup, winning the regional division, and last year saw me returning to the prestigious event as a judge for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition so I’ve gone full circle.
If you could dine at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
Tokyo. There is a restaurant there called L’Effervescence which I can say, hands down, is the best dining experience I have ever had. They manage to link the products to the plates and the plates to the service to present a flawless victory!
What are the signature dishes at Ossiano and which is your favourite to prepare for guests?
I am always looking for the visual aspect to define the taste in my dishes. A favourite – both with myself and the diners is the Croque monsieur, a ham sandwich revisited and made with veal ham. It is served in the shape of a clock with the time going backwards in order to take diners on a path of nostalgia – we are inviting guests to go back through time. The veal ham is from Italy and it really is extraordinary. Then, there’s the ‘Candle’, which looks like a real table accessory – we even light it! But then we slice through it, you realise that there is foie gras inside and the ‘candle wax’ is made from the fat of the foie gras.
I think my proudest dish, however, would have to be the Kerguelen Island legine (also known as Patagonian toothfish). I won the S. Pellegrino Young Chef competition with this dish and it’s potentially the trickiest I’ve ever created. Comprised of pretty much just fish, leaf and sauce, there is nothing to hide behind. It has to be perfect. I’m leaning more and more toward these simple dishes as it’s here that I find the challenge. It’s so hard to make something simple, memorable and tasty and this is where my focus will be for 2020. I’m more mature and I have less to prove. I’m letting my ego take a backseat.
How do you source the ingredients at Ossiano and how much do you rely on locally sourced produce?
Sustainability is at the forefront of everything that we do at Ossiano. We are very careful about traceability and only use sustainable varieties of the local and international species. We achieve this by working with local fisherman and small suppliers in various locations, who know and love their seas and have an affinity with that location. For example, our seabass is live caught from a small town in France, and some of our fish are supplied by France Ikejime, a company who use the more humane Japanese ikejime method of processing their fish. The company pride themselves on using small boats and knowing the fisherman who catch their fish. I also always endeavour to use every part of a food item, meaning if it’s not eaten then it’s turned into stock or an Amuse Bouche.
What can diners expect when dining at Ossiano?
In our Journey menu, we use the most sustainable and freshest ingredients from the land and sea to put together an experience around feelings and emotions. Every dish tells the story of my travels around the world through a sensorial experience. For guests to enjoy the journey at its fullest, dishes are kept secret until revealed and introduced by the service team. We are flexible with menu changes so long as it does not affect the integrity and identity of our experience. We ask our valuable guests to notify us in advance of any dietary requirements and preferences at least 48 hours prior to the date of the booking. Our culinary team will work their magic to accommodate.
The dishes at Ossiano look like plated artworks. Where do you get your inspiration from?
90 per cent of my inspiration comes from my own life and the lives of the people around me. For example, my daughter was eating this delicious looking peanut, banana and blueberry jam sandwich the other week. The flavours and texture just worked so beautifully, and she enjoyed it so much that I came in immediately and set about reworking a banoffee pie to replicate the sandwich! It was an absolute masterpiece, inspired by a three-year-old child’s lunch!
Can you please describe for us your creative process that goes into the creation of a new dish or menu?
Everything inspires me. Architecture, poetry, the aquarium at Ossiano, colours, shapes, textures, music – I love rap music. I compare one of my favourite rap artists, Furax Barbarossa, to a three Michelin star chef because the more you listen to one of his songs, the more you understand what he is saying and the more you realise how perfectly it is made – there are layers upon layers in his compositions and it’s only after you’ve heard one 50 times that you realise how powerful it is! His music is very personal and he doesn’t follow any rules; that’s because with real art, there are no rules.
On our last visit to Ossiano, our favourite dish was undoubtedly the Foie Gras Berries. How do you conceptualize a dish like this and how many iterations will the dish go through before it is ready for paying guests?
We really conceptualise through emotion and this is transcended visually and through taste, sound, temperature and narrative. Sometimes dishes happen instantly and sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error, there is no rules really.
What do you do to stay current on new trends and how do you feel about creating dishes purely for Instagram?
I don’t really base any of my dishes on trends and just do what feels right and stay true to myself. I try to reinvent myself constantly and my dishes of course work for social media, but they are never created with just this in mind. If I did this, the dishes would have no meaning. The narrative has to be true and real.
What matters more to today’s diners – taste or presentation?
I think both are equally as important but also don’t forget the story! This is equally as important.
What do you think it is about it the cuisine at Ossiano that resonated so much with Dubai diners?
I think it’s because we listen. We’re obsessed with guest satisfaction. We read the guest and every evening I go out and speak to every table. They are part of our journey and that is what keeps them coming back time and time again. Every single thing matters to us. From the scenery, the welcome, the service, the taste and presentation of the dishes, everything is thought through.
Could you please describe for us your culinary philosophy?
Tales and travel through food… the metamorphosis, the constant change through pain and self-questioning.
Please tell us a little bit about Grégoire’s Kitchen by Ossiano, your recent summer transformation of the restaurant?
After this crazy and uncertain period, we want to focus on bringing people together, and nothing does this better than a great dining experience. Food nourishes the soul and we all need to heal together, so it’s my pleasure to invite all of Dubai’s residents to my restaurant, to enjoy our unique dining experience in an affordable way. We recognise that people can’t travel right now, so we’re modernising tapas dishes, and reinterpreting them with my own unique twist. I look forward to reopening the kitchen and welcoming new guests to try our new food.
The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely changed the food and beverage landscape in Dubai. What lessons have you learned, and do you think the industry can bounce back?
My biggest lesson is to never take things for granted. Will the industry bounce back? Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it will be the industry that we knew. Let’s see.
With the rise of influencers and bloggers, what are your opinions on this new digital world where everyone has suddenly become a food critic?
Social media gives any type of person the opportunity to be a food critic and, if I’m honest, I think this is a bit of a disaster. I think it’s dangerous that the legitimacy of the opinion of an influencer is based on their number of followers and not on their knowledge about food, and I don’t find this acceptable. It just means that anyone with a high number of followers or an engaged audience who doesn’t know a thing about food and hospitality will be listened to by a huge number of people, which could potentially provoke calamities for a chef or restaurant. It can be career-destroying. I think that all food influencers and critics should only be taken seriously if they have the relevant experience or qualifications – just as a journalist does.
How often do you eat out and what’s your favourite restaurant in Dubai?
I would say twice a week but mostly in casual restaurants. I love sushi and Lebanese food. ✤