Pared-down simplicity

When you're dining at the hands of Ollie Dabbous, looks aren't everything. Food-wise, that is. Because even though the 34-year-old chef owns a one-Michelin star restaurant - Dabbous, in London - his personal preference is for his dishes to not look too "cheffy".

He explains: "I want that look of effortless simplicity that sometimes takes a lot of work in a kitchen, but is very restrained and looks very organic ... there's a lot of very modern food that looks quite similar, so my style is I just like a few elements on a dish."

In other words, don't be surprised if you're served a humble braised fennel sitting in a fennel puree and sprinkled with fennel pollen, or a bundle of charred broccoli next to a dollop of sauce. In fact, those were two out of eight courses that chef Dabbous served at the 4xFour pop-up dinner event in Singapore earlier this week.

"I don't want to serve broccoli done four different ways, you know? It's more honest for me - serving it that naked. It's more bold as well," he says.

It's definitely not taking the easy way out too, as he explains that a lot still goes into even the simplest-looking dish.

For instance, the "char" on the broccoli is actually made up of what they call smoked powder, which is "basically flour, water, and squid ink, baked into a biscuit and grounded into a black powder, smoked, and used to season the broccoli", explains chef Dabbous.

Of course, it's not that looks don't matter at all, he points out. It's just that "you never remember a good-looking dish that tasted like nothing. You remember taste, you remember flavour, even if it's something really ugly. Presentation is a bonus, but it's secondary to taste."

According to chef Dabbous, he has wanted to be a chef for as long as he can remember. He started cooking at the age of six, despite being born into a household that didn't have much of a cooking culture.

"It was very self-propelled," he recalls. "I had a sweet tooth as a kid, so I started baking, then I got into more savoury cooking. And as I grew up, there was more interest in food from the media, restaurants in London started getting better - that kind of fuelled my enthusiasm. By the time I finished school, I knew what I wanted to do as a career."

Over the years, chef Dabbous has built up quite an impressive portfolio, having done stints at various Michelin-starred restaurants all over the world such as The Fat Duck in the UK, Noma in Copenhagen, L'Astrance in Paris, Mugaritz in Spain, and wd-50 in New York.

His first restaurant in London, Dabbous, opened in February 2012 and serves his sort of stripped-down style of fine dining. His second, Barnyard, opened in 2014 and serves more comfort pub-style food.

A second Barnyard is currently in the works and will likely open in London sometime in spring next year, reveals chef Dabbous.

He is also looking to open a sister restaurant to Dabbous for his head chef.

Beyond that however, chef Dabbous is hesitant to venture into anything else for now. "I'm not in a huge rush to expand. For me I'd rather keep the quality, and do less but have it special. Rather than do more, and have a decline in standards. There'd be nothing worse."

@RachelLoiBT
rachloi@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 21, 2015.
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