Ollie Dabbous, Chef Patron, Dabbous

The  Staff Canteen

Ollie Dabbous has worked his way up in some of the UK’s best kitchens with likes of Claude Bosi and Raymond Blanc. Now he has two restaurants of his own in London, Michelin-starred Dabbous and the Barnyard but this talented chef flies under the radar. You will rarely see him banging the media drum, he is focused on his food and making his businesses a success. That’s not to say he won’t do the odd interview so we jumped at the chance to chat to him about his early career at Le Manoir, his simple food style including that Sorrell leaf dish, how he deals with press both positive and negative plus why he has decided to give up his time to judge the UK heats of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition.

Ollie Dabbous
Ollie Dabbous

How did you end up in this industry?

I enjoyed food from a young age, so I started cooking as it felt like a natural progression. I was really passionate about it so again it seemed like a natural progression from hobby to profession. As soon as I finished school I went travelling then I got my head down. 

You have an impressive CV, Le Manoir, Hibiscus, Noma. Is there a particular experience which really stands out?

I’d say Le Manoir, I worked there for about four years and it was the first place I worked from the bottom up. It taught me all the basics, a lot of which I use today. When I went in I realised just how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to learn. It also galvanised my work ethic and I think that’s the main reason it stands out.

You obviously enjoyed the kitchen environment at that level?

Yeah I did. It was pretty much make or break but I went there with a desire to learn, humility and I was happy to make the sacrifices needed in order to get the education I wanted.

You moved on to Hibiscus, what was Claude Bosi like to work with?

He’s a good guy, having been at Le Manoir quite a while it was refreshing seeing his style of cooking and working in a smaller kitchen as well. I still get on well with Claude today.

The chefs you’ve worked under all have their own, well known style, is it tough to find your own?

I think if you look at the food we cook there’s an underlying DNA and signature to it that isn’t unadulterated derivation of where I’ve been. The places I worked, I worked there because I had a sense of identity in the food they cooked. They had a modernity, lightness of touch and a sense of restraint. Just as the restaurant doesn’t look like other chefs restaurants, the food doesn’t either.

Have you been inspired by anyone in particular?

I think it’s quite unhealthy to use other people as a barometer for what you want to achieve. I just want my own place and freedom of expression predominantly with the food but also with the atmosphere and interior.

You opened Dabbous in 2012, why did you decide you were ready to have your own place?

It took me a few years to get the money together, find the right site and obviously it was my first business so it puts you on the back foot, no trading history or covenant. Trying to find real estate in London when your competition are all private equity backed, is tricky.

Did you always know what you wanted for your restaurant, from the atmosphere to the dishes?

Mash and Gravy
Mash and Gravy

Yes very much. I wasn’t necessarily convinced of how it would be received because it was a lot less luxury than what you get in other restaurants that serve a similar level of food. But you can always change things I just didn’t want to dilute what I wanted to do based on fear.

Has Dabbous evolved much since you first opened?

We’ve got better since we opened, time breeds repetition, breeds confidence. What we do now feels a lot easier, it’s very smooth and we are open six days a week, all the chefs work four days a week so it’s a lot more sustainable as a business. We have a lot more bar food now, we have DJs and bands playing in the bar,  we can do more covers – all positive things.

Was it a big change to suddenly be in charge of your own business?

It’s rewarding but equally you get used to it and it becomes second nature. You don’t open up your own place if you don’t back yourself, it’s nice to be the one making decisions whether they are business ones or creative ones it’s nice to have the ability to do that.

You opened Barnyard in 2014, is it very different to Dabbous?

They are different but there are some similarities. Barnyard is very rustic, it has quite an agricultural feel design wise. Its home cooking, so pub grub, things which I want to eat or chefs want to eat on their days off. Its food we can’t serve at Dabbous.

Having the two sites, are you still very much about the cooking or have you stepped back a little?

At Barnyard it’s more of a consulting role, training the chefs and showing them what they should be trying to achieve, sorting them out with suppliers all that type of stuff – I don’t actually cook there. I’m still at Dabbous most days, in the kitchen.

Did you always want your own Michelin star?

I didn’t think at all about acknowledgements or rewards, it was about having my own voice. You work hard for chefs for a long time, cooking their food, but you have your own ideas about how things should be done so for me having a restaurant was about being able to satisfy that.

Dabbous
Dabbous

What was it like when you got the star?

I wasn’t expecting it and especially because of how informal we are, in the evening we have the lights quite low and it’s quite clubby with the music. That doesn’t always go hand in hand with Michelin stars. We want people to have a great night out and the food is part of that but not all of it. I love it when people come in and they talk about the atmosphere or the service and don’t mention the food because I’m happy with the job my kitchen is doing.

When people compliment the other things, for me that’s just as satisfying. I find chef led, attention seeking food very tiresome and not conducive to a fun night. The waiter coming over every five minutes, telling you about farmer Barlemo’s biodynamic beetroot – I just want to jump off a cliff! It’s not something I want to impose on my customers.

Having your own restaurant how do you deal with good and bad press? You were all over the papers due to a ‘mouse infestation’ – is that difficult to stomach?

We didn’t get any bad reviews when we opened, the professional critics gave unprecedentedly good reviews and it’s not been surpassed. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to an opinion but it doesn’t mean that opinion is worth anything. Some people may come here expecting flowers, table clothes and five waiters per table – they are not going to get that, they are not going to get rich indulgent food.

Everything we do is paired back but there is a thought process behind it all. If they don’t like it, it’s a shame, I want everyone to have a good meal but equally I’m here every service, it’s such a tight kitchen and what we serve is meticulously prepared. Basically if they don’t like it, that is fine but it doesn’t mean it’s bad. I get annoyed because for me it’s a lack of palette or ability to appreciate simplicity – some people need all the bells and whistles to feel like they’ve got their money’s worth. I strive for a sense of effortlessness in everything we do.

In terms of the mice, it was very frustrating. We had got rid of one pest control because we weren’t happy and it was in between getting a new one that was a problem. It’s fixed now there were just a few holes in the building, it’s an old building and we found them and isolated them. It was annoying as we were punished while in the process of correcting it but it’s all in the past now.

It’s a question most chefs struggle with but how would you describe your food style?

Iberico pork
Iberico pork

It’s hard not to sound pretentious without meaning to! I struggle four years on after opening but I’d say product driven food which probably sounds pretty lame. But it’s me showcasing the food in the most organic manner possible. It’s not using the food as a medium to showcase the latest technique or how I can sort that food into something aesthetically impressive – it’s about doing as much or little is needed to take something good and make it spectacular.

So, what inspires you?

I’ve got my likes and dislikes when it comes to food and ingredients. In general I like fish gently cooked, I like red meat cooked on the barbeque, I like summer fruits raw or not cooked as they are more fragrant, I don’t like things chopped up too small like herbs for example – I think you lose a bit of that punch. It’s your own likes and dislikes which determine the food you serve, I don’t serve food based on what I think my customers will like, it’s based on what I think is good and hopefully what is good for me is great for them.

Do you have a favourite dish on your menu?

Probably two, the Iced Sorrell which is a frozen sorrel leaf dusted with icing sugar which you eat like an ice lolly. Its crisp and its cold and its two ingredients. Its 2016 so it’s hard to be original, everything has pretty much been done but I think this is something that hasn’t and it’s so simple which makes it even more impressive. The other is a mixed alliums and chilled pine broth. Again its six ingredients, lots of different types of onions sympathetically cooked with pine and basil, its quality and I think it encapsulates the role of a chef.

You are one of this year’s judges for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition, why did you want to be involved?

I don’t commit to too much extracurricular stuff because I don’t have  a great deal of time but it seemed like a serious completion and the judging line-up was strong. I’m curious to see what the young chefs cook, with competition food I guess you want to grab people’s attention but that style of food can be dangerous if you are sacrificing common sense or flavour as a result.

Milk curd
Milk curd 

It’s an exciting industry for young chefs coming in but equally it’s tough, what advice would you give them?

Just get your head down and work! Question everything, eat out a lot and stay humble – also there are no short cuts! It’s just effort and work, there are no secrets to becoming a good chef. I’d also question every single element that’s on a plate, if it doesn’t need to be there take it off – the hallmarks of a great dish are simplicity and effortlessness. You don’t remember presentation you remember taste.

Is it important to be selective about the restaurants and chefs you work with?

Yeah, I just put all my shit in my car and went to where I wanted to be, I didn’t care about money or where it was, it was a means to an end and it was about giving myself the tools I needed – that was it. 

 

 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th May 2016

Ollie Dabbous, Chef Patron, Dabbous