OPENING UP THE TEST KITCHEN
Reif Othman, the culinary mastermind behind the award-winning dishes at Play, recently opened The Experience, a 12-person dining by design concept that emulates a hosted dinner party but acts as a commercial development kitchen.
Was The Experience part of the idea when you joined Play?
Not at all! The team had the name Play already in place and I took it as an indicator that we should play with the food. And then last October, we were discussing plans for a test kitchen and I said ‘Hey, this space is too big for just a test kitchen, let’s use it for a small restaurant, like it’s my apartment.’ And here we are.
So will all the dishes served here be developed for the main menu?
Not exactly. The menu in The Experience is unique and constantly changing, but when I change dishes at Play every month, the chefs will all come up here and play around. So dishes that are created here will end up on the main menu, but perhaps only one or two that are actually served as part of The Experience.
How often do you change your offering in The Experience?
Every single day. What you have today you will not see tomorrow. And that’s challenging for me, but that’s the fun of it. Keeping the food fresh and new.
You’re only serving 12 people and preparing ten courses for each of them. Does that work as a business, or is it only possible through its attachment to Play?
As a businessman, I need to make sure I’m making money, and the fact is The Experience doesn’t. Thankfully for me, it’s tied to Play and the fact the owners don’t care about this little part being profitable means I get to do it. I’m blessed. The truth is, as a chef, I’m busy from 9 to 5 on my paperwork for PLAY. I have no time to cook. It’s the same for so many chefs. But you have to keep on cooking to stay on top and The Experience is what keeps me going, it’s where I play! I get a lot of true foodies here too. It’s about good quality and a relaxed, social experience.
How demanding are the city’s diners?
Very. They’re starting to learn more about food and, being in the middle of everywhere here, they know a lot of different cuisines and they like to educate themselves. That said, in some ways Dubai is still weak on product knowledge – I’ve had customers asking for crabsticks instead of fresh king crab!
You’ve been here eight years and are still seen as pushing boundaries while so many others have come, shone and gone. How do you do that?
I think the best way is to keep moving. It’s not that difficult really. Always buy good produce, serve it properly and price it well. Don’t cheat your customers. Also, you need to be realistic. I understand what Dubai wants in terms of palate and I know that, at the end of the day, the customer is my boss. They pay my wages. Once you understand that, I don’t think it’s difficult – just be consistent. The management of a restaurant makes a huge difference too. When it’s all about the bottom line and that’s it, that’s wrong. But equally, I don’t expect to just run off and do whatever I want. I have to be a businessman too. They give me trust and I prove it’s valid. It’s a relationship of give and take.
You decorated The Experience yourself. How unusual is it to get that freedom to run?
On a global level, not that unusual. I think everyone does that in Europe, even in the smallest restaurants, because every chef has their own vision. But here it’s a definite opportunity for me and I’ve just enjoyed grabbing it!
So what comes next for you at The Experience?
A cinema! Genuinely, we’re opening a cinema next month. It was an idea from our owner and we’ve gone for it, but we’re not opening a multiplex. It’s got 12 seats, same as the restaurant, and it’s meant to be part of the whole experience – you come, you have dinner, you see a movie. It’s going to be fun.