How Ak­mal and his fel­low culi­nary cre­atives are chang­ing Dubai’s din­ing scene

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Ak­mal Anuar headed up Sin­ga­pore’s revered Iggy’s for seven years, claim­ing Asia’s high­est rank­ing in San Pel­le­grino’s 50 best restau­rants list, be­fore head­ing to Dubai to open Zengo. He’s now cre­ated his own eatery with two Emi­rati busi­ness part­ners, 3 Fils in Dubai Fish­ing Harbour, serv­ing Miche­lin-level cui­sine at ca­sual din­ing prices.

Your kitchen in Sin­ga­pore reached num­ber 26 in the list of the world’s 50 best restau­rants, which is a huge achieve­ment. Why have you de­cided to take a more ca­sual ap­proach in your first ven­ture as a chef pa­tron?

As a young chef, it’s all about be­ing mo­ti­vated by fire, am­bi­tion and en­thu­si­asm. And I’m not say­ing don’t go down the Miche­lin path, young chefs should ex­pe­ri­ence it all. But then we all need to find our own path. For me, head­ing up the ‘best’ kitchen in Asia will prob­a­bly be seen by many as the pin­na­cle of my ca­reer. But that kitchen wasn’t mine. This is mine. This is my baby and this is my path.

So tell us about 3 Fils…

It’s all about good mu­sic, a re­laxed set­ting and a friendly at­mos­phere. I want you to re­lax. I’ll still serve you the best tuna and the best foie gras, it’s still fine din­ing lev­els of food. But I don’t have the over­heads, the table­cloths, china and sil­ver cut­lery to in­flate the prices, so the ma­jor­ity of our dishes cost less than Dhs40. Come, I’ll feed you well and you’ll have a great ex­pe­ri­ence – the dif­fer­ence is that now you can wear your flip flops and you won’t spend a for­tune.

You men­tion over­heads. What does a restau­rant bill ac­tu­ally cover?

Truth­fully, if you look at a restau­rant that has maybe a quar­ter of a mil­lion dirham payroll bill each month, your bill as a cus­tomer isn’t just for the food on your plate. You’re pay­ing for the DJs, the model hostesses on the door, the var­i­ous man­agers on the bar, front of house, reser­va­tions, the ex­pen­sive dé­cor and lights. But when you elim­i­nate all that you can make it all about the food. I think in many big restau­rants, the man­age­ment sees a group of ten rich kids and sets out to get them to spend as much as pos­si­ble in a short win­dow of time and it’s so, so wrong. At the end of the day, you’re tak­ing ad­van­tage or your cus­tomer. Yes, it’s busi­ness and they’ll pay the five or six thou­sand. But they’ll pay it once. They’re not com­ing back.

Do you think peo­ple re­alise that?

I think things are chang­ing. Peo­ple still have money here but the sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent. Oil prices are down, there’s re­gional un­rest, peo­ple are los­ing their jobs, liv­ing costs are ris­ing and, as a restau­rant, you have more com­peti­tors. How do you ex­pect to still be able to take ad­van­tage like that? I’m run­ning a busi­ness and I need to pay my staff, but the only way to do that is to have happy cus­tomers who keep com­ing back and that means of­fer­ing them value for

So how do you see the city’s din­ing scene adapt­ing?

I think Dubai will soon be like any other city. Tough. Stress­ful. Busy. Be­cause it’s grow­ing. When it was very new, peo­ple were able to start up and mo­nop­o­lise the mar­ket. Now those restau­rants are hav­ing to drop their prices. Peo­ple still want to have a great ex­pe­ri­ence, but they want to spend Dhs150 a head in­stead of Dhs500, so busi­nesses who have a lot of staff are feel­ing the pres­sure. We’ve got a head start!

What do you think is still miss­ing from the lo­cal scene?

Ca­ma­raderie. In Dubai, there’s no group of chefs, like you’d get else­where in the world, all com­ing to­gether reg­u­larly to sit in one per­son’s restau­rant and eat their food. It’s com­pet­i­tive and that’s wrong. It would be re­ally nice for peo­ple to re­alise that if busi­nesses help each other then we all can thrive.

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