Ollie Dabbous: the maestro of minimalism

In 2012, Ollie Dabbous’s eponymous restaurant was hailed as a game-changer that killed stuffy fine dining for good. Now, he’s planning something much bigger—but can he live up to his own billing?

(First published in Maxim magazine, January 2018. With photography by David Cotsworth, originally shot for The Caterer magazine)

Even in London’s frenzied dining scene, few openings have ever been as buzzed as Ollie Dabbous’s first restaurant, opened in 2012 on such a tight budget that he had to bring pots and pans from his kitchen at home.

In a spartan central London space that one reviewer noted looked like a car park, Dabbous’ fresh, pared-back dishes had critics salivating into their sourdough brown paper bags—the Evening Standard’s Faye Maschler, the hard-to-please grand dame of London restaurant critics, gave it a full five stars, the first time she’d done so in years.

A Michelin star followed eight months later, as Dabbous was hailed as a new culinary messiah who’d appeared out of nowhere to slay stuffy fine dining with his eponymous restaurant. Soon, it seemed every London opening was about bare concrete, bare bulbs and minimalist small plates—which was good, because there was a five-month waiting list for Dabbous.

So, five years after being the Next Big Thing, what does a game-changing young chef do next? In Dabbous’s case, the answer is to close the doors on his eponymous restaurant and Barnyard, the even-more-casual Soho restaurant he opened in 2014. He’s planning to open a much bigger venture in spring 2018, with many of the same chefs and staff that worked at Dabbous—including his business partner, bartender Oskar Kinberg.

He won’t confirm reports that it’s set to open in a three-story, 250-seater site on Piccadilly, not far from the Ritz hotel, but does say it will have “the soul of Dabbous. It will be like a new album from the same band—you will see a real progression, but you’ll still recognise the music.”

We meet Dabbous in the Soho office of his PR company. He’s been busy testing dishes, and is excited about a few top-secret ingredients he’s been playing with that “diners won’t have seen before”.

He’s wearing his signature white t-shirt, with a wide neck and high-cut sleeves, and his slightly tribal necklace. His look—one interviewer compared him to Coldplay’s Chris Martin—is probably the most extravagant thing about him. He doesn’t do social media, likes a quiet kitchen and claims to be impervious to all the hype. “I know what I like,” he says. “I’m not bothered about how many Instagram hits I get, or where I am in the London pecking order.”

A glance at Dabbous’s CV gives a sense of where this puritanism comes from. His first real job after high school was at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin-starred institution in Oxfordshire, England. Dabbous learned the basics in this sink-or-swim environment, and went from “being totally out of my depth to becoming a valued member of the brigade.”

He got the buzz, and after four years at Le Manoir toured some of the most progressive kitchens in Europe: from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck to Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz, the Basque institution. “I was massively driven,” he says. “While my friends were getting drunk and sleeping around, I had this almost military existence in my 20s—I’d put my knives and my bag in the car and I’d drive to the next restaurant.”

While my friends were getting drunk and sleeping around, I had this almost military existence in my 20s

When he opened Dabbous in 2012, no one had heard of him. The 31-year-old hadn’t done any pop-ups, and struggled initially to find a PR firm to promote him. But he had a clear vision. “I like dishes that are about simplicity and purity, that are not too ‘cheffy’. I’ve always liked food that tastes as much of itself as possible, and I only want to innovate if it works—there’s no point creating an outrageous new dish if it doesn’t taste as good as a Coq Au Vin.”

At Dabbous, the critics were wowed by simple but somehow magical combinations like Peas and Mint, with a puree and a granita in a tiny bowl; Coddled Egg, served in its shell with wild mushrooms and smoked butter; or a dessert of a frozen sorrel leaf with icing sugar that tasted like an ice lolly.    

Now, though, it’s time to create new iconic dishes. “Closing the restaurants I loved was strange, but it had to be done,” he says. “Some chefs want to build an empire, but I like being hands-on in the kitchen. I’d rather do less and be very happy than do more and be quite happy.”

He insists he feels no more pressure than the first time round. “If it didn’t work then, I’d have been bankrupt and no one would have invested in me. This time, people know who I am. The real pressure comes from myself—I’m still just as hungry to create the best food I possibly can, and to do myself justice. It’s about self-respect.”

If it’s good enough for this singularly focused ingredient purist, you suspect the world may just be wowed all over again.

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