Even in London’s frenzied dining scene, few openings have ever been as buzzed about as Ollie Dabbous’ first restaurant, launched in 2012 on such a tight budget that he had to bring pots and pans from 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 London Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler, the hard-to-please grande dame of London restaurant critics, gave it a full five stars—something she’d done only a handful of times.
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 unpretentious enterprise. 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 long waiting list for Dabbous.
So, five years after being the ‘next big thing’, what does a game-changing young chef do next? In Dabbous’ case, the answer is to close the doors of his first restaurant as well as his second, Barnyard, the even more casual Soho restaurant that he had opened in 2014. He’s planning to open a much bigger venture in the spring of 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-storey, 250-seater site on Piccadilly, not far from the Ritz London 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.”
I 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 reviewer 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’ 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.”
After four years at Le Manoir, he toured some of the most progressive kitchens in Europe—from Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, also in the U.K., to Noma in Copenhagen and the Basque institution Mugaritz. “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.”
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 ‘chef-y.’ 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 purée 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 a popsicle.
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 fairly happy.”
He insists that he feels no more pressure than he did the first time around. “If it did not work then, I would have been bankrupt, and no one would have invested in me.
Now, 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.” ■