These three Michelin Star chefs have shaped the culinary agenda of the UAE

They talk about their journey to the top

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Niko Romito (right) believes in paying attention to even smallest details
Niko Romito (right) believes in paying attention to even smallest details

Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Thu 7 Jul 2022, 8:32 PM

Last updated: Thu 7 Jul 2022, 8:33 PM

Dubai’s already vibrant food industry was catapulted into international spotlight when the Michelin Guide launched in the city last month. In its 2022 selection, the first-ever edition in the United Arab Emirates, the guide celebrated Dubai’s spectacular culinary map, that is as vibrant and diverse as it is energetic. A total of 69 restaurants, which covers 21 cuisines, were selected and recommended by anonymous inspectors.

A total of two restaurants were awarded two Michelin Stars, nine were given one Michelin Star, one was awarded a Michelin Green Star and 14 restaurants were recognised as Bib Gourmand eateries.

“What makes Dubai’s culinary landscape so distinctive is its reflection of the more than 200 nationalities that call the city home, delivering an epicurean kaleidoscope,” said Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guide. “One thing all the restaurants in this fast-paced, dynamic and elegant city have in common is they are brimming with passion and enthusiasm. Today, Dubai is settled as an inspiring gastronomic destination, and we have no doubt that gourmets from all over the world will be seduced by its very unique energy.”

Amid this celebration, we trace the story and history of three chefs who have made remarkable contributions to the city’s gastronomic development.

Niko Romito

Il Ristorante (2 Michelin Stars)

Chef Niko Romito is the man behind Il Ristorante that, according to the Michelin Guide, received its two Michelin stars for “its modern Italian fare, which comes with balance, purity and clarity. Top quality ingredients are flown in from Italy, with highlights including fish and pasta dishes”.

However, it was a happy accident that led Chef Niko to his culinary journey. “I was studying Economics at Rome university,” he said. “I wanted to become a financial broker but my father got sick. So I went back to my home in the small city of Abruzzo where he owned a restaurant. I was 25 and I had never cooked before! I started working in my father’s kitchen, while my sister Cristiana left her studies to help me at the service. Our plan was really simple. Keep the restaurant afloat, sell it for a profit and go our ways. But I quickly got more and more passionate about cooking and the cuisine. Long story short, we never sold it and we are still working together.”

However, Chef Niko, whose restaurant Reale in Italy previously won three Michelin stars in seven years, did not have a smooth start to his career. “At the beginning it was very hard,” he said. “When I started developing my own idea of the cuisine and began experimenting with dishes, the clients did not to understand it. They would question why we were changing recipes and focusing on fresh ingredients. It took a few years. Then the first rewards started arriving.”

Chef Niko has been shuttling between Dubai and Italy for over five years now. However, he says his first impression of Dubai wasn’t the best. “The first time I came to Dubai, before opening my own restaurant, I didn’t immediately feel a connection with the city,” he said. “But then, when we opened Il Ristorante with Bulgari, in 2017, I had the opportunity to spend more time here and discover the city. Now I love it! It has something very special. This city is really unique.”

The dishes that Chef Niko plates up are just like him: unique. “Il Ristorante gave me the opportunity to define the new codes of a contemporary Italian cuisine,” he said. “We offer a cuisine with a strong identity. I want to respect tradition, but I also integrate it with my cooking philosophy and innovative techniques. My aim is to find the purest form of taste, to make flavours more intense, elegant, essential. On one hand, I want our dishes to be perfectly recognisable, on the other, they offer a totally new experience. It is the result of a lot of research and experimentation; this is the value of our work.”

The man who never stops studying, researching and innovating says none of his dishes have a fixed recipe. “I always try to find the quintessence of taste. To study, to taste, to try and to improve on it,” he said.

Photo: M. Sajjad
Photo: M. Sajjad

Himanshu Saini

Trèsind Studio- 1 star

Trèsind - Michelin mention

Anyone coming to Dubai and looking for a fine dining Indian restaurant will have come across the name Trèsind. That is because Chef Himanshu Saini has succeeded in elevating Indian cuisine from comfort food to a fine dining experience in his own special way. His journey to culinary greatness began at home. “I have always joked that I was not good at anything else, so I decided to become a chef,” he said. “But the truth is, my inspiration comes from my home. My mother is a great chef. I grew up watching her cook and soon I started my own journey of cooking.”

After completing his degree from Banarsidas Chandiwala Institute of Hotel Management & Catering Technology, Chef Himanshu worked in several places before he finally found himself in Dubai. “Tresind began in 2014 and I joined them shortly,” he said. “At the time we started, we never imagined that in eight years we would have five restaurants.”

It was in 2018 that Tresind Studio, that serves a 14-course modern Indian meal, opened up within Tresind. It combined theatrics with food and offered a unique dining experience, one that fast became a must-visit in every food aficionado’s list. Saini says that all the success they have seen is not his alone. “My team, whether it was Mr. Nath who trusted me to carry on his father’s legacy or the chefs that work me, they have all chipped in to this success in their own ways.”

Bhupender Nath, the man behind Passion F&B that owns and operates Tresind and its sister concerns, had dreamt of setting up a restaurant ever since his father has closed down the family eatery in the Indian city of Patna after financial troubles. According to Saini, the Michelin accolade is a reward and a responsibility. “It feels amazing,” he said. “I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve in a short time. However, one star means the work begins now. People will come in with greater expectations. We need to work harder and push for two stars next year.”

Photo: M. Sajjad
Photo: M. Sajjad

Akmal Anuar

11 Woodfire- 1 star

Goldfish- Bib Gourmand

Singapore-born Akmal Anuar has slowly but steadily climbed to the pinnacle he is on now. Starting working in a kitchen at the age of 10 when his parents set up a small restaurant, cooking was something he had known all his life. At 19, he opted to join the fire service as part of mandatory national service. After two years, he quit and was offered a job in Solomon Islands. “I thought it was going to be a very fancy place,” he said. “But when I got there, I realised that it was a place ravaged by civil war.”

However, life there taught him a very important lesson. “The island, located on the South Pacific Ocean, was rich in marine life. The fisherman’s boat would park right next to my door and I could get any fish. Those were the times I learnt to appreciate ingredients, use fresh produce and make do with whatever was available.”

In 2006, he returned to Singapore where he became a chef at Iggy’s and eight years later, he was crowned the best chef in Asia. With offers from all over the world, he picked Dubai where he worked till 2015, when a market crash brought a fresh round of layoffs. “I had brought five chefs with me from Singapore,” he said. “I was asked to fire all of them. This was something I could not do. So instead I chose to quit and then went back to Singapore.”

But Akmal could not stay away from Dubai for too long. In 2016, he got an offer to become a partner at the restaurant 3 Fils and returned to the city. What awaited him was another challenge. “The location of 3 Fils was not a place that anyone would expect a fine dining restaurant at,” he said. “So business was slow.” Within six months, Akmal found himself struggling to pay rent and caring for a newborn along with his wife. “To be honest, it was a bit humiliating,” he said. “From being a high-flying chef to go to that struggle. We did not have a stove. All we had was a rice cooker. My kids were young. Around this time, my mother-in-law came to Dubai to help us. Leaving the kids with her, my wife and I went to work. We worked 15-17 hours a day. We had no friends and no social life.”

Their hard work paid off and the fortunes of 3 Fils started to shine. Things were looking good when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. During this time, he started making tarts at home to distract himself. The exercise became a full-time business that allowed Anuar and his family to ride the pandemic out. Once the lockdown was lifted, Anuar was put in touch with an investor who wanted to set up a Japanese restaurant in Galleria Mall. The result was Goldfish, a restaurant that opened its doors in January 2021 and became a hit almost immediately.

The same year, Anuar was driving down Jumeirah road when he chanced upon a property that seemed perfect for the barbeque place he had always dreamt of opening. Almost coincidentally, a long-time friend Ahmass Fakahany got in touch with him around the same time. Together the men set up 11-Woodfire. “I am thankful for all the chances and challenges life has given me,” said Anuar. “It has made the person I am.”

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