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Having worked for some of the biggest F&B brands in Dubai, Chef Izu Ani is one of the biggest pioneers in the food space in this region

“As a chef, I am a storyteller through food,” says Chef Izu Ani. As a pioneering figurehead in the F&B space in the UAE and the wider Middle East, Chef Izu has brought a wealth of knowledge, talent and culture to the region through cuisine.

To him, culinary traits from different places always trace back to the culture it comes from. “By understanding the culture, we have the privilege of knowing how to extract the experience and tell each story from the source,” he explains.

Originally coming to Dubai to help launch LPM – previously known as La Petit Maison – Chef Izu has gone on to curate his very own restaurant portfolio in Dubai, which are now staples amongst the F&B crowd. The standout establishments are his Emirates Golf Club restaurant Carine – named after his wife – and GAIA – a crowning jewel in the DIFC food scene – both of which have been visited by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai.

 

Emirates Man sat down with Chef Izu to discuss his career history, making the move to Dubai, opening his own restaurants and what his plans for the future are.

Talk us through your career history.

In my early career, I spent a lot of time in France and absorbed everything I could about the culture and cuisine. It is where I met my wife, and it gave me a wider spectrum of knowledge and understanding. From there, I travelled to Spain and offered my services at the Mugaritz, one of the world’s best restaurants located in San Sebastián. By working for free, I earned more than I ever expected and learned more than I could have imagined. I believe that in life, we do have to invest in ourselves and in our passions. Invest our time, our efforts and dedication. My travels and experiences continue to shape my understanding of cuisine and have enabled me to translate this through the menus I work on.

As a Chef, I am a storyteller through food. I think it is important to remember that food belongs to the culture it comes from. By understanding the culture, we have the privilege of knowing how to extract the experience and tell each story from the source. My aim in life is to keep adding to my life journey through food and to be able to share this with people who are as keen as I am to explore how we can push the limits of creativity.

Gaia

What advice would you give to young chefs?

When starting out, I encourage young chefs not to look at the prestige, position or money. When you are young or at the beginning of your career, your job is to extract as much information as possible. Ask questions, investigate, learn everything, take everything in and experience it all. Looking with the eye of discovery leads you to the knowledge that helps you evolve.

Our experiences shape us and make us who we are, teach us our values and allow us to share these with the next generation. Passing on our passions and our knowledge for a beautiful future.

Where does your love for food originate?

For me, cooking is a way of expressing your happiness and sharing it with others. It is a philosophy, a principle, the way you see life and how you eat. Those who underestimate their food, underestimate the essence of life.

Honestly, I chose to study home-economics at school as I noticed it was a class full of women who caught my eye. While that may have been what lead me there, when I started cooking my passion evolved and since then my love for it has grown. I remember my mother being so proud of everything I made.

This is an industry that helps you travel, physically, mentally and with your wellbeing. It is always moving and lets you breathe fresh inspiration.

What brought you to Dubai?

In 2010, I moved to Dubai to open La Petite Maison [now known as LPM Restaurant & Bar], which was an incredible experience. I learned so much and fell in love with the Middle East. I remember the choices of Burrata being slim to none at the time. There was a scarce choice in the market, but I believe it to be an essential element of a Mediterranean menu. I asked my supplier to travel to Italy and bring it straight back to Dubai with him, so that we could use my favourite fresh Burrata in the restaurant. Since then, the soft cheese has become a firm favourite in the Emirate, loved for its balanced taste, contrasting textures and butter-like consistency.

Does the F&B industry in Dubai differ from how it operates globally?

Dubai is a dynamic and ever-evolving city, it makes you feel like anything is possible which accelerates our creativity. There is a beautiful and inspiring sense of community in Dubai, with so many expats and the welcoming nature of local residents, we have the ability to expand our skills and learn so much more about different cultures, tastes, flavours and people. It is an incredible place to have the opportunity to grow and develop.

What led you to open your own restaurants in Dubai?

I love seeing how food can bring people together, through mutual respect and enjoyment. Having respect for your ingredients and the people you work with enables you to understand how to bring out the best elements of both.

When I had the opportunity to branch out with La Serre, it allowed me to explore my curiosity and creativity. It was a completely unique concept at the time, blending my passion for French culture and cuisine with a boulangerie by day and bistro by night. From there, I opened YSeventy7, a creative consulting and management agency specializing in F&B, followed by The Lighthouse, Izu Brasserie and Bakery, Carine, Gaia, Fika, Aya as well as the privilege of working on a number of consultancy projects.

Having the freedom to create is really important to me, it allows me to keep expanding and growing without the fear of stagnation. We must keep moving forwards, standing still kills creativity.

Can you talk us through the concepts behind GAIA and Carine?

Gaia was named after mother earth, the Greek goddess of all creation. Combining warm hospitality with intricate details and alluring aspects, GAIA creates a journey of discovery in each and every visit, enticing the explorer within. Our cuisine showcases the core elements of Greek culture, humble, simple yet flavoursome dishes that are served in layers and designed to be shared between friends and family.

Symbolism and authenticity are woven throughout the concept from the menu to the logo, taking inspiration from the mountains, the sun and the sea. Each part of the restaurant represents a different part of Greece, from the bougainvillaea laced terrace reminiscent of the Cycladic islands, the coastal bar and lounge area, as well as the Athenian souvenir shop and the hidden speakeasy NYX that has an elegant, yet enigmatic Mykonian energy.

Carine is named after my wife, I wanted to develop something that represented a part of me, for the person that has been by my side throughout my career. Carine is elegant, yet adventurous and edgy, and these elements make up my journey with her. The French culture woven throughout the restaurant stems from her and everything I learned in France, from where we met and what we have built together.

A good home provides the foundations from which we can go and create. Carine provides that for me, and the restaurant reflects the warm, welcoming feeling that Carine brings to our home. A feeling that soothes the soul, calms the mind and allows you to unwind.

Carine’s favourite dishes are woven throughout the menu. Her memories of working in a bakery in northern France are translated in the freshly baked breads and boulangerie, served alongside her incredible homemade plum and apple jams.

“How we react to the challenge’s life brings is what frames our minds.”

The global pandemic has hit the F&B industry hard. How have you navigated through this difficult time with your establishments?

The pandemic gave us a unique opportunity to rethink how we look at things, to go back to basics and realize what is most important. Closing the restaurants was completely out of our control and of course, it affected our business. Throughout the crisis and until now our priority has been to take care of our team and make sure that the quality of our work is not affected.

The way I see it, this is a temporary change. People come to our restaurants to enjoy themselves, to indulge in an abundance of flavours and energy, to forget about the outside world. It has been gradual, as people have readjusted to life after lockdown, but we are pleased to see the restaurants busy again.

We are social beings, we need to interact, to meet, hug, and spend time with each other. Dining together is a ritual. Sharing food, memories and experiences with loved ones is something we have enjoyed since the beginning of time, and I believe we will continue to do so long after the pandemic has left us.

What are the hurdles you’ve experienced during your career?

How we react to the challenge’s life brings is what frames our minds. If we look at our circumstances as opportunities instead of obstacles, we can positively impact our mindsets. I try to embrace being in an uncomfortable zone, because this is where we grow.

Obstacles are a progression in disguise. They are the things that build who we become and give us a structure.

Success is a road that is always under construction, every single day, so make sure that you bring your hard hat and keep building. Everything we associate ourselves with in life is an extension and reflection of our ambitions. When we work with passion, we can see how much there is to achieve, and our success will be our evidence.

Chef Izu Dessert

What have been the key milestone?

It is always so humbling and exciting to welcome members of the Royal Family of the UAE to our restaurants. I am so thankful for their support and endorsement; it is inspiring and motivating for myself and the whole team.

I believe that the milestones are often found in the small moments. I find the most pride and pleasure when we are consistent and striving towards our goals every day.

You’re expanding GAIA globally this year. Can you give us more insight into that process and where you will be opening more venues?

My dream for Gaia is to keep it as honest as it was when we opened and make sure that our philosophy doesn’t get diluted. Our goal is to grow as a business while keeping the ethos and quality intact. We want to share the beauty of Gaia with the world and are set to launch in London and Saudi Arabia.

When opening in a new location, we like to spend a lot of time sourcing ingredients and produce to make sure we provide the same level of quality. The conditions that our vegetables, herbs and fruits are grown in determines the taste, and can affect the balance of each dish.

Cooking is about creating harmony on a plate and enhancing each ingredient. It is a way of expressing our love and sharing it with others, so we take a lot of care to ensure it is excellent in every country.

And finally, what are your future plans for expansion in Dubai?

We are currently working on an innovative food-technology concept, which I am really excited about. It is set to launch soon and has allowed us to explore our creativity, cuisine and techniques in the digital landscape.

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Images: Supplied