UK chef Darren Velvick is used to working for demanding chefs, with successful positions under both Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. Now, as the new Chef/Patron at Dubai favourite table 9, he has to deliver on his own promise as well as overcome the market’s understandable disappointment that favourites Scott Price and Nick Alvis has moved on. One week into full-on service when we spoke to him in February, he appears to be winning.
“If I replace salt with other spices, after a couple of weeks I can’t bear the stuff.”
It’s never easy to step into the shoes of another chef, so it must be twice as hard to step into two sets of shoes. Yet Chef/Patron Darren Velvick seems quite calm about his new role as the name above the door at table 9 by Darren Velvick. “Our priority is to reassure customers that this is just a new version of table 9, not a radical departure,” he says.
Coming from the same Gordon Ramsay stable as previous chefs in the space – Angela Hartnett when it was still Ramsay’s Verre and Soctt Price and Nick Alvis when it eveolved into table 9 by Nick and Scott – diners can expect the same general experience of modern European cuisine, presented in a clean style. Apart from new dishes, of course, the key changes that will emerge are a more imaginative approach to vegetables where they’ll be allowed to shine rather than act just as back-up to protein and a reaction to his own personal dislike of tasting menus.
He is also keen to make the restaurant more accessible and welcoming to hotel guests, rather than position it mainly as a destination for Dubai residents. A week in, covers were equally split between the two groups – a dramatic change. And, unlike Scott Price’s previous role, he is focused purely on table 9 and is not the Hilton Dubai Creek’s Executive Chef. So early into residence, he is still finding his feed in the city, having moved over mid-December, barely finding time to do more than work and sort out family issues such as researching schools.
So, how are you finding Dubai?
It’s a bit of a shock. When I heard about the job, I called up Angela (Hartnett) who I’d worked with. I knew she’d been here at Verre and I asked her what to expect. She laughed and said Dubai changed so fast that her experience woudn’t really help me – I just had to come and see for myself! I came out last August to look around and talk to the Hilton people and then shifted with my family last December.
Where did your journey to Dubai begin?
I gew up in a small village between Reading and Newbury. I don’t want to overstate it but it wasn’t esy for us, but my Mum fed us well at home – all the things that chefs are now going back to like home-grown veg and pies! To get some money, I got a part-time job as a pot washer when I was 14 at a nearby restaurant and slowly got to like the life and food more and more. The chefs were always giving me things to taste – it was all new to me.
I’m guessing your family didn’t really eat out?
No. In fact, I was 16 before I had my first real meal in a restaurant – at the Savoy! When i got the chance, I joined the historic Royal Oak Hotel in Sevenoaks and sprnt seven years there. I really enjoyed my apprenticeship and studied at Hendon and Slough to get my qualifications. One area I knew needed attention was p[astry and so I also gained a special pastry diploma. In the end, I needed a change and so spent nine months in France, at La Vallée close to Houlgate in Normandy.
Was that very different from Sevenoaks?
I worked very hard. The restaurant was very seasonal so they had to maximise business in the holiday season. The chef was passionate about local produce and I learned a great deal about fish from him. He’d ask me to go to the market with him and we’d arrive there at two or three in the morning, buy stuff and head back to the restaurant and then I’d realise I had a very long day ahead of me prepping! The main lesson I took from him was the importance of utilising products. For example, at the fish market he used to buy up the monkfish heads that people didn’t want in order to utilise the cheeks. Be clever and maximise – a great lesson. After my time there, I had a chance to work in Paris but the job fell through a day or so before I was due to shift there.
So what did you do instead?
I was reading a trade magazine and in a piece about chefs with Michelin restaurants there was a photograph of a chef on a motorbike – Gordon Ramsay. I didn’t know about him but I thought any chef with a motorbike would be good so – this would be 1997 – I wrote to him at Aubergine on the offchance of a job. At the time he was a consultant shareholder in Teatro and got me into the opening team under Stuart Gillies who was ex-Aubergine. It wasn’t really my style, though, as I was interested in fine dining so it was great to get a message from Marcus Wareing asking me to call him, so I took a job with him at L’Oranger as a commis.
That was quite a step down, wasn’t it?
One piece of advice I’ve always remembered is ‘try to get to great places’. I’m competitive but not arrogant and it was a good career move to me to get into fine dining, even at commis level. Anyway, after a couple of months, I went with Marcus to Petrus, working up to Head Chef. I really learned about consistency and timing thwre. After that I took over from Angela as Head Chef when Marcus opened a new restaurant, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley. Eventually, in 2005, I realised I needed a break from 100 hour weeks to spend time with my family and got away from that pressure for eight months. I spent some time helping out at a couple of sites in Brighton and then missed the vibe of London and took jobs first with JP Morgan and then KPMG. Surprisingly, very modern kitchens and I had to do a crash course in modern techniques!
We’re now – what? – 2006?
Yes. Another call from Marcus to help out with his Gordon Scott opening and In worked in an executive role, supporting and training, that still gave me time with the family. Then back to the Berkeley. By now, I wanted my name above the door and last year my agent asked me if I’d ever considered Dubai. Well, everyone’s heard of the scene here so I came over in August. To be honest, I spent all my time in the hotel and could have been anywhere but I felt at home because the kitchen set-up was what I was used to – that Ramsay heritage.
What did you think of the food?
At a very high level – to be honest, I was a bit worried! It was a challenge to put my own spin on what Nick and Scott has achieved, but we’ll see some changes here.
Not being based here, how did you develop your new menu without access to suppliers?
I needed to play the launch menu a little safe, using ingredients I knew were available here from existing suppliers. we’ll develop as we talk to them and get them to source other produce and I really get to grips with the delivery timelines. Of course, all through the autumn I was under pressure to deliver the menu because Hilton wanted to start marketing the change but, as you know, the lead up to Christmas in the UK is a crazy time for us in the business. But we achieved it and I’m happy.
What changes are you envisaging?
I want us to attract more hotel guests and one way of doing that will be to deformalise fine dining here. I don’t mean delivering street food but shifting to wooden floors and tables, new less formal tableware, great technique with the food but less stiff service. Very much a Jason Atherton Pollen Street Social feel, I guess.
Your approach to food?
As I said, I’m very attracted to the idea of not wasting good produce so one thing you’ll see is using a vegetable in multiple forms and textures on a plate. A cauliflower, say, using the florets and the stalk in very different ways. I’m attracted to the idea of building the protein around one main veg. I’m keen to use as many local ingredients as possible, but I’ve not really had the chance to explore that too much yet, but we’re already using local chickens, tomatoes, fennel and so on. We’ll keep European fish on the menu but I want to see how we can use local fish as substitutes – dory for halibut, for example – as well as local mackerel and so on. So, yes, the style of table 9 will change.
Do you see it as a challenge to carry forward the large numbers of diners who were passionate about table 9 with Nick and Scott?
Well, the first night we had 40 covers – half as bookings and half as hotel walk-ins. Given our location, that is I think the way forward for us. Diners in Dubai have such a wide choice any restaurant faces challenges but I think Nick and Scott have done a great job and I want to build on that. Just let me catch my breath!
“I’m very attracted to the idea of not wasting good produce so one thing you’ll see is using a vegetable in multiple forms and textures on a plate. A cauliflower, say, using the florets and the stalk in very different ways. I’m attracted to the idea of building the protein around one main veg.”