Saturday, September 19, 2020
Home > The Chef > Behind the scenes at GAIA DIFC with Chef Izu Ani

Opening its doors in DIFC at the end of October 2018, Greek-Mediterranean restaurant GAIA is named after the Greek Goddess of Earth, with each aspect of the restaurant designed to resonate with the sun, mountains and the sea.

Inspired by Mediterranean culture, the premium restaurant will serve Greek cuisine, with a humble, comfortable and unpretentious approach. An ice market makes up a focal part of the venue, with fresh fish and seafood that changes daily. Each dish is served by a team of experts who can provide excellent recommendations tailored to suit every preference and taste.

Filled with hidden details, reminiscent of the Greek islands, GAIA serves flavour and memories with a wholesome ambiance. Guests are encouraged to venture downstairs and explore a traditional souvenir shop, complete with authentic olive oil, shells and trinkets.

The lower level also includes a secluded Chef’s Table, located on the outskirts of the kitchen. With fourteen seats surrounded by white stone walls decorated with copper pans and beautiful details, the table was designed to create an intimate experience.

In conversation with chef Izu Ani, he tells more…

You’re soon to open Gaia in DIFC – tell us about the concept…

The idea of a Greek concept was born two years ago while I was having lunch with Evgany (a partner in the Bulldozer Group, the group behind the restaurant) who asked me what I thought about opening a Greek restaurant.

After my experience a few years ago in Santorini where I worked for few months, I fell in love with Greece and since always thought about opening a concept that related to this culture. My reply to Evgany was naturally, “let’s do it!”

This is where the collaboration of our thoughts started. “OPA” (the traditional Greek expression that’s said when breaking plates) was the first name given to the concept but being located in DIFC, we looked into giving the restaurant a stronger and more timeless name. The name GAIA, which is the ‘Greek Goddess of Earth’ in Greek mythology, came up and was the perfect fit for what we started to imagine. By being the embodiment of the earth and its ecosystem, GAIA’s focus will be on the food, its simplicity and authenticity.

Every element in GAIA has been thought through to ensure all visitors will be entertained. From the bar that’s inspired and filled with hidden details reminiscent of the Greek islands to the secluded and intimate Chef’s Table located inside our main kitchen, inspired and decorated like a proper Grecian cave, guests will be invited to discover more and more about GAIA with every return visit.

What inspired you to open such a restaurant?

I have used the same method and ethos that I used to learn French culture to learn Greek culture: being completely immerse into the culture. After my first experience in Santorini, I fell in love with the food, the culture and the people. The inspiration behind GAIA came from a combination of thoughts from Evgany, myself, my Chef Orestis – Gaia’s Head Chef – and a proper research and development team behind it.

During our first research and development phase, I had the opportunity to travel around Greece, with destinations including Athens, Thessaloniki, Mykonos and Crète as part of my itinerary. It was a resourceful trip, which allowed me to come back with a lot of inspiration in terms of the design, food, and ambiance we wanted to recreate. A lot of decoration elements have been sourced directly from Greece and will be displayed around GAIA. These pieces give a unique dimension to the feel of the place which add to its authenticity. During our trip we also sourced ingredients that will be key elements on GAIA’s menu.

Tell us about some of the stand-out dishes on the menu at Gaia…

GAIA is all about generosity. Greek tables are always filled with something in the middle to share with your family and friends. From the beginning until the end of the meal, you will always have something to discover and try. Our freshly baked bread from the wooden oven or the special welcome plate to start the meal will be key elements to GAIA’s dining experience.

We love that the restaurant will feature a fresh fish market. Where will you be sourcing your fish from for GAIA and what species can people expect to find?

Most of our fish will come from Greece and the selection will change seasonally based on the quality. Our focus won’t be on how many varieties can be displayed but above all, on the freshness of what will be available. We won’t be ordering any specific fish, but we will receive whatever the fisherman finds from his daily catch.

What’s a new ingredient that you’re enjoying cooking with at the moment and how do you utilise it in your dishes at Gaia?

I don’t believe in ‘new ingredients’ but I believe in ‘basic ingredients’. The ingredient that I always enjoy using and will always be inspired to work with, is olive oil.  It’s an essential element that simply brings all the flavours of a dish together. I have learned from A to Z the process of making olive oil, from the harvesting phase to the press and packaging phase, it made me enjoy and care even more about this product. It will be one of the key ingredients on the menu from starter through to dessert.

Are you able to source any of your fish and seafood locally in the Middle East?

As previously mentioned, most our fish will be coming from Greece, as well as neighbouring countries from the Mediterranean. Being a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant, most of the species we will be working with can’t be found locally unfortunately.

What are the most sustainable types of fish and seafood you’re working with at Gaia?

Sustainability is about taking what will be available from the daily catch and not trying to source species that can’t be found. What will be found and suggested by our fisherman, is what we will display and serve.

For chefs reading who would one day love to join your kitchen brigade – what four main qualities do you look for in a chef when hiring?

I look mostly at a person’s attitude. From my experience, even a person who doesn’t have a basic culinary skill set can make fast improvements if they have the right attitude. I never look at CV’s and prefer to meet directly with the person and understand their character. A positive attitude and the will to learn and share knowledge you already have, allows everyone to succeed.

In the kitchen, I test people and sometimes can be quite tough. Some people will understand that this is to make them stronger and to push their limits, while others will just give up. The more I believe in the potential of someone, the more I will push them. Chefs need to be pushed to grow and develop.

What is the overall experience that you’re hoping to provide your guests with?

I want all of our guests to feel joy, generosity, pleasure, taste, comfort and fun. Above all, I want every guest to leave with a smile and the excitement to come back.

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