I recently read an interview with the über-cool Ollie Dabbous.
Exactly. Unless you’re a real food freak it’s more than likely that you’ve never heard that name before. And that’s no accident.
This isn’t a guy you’re gonna see playing around with omelettes on Saturday Kitchen. He has, I believe, one cookbook which was likely produced under some duress, or else as a quick route to funding his second venture. His first venture is the imaginatively titled Dabbous in Fitzrovia, a stripped-back informal take on fine dining that won over the critics within weeks of opening its doors. “The star ratings on these pages correlate to the quality of cooking. Five stars is reserved for when a place comes along that changes the game,” was the now infamous closing gambit from Fay Maschler’s Evening Standard review of Dabbous. Needless to say, she awarded it five stars.
The things that she, and so many reviewers since, found so appealing about Dabbous were its affordability and accessibility. No starched white tablecloths or condescending maître d’s, just friendly staff and bloody good food. And that’s the way it should be, right? The ephemera of a traditional Michelin service is pretentious pantomime, there to either massage the egos of the self important or crush the confidence of the genuinely curious. Either way it’s a curse.
Dabbous himself has been through the kitchens of Le Manoir, Hibiscus, Mugaritz, Noma, The Fat Duck and more, and though he cites his time with Raymond Blanc as the most influential, it is perhaps his brief stint with Wylie Dufresne at Manhattan’s WD-50 that echoes most clearly in his own Fitzrovia restaurant. WD-50 was a restaurant that shunned the existing New York fine dining scene when it opened on the less fashionable Lower East Side, complete with a bar menu and open dress code. This was a restaurant that reputedly held tables at the bar for walk-ins only, and where 1-star dishes could be eaten whilst sitting on a bar stool sipping a beer. This same ethos seems to resonate throughout Dabbous.
The man himself is something of an enigma. He has no online presence to speak of, other than the obligatory restaurant website. No Twitter account, no Facebook page, no 20 book deal or YouTube channel. As he said of his restaurant:
“[…] there’s now so much social media and self-promotion. I find that quite tedious […] I’d have rather run a restaurant 20-30 years ago before all that shit existed.
“I want people to come back because they’ve had a great meal and it doesn’t break the bank, not because I’ve put a picture of a red mullet on Insta-twat.”
But this got me thinking. Is Ollie Dabbous really the single-minded, food-focused, publicity shunning purist that he (or maybe, perhaps, his PR) would have us believe… or is he a marketing genius?
Twenty or thirty years ago you could focus purely on your food. You could open a restaurant, do your thing, take the plaudits and live happily ever after. But such a world no longer exists. It is not possible to live in ignorant bliss unless you are truly ignorant, and Mr. Dabbous is certainly not that. The very act of shunning all social media is a bold social move in itself. So instead of becoming the Baudrillardian simulacra that is the meticulously-styled ‘Body Coach’ Joe Wicks (a man who was recently described by his OFM interviewer as “more brand than man”), the unstyled Dabbous might more accurately be described as consciously unstyled… self-styled ‘unstyled’, if you like.
He doesn’t wear whites, just a plain white t-shirt. He’s rarely clean shaven. He doesn’t do TV and seldom grants interviews, yet the media buzz surrounding him is as fervent now as it was when he opened Dabbous in 2012. Yes, the hype is justified as myriad food critics will confirm, but the same buzz surrounded Gordon Ramsay, Tom Aikens, Sat Bains and, more recently, Michael O’Hare when they first opened the doors to their own gaffs. But unlike Dabbous the other names here have all embraced the media, using it to maintain a presence in the collective conscience of a notoriously fickle public. Take Ramsay: he’s now so saturated in self-promotion that he has become a caricature of himself; an exaggerated grotesque of the bolshy, foul-mouthed stereotype that people now associate with all Michelin kitchens. Dabbous is the polar opposite; the Cate Blanchett to Ramsay’s Kardashian.
In his approach to both food and publicity, Dabbous’ mantra is most definitely ‘less is more’. The thing is, in order to understand the value of less you must first understand what constitutes more, and this is where Dabbous excels. The restraint shown on the plate is a reflection of his confidence and self-belief, in letting his work speak for itself devoid of unnecessary garnish. The same, I feel, can be said of his approach to PR… which is most definitely present, just hidden far far back in the steel and red brick shadows of his Fitzrovia namesake.