Grégoire Berger: a fish in water at Ossiano – Dubai
From one ocean to another, it was a step that this young Breton took four years ago to settle in Dubai. At 32, Grégoire Berger is the chef at Ossiano, one of 24 restaurants of the gigantic five-star resort, Atlantis-The Palm Dubai. It’s a breathtaking dining experience where clients dine among hundreds of fish, sharks and turtles of the Ambassador Lagoon aquarium. Here, the chef proposes creative cuisine with influences from Brittany and products around the world.
You began your training and career as chef in your region – Brittany?
Yes, I am a pure product of Morbihan! I studied at La Closerie de Kerdrain in Auray, at the Pressoir at Saint-Avé and at the Domaine de Rochevilaine in Billiers at the same time as doing my BEP and professional baccalaureate in cuisine.
I learnt so much in these starred establishments and really acquired a very good foundation. And Brittany, with its sea spray, beaches and universe made me conscious of the product. Then I decided to travel and discover the world.
Which countries did you work in?
I started in Andorra, then quickly moved on to the United States when I was 20 after being chef de parti for Paul Bocuse at the Bistro de Paris. I met other people, other philosophies, other cuisine and other products…and then I leaned English. It was probably one of my best experiences! I also lived in Morocco for a while and opened a restaurant there.
Traveling opened the world to me, and not to remain fixed on my achievements. I then returned to Paris as Frédéric Robert’s sous-chef at the Grande Cascade. Following that, I decided to work as a private chef for Suez Environnement at La Défense where I was in charge of the most prestigious delegations. For a year and a half, I really improved; I had to change the menu every day. And then, with my wife, we wanted to move on, and an opportunity presented itself in Dubai.
Here, everything comes together – chefs and cuisines alike. It is therefore a fantastic laboratory for learning. But the most important thing to me is the perspective of evolution and development. Everything is possible here!
What was it like when you arrived here?
Good…even if it is true that at the beginning it is complicated. It’s another world, very “exotic,” everything is big and life here is expensive. It was also difficult when I arrived to integrate in a very English-speaking world.
What are customers asking for in the UAE?
Taste! The traditional gastronomic restaurant does not really work here. So, you must look for flavors with an impact, and that is the way that I directed my cuisine. Client expectations in Dubai are very diverse; we receive around 70 different nationalities each month. To please all tastes, I add spices, a “kick” to awake and excite the client’s palate. It is important that each person, no matter where they come from can find an emotion, obtain an impact when eating. I try to register my dishes in their memory.
How did you transpose the Breton culinary identity to Dubai? With what products?
I try to bring my region here with products like churned butter. I also work a lot with surf and turf, very typical in Brittany. But, my flagship product is buckwheat. Surprisingly, the buckwheat is not from Brittany, but from Russia. It is very good from there, as it also is from Japan. The effect remains the same. This ingredient is a little memento from my Brittany.
Are there any local products that you can work with?
For my restaurant, very little. As an example, fish coming from very warm waters have a pretty flaky flesh and not an extraordinary taste. There are therefore many products imported from all over the world. Yet, among the local products I use, there are dates, some lemons, or camel’s milk to make ice-cream.
Do you find it frustrating as a chef not to be able to cook “locavore”?
It is frustrating, of course. In terms of ecological impact, you cannot deny that it is disturbing. Even if all our products respect the environment and sustainable agriculture, unfortunately we have to bring things in from outside and that is a negative point. However, the positive side is that we benefit from seasons from all around the world: the black truffle from Australia and the Périgord black truffle according to their seasons. We also use products from all countries: Japan, Holland…we manage to do a real world cuisine.
Being a French chef abroad has what impact on the clientele?
It reassures customers. Now, as a chef, we have to be careful. Living in the middle of the planet with talented chefs from all around the world, I can assure you that competition is tough. Being French is a guarantee of quality because it is written in the memory that French cuisine is the best in the world. For our clientele, being French is a plus, it is undeniable. It is up to us to cultivate this effect and continue working hard to remain the reference.
How do you maintain this excellence?
People don’t come here just because you are French or do French cuisine. They come from word of mouth. At Ossiano, this is how we have built our reputation in four years. We value day-to-day customer satisfaction and make sure that our cuisine is unique. With the “culinary journey” menu, I propose a gastronomic journey in 11 dishes with stories all around. This is a menu that I created to go beyond a simple dining experience and rather as an overall experience in this beautiful setting with views of the aquarium, a completely unique experience endemic to our restaurant.
Who are the French chefs who inspire you?
Yannick Alleno has been one of the most avant-gardist chefs. Benoit Violier of Hotel de Ville de Crisser, unfortunately deceased, represented to me supreme fine dining, the gastronomic restaurant was one of the most sanctified. But I have also been inspired by foreign chefs, such as Quique Da Costa or David Munoz in Spain. In Italy also there are very good chefs. As I advance, though, I realize that it is not the chefs that inspire me, but rather art, the universe, and the environment in terms of creation. You know, we cook very differently here; we don’t draw from a cook’s memory. We cook by looking around us, drawing inspiration from the world and by creating very international dishes without getting lost in a form of ridiculous fusion.
Would you feel as free in France?
I think we can be free anywhere, as long as we are not tied up in economic or management constraints. I am fortunate, despite the 1,500 rooms and 24 restaurants of Atlantis-The Palm, to be able to do absolutely whatever I want in my restaurant. And that liberty allows me to create some very interesting dishes and build our clientele. Perhaps I would not be as free in France. Even if I cultivate that very French chauvinist side! (laughs) It for that reason that Matfer is a family affair, and that is important to me. It is one of the only companies that has not relocated, which uses French know-how, and I think we must participate in this system. If we do not buy this category of products any longer, the business will die and that is our responsibility.
Do you remember the first time you met Matfer?
Matfer has always been a part of my career as a chef. Wherever you go, you have Matfer. Why? For the quality. In the numerous gastronomic restaurants where I have worked, all used Matfer products. It is obvious, we don’t even say, “I am going to order Matfer.” We just say, “I need equipment,” and we naturally head to Matfer. It’s the French know-how, qualitative and lasts a long time. My mother always says, “Buy quality; you’ll pay less,” and it’s true. It is an investment, but it is also a product that won’t need replacing. For me, Matfer is quality, design, practical and of course French know-how all rolled into one.
What are your indispensable tools?
The whisk! The Matfer whisk is indispensable, very resistant, very easy to use. I also can’t do without my gastro plaque. Or even the silicone mat; I love those! I need tons and tons in my kitchen…everything is very practical. In my kitchen, there is Matfer equipment that has been here for 10 years, and it does not move.