Tim Raue, the German chef often labelled the bad boy of the Berlin dining scene, is trying to become a more mellow man.
He’s having therapy. He does yoga. And his food, often described as having a graceful lightness, belies his raucous reputation.
Walk into Dragonfly, on Dubai’s City Walk, and you might expect upmarket cafe-style dining. What you won’t expect is Michelin-level service and food. Dragonfly is Raue’s first foray into the highly-competitive Dubai food scene, and while he admits to a mid-life mellowing, he’s not holding back on his opinions.
Opened in November 2016, after long negotiations with Meraas, the developers of City Walk, Raue was told Dubai’s dining scene is casual, so he developed a relaxed Asian style and menu for the city.
He says the bright red and black outlet has a strong cafe vibe; a relaxed casual air. “We don’t want people to think it is about serious food…we have to attract them here,” he explains.
The venue does not serve alcohol, which he admits he would never do again, “as it’s something our ex-pat customers always mention,” and he also quickly came to realise that different guests here have different demands – ex-pats make different demands to locals in terms of food.
“Food is often not even the main concern for people when going out here – they look for a trendy venue, and food is often the second or third concern,” he said.
Having said that, the Berliner feels that people still have high expectations for their meals, but he has been delighted by reviews so far, despite difficulty in getting good ingredients.
“Here, we don’t have the soil or water to make good produce. We sourced the best possible ingredients from all over the world. It took four months to source produce for my Dubai restaurant. It ‘s tough. It’s been an interesting journey here – locals see that this is an Asian restaurant, so they want dim sum and rice – that’s not what I do.”
He also discovered the swift pace at which things open in Dubai – “perhaps too quick”. Meraas, he said, was keen to be deeply involved at every stage of Dragonfly’s development, and invested in Raue’s vision, as a partner in the venture. But the developer’s expectation of City Walk as a busy residential neighbourhood is not there yet, with Raue expressing disappointment at the lack of residents so far.
“People invest a lot of money, time and effort into ventures here. It’s amazing to see the quality,” says the chef.
Fashion, fabric and art
He says he draws inspiration for his cuisine mainly from fashion, fabrics and art.
“If I start to create a dish from a tomato, I don’t think of the tomato, I think of a kind of fabric, for example, about the colours. I might see red and gold on a cushion, and I’ll incorporate that into the dish. If I’m seeking creativity, I go to galleries, watch movies, get a different view of the plate I’m working on.
It’s well-known that we first eat with our eyes, and Raue’s dishes are artistic, beautiful and sometimes extraordinary. It almost seems a shame to eat them.
Given his fine-dining background, Raue admits the local menu has been adapted, even though you will find similar dishes on City Walk as you will in his Michelin-starred Berlin outlet.
“What we have had to understand is that this is a local area, so the products we use, and the things we present, we have to adjust – they are looking for fried rice, dim sum and the like,” he said, suggesting it’s a balance between staying true to his well-respected culinary philosophy and filling the restaurant.
While already explaining how long it took his team to source the best possible ingredients for his Dubai outlet, he sees how ‘brand Dubai’ strives to be the best – and enjoys being part of that scene.
“They are keen to do sustainable things; but to do this, things have to change, and they will. It will need some time, but if they [Dubai] want it, they do it, and they do it properly. In terms of growing produce here, for example, they won’t grow genetically-modified Chinese carrots – they will find amazing seeds from somewhere in the world.”
On top of the clouds
Mention Michelin, and the Chef looks rightly proud. It’s well documented that Raue’s new restaurant achieved a Michelin stars just three months after opening, but he is meek about the achievement.
“I actually took it with me, from the previous restaurant,” he says, while readily admitting that achieving it “was the peak of my life.” He also sighs as he recalls the day of the Michelin review.
“There were eight people at the table, all reviewers, and all had different requirements. I ended up preparing so many dishes. One was vegetarian, one vegan, one was allergic to peanuts…it was the lunch of my life, and I think I developed grey hairs that day.”
His unique blend of Thai flavours, Cantonese skill and Japanese precision caught Michelin’s eye, and rightly so.
Yet, when cooking at home, he loves pan-seared fish or meat and veg, served simply, fast and direct, from one pan to the table.
In terms of his restaurant, his favourite thing to cook is seafood. His philosophy of what a dish should be would make Prosper Montagné proud: “for me the ideal dish is like a cloud – something which comes floating across the table with a silky atmosphere, very light. It goes over your taste buds, you are impressed, wondering what could it be, then the form is changing, then in a second, it’s blown away, and a new cloud arrives.”
His desire for lightness in the kitchen goes deep. He won’t cook anything with dark colours. You won’t find game on his menu, or heavy stocks, sauces or reductions.
Ich bin ein Berliner
He rails against German cuisine, as I list the classic perception of heavy meat stews, potatoes, and fried food. “I’m totally against it, it was so horrible!” he says, recalling some of the food of his childhood in urban Berlin. “I won’t serve bread, potatoes or noodles – I want to keep it light. Even at Le Soupe Populaire where we do my grandma’s dishes, we make these dishes as light as possible, and I love that.”
With eight restaurants in Germany, his self-monikered Berlin venue holds two Michelin stars, and retains a seat on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
He admits it has taken years for him and his team to work out portion sizes, given that his protein-heavy menu involves expensive ingredients, and he wants to strike a balance between satisfaction, cost and energy. He follows the Chinese philosophy of eating to put energy in your body, rather than the traditional German style of eating anything to feel full.
“Germans will buy an expensive car and pay a lot of money to keep it well maintained, and then go and eat cheap food. In other words, they don’t look after their own engines!” he laughs.
Food culture is changing, though, in Germany, partly thanks to Raue’s dedication to promoting a different kind of cuisine.
While fighting against heavy, stodgy dishes, he admits to still loving fried food. Yet the fried items on his menu still manage to be light, and he is not so rigid as to completely avoid the foods he doesn’t like on his menus.
Given the battle for world-class ingredients on the table at Dragonfly, he is unwilling to create seasonal menus for the Dubai outlet. A shame in our opinion, and something that might need explaining to returning customers.
“The dishes we have here are now exactly as we want them, and to make short-term changes would involve sourcing a whole new bunch of ingredients, which is both time-consuming and costly,” he explained.
Still, the menu is simply divine, and we would be disappointed if the menu were to change overnight, as there’s still many dishes we’ve yet to try – and an Uber to City Walk is cheaper than a flight to Berlin.
He explicitly trusts the Dubai team, hand-picked by Raue himself and Meraas, with his trusted head chef of the entire group, Christian Singer heading up the team. Patricia Liebscher, the restaurant manager, has been with Tim for five years, during which time she’s overseen the opening of five new restaurants.
“My partnership with Meraas meant I could choose the best staff I wanted, and I like that very much. They see the advantages they get from working with me. There’s a great bunch of chefs here…no-one came here to take the money and go away. We have a name, a brand and we need to keep it strong…Christian and I are so close, what he’s doing here is exactly the same as Berlin.”
The monster on TV
When Netflix featured Raue in its hit show Chef’s Table, the public reaction was strong on both sides – some thought he was, in his own words, an ar**hole, others loved him. But was the show a true representation of him?
“Netflix takes a US point of view – they liked my story, coming from a broken home, growing up on the tough streets, and now a famous chef, but it was too focused on me – they interviewed everyone else [in his kitchens] for hours. Then the show solely focussed on me. They made it like an ego trip. They didn’t show me laughing in the kitchen,(and I do!). They made me look rude, tough, and showed me kicking arses. People seemed to hate me or laugh.
“But I think ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, I was like that. But in the last three years, I’m not like that,” he says.
But to reach Michelin-level – and to survive, don’t you have to be extremely tough, passionate and ego-driven?
“Maybe, yes, but you don’t have to be an ar**hole…and I was; big time!” he admits, adding: “this is the reason I started to change, this is the reason I started to do yoga, and therapy. I thought I have to re-invent myself, I have to make it better for the people around me, they have to like working with me; even though I’m still full of ambition and power. It’s something I can work on and make better every day.”
While Netflix focussed on the man, and that didn’t sit too well with him, he says he has no complaints. “Getting a Michelin star was fantastic. Getting another was amazing. Going from two stars to making the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list was a dream. But now, the Netflix show is the cherry on the cake.”
Raue is the first to admit that with each accolade, reservations went up.
Nowadays, he is taking on more and more consulting roles. He sees himself as more of a chef/restaurateur, and is happier taking a lesser role in the heat of the kitchen. “I’m approaching my mid-40s, and I’m not the fastest in the kitchen any more,” he says, “a lot of my staff have been with me a long time now, and I’m trying to look after them, to allow them to breathe, bring their own ideas into the kitchen, while working on making the ar**hole side of me better.”
He admits to still needing to “make it clear who is the boss in the kitchen, and sometimes screaming,” and yet also sees himself as a mentor. “I want to help people become better in the kitchen. I’m a manager, a mentor, and want my people to grow – and now staff are staying by my side.”
His latest venture underlines his mellowing nature. He has recently opened up a casual Asian dining concept on a German cruise ship, and is consulting with luxury retirement homes on providing menus for guests.
“I am open-minded. Each of these presents new challenges, brings up new ideas and sourcing issues, which I love.”
“I’m so gifted and I am very thankful for that. In terms of industry awards and accolades, I’m at the peak. The nicest thing of all is that I love what I do every day.”
Meeting the man behind the brand is a positive experience. On a personal level, he seems affable, relaxed and keen to talk for as long as I wish. Asking deliberately provocative questions about the Netflix show and staff turnover left Raue unruffled.
The ‘bad boy’ ar**hole I thought I was going to meet turned out to be warm, generous and interesting. His final words surely stand as testament to that: “I understand you can achieve so many accolades, awards and achievements in life, but the most important thing is that you have someone who loves you.”
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