Complex Made Simple

Marea restaurant: “Not a triple diamond Rolex; A Louis Vuitton bag.”

Ahmass Fakahany, CEO and founder of Altamarea Group, describes Marea restaurant. Savour a taste of exclusivity in this interview

While Dubai seemed like a natural choice in many ways, the new launch isn’t without its challenges People care about what they are eating and will pay a bit more for it if it’s better for them The total number of operational restaurants and cafes in the emirate of Dubai has reached 11,813 at the end of 2018

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That’s how Ahmass Fakahany, CEO and founder of Altamarea Group, describes Marea, the group’s flagship two Michelin star restaurant.

We sat down with him ahead of Marea’s Dubai launch in DIFC next month. 

The brand

Meaning ‘tide’ in Italian, Marea puts a high-end spin on Italian seafood. It first opened doors ten years ago on Central Park South in New York City and its Dubai launch is the first extension outside New York. 

“It is a very young restaurant in New York. We think we have established a client base. We understand what makes it work. We have seen how it aligns nicely between business, fashion and art,” says Fakahany.

The (new) city

When considering the expansion, the group wanted its new location to be a vibrant city that has a lot of affinity with entertainment and different cultures coming together while also being a gateway to Asia, Africa, Europe, etc., explains Fakahany. 

“And to be frank, a place like London also fits a lot of those criteria,” he adds. 

Eventually, Dubai won the toss because it made both, emotional and business sense. 

“I have Middle Eastern roots and the cycle of life as there is… I’ve been wanting to reconnect with the locale,” says Fakahany, who is originally from Cairo, Egypt. “Partly, Dubai is bringing me back almost full circle and connecting with people from an environment that represents my roots.”

On the business side, he adds, Marea’s client base is quite international. “Dubai has the operational platform for something like this,” he says, referring to the logistical facilitation of flying products in and out and the propensity for a luxurious lifestyle. 

The challenges

And so, while Dubai seemed like a natural choice in many ways, the new launch isn’t without its challenges. “The most current one is the balance between demand, supply and capacity,” he says, especially in a downward trending economy. But, he remains optimistic as he reflects back on when Marea was first launched in New York back in 2008-09. 

“It was a very challenging time in the United States and the rest of the world. So we’ve never had the luck to open something, frankly, in a booming environment.”

The other challenges – and a less formidable one – is getting the right staff and training them. “I wouldn’t call that a challenge – more a workable training step,” says Fakahany, who is relocating Marea New York’s general manager to the Dubai restaurant. 

The model

“We really want this to not be a licensing effort; we have a different vision on this.” That means shared resources between New York and Dubai, quality control, and constant communication. 

If there’s one line that sums up Fakahany’s idea of seamless integration, it is: “Hopefully, a client will walk into Dubai and say I’m going to New York next week and we’ll book you right there.” This vision is also the reason why he didn’t consider a franchise or licensing model. 

The industry 

Marea’s Dubai lunch comes at an interesting time for the F&B market in the UAE, which was estimated at AED131 billion ($35.7bn) in 2017 for food and AED11 bn ($3bn) for beverages increasing to 131 billion AED and AED14 bn ($3.8bn) in 2021 respectively, according to a DEDC report.

 “I think there is a toward what goes into your system being higher quality and good for you, and I don’t know if it’s just a trend or a way of living that we’re all moving toward,” he says. There’s also more of an inclination toward quality and value, he adds. “People care about what they are eating and will pay a bit more for it if it’s better for them.” Having said that, Fakahany still finds the pricing in Dubai quite high especially among fine dining restaurants. 

Although Altamarea Group has the brands to fit the mid-tier pricing category, “we decided to do something completely polar opposite,” he says. On one hand, there’s Marea coming from New York at a Michelin star level. On the other hand, the group – and its Dubai-based management unit Atelier House – is launching a local concept called ‘Mohala’ in Dubai Design District (d3). Serving Indian street food, Mohala is on “a completely different level and direction but that’s something locally developed,” he adds. 

The idea for Mohala came from Atelier House managing director Panchali Mahendra. “There is a huge clientele that would enjoy it here and we are exclusive in d3 for Indian food, which is not a bad thing. There is enough business thought and rationale behind it, and a bit of emotion behind it as well. That could be something that could be interesting for this space and it’s not a horrendous financial commitment,” explains Fakahany. 

The trends

61% of UAE consumers purchased organic foods more than once a month, according to a 2018 YouGov survey. Overall, there were only 17% who never purchase organic food. This shift toward healthier eating has resulted in several organic cafes and restaurants sprouting up. Fakahany is also bringing high-end dining through Marea and street-style eating out through Mohala; what about capitalizing on this trend? 

Simply put, “I don’t want to be the leader. I’d like to be a follower in that space,” he says. He further explains that it’s about fresh food and high-quality ingredients – which Marea does already – in a certain ambience and atmosphere that creates a holistic experience. He admits that an organic or vegan café might fit better in this locale, but continues to remain sceptical of it providing a holistic experience that people would want to regularly enjoy. 

“I’m not sure if that is a vertical business or it is part of a broader business,” he says. “My feeling is, if it’s a trend, I’ll follow it. If it’s sustainable, I’ll be there. But I don’t think I’m going to invest in it and be the leader.”

The other trend – and one often criticized by renowned chefs – is molecular gastronomy. For Fakahany, it is one of those things that “fits under the umbrella of innovation but is half gimmicky.” More importantly, it is symbolic of what he calls “reversion to core”. “People increasingly want to recognize the food on their plate and I’m seeing a bit of reversion to food that is comfortable but done in a lighter way.”

And yet, he says, the society here in Dubai, certainly in Asia, and now even the US, is big on sharing. “It’s pretty hard to share molecular food and things done with smoke coming out… it’s like one big storm happening at the table,” he says. Admittedly, there are “stimulus elements” and “they are a great way to taste food and excite the palate as an experience” but there are other opportunities for the chef to be creative – such as in the amuse-bouche – but it doesn’t have to extend to the entire experience. Moreover, and this is perhaps more true of Dubai, there is a high %age of young people who are more health conscious and like to workout, he explains. “You don’t want them eating a molecular meal and going to Burger King afterwards… everyone’s loving it but everyone’s starving.”

The total number of operational restaurants and cafes in the emirate of Dubai has reached 11,813 at the end of 2018, according to a report issued by the Business Registration and Licensing, BRL, sector in the Department of Economic Development.

The report showed that the number of new restaurants and cafes that opened in Dubai in 2018, reached 1,109, growing 9.7%, from 1,011 in 2017. In 2018, the number of newly opened restaurants reached 641, while the number of cafes stood at 468, compared to 601 and 410 respectively in 2017.

The favourites

Having lived and travelled pretty much all the world, Fakahany has tried different cuisines and restaurants and we would be amiss to not ask him about his Dubai favourites. So, in no particular order, here are his top picks:

  • 3 Fils in Jumeirah Fishing because “I really was struck by it and enjoyed it.”
  • Ruya in Grosvernor House because “I’ve only ever been to the one in London so it was interesting to try it in Dubai and I thought the kebab was good.” 
  • Petit Maison because “I like the feel of it” and it has a certain je ne sais quoi that “we don’t have in New York”. 
  • The Lighthouse in d3, which describes itself as “a concept store featuring a curated selection of food and design,” because of the coffee, breakfast and the concept and ambience.

And finally, we had to ask: Do you plan to have gold-anything on your menu at Marea or Mohala? “I never say never,” shrugs Fakahany, but, “we’re going to let people eat things that grow from earth and animals,” he concludes.