He was once Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s right hand man. Tired of waking up to realise someone else’s dream, chef Mohammad Islam took to Dubai in a bid to set up his own restaurant, but not before leaving a blaze in the world’s most cut-throat food and beverage hubs including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
On landing in the GCC’s cosmopolitan city, he went on to make a name for himself in six short years, heading eight restaurants in Dubai and Bahrain under Enshaa Group’s private business club The Capital Club, before developing five restaurants and two nightclubs at the developer’s colossal Palazzo Versace hotel.
Little did he know his own scheme, planned as a single restaurant, would become one of the largest F&B venues ever to be built in the city, stretching across three floors and 22,000 square metres, housing a lounge and rooftop nightclub. If you haven’t guessed it, we’re talking about celebrated concept Atelier M in Dubai Marina’s Pier 7, one of the chef’s three outlets in the city.
Sitting in the venue’s decorative lounge, located above the fine dining restaurant and just below its nightclub, Islam is certainly in his element.
Sporting a sharp suit and an open-collared shirt, he reveals the venue rakes in over $8m (AED30m) a year. But the 50-year-old restaurateur was not always this confident, disclosing he was “a computer engineer who wasn’t very good at computer engineering” before his career change.
“One day, I asked myself what I would like to do in the morning when I wake up that would make me happy. And the answer was, ‘peeling carrots and onions’. I thought there was a chance I could be very happy doing that.”
He’s doing much more than kitchen work today, 30 years after leaving behind the life in tech originally planned for him by his family. Besides the massive Atelier M, Islam holds under his umbrella two casual dining concepts, Vie Café and Vie Burger, as well as a Southern smokehouse restaurant in the pipeline.
His plans, however, go beyond the borders of the UAE, with potential projects lined up in Saudi Arabia, India, Hong Kong and Macau.
The founder refuses to divulge further information, insisting that he is focused on Dubai, where he says the market — while experiencing a slowdown — is quick to bounce back due to its small size. The main challenge, therefore, is not an economic one, but revolves instead around educating consumers.
“I think the palettes here need to be sharpened. We need to educate the average people how [fine dining] food should be. New York, for example, is a cut-throat market that innovates many things and it sort of moves towards the east or west and people start to copy. Here in Dubai, there is less innovation. Even if it is simple, it can be more innovative. Slowly, the competition is bringing more energy to the market and people are trying to look at things in a slightly different way than in the traditional way of doing things,” he says.
But business owners in the city also have some self-educating to do, according to Islam.
“There are plenty of people who are bringing in F&B concepts without understanding what the market really needs. There are proper studies of how and where restaurants should go and how to operate them. And I think sometimes it is overlooked. That’s why you see a lot of restaurants come in and then shut down shortly afterwards.
"Dubai is now one of the biggest tourist hubs in the world, so people must be careful what should or shouldn’t come in. This happens a lot in New York and Chicago too. You see people trying to open F&B outlets but it’s not done properly.
“People are very greedy at the beginning,” he continues. “Every business takes time to build. It’s like having a baby.
It grows slowly. You can’t have it mature in one day,” he says.
Halfway into our conversation, he recalls his first conversation with his once-mentor Vongerichtens, where to Islam’s surprise, the chef offered him a lesson in business rather than cooking.
“He said, ‘I can’t teach you how to cook. You already know how to cook. But I can teach you something very valuable in the future: how to manage an F&B business'."
Judging by Islam’s words, it is safe to say the chef has learned his lesson. “It seems like a very glorified industry from the outside, but from the inside, it takes a lot for someone to start an F&B business. At the end of the night, when people leave, your glass is full.
But when the day time comes, you start to see how fast everything disappears,” he says.
Looking at the size of Atelier M, one can assume it would take a lot to make the venue – or Islam’s hard work – disappear.
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