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Thu 22 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Interview: Didier Souillat

As Michelin-starred brand Hakkasan opens its third outlet worldwide at Emirates Palace, operating officer Didier Souillat speaks to Lucy Taylor about the group ethos, staff training and the advancement of Abu Dhabi.

Interview: Didier Souillat
Hakkasan’s Souillat: There is nothing quite like Hakkasan in this region.
Interview: Didier Souillat
The main dining area at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi.

As Michelin-starred brand Hakkasan opens its third outlet worldwide at Emirates Palace, operating officer Didier Souillat speaks to Lucy Taylor about the group ethos, staff training and the advancement of Abu Dhabi.

Tell us a bit about Hakkasan. The brand has been around for a few years now; we're actually celebrating our tenth anniversary in a couple of months. It has progressed very nicely over the past nine years, and it's a good time now to expand and develop it. Happily, we have really been given a fantastic opportunity by our chairman, His Excellency Khadem Al Qubaisi [managing director of Tasameem, an arm of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority] to do just that.

Tasameem's majority share purchase of Hakkasan in 2007 also saw them gain a majority interest in another Alan Yau brand, didn't it?

Yes, Yauatcha; this is an all-day dim sum restaurant, also with a Michelin star, which is only established in London for the moment, but which we also anticipate we will expand into the right areas in future. But for the moment, our focus is on Abu Dhabi.

Tell us about the designers you worked with on the Abu Dhabi project.

Gilles & Boissier - they are French designers who have been our partners for a long time. They were also part of the Miami design team and the Christian Liaigre team that created the first Hakkasan London. They've been involved at every stage of the project.

Does the new outlet have any local flavour in its design?

It primarily had to reflect the original London Hakkasan, but the design also had to evolve. You won't see the white marble in London, and also some of the patterns in the carved panels reflect the Arabic style and the designs you can see around Emirates Palace.

Light seems to play a major role in the design as well.

Light is essential; it's part of those sense experiences that we want all our customers to experiment with. The lighting changes according to different times of the day, reflecting the overall mood, ambience and materials that are used.

Esometrics is the lighting company we've been using for the past nine years, since the first Hakkasan opened.

Apart from the lighting, what would you pick out as a stand-out design feature of the new outlet?

The blue glass is a key factor for us; the fact that you can see the kitchen through blue glass is paramount in our concept, as well as its use in the bar area.

Having a separate identity between the lounge and main dining area is also vital. You have different segments, so it still feels like a whole, but not like it's just a big, empty 12000 square-foot space.

The flow is very important too, not only from the service point of view, but also the customer's, so they don't feel like there's all this ‘service' going on around them.
You're running the outlet under a management contract: did you bring your own staff in and conduct your own training, or did Emirates Palace assist at all?

We brought the top management in from London - our head sommelier, head bartender and head trainer - then we did our own recruitment for staff and have conducted all the F&B training ourselves (although of course Emirates Palace gave an induction to the property and the local environment when our team arrived; it's vital to understand such things when coming to work in this region).

The management team will stay here for as long as it takes, then return to London and the team here will be autonomous.

In the kitchen, apart from a British pastry chef, the team is wholly Chinese. But in the front-of-house there is a mixture of nationalities, with people from Myanmar, China, Turkey, Italy - it's quite diverse.

Will operations here be different in any way to the other two Hakkasan outlets?

There is only one item on the menu that has alcohol - our signature silver cod with champagne sauce and honey. But some of the recipes that had a wine base in London we have managed to recreate here with marinades of Chinese spices, and really you don't miss it. And we have no pork ribs here, but we have fantastic beef ribs. So yes, we have adapted to the market - which is important to do whenever you move into a new region.

The UAE is a competitive market; what will Hakkasan offer diners that other outlets don't?

There are a lot of very good restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai; I just think we have a bit of an edge. Our take on Chinese cuisine is modern Cantonese food, and there is no other concept quite like that in this region. Being in Emirates Palace is also a plus, and I think the features - not just the food, but the whole layout and its appeal to the senses - will fill the place up.

What's your view on Abu Dhabi's status as a destination?

One of the reasons we're here is that Abu Dhabi development plans over the next five years are absolutely incredible! So we want to be a part of that, and be a destination for guests after they have spent the day at the golf courses, the museums, and the other attractions that are being built.

Hakkasan has been flagged up for global expansion in future; when you have a high-end brand with a good reputation, do you think there's a limit to how far you can expand it while still retaining that exclusivity?

There is obviously a certain market for this brand, so we are not thinking of opening Hakkasan by the dozens. However, we are a well-priced offer and we do want to give people around the world the opportunity to enjoy that.

We will be opening in Mumbai, hopefully quite soon, to give people in that region the chance to taste our food. That could be towards the end of the year.

We also have one definite opening in the pipeline, which is Mayfair Hakkasan, opening around Christmas.

Regarding Yauatcha, we need to get the brand ready to be exported before developing that elsewhere.

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