The Spanish chef is bringing his MICHELIN magic to Dubai.
Most celebrity chefs have egos as big as the Burj Khalifa. When it comes to the Spanish chef Paco Morales, who is behind MICHELIN Starred restaurants, he is polite, professional and passionate about food. As he is in the UAE to work on his new restaurant QABU in Link at One&Only One Za’abeel in Dubai, we met him inside the hotel to talk about food, fear and family.
Paco was destined for a culinary career. He was born in Córdoba, Spain, and his dad ran the local restaurant, The Asador de Nati. It was here that he became hungry for a career in food. He recalls: “My earliest memories are helping in the family business. My dad didn’t want me to cook, he just wanted me to chop onions. One day, I overheard him say, ‘I don’t see Paco in the kitchen’. I had a love-hate relationship with my parents. It was a powerful weapon, as I wanted to prove him wrong.”
Paco certainly proved his father wrong. He went on to work with gastronomical giants, including Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and Martín Berasategu at Lasarte-Oria. He shares: “I learnt how to look at things differently. In 2004, I was working at El Bulli and it was considered the best restaurant in the world. I learnt how operations were important. I also realised that you can have a great idea, but you have to have an excellent execution.”
Making a MICHELIN Star restaurant
Paco went on to open his own restaurants in his home country, Spain, which showcased international flavours and garnered international acclaim. While critics might have been impressed, his father only visited his restaurants twice. In 2010, he was awarded his first MICHELIN star for Paco Morales in Bocairente. In 2016, he was awarded a MICHELIN Star for Noor in Córdoba – it then received two MICHELIN Stars in less than three years.
The MICHELIN Guide’s awards are one of the few times you see male chefs in tears. So, how did Paco feel? “Fear,” he says unexpectedly. “I was a human in front of the unknown. Previously I closed two restaurants. This was my third restaurant and my own without partners, so I had doubts. I was asking myself if I was up to the standards or if I was lying to myself. My father said, ‘there are a lot of one and two MICHELIN Star restaurants, so the next is three MICHELIN Stars’”.
From Spain to Dubai
Now, Paco is opening his first restaurant in the Middle East. While he is in Dubai, he has checked out the competition: La Mar Dubai by Gaston Acurio (“it’s an experience for the senses”) and Mi Amie Dubai (“it has great vistas”).
The luxury hotel One&Only One Za’abeel will be home to 12 restaurants and bars, and it is welcoming world-renowned chefs including Anne Sophie-Pic, Dabiz Muñoz and Tetsuya Wakuda.
What sets Paco apart is his approach as a culinary historian. He loves to discover long-lost ingredients, techniques and recipes, and shares stories through dishes. Tourists would come to Córdoba for its history, so he wanted to extend that experience through the restaurant. Noor’s menu would be inspired by a different century each season, and he once had a dish called Door of Forgiveness, which was named after a door in the Cathedral of Córdoba.
Given that the UAE is only 52 years old, why did he decide to open a restaurant in Dubai? He laughs: “That is a very good question. There is a link between Córdoba and the Islamic world. Dubai is a city of connections and a crossroads. Córdoba was called the City of Light, and I believe that Dubai will be the City of Light. There is a palace in Córdoba, which is from the 10th century, and archaeologists found camel bones. So, when you say the ancient world, it depends where you are standing.”
QABU itself means cellar or vault in Arabic, and is a place where ingredients are stored. The concept will take diners on a culinary journey. He reveals: “The word unique is used a lot, but this is truly unique. I want to change the concept of fine dining in Dubai. We are preparing a cultural and historical journey, and draw inspiration from the eighth to tenth century. If you are interested in culture and curious, then this is for you. I want customers to return and discover new flavours. I don’t believe in restaurants that you go just once – it’s impossible.”
Throughout the interview, he is generous in offering personal anecdotes. When we ask what he thinks about chefs with egos, he says matter-of-factly: “I have a lot of years in the industry. I am a piece of the project, but I’m not as important as the project as a whole”. On that note, he smiles and shakes our hand and we see how haute cuisine, history and humility might just be key to his success.
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