Chef Talks: Chef Rory Duncan

BY Katrina Kufer / Oct 4 2018 / 13:05 PM

As La Petite Maison edges towards its eighth anniversary in mid-October, LPM Dubai and Abu Dhabi Executive Head Chef Rory Duncan discusses with Katrina Kufer for Harper’s Bazaar Interiors the importance of precision in maintaining consistency in the kitchen, the importance of reading, and what produce is unexpectedly best in autumn

Chef Talks: Chef Rory Duncan
Images courtesy of LPM Dubai
LPM Executive Head Chef Rory Duncan

La Petite Maison is a mainstay on the UAE culinary scene that began on the Cote d’Azur, and is now locally lauded for a simple but fresh ingredient-led menu consisting of French favourites such as Escargots de Bourgogne and Gateau au fromage blanc. British-Jamaican Executive Head Chef Rory Duncan – who has been at the helm of the restaurant for the last six of its eight years – emphasises the integrity of produce, and though the menu and its honest plating may read simple, it belies the depth of flavours that LPM’s culinary prowess brings forth by the simple act of encouraging, rather than masking, its high quality, internationally sourced produce. A green lentil salad – arriving with apple, fennel, celery and spring onion – is not be underestimated, nor their homemade pasta or Gratin Dauphinois – which Chef Rory explains is the result of a refined take on French technique, as well as an involved research into potato types. But beyond flavourful ingredients and a lighter approach to French cuisine, LPM offers impeccable, discreet service where a knowledgeable sommelier will have a few treats up his sleeve if given a carte-blanche to select what best complements each course, and staff in crisp uniforms share genuine recommendations – including occasional anecdotes on how those snails outdo even a grandmother’s long-honed technique. On the eve of its eighth anniversary, Chef Rory discusses with Harper’s Bazaar Interiors his seven years with LPM in London, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and how he helps maintain its status as a Dubai mainstay.

Harper’s Bazaar Interiors: What brought you to LPM?
Rory Duncan
: I was born in London, raised between there and Jamaica, but spent 90 per cent of my professional career in the UK. Growing up in London around the food scene, I was invited to LPM London for a few days and was in awe of the produce, the quality, and the way it was displayed with an open kitchen. I’d never worked like that before – my background is in classic French restaurants, where everything is done inside, and before that I hadn’t been aware of what was happening out in the restaurant scene for some time, and was very impressed. LPM puts all their vegetables out on display that are used during the course of the day – fennel, apple, courgettes, whatever is in season. It’s a showpiece. I was quite taken with that, which is what led me to work with LPM – just the vegetables!

LPM Dubai

HBI: What inspired you to enter the culinary world?
: I’ve just always been in and around food, always been fascinated by ingredients. In sixth form I was asked what I want to become, and I said a chef. I still have my graduation notes – this is what I’ve wanted for a long time. Influences like Joel Robuchon, Nico Ladenis – who I worked for – or my parents drew me to cooking, and cookbooks! I’ve collected them since I was 16. I remember sitting on the bus from Camberwell going up to Green Park in the mornings and reading Robert Carrier book in 1998, just getting inspired. I was always reading a cookbook, or restaurant guides, the Good Food guides. I would save my little pennies and go to restaurants on my own and eat! Or fly to France to see what great restaurants were doing, what was going on in the kitchen, all these from guidebook nudges. That was my life; I was all consumed by food. And there was no Google – in the 90s you had to find a book, and if you wanted more, fly there!

HBI: Given your love of freshness – how would you describe your cooking style?
: Coming up the ranks in England and Europe in the 90s meant mainly French training. I didn’t go to school for it – you were just taught classic cooking techniques. Chefs like Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White were the people you were inspired by, but when I joined LPM London, it was a lighter way of cooking, less butter and cream, more olive oil. You can do almost all with olive oil as you do butter. I had been used to using a lot of cream, but by late 90s and 00s, new ways of cooking were coming in, like using more olive oil. At LPM we do a mashed potato, which the French way means almost the same amount of butter as there is potato! [Laughs] It fantastic – delicious – but heavy. At the restaurant we finish the potatoes with milk and olive oil, and the flavour of the potato shoots up 100 per cent. I’m in love with ingredients. Potatoes differ so much during the year. Even now I try to explain it to the guys in the kitchen how they change – never stay the same. We buy them from all over and as some are short lived, sometimes we have eight different types in at once! Trying what’s best for chips, gratin, mashed potato… [Laughs] It’s constant. But this new way struck a chord with a lot of people – it was just the right time with LPM’s opening. No masking the taste, that’s the LPM way of cooking.

LPM Dubai Escargots

HBI: What about what you like to eat in your off time, or with family and friends?
: I’ve been a chef since 19, and I can count on both hands how many holidays I’ve had out of the kitchen in 26 years! I take cooking very seriously [laughs] – not carried away to the extent of being a bore, but it’s been very important to me. I’m always saying to my wife, “Buy what’s good now”. It’s never anything elaborate; if peaches are in season we’ll roast some peaches and whip some cream up with vanilla. I stick with a lot of fish at home, with white beans, or artichoke or mussels, a glass of wine, and that’s that! Or cheese. I’m quite fond of dairy – fascinated with cheese. I like lamb, but fish has always been my love.

HBI: LPM focuses on consistency and, save for a few seasonal dishes, maintains its menu all year. While this draws many regulars, how do you keep yourself challenged?
: The challenge is getting it right. It’s an art – you’re human, and in a kitchen such as ours where its not the same chef working on the section day after day, you have to have that consistency between the last chef and the next one coming in. It’s so, so important all the little things which we try to do on a daily basis. We start at 7.30am, everything is cooked fresh daily. Bread is done twice a day: just before the guests arrive at 11am, and it comes out the oven again at 6.30pm before dinner. Even olive oil is decanted and then put back each evening. This is how any great restaurant works – there’s a lot of work and detail in. Staff arrive at 8.30am because it takes a lot to set up the restaurant every day. And the kitchen is never closed. The last group of kitchen porters arrive at 11.30pm to clean the kitchen for the night shift, and then we’re back again in the morning. It’s a continuous process, a 24-hour operation.

LPM Dubai

HBI: How does this meticulousness apply to your ingredients and your focus on freshness?
: We cook to order – very little is precooked. The confit duck legs are cooked overnight, for 9 to 11 hours, where we try one or two, cook them, try again, and then re-season because eating raw duck when first seasoned is very different! You’ve got to have a strong stomach to eat that raw, but that’s what we have to do to keep the food consistent. Everything weighed out. 500g of butter or 2g of hazelnut powder means 500g and 2g. The baby chicken must be 450g or it won’t fit on the plate; a sea bass at 3kg can’t come at 3.8kg, because we’ll end up with half a portion that we can’t do anything with. Waste is a big no-no, and our suppliers understand this. For example, sea bass. We carry it all year but sometimes it isn’t great – like at the beginning of spring because it goes through a cycle like most things on earth – so we take it off the menu, even though we use really high quality sustainable suppliers. This is the joy of working with seasonal ingredients. Or tomatoes, which are very, very tricky! [Laughs] They have a very short span. Most think tomatoes in summer, but actually September is the best time for tomatoes! We use a huge amount – a minimum 30kg per day! So consistency of buying and sourcing the best ingredients at best time of the year, that’s it. Then seasoning – we rigorously taste and adjust constantly, every single day. Keeping that balance is a chef’s job.

We also don’t freeze anything – we’re one of the only restaurants in Dubai, even in London! I am dead against. But that’s what’s taught and is easier. For the last two and a half years I’ve moved away from freezer – LPM Abu Dhabi doesn’t have one at all. We rely heavily on the suppliers and make a calculated risk when ordering prawns or foie gras in amounts that we think will sell. When scallops are in season – unfortunately not at the moment – we buy them alive and pulsating in the shell and don’t remove them until it is ordered. We keep them in a tank with our lobsters, or in May, our crabs. They only last three or four days. We do our best to make sure our diners have the very best – freshest of the freshest. That’s what you pay for. It’s very hard, but rewarding! If someone says the food is fantastic and fresh, I’m over the moon because we’ve succeeded. But only on that day. The following day, we have to do it all over again!

LPM Dubai

La Petite Maison
DIFC, Dubai
Gate Village 8
+971 44390505