Vila perfectly understands the need to evolve both the food that is offered and the way in which it is prepared and served
For more than a decade Jean-Luc Vila has been carefully crafting the dishes that have transformed Bateel from a small business offering premium dates to a large enterprise consisting of luxurious boutiques, artisanal bakeries and premium cafés.
It has been a remarkable rise for the company that started with humble beginnings in the small town of Al-Ghat in Saudi Arabia. Yet once you meet the larger-than-life chef at the helm, it becomes obvious as to why Bateel has enjoyed such rapid growth.
Vila perfectly understands the need to evolve both in terms of the food that is offered and the way in which it is prepared and delivered. He also has a great appreciation for the way the UAE has grown and the demands that come with a rising population.
“After 10 years we don’t have the same customers anymore,” he says. “We have to adapt to that and look at the younger generation who like to order online and eat healthier. So now there is more focus on salads and vegan dishes, as well as organic bread and eggs.
“The last few years the health conscious have had a big impact so in our next menu we will offer two pages just with gluten free and vegetarian dishes. It’s good to have a special section.
“We are also looking to change the menu according to the location as in Media City people are busy and don’t have an hour to sit down for lunch. We have to respond to that. We will look at offering something that is pre-packed and ready but still retains that same quality. We have to respond to demand.”
Fortunately, after close to 12 years as head chef at Bateel, Vila now has a core team that he can count on. When he wants to introduce changes to the menu his team immediately understand how dishes should be prepared and presented.
This is hugely beneficial given that there is nothing Vila enjoys more than creating. Having left his homeland of France more than 20 years ago he loves to travel and experience new cultures and taste different ingredients. This knowledge is then transferred onto the plate at Bateel.
“I love to visit local markets in every country that I travel to as that way I can have a better of understanding of what the locals eat,” says Luca. “I was in Bali recently and I tried some nice restaurants, but it wasn’t what Balinese food is. So I found guy on the beach doing traditional barbeque and it was amazing.
“It was just fish with some local spices, but the flavour, it was amazing. It was the same when I went to India and Nepal. In fact, wherever I go I always make sure to try the street food.
“Even here in Dubai I go to Global Village and get spices from the Yemeni stand. Though most recently I found a dry lemon from Iran. I studied it and found that lots of two and three Michelin star restaurants in France use it. It is very strong and is perfect for marinating dishes.”
This fascination with discovering new flavours and sensations began when Vila moved to Mauritius. Having trained at a culinary school in Toulouse and then specialised in pastry and chocolate in Switzerland, he was offered the chance to work on the island in the Indian Ocean.
It was this move that opened the French chef’s eyes to a world of culinary possibilities.
“I love to visit local markets in every country that I travel to as that way I can have a better of understanding of what the locals eat”
“I only planned to go for one year but ended up staying for eight as there was such good products and a very high level of food in Mauritius,” explains Vila. “It was here I discovered new spices as I had never eaten Indian food or Chinese food. That opened my view and my taste. I changed totally after.
“I was also lucky to work for six months in the Shangri La in Singapore and again I saw very different food. I was using the same classic French techniques but using local ingredients. It was a great experience.”
After leaving Mauritius there would be one more experience that helped shape the philosophy of Vila. Working at the exclusive Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados, he would be tasked with preparing meals for some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
During his three-year spell on the Caribbean island, Vila would cook for the likes of Madonna, Rihanna, Michael Jordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pavarotti. He would even play a crucial role in the wedding of one of the world’s greatest golfers, Tiger Woods.
“There was always someone famous as it is very exclusive. I remember playing cards with Pavarotti and he sang a few songs, it was very nice,” recalls Vila.
“One of the biggest events was Tiger Woods’ wedding as we made 12 cakes just for the testing. His wife couldn’t decide as she liked six out of the 12. So we did a six-level cake with each level a different flavour.
“But what was interesting at the wedding was that his mother’s family is from Thailand, so we had a big Thai buffet. And his wife was Swedish, so we had lots of seafood. You would have expected luxury, but they went back to their traditional home food.”
Throughout his time in Barbados Vila was surprised at just how many celebrities sought out simple food that reminded them of home. So by the time he left the small island he was ready to put all that he had learnt into practice.
This just happened to coincide with Bateel seeking a head chef. And after an interview with a head-hunter and a meeting with the CEO of the company, he was ready to begin his life in Dubai.
“I actually met the CEO on the way to Paris and we spent eight hours discussing food,” he says. “He wanted someone with French training but also with the ability to use local ingredients. That was his idea and now 12 years later we are still doing just that.”
Joining Bateel at the very early stages of the company’s existence meant that Vila had a strong say in how the brand should go forward. When first opening the only products on offer were dates, chocolates and some cookies.
And despite Vila having such a strong background in the patisserie world, he was determined to showcase his ability as a chef de cuisine and believed that Bateel could enter the market as a café.
“When I first joined I was even asked to help build the factory where we would make a lot of the products. So it took us a while to get going,” says Vila. “But then the CEO went to a big food fair in Germany and he found a lot of good ingredients, so I suggested we do a small coffee shop and focus on good ingredients.
“I went to visit the farm and checked the harvest and we worked on some simple recipes. We started adding soup, sandwiches and pasta onto the menu. Then it was breakfast and main courses. After 10 years the menu has really changed.
“But it still comes back to traditional home cooking and the days I would spend with my grandmother. The flavours she produced I will never forget and it was all good ingredients and simple food. For me, that is the perfect formula.”
To this day, Vila still enjoys returning home and sampling his grandmothers’ cooking. But having not lived in France since 1994 both his own and his children’s palette’s have become less accustomed to the classic chicken or rabbit.
Vila cooks for his son and daughter every day now and it is his teriyaki salmon that proves the most popular, not just with his own children but also with their classmates at school.
“At home I cook and during the week they all know what they want for lunch. But on the weekend we try new things,” says Vila. “Friday and Saturday is our day to experiment, while on Thursday evening we will pick a restaurant to eat in.
“But they don’t want Alain Ducasse or French food, no my daughter loves spicy Indian food and my son loves Japanese. They are totally open to different cuisines. It is fantastic.”
Vila uses these trips and his weekend’s at home to create new dishes, many of which will end up making their way onto the menu at Bateel. Having just created a new menu that will be introduced in February, he is already working on the next menu change.
It is a major change from his days as a pastry chef, but it seems he was always destined to become a head chef.
“I liked pastry as I was very mathematically orientated and in pastry you have to measure perfectly or else it is screwed up,” he adds. “It is a very clean process and straight away I was one of the best. But I was once told that a good pastry chef will be a good chef, but a good chef de cuisine will not always be a good pastry chef. So for me, the transition was easy.”
Clearly the wise chef who made this declaration to Vila was correct and it is Bateel and its customers who are benefitting as Vila continues to produce simple yet hugely flavourful food.
WORDS: ADRIAN BACK.