Playing hard takes chef Ahmad Refaie Othman places

Chef Ahmad Refaie Othman, who was executive chef at Dubai's Zuma for six years, now co-owns his own restaurant Play, also in Dubai.
Chef Ahmad Refaie Othman, who was executive chef at Dubai's Zuma for six years, now helms restaurant Play, also in Dubai.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Ahmad Refaie Othman winks when told that he looks trim and is rocking his fitted shirt and snug designer jeans.

Giving his flat midriff a smug pat, he says: "Been working hard lah."

Not at the gym, mind you, but at Play, a swish 15,000 sq ft restaurant and lounge perched on the 36th and 37th floors of the H Hotel in Dubai.

He is the executive chef overlooking a team of 48 chefs and also a partner in the establishment which opened four months ago.

Play is backed by tycoon Rashid A.W. Galadari, whose family assets include retail, residential, commercial and entertainment development City of Arabia, a major taxi firm, a printing and publishing house as well as hotels.

The opportunity to strike out on his own is what lured Mr Othman, 38, from Dubai's Zuma, where he was executive chef for six years until last October.

Under the Singaporean's stewardship, the Japanese eatery made the list of The World's 100 Best Restaurants - published by British trade magazine Restaurant - for the last four years.

"Opportunity doesn't knock very often," says the congenial man who quit school at Secondary 2 and started out peeling onions and potatoes at his mother's nasi padang stall in Bukit Timah Plaza.

"I gave 110 per cent and achieved what I set out to do for Zuma. Now it's time to do something on my own," says the equity partner who will help to spearhead Mr Galadari's new F&B ventures.

Luxuriously fitted and furnished, Play - whose interiors are done up by award-winning firm Gatserelia - serves up a "Mediterrasian" menu.

"Think Mediterranean food with lots of Japanese influence and Asian spices," says Mr Othman, who was in town last week to explore business opportunities.

Although barely four months old, the restaurant - which seats 200 and is open only for dinner - is doing about 600 covers a night. In February, it won Best Newcomer for fine dining from Time Out Dubai.

Next month, the chef, who did not go to culinary school but started from the bottom and worked his way up in several restaurant kitchens, will open The Experience in one section of Play.

"It seats only 12 people and will be my private kitchen. I will work with the freshest ingredients for the day and will keep feeding diners until they say they've had enough," says the BBC Good Food Chef of the Year 2015, adding that he will be serving up to 25 bite-sized courses.

Diners can expect to pay about $550 (or $680 with wine pairing) for the experience.

The next few years will be hectic for Mr Othman, who is married to a former air stewardess with whom he has two children aged seven and 10.

He will have his hands full overseeing Play, which is opening an outlet in Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, before the end of this year.

There are also plans to open outlets in Mayfair, London and possibly Jakarta.

Meanwhile, he is finalising the concept for a chain of mid-tier restaurants serving JapaneseTaiwanese tapas.

Mr Othman, who sources for his own caviar and truffles in France, has come a long way from his first full-time job as a cook at Violet Oon's old restaurant in Bukit Pasoh when he was 16.

The doyenne of Peranakan cuisine taught him the ropes of food preparation and he honed his culinary skills over the next two decades working in various positions at restaurants ranging from California Pizza Kitchen to Les Amis, Raffles Grill and One Rochester.

Hard work has never intimidated Mr Othman, the younger of two children of a driver and a stallholder.

His parents divorced while he was in national service and, for a few years, he lived with his mother and elder sister in a one-room rental flat in Bendemeer.

Whenever he could, he would help out at his mother's nasi padang stall, peeling up to 30kg of potatoes a day.

When he was 25, he hightailed it to London and knocked on the door of British chef Gordon Ramsay's flagship restaurant in Chelsea where he asked for, and got, an unpaid internship.

He also scored a similar stint at the three-Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens in Lyon.

After eight months, he returned to Singapore and received an offer to work at the Al Mahara seafood restaurant in the seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai.

Some years later, when he was working in Singapore, a chef from Al Mahara told him he should join Zuma. And that was how he ended up meeting founder Rainier Becker in London, who got him on board to helm the high-end restaurant in Dubai.

He proved so good at his work there, he was tasked with helping to set up the operations and menus for Zuma in Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Miami.

Asked if he has any dreams, Mr Othman laughs.

"I met some Michelin Guide people in Dubai not long ago. They told me they have seen Chinese, Japanese and Indian chefs helming Michelin-starred restaurants, but not a Malay one."

And that, he says, is a dream worth mulling over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Playing hard takes chef places'. Print Edition | Subscribe