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Greek chic: In conversation with chef Izu Anu at Gaia, DIFC

We talk to chef Izu Ani to discover why the new DIFC hotspot Gaia is making waves on Dubai’s vibrant dining scene 

It’s only been a few months since its opening, yet Gaia in Dubai’s DIFC neighbourhood is on track to become the hottest hangout among the emirate’s chic crowd. After all, with a menu that draws on traditional Greek cooking, you can certainly expect to be wowed with the sheer array of classics on offer. One of the many talents behind this success story in the making is concept creator chef Izu Ani, who together with head chef Orestis Kotefas, has crafted a menu that brings the best of the Mediterranean to Dubai. And with the Greek goddess of Mother Earth, Gaia, serving as the inspiration, the venue champions humble and authentic cuisine with fresh ingredients in a contemporary space that oozes plenty of charm. Read on as chef Ani takes us on a journey behind the scenes…

Tell us about your journey as a chef. How did it all begin?

“Growing up in London, my passion for the kitchen began during home economics classes at school. After graduating, I started to work in a few hotels and joined the Michelin-starred restaurant The Square in Mayfair. I then travelled to France – where I lived for six years – to experience nouvelle cuisine first hand and this greatly influenced my culinary style. I also spent time in Alsace and the South of France where I worked at a number of restaurants including the two-Michelin-starred La Bastide Saint Antoine and the world-renowned three Michelin-starred Auberge de L’Ill. Then, my sights were set on Spain, and it was here that I gained invaluable experience in multiple cuisines and also discovered molecular gastronomy. My first venture after returning to London was relaunching the menu at Vanilla. But soon, the opportunity to relocate to Dubai came my way, which was followed by the successful launch of La Petite Maison. The venue made it to the list of the World’s 100 Best Restaurants less than two years after its opening.”

What’s the story behind Gaia?

“Gaia was born two years ago while I was having lunch with my partner Evgeny Kuzin who asked me what I thought about opening a Greek-inspired concept. We explored different ideas and visions with many others who have since been involved with the project. Gradually, the original concept evolved and was brought to life with a name that defined its design and an ambience that tells its story. The kitchen is the centerpiece of the layout and as I like to think of it, like in theatre, the food is the actor or star of the show.”

What inspires Gaia’s culinary philosophy?

“Greek cuisine is about generosity, love and family. It’s a culture that enjoys laughter and most likely invented the notion of “less is more”. Greek taverns are an extension of the kitchen at home and this is what I love. You never have a better meal than in the comfort of your own home.” 

With so many restaurants in the UAE offering the best of the Med, how does Gaia stay ahead of the game?

“We never make peace with our comfort zone. It’s an ever-evolving adventure that will never be complete. We always keep our eyes and minds open to draw constant inspiration.”

What inspired the creation of the menu at Gaia?

“Every dish tells a story. While conceptualising the menu, we delved into Greek traditions with our Greek head chef Orestis Kotefas and Greek sous chefs. Combined with my understanding of the culture, which I obtained through my travels, we worked together to build a menu with classics and put our own creative spin to these dishes. We made sure everyone’s point of view and experiences were respected and this helped us create the perfect environment to develop Gaia’s offering.”

Could you tell us more about your signature dishes?

“All your typical Greek favourites are our signatures, but not without our creative twist. We’ve dressed these dishes up differently to fit Dubai’s palate. It’s all about putting the right framework into the right environment with the right portion sizes, colours and textures.”

When it comes to the overall experience, what can diners expect?

“The focus is on the products. All our ingredients are exposed and not hidden. Gaia tells the story of Greek culture through the food.” 

With the dining scene in DIFC being pretty competitive, what do you think is the formula for making a concept work?

“Concentrate on what you do and don’t pay attention to what others are doing. Time and energy are precious. You have to stay positive, motivated and disciplined to be the best at what you do.”

Tell us more about what goes on behind the scenes at Gaia?

“Respecting the ingredients is the root of our philosophy, a mantra of sorts we live by. Once you respect your ingredients, you automatically manifest that same respect to your guests.”

From conceptualising a dish until it reaches your diner’s table, what goes into every new recipe?

“Once again, it’s all about the products. You have to understand what you’re working with and speak to it. You need to question how it can be layered with other ingredients and keep trying and testing new combinations until you find the right balance. Before introducing it to the menu, we like to run it as a special to ascertain how our guests received it.”

What’s the one dish at Gaia guests simply have to try?

“To leave with the complete experience, you have to try our cheese pie, moussaka, grilled fish, prawn saganaki or the choriatiki salata.” 

For reservations at Gaia or more information  04 2414242.  

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