DUBAI: As the executive chef of Addmind Hospitality, Carlos De Los Mozos has been responsible for designing a number of menus. Most recently, he created one for Babylon, one of the newest venues in the popular Dubai International Financial Center area, where many of the city’s best restaurants are located. What sets Babylon apart is that it’s a place to get dinner and see a show at the same time. But, as De Los Mozos stresses, the entertainment element shouldn’t detract from the food.
“Babylon is cabaret, and people supposedly don’t really care about food in cabaret, right? It’s all about ticking boxes,” he says. “But one reason I joined was because the CEO wanted culinary as well. The food has to be good. People will come for the show, but they’re not going to keep coming for the show. They’ll come for the ambiance, and they’ll come for the food. So (we wanted to) build a real triangle, where the service, the show and the food are impeccable.
“The key is simplicity,” he continues. “Every elaboration has to happen before you open. It’s all about being ready. It’s like Formula One; once you’re on the circuit, you have to drive. People will talk about strategy, but you’re on autopilot. All the prep happens before.”
De Los Mozos loves cooking and he loves food; that much is clear. He also loves to talk, speaking passionately, entertainingly, and at length about his journey from his hometown of Madrid to Dubai, via stints in South America, North Africa, and Saudi Arabia at all levels of his profession.
Here, he discusses seasoning, shouting, and spices and provides a tasty crab salad recipe for Ramadan.
Q: When you started out, what was the most common mistake you made?
A: I didn’t season enough. You know why? I was watching too many cooks on TV shows. I grew up watching cooking shows in Spain and thinking that a pinch of salt would season a whole pot of soup. No. Of course not. If you want your food to be tasty, you’ve got to season properly. And you’ve got to add enough fat, or oil, because that carries the flavor. My team at Babylon tastes all the time. This is something I like to teach people: I don’t add the salt at the beginning or end of the cooking; I add a little salt every time I add another ingredient. And every time I add something, I taste. Because I like to know how my dish tastes half-done, or a quarter-done.
What’s your top tip for amateur cooks?
Invest in equipment. Get a good knife and get a good pan—and they don’t have to be expensive. You should never buy pans with plastic handles, though; they melt away. And you can’t put them in the oven. And besides that, pans with plastic handles are usually very thin, so they don’t retain the heat. So, for example, if you put a steak on it, the steak absorbs all the heat and then you have nothing. But if you’re working with a good heavy pan, it’s possible to make great steaks. And a good sharp knife is very, very important. Also: Give it time. Some things have to be cooked low and slow.
What single ingredient can improve any dish?
Hmm. Salt? Butter? But let’s say intention. To cook with intention is the best thing you can do. I know people who cook with no intention. They just do it. That’s sad.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I can’t tell you one. I mean, there’s a day for shawarma, a day for Japanese… a day for fasting as well. But I guess I could say spicy. Yes. I have this almost sick challenge right now with my wife; we’ve made ourselves sick with spicy food. We’ll be, like, ‘You can’t eat that.’ ‘Ha! Hold my water. (Laughs.)
What’s the spiciest cuisine you’ve had in Dubai?
Sri Lankan or Thai. Or Chinese cuisine, if you ask for it spicy. I’ve started asking for medium at Thai restaurants — medium Thai, not medium-Western — which is still very spicy, but at least I can taste the food and I don’t suffer. I’m getting to the age where I get heartburn and I don’t sleep very well if the food is very spicy.
What’s your go-to dish, if you have to do something very quickly?
To install Smashed burger. My wife loves it and it’s very easy. I can make it in seven minutes from scratch. You smash the patty against the pan and you create a crazy crust, which is where the flavor is. And I love grilled cheese sandwiches.
What request from customers annoys you the most?
Salt and pepper. Or sauce on the side. I’m not making you a steak so you can play with it; I’m charging you for preparing something that you just have to put in your mouth. That’s what a restaurant is. There’s no dish here that needs extra seasoning. Any kind of dish alteration or any kind of new trend in altering dishes really drives me a little bit crazy. I only give sauces that are made in-house. You want Hellman’s? I won’t serve it.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
To install Spanish omelet. Because it’s very simple, but it’s very difficult to get it right. There are only three ingredients, so the proportions are very specific. You have to really know how it should taste. The difference between a good omelet and a bad one is very slim, and 99 percent of them are bad. When I’m in Madrid, I don’t mind taking a 45-minute metro ride to eat a good Spanish omelet.
What’s the most difficult dish for you to get right?
Look, every executive chef in Dubai knows how to cook. And I’m pretty sure that — even the restaurants you don’t like — if they were to cook only for you, you’d love it. Where people fail — including myself — is translating that into something you can serve to 200 people at the same time. You switch to survival mode: Put the food on the plate because the guests are hungry. This makes you negligent. And when you neglect food, it doesn’t taste the same.
What are you like in the kitchen? Are you a disciplinarian? Or are you quite laid back?
I shout a lot. But I do it to raise the energy, not to abuse anyone. I believe a kitchen should be loaded with energy. Like many restaurants, after the kitchen briefing, we’ll do some kind of ritual. It gets crazy. I want people on the top floor to hear us; I want the walls to vibrate. We hit tables, we make noise, the air gets loaded with electricity. It gets the energy up. It really helps. Because if the first service goes fantastic, it will all go fantastic. If the guys are sleepy — because we eat just before we open, so they might feel heavy — they’ll go slow on the first tables, and when you start dragging, believe me, by the time you realize, you’re in it way too deep, and it becomes about survival. That’s when mistakes happen.
Chef Carlos’ king crab salad with brown butter yuzu dressing
For the brown butter dressing:
INGREDIENTS: 125gm butter, 100gm white balsamic vinegar; 140 g extra virgin olive oil; 5 g salt; 5g chopped red chili; 15gr yuzu juice (or a mix of lemon, lime and orange juice if yuzu is not available)
1. Place butter in pan over medium heat and melt. Stir occasionally while allowing the solids to brown without burning.
2. Once butter is a brown hazelnut color, smells nutty and tastes toasted, transfer it to a bowl using a fine mesh strainer so it cools.
3. Once the butter cools completely, combine the rest of the ingredients, without any salt, in a bowl and whisk until emulsified.
4. Add salt to taste, add more seasoning if required, and set aside.
For the king crab salad
INGREDIENTS: 200g steamed king crab leg flesh; 2 g chopped parsley; 4gm diced red chili; 4gm diced banana shallot; 2 g chopped chives; Yuzu or lemon for zest; Maldon salt; freshly ground pepper; fine chili flakes; olive oil; lime wedges
1. Put the crab in a cheese cloth or kitchen towel and squeeze to remove any excess water.
2. Place the crab in a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste, and mix. Add the parsley, red chillies, shallot and chives and mix again.
3. Add the brown butter dressing, mix well and taste for seasoning. (NB: The dressing shouldn’t cover the flavor of the crab, you can always serve more dressing on the side.)
4. Grate the yuzu or any citrus zest mix and put on a plate. Drizzle with olive oil and season with a little fresh ground pepper.
5. Serve with a wedge of lime to squeeze.