By Oliver Robinson

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple of weeks, you’ll have likely heard of At.mosphere, the new restaurant perched on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa.

At.mosphere Restaurant
At.mosphere Restaurant

Given the Burj’s record-breaking potential, it’s no surprise that At.mosphere is the world’s highest restaurant (after all, most buildings don’t have this many floors). This fact alone has sent the media into a frenzy, and once again all eyes are on Dubai.

Yet at the end of the day, there’s no point visiting At.mosphere purely for the view – that’s what the At the Top viewing gallery, located a couple of floors above, is for. This venue is all about the food, which is why we decided to sidestep the hype and overlook the annoying punctuation mark in the venue’s name to speak to the man who matters – head chef Dwayne Cheer.

Dwayne is a 33-year-old New Zealander who’s been working for Emaar Hospitality for two and a half years. He first heard about the At.mosphere project when he was involved in the pre-opening for the Address Downtown Dubai. ‘We were working on Neos, which was on the 63rd floor,’ says Dwayne. ‘It was pointed out that there was going to be a restaurant twice as high. We thought it was impossible, but that was the first time I heard about it.’

Little did Dwayne know that he’d be the man designing the menu for one of the most high-profile (that’s our last altitude-related pun, we promise) restaurant openings in the world. ‘It’s a bit surreal, every time someone says to me, “You work in the highest restaurant in the world,”’ admits Dwayne. ‘It’s still not really real. Even though the media attention around it is sort of crazy, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to cook and do something I love.’

Despite the media frenzy, Dwayne says he feels no more pressure than what he’s experienced at other restaurants. ‘I put so much pressure on myself,’ he says with a knowing smile. ‘It doesn’t matter how much external pressure there is on me, I can promise you I’m putting put more on myself. I’m my worst critic.’

When we speak to Dwayne, At.mosphere has been open for a few days. He says that like all restaurants in their infancy stages, it has suffered a few minor teething problems, but nothing he’s overly concerned about. The novelty of the restaurant alone has ensured it’s been fully booked for the first week, so Dwayne and his team have had their work cut out.

Which begs the question: is it really any different working in a kitchen that’s twice as high as any other in the world? ‘I’d love to tell you that the water boils faster upstairs and everything’s a little faster,’ chuckles Dwayne. ‘But unfortunately not.’ However, because the Khalifa tower gets smaller towards the top, Dwayne admits the kitchen is a bit tight – not that he’s not complaining. ‘We have one of the most beautiful kitchens in the world – we have a view all the way down Sheikh Zayed Road and we can see the ocean. I can be deep-frying chips and looking at The World islands – it’s crazy.’

The Burj’s safety regulations also stipulate that the kitchen runs on electricity rather than gas. This makes no difference to Dwayne, or the food that he prepares, largely thanks to the huge Josper oven (‘The Mighty Josper’ as he calls it) – an old-fashioned Spanish charcoal oven, which is the centrepiece of an otherwise very modern kitchen. ‘There’s something almost barbaric about it,’ says Dwayne with a glint in his eye. ‘The Josper is just a grill – an old fashioned barbecue. It’s stupidly simple and amazing and beautiful.’

The talk of the Mighty Josper moves us on to the most important subject – the food. We’re half expecting Dwayne to confound us with talk of complicated molecular gastronomy, but are relieved to discover that the menu is no-nonsense, with a seasonal focus.

‘The menu was designed purely in keeping with the seasons,’ he says. ‘ At the moment we have chestnut and pheasant soup, which is a very wintery dish, as well as other very seasonal starters.’ By this, he’s referring to offerings such as diver scallops served with ricotta dumplings, chorizo and confit tomato; foie gras terrine with plum, quail breast and confit leg salad; and poached langoustine with baby watercress and lobster vinaigrette. ‘For the main courses, because we have this barbecue [oven], it’s all about the grill – it’s not a steakhouse, it’s a contemporary grill,’ asserts Dwayne. ‘I’m very, very careful about what we’re putting on the menu. We concentrate on sustainable seafood, and the beef we’re using – I want to source it from a particular area. We have the Rangers Valley tenderloin from Australia – 1,000m above sea level, 47 dedicated farmers, the animals are hormone free… it’s a beautiful product and beautiful beef.’

The way Dwayne speaks about his produce evokes a very parochial image: it’s almost surreal that the meat, fish and root vegetables he’s using, all sourced from as far afield as Australia or Maine, will be served hundreds of metres above Dubai’s arid cityscape. ‘We want people to come and eat the food, and look at the food, and have to come back because they forgot to look at the view. It’s not molecular, it’s not crazy, it’s simple food done well, seasoned well and cooked simply. We’re not here to change the world, just cook.’ Say what you will about the hype surrounding At.mosphere, but it’s refreshing that the man in charge of the world’s tallest restaurant is so down to earth.

Open daily 3pm-11pm. Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai, www.atmosphere (04 888 3828)