Look closely at the winter menu that’s just launched at Cabin, and among the dishes and doodles sketched by its founder Jonathan Gent, you’ll notice an enigmatic postscript: “The heart is a lonely hunter,” the title of a novel by Carson McCullers. Grazia is intrigued. “As a painter, the human condition and, above all, loneliness – in other people and also my own, and searching how to heal it – is at the core of all the work I do,” reveals the painter-turned-restaurateur and raconteur. So much so, he set about building his own secret sanctuary by recreating his studio space in the Scottish highlands – a cosy log cabin ﬂanked by majestic ﬁr trees – in the dusty plains of Barsha South.
“Cabin could well be an expression of my own loneliness in the city when I ﬁrst came to Dubai 10 years ago – trying to ﬁnd that space that I could feel at home in. That’s the feeling people get when they come.” He continues, “I built Cabin as a place for artists and folk to disappear in. Artists’ studios are special places – often that heady mixture of music, light and creative energy – but also can symbolise a solitary existence. I felt people could subconsciously tap into that peacefulness and think of Cabin as a space to come to think and relax.”
This poetic notion has certainly captured the imaginations of the denizens of Dubai, who have been braving the wilds of Barsha South to answer the call of Cabin. So many, in fact, that they’re being turned away by the dozen. However, Jonathan’s taking its success with humility and a pinch of rock salt. “I’d be happy with it just being that building you see in the distance walking for hours alone – in the desert, in the forest, in the mountains, in the city – with a little smoke coming from its chimney, and through your wind-beaten, dry lips, you smile a little.”
Those lucky enough to get a seat at the table will ﬁnd a menu divised by Head Chef Aaron Jones, hired – as legend would have us believe – after an interview process where Jonathan, ever the artist, handed the prospective candidates a pencil and paper to draw their proposed dishes for the Cabin menu to show him a visual respresentation of how they’d plate their recipes.
Standouts from Aaron’s sketchpad that made it onto to the menu include soft prawn tacos with chilli oil, avocado, sour cream, pico de gallo, pickled red onion, and lime slaw; and quinoa with compressed watermelon, edamame, kale, baby beetroot, pickled onion and baby radish. “Farm-to-table is a philosophy we’re pushing hard – of course, wherever we can, we look for sustainable and local produce. This year I hope to open our ﬁrst allotment plot. There are consquences of ﬂying in produce,” Jonathan observes. “Farming here in the UAE is paramount.”
However, the dishes that appeal most to the artist’s personal palate all include a hunter-gatherer element. “The saddle of lamb with broad beans and salsa verde starts with a beautiful piece of lamb and, in an effort to evoke that camp-ﬁre feeling, a charred baked potato.” Jonathan admits, “Aaron and I both have similar memories of ﬁshing in Scotland and making a salsa verde in the black of night after catching sea bass – fumbling around for knives and olive oil and dropping things in the cold and damp, followed by the glory of tearing into the salty ﬂesh with our ﬁngers. The romance and that personal connection is always at the heart of a great dish.”
Whether farmed or foraged, guests can feast to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac, Lana Del Rey and Lorde, all played on vinyl, surrounded by examples of the artist’s work – the pieces that haven’t already been snapped up by Tilda Swinton, Selma Blair, Emily Mortimer and his coterie of celebrity collectors, that is – with more in progress as he treats Cabin as his art studio.
Jonathan’s business partner, Rami Farook, who was the ﬁrst UAE collector of his art, tells Grazia, “I felt Dubai needed something different. We both intended to create a place for people to rest, be nourished and ﬁnd inspiration, but I think we surprised ourselves by the environment we created for ourselves, our families, our friends and the community.” And with sunrise yoga on the roof, and painting workshops in the planning, and even talk of live gigs, pretty soon, Cabin will be serving up more reasons to venture out to Barsha South.
As for Jonathan, let’s not forget he’s essentially a lonely hunter at heart. “Yes, I would say I’m nomadic,” he confesses, when pressed – “internally restless,” in his own words. And although Cabin’s a mere four months old, he’s already seeking out his next sanctuary. “At the moment we are looking at sites in London and Los Angeles. Everything we do must come from that art-studio mentality,” he insists. “This is how it will retain its authenticity.”
In between preparing his next art show – a collaboration with ﬁlm director Tony Kaye in LA this summer – he has plans to turn Cabin into a guest house. “What I want is bedrooms with a patch of land so people can not only see the art being made but also watch the vegetables grow, so there’s a real connection between the garden and the table.”
With Tinie Tempah being among the latest lunch guests on a recent trip to Dubai, in a low-proﬁle visit that you won’t ﬁnd on Instagram, Cabin may have reluctantly relinquished its status as Dubai’s best-kept secret, but Jonathan’s desire for it to be a place for artists to disappear still holds true.