Previously Executive Chef of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant The Greenhouse in London, Alex Dillon completed a 100-day residency at Iniala’s ION – The Harbour.
As he tells Jo Caruana, it was a whirlwind of local ingredients, critical team building and gorgeous sea views – and he loved it.
Alex Dilling smiles as he presents the first of
numerous dishes to our table of diners: his
marinated caviar with pink shrimp, ginger, and
crème cru – all intricately thought out and
as pretty as an Instagram sunset. Dilling talks
through each aspect of the dish and we look on
in awe – wowed by the collective make-up of
the food in front of us, the calibre of the chef
in conversation, and the marvel of the Grand
Harbour view behind us.
This is 100 Days – an experience crafted by
Dilling, along with dynamic Iniala founder
Mark Weingard and the rest of the Iniala team.
It is exquisite, and gave Malta the chance to
experience Dilling’s trademark creativity and
flair on home turf.
“When it was announced that The Greenhouse would be closing its doors and not reopening them, I had some time to think about what I wanted to do,” Dilling tells me. “I didn’t want to rush back in. So, as opportunities presented themselves, I held back. I wanted the next thing I did to feel just right.”
It was clearly fate, then, that Weingard reached out to the celebrated chef on Instagram – something that won’t surprise those that know him. “I didn’t know what to make of it,” Dilling laughs. “But two days later I was in Manchester to meet Mark, and found I really liked his vision. Two days after that I was in Malta gaining an understanding for his new hotel here and it all happened very quickly. I instantly loved the island and felt excited by the opportunity to work here.”
The idea for their collaboration to be a ‘pop-up’ was also an excellent one. On an island where it sometimes feels like eateries outnumber patrons, a new, exciting and time-stamped concept can be just what the market needs. “A pop-up is short lived by definition, so it’s great for presenting something new and different,” the chef continues. “I wanted to create something that gave local diners the chance to experience some of my favourites, while also crafting something new and locally cognisant.”
So that’s exactly what he did – by mindfully fashioning a menu that exudes Maltese character yet is imbued with international excitement. Dishes included his Mediterranean hake with colonnata lardo and a ‘sauce Matelote’, his signature ‘Hunter Chicken’ in a sauce Albufera with young lettuce, and his araguani chocolate sourdough, with Gozo sea salt and caramel.
“I arrived in Malta with some expectations about ingredients here and had already written a menu in my head – but it had to change when I realised it can be tricky to get hold of certain things. Nevertheless, Maltese produce remained the priority; we found the seafood to be abundant and fantastic, and sourced some incredible products like olive oil and sea salt from Gozo. Another touch was to serve local cheese instead of French butter with the bread, which resulted in a thrilling flavour and texture combination.”
Of course there were challenges – largely brought about by the intensity of creating and executing such an ambitious plan in such a short period. “Staffing pop-ups is always difficult because you don’t have as much time to train your people as you would when opening another type of restaurant concept,” Dilling continues. “You’re inviting a team into a very complex and complicated operation, and asking them to get up to speed in no time at all. It’s tough! But the team we put together was absolutely fantastic. As ION was already Michelin-starred when I arrived, I knew standards has been set and there was a great base to build on. I am very pleased with what we achieved.”
Patrons loved the experience too and, despite its steep price tag, 100 Days was largely sold out across its run. “Admittedly a set menu of this kind isn’t for everyone but, overwhelmingly, our diners embraced and loved it. We’re thrilled with the results. Of course, the overall atmosphere of Iniala only added to their experience; the design detail is phenomenal and the view unparalleled. The fact our guests could watch fireworks light up the sky most weekends only added to the magic!”
Dilling now leaves Malta excited about its future. As pandemic-related closures are lifted, he believes more and more people will come to discover the island, leading to increased opportunities for hospitality entrepreneurs here. “I am so thrilled by everything I have seen and learnt in Malta, and I know others will be too. I can’t wait to tell them all about it.
“That said, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a rough moment for our industry but it is also an opportunity. This is the time to keep learning, and to keep choosing the very best produce so that you can offer your clients the very best too. There is an exhilarating future to look forward to.”
Finally, I asked Dilling how he stays so creative. Does he ever worry about that creativity running out, I wonder? “Yes!” he laughs. “But I am pleasantly surprised that it never does. It’s all about staying in the right frame of mind, where clarity and ingredients inspire you. Creativity is endless as long as you are in the right space,” he says.
Jo Caruana (email@example.com)
Jo Caruana is the founder and CEO of
the Finesse Group. The Group’s various
arms work together to finesse every
aspect of the client journey - from content
and communications, to customer care
training and business etiquette. Jo is also
a writer, editor, and presenter.