Luxury: the complexity of simplicity

The Dubai outpost of the Venetian restaurant Cipriani shows how that is possible


The interiors of Dubai’s newly opened restaurant, Cipriani.
The interiors of Dubai’s newly opened restaurant, Cipriani.

A young Cindy Crawford blows a kiss from an outsized, framed black and white photo. Alongside, Naomi Campbell gives a sultry come hither, her fingers lifting up her hair in a sexy tangle. Linda Evangelista, the picture of full-on glamour, simply smiles. I am sitting at a corner table across the room—I am at the newly opened Dubai outpost of the Cipriani restaurant—contemplating these eternal supermodels and wondering what on earth makes Cipriani a celebrity haunt and a super success wherever in the world it opens. The mother ship in Venice—Harry’s Bar, which was opened in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani—had the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles as regulars, and on one unlikely day in 1935, hosted four crowned heads of state of Europe, happily lunching at four different tables.

It is puzzling. The Dubai room looks like any other well-appointed upscale restaurant. The food is nice in a well-cooked, soul-satisfying way, but there is nothing exotic or Michelin-starry about it, as you might expect from the sky-high prices. They don’t even have stemmed wine glasses, you drink up in short everyday glasses. And yet the place buzzes at full throttle, every table taken, many beautiful women dressed to the hilt; the Dubai equivalent of Cindy and Naomi are probably in the room.

What makes Cipriani tick? I put this question to Arrigo Cipriani, the dapper 84-year-old second-generation Cipriani, who is in Dubai to keep an eye on this new baby. He’s got it pat. “The complexity of simplicity,” he says.

And what pray is that, I ask.

“Simplicity is what we think is luxury,” he says. “Luxury is nothing to do with money. Luxury is what you achieve with a lot of thinking and a lot of detail. If the details are not there, it is not luxury.”

I am still not clear, but I have to wait, the phone rings and he excuses himself with a sheepish grin. It’s his wife. “I have been married 58 years, and she calls me five times a day,” he says.

We come back to uncorking the complexity-of-simplicity formula. Turns out there is a third element: freedom. The guest should feel free and easy, there should never be a feeling of imposition. Cipriani grabs the fork and knife from the table, and asks me to feel its weight. They are small and light. He has chosen small silverware on purpose because “they balance easily in your hands”. No line-up of heavy ornate silverware here. I am beginning to catch on—that is detail, that is thinking, that is freedom, that is simplicity, and I suppose it is pretty complex to see something so simple.

Similarly, the glasses are small on purpose. “If an important sommelier pours the wine in a big glass like that (he puffs his chest in comic imitation) then you are forced to do this (he demonstrates a haughty sniff),” he says. That’s an imposition; with the small glasses, you drink the wine without the airs.

“Stupid little things, but that’s what makes the difference,” he says. We go over various elements—the linen table cloth and napkin (“when you use a napkin to clean your mouth, linen feels different from cotton”), the chairs (small, comfortable, same as the ones designed by his father), the chandelier from Murano (the lighting should be okay, if it is too dark, it is awful), etc.

We turn to food and drink, and of course, to Bellini and Carpaccio, the two famed inventions of Arrigo’s father, Giuseppe. He was already serving a peach-and-champagne concoction at Harry’s Bar, when, in 1948, there was an exhibition of Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini’s paintings in Venice. Giuseppe promptly named the drink Bellini. A few years later, there was an exhibition of Vittore Carpaccio’s artworks, and so the sliced raw beef dish got its name Carpaccio.

He is not okay with the current fashion of chefs coming out and mingling with the guests. “My cooks never come out of the kitchen,” he says. He has 400 cooks worldwide, but none of them is famous. One of them went on TV once, he fired him the next day. “They have to cook well, that is it.” Ouch. This simplicity-complexity business can have its sterner side.

Neither does he see the point of all these three-star chefs and their degustation menus—he refuses to say Michelin, he refers to them as “the guide of the tyre”—it is all an imposition. “The menu has to be simple,” he explains. “You want to have a salad…you have a salad. Next day you have the risotto. The important thing is you come back, you feel comfortable.” Making customers feel welcome is “50% of the restaurant business”.

He tapers off in mid-sentence and summons the manager. They chat animatedly in Italian. He seems concerned and I ask if all is well. He points to the customer on the next table—he has been sitting alone for some time, and he has dispatched the manager to look after him. “They have to feel happy they are here,” he says.

What draws celebrities to his restaurant? It is counter-intuitive. He says they like it because they are treated like everybody else. They don’t want attention. “Sometimes Venice concierges call and say they are sending a VIP, but for me all my customers are VIPs,” he says. He gives the example of actor Nicole Kidman and her husband coming to dine in Venice. He gave them the corner table, but they wanted to be in the middle like everyone else. “That’s who they are,” he shrugs.

I ask him what if Cipriani, the brand, was a famous woman—who would it be? He laughs and mulls it over. Ladies from the old aristocracy, he says, Lady Diana Cooper, for example, the British society hostess known for her beauty and high spirits. Why? “They had an aristocratic simplicity,” he says. “I learnt a lot from these people.”

He learnt well for sure.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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