Got 60 seconds?! Like the sound of cheese? Carbs? Both? We got you – well, Pitfire Pizza’s got you.
Where professional chefs try to teach random people off the street how to cook their signature dishes.
FoodSheikh is committed to celebrating the city of Dubai and the food culture that resides here. We want to tell the very best stories, the FoodSheikh way – with honesty and a sense of fun.
We’ve hooked up with the awesome guys at Emblem to put together a little video for you. Emblem, by the way, are an awesome video production house that have all the best-looking cameras and light boxes and stuff. They’re also cool guys to work with – they got a ton of energy and ideas. They also brought shawarmas to the shoot as well. Check them out at emblem.ae
By the way, if you have a food story you think we should tell, please get in touch! Now, let me tell you about a guy I know… Salem Al Attas is part of the future. Young, educated, open minded and humble, Salem represents a new generation of Emiratis who have their feet firmly rooted in tradition, but their ambitions lie up in the stars or somewhere close to them.
I saw some of Salem’s work online and reached out to him to see if he wanted to collaborate and talk about food. He replied quickly and with enthusiasm. Salem is a creative – a muse with intelligence and humour in abundance. He is ambitious and confident and is almost always late to everything.
When I asked where we should meet he suggested Alserkal Ave. Of course. He was performing there at 7 pm – I should arrive early so we could have a decent chat. He eventually walked in at 6:59pm and gave me a hug like I was an old friend.
I have a feeling he probably has plenty of old friends. I told him I wanted him to talk about food. He said, “Perfect, I’ve got a lot to say.”
Chef John has just launched Cuisinero Uno. It’s his first restaurant and his story is incredible – and important. From being down to the last 50 dhs in his company account, to crying in interviews to learning how to mix cement, Chef John gives FoodSheikh Media a very honest interview about his journey.
Jumeirah Village Circle is the least accurate development name in Dubai. It is not in Jumeirah, it is not a village, and it is certainly not a circle. In fact, for those familiar with the area, it is loving referred to as the Millennium Falcon from Stars Wars, thanks to its unique shape. However, because of the relentless construction in that area, it’s the dusty, broken Falcon of Jakku, not polished, sleek Falcon that Lando Calrissian used to fly.
Which leads me seamlessly onto Thai food and a rather interesting story about this seemingly innocent cuisine. In Dubai, the ratio of restaurants to Thai national is 1:53. That means there is one Thai restaurant for every 53 Thais. Compare that to Indian cuisine where the approximate ratio is 1:1000, meaning there is one Indian restaurant for every 1,000 Indians. So why is Thai food so prolific in a city with such a small Thai population? There are so many Thai restaurants around the world, there are probably several Thai restaurants on Jakku too. Why is this?
Government propaganda, that’s why. I’m not kidding. Using a tactic called gastrodiplomacy, the Thai Government has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages. The Thai government back in the ’90s ran a top-level program that trained Thai’s to become chefs and sent them out into the world, to open “family run” Thai restaurants with names like Elephant Jump, Cool Basil or Golden Leaf. I can’t talk too much about this but google Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd, and you’ll see what I mean. Just use an anonymous internet café, go incognito, don’t stay longer than 5 minutes and head straight to the airport afterward. I’ve said too much already.
Sticky Rice has found a home in Sobha Daffodil building in JVC, next to a restaurant called Dessert Corner, a name that is as misleading as JVC itself. (they don’t sell a single dessert item) The area is dusty, noisy, disorganized. The entrance is a small corridor that has a 2-meter drop to a sandy wasteland that doubles as a temporary car park. It is an odd location, but you sometimes have to go off the beaten track to find the best places.
For the first time in a very long time, my dining partner was not the Serb. I woke up to an empty house and a note on the fridge saying, “this isn’t working,” which was weird as the fridge was working just fine. Just kidding – she had yoga. I invited a friend who I’ve known for around 10 years but only see twice a year. He is the most charismatic, antisocial person I know, and the only reason he joined me was because he lived next door to the restaurant and was hungry. Pure cold convenience, nothing else.
10 bright yellow chairs, three tables, and a small counter make up Sticky Rice. It’s the future of sustainable dining. Smaller dining space, robust delivery menu. You might not agree, but it’s the truth. No need for 400 seats over three floors of restaurant space, for example.
We walked in, and were immediately greeted by Mo, who I am guessing is the son and social media king of the operation. He was busy photographing a new lactose-free ice cream drink, probably to include in his weekly report back to his handlers in Bangkok. His enthusiasm and energy were infectious. When a brand has good energy, it will always come from someone. I think we found one of the energy sources.
Sticky Rice is apparently a family run operation – quite literally. Their entire kitchen team is from Thailand, with Mama Amena at the helm of the kitchen. She is supported by Maha, Maryam, Aunties Tae, Yaa and Pot, Uncle Jo, and finally Mo. Well, that’s what they claim their names are, anyway.
My reluctant dining partner had already checked the menu online, so he knew what he wanted. He clearly didn’t want to waste any unnecessary time looking through the menu. Pure, cold efficiency, nothing else.
We ordered the Kanon Cheep, their popular Thai chicken dumplings, to share. We went with their suggestion of half fried, half steamed. We followed it up with Khoa Mun Kai, Hainanese Style fried chicken and Pad See Ew, thick flat noodles, stir-fried with beef and Chinese broccoli.
Looking around the room didn’t take long. Did I mention it’s a small space? They have a fun lightbox stuffed with hundreds of yellow rubber ducks; apparently Mama’s favourite thing in the whole world, a few posters, some pendant lights and that’s about it.
They also didn’t put an access hatch in their bar counter, so every time they need to serve a table, they have to go through the kitchen, outside onto the street and walk back in the main door. Charming in January, annoying in August.
The half fried, half steamed suggestion of the chicken dumplings turned out to be two full orders, which I suppose is one way of upselling. However, they were so good, we didn’t mind. I hate to say it, but the fried ones were better than the steamed. Tightly stuffed and generously filled, these dumplings were little mouthfuls of flavour and escapism.
The mains arrived, and the Khoa Mun Kai is the dish Mama has been making since she was recruited 9 years old. It’s a simple, but brilliant dish. Pure comfort food. Fried chicken and rice. The dish is actually a complete meal. Several slices of golden fried chicken over piping hot, silky garlic rice; a bowl of clear chicken broth to sip between bites, and chunks of cucumber to clean the mouth from time to time. It was heart-warming and delicious.
Pad See Ew is thick flat noodles, stir-fried with beef and Chinese broccoli. The flat noodles are supple rice noodles, so slippery it’s as if they are alive in your mouth. They are cooked in a soy sauce, and served with beef and broccoli, bringing a mouth-watering balance of sweet and umami together in one dish.
Sticky Rice is one of those rare restaurants that has more guts than glamour and more soul than finesse. They are quirky, honest and hard working. The food is outstanding. We eventually left because people were waiting for our table. Plus, my friend needed to get home, he had been out far too long. As we walked out, more and more people were arriving, motorbikes, G-wagons, and Jeeps all mounting curbs looking for parking. Sticky Rice may have only been activated open a few months, but they are making all the right moves. The Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd must be very proud.
04 580 8350
Dinner for two – 163aed
I haven’t reviewed a restaurant for quite some time, because the last restaurant I visited put me into such a bleak hole of dispair that it took the Serb months to gently coax me out of my miserable existence and convince me there are still good restaurants out there.
Which is why we found ourselves in a Downtown car park, white knuckles on the steering wheel, (mine) Chapstick reapplied (hers) ready for our first venture back into the eating world. We were on The Boulevard, a never-ending avenue of nameless buildings and restaurants, going on forever. Well, until you find your exit.
Our destination was Kizmet, a new restaurant by the people behind Baker and Spice. It was either Kizmet or Hell’s Kitchen, and in my fragile state, I don’t think I could handle the drama of Hell’s Kitchen.
Kizmet is in a tall, oval building directly behind the Dubai Opera house, which I have since learnt now has its own district. We do like handing out district names in this city, don’t we?
There were Middle Eastern rugs spread out at the entrance, like some Marrakesh souk stall, with a bright, bold Kizmet sign above the door. Kizmet, of course, means fate or destiny, but is actually derived from the Arabic word, ‘qisma’ which is basically a fancy way of saying Inshallah.
We had made reservations, but there was no need – the place was quiet – it was in the middle of the most confusing week of the year, those five days between Christmas and New Year where you have no idea what day it is or what you are meant to be doing. We were given our choice of tables by the friendly hostess.
Kismet has two floors, upstairs and downstairs, which is generally how floors work. We sat downstairs in the main dining room, a visually striking, but rather eclectic room.
If you asked an interior designer to put Kizmet into a box, I fear their head would explode. There is a kaleidoscope of design elements, from the Boho carpeted staircase, to off-white hexagonal mosaic floor tiling, the black kitchen subway tiles, a little bit of Art Deco, some Miami Chic, a few Chesterfield booths, terrazzo, touches of millennial pink, indoor palm trees, and hipster brass cocktail shakers. It’s as if Pinterest malfunctioned and created a restaurant. But it bloody works, you know. It is a great looking room. Classy, contemporary and creative.
The only strange thing in the décor was the 4,000 sq meters of brown velvet curtain covering the windows that wrap around the whole building. That’s so Ancient Rome, Circa AD70.
There is a completeness to the main dining room – it houses the seating area, and the kitchen and bar all in one room. It is homely, intimate and unpretentious. It is casual but refined and very welcoming and easy going.
The ordering is done in the style of Noodle House, Din Tai Fung, and IKEA. A little stack of menu cards sits on each table, and you mark what you want yourself with a little black pencil and throw it at a passing waiter. That’s a lie, our waiter was super attentive. In fact, I kind of wished it was a little busier, so he would have more to do. He did far too many slow walk-bys past our table, which puts The Serb on edge. Something to do with her childhood. As usual, I didn’t want to ask, and she didn’t elaborate.
Much like the décor philosophy, Kizmet’s food also doesn’t fit into a nice neat box. Kizmet is no friend of the listings department at Zomato. They claim that the restaurant is run on the simple idea that the ‘food we grew up with should never be forgotten.’ They clearly have never tried my mother’s marrow stew. However, the menu is a concise list of 25 items, stealing and blending global flavours, textures, and ingredients with carefree abandon.
Apparently, the menu development conversation with Rubi El Chaer, Kizmet’s Chef De Cuisine went a little like this.
“Grilled Octopus? Put some potato foam with it. Yes, foam from a potato. Just squeeze it hard and shake it fast.
Hummus, you say? We need tofu with it. Wait – not cubes, make them into churros. Yes, you heard me, churros.
What’s next, Pastrami? Serve it with a potato bun. And add some coffee jus, because f%$k it, we’re in the Opera District now.
Arancini balls? Love it, but it needs a twist. Throw an octopus at them.
Watermelon and halloumi salad, yes, genius, but add some chopped cactus from Mexico, because Edgar’s from Mexico and I’m from Lebanon and we are sick and tired of these walls being built!”
OK, it probably didn’t go like that, but I’d like to imagine it did.
I mentioned earlier that name Kizmet was a fancy way of saying Inshallah, and I think I know where they got that idea from. This was apparently another conversation between the management team during planning.
“Do you think the design direction will work?”
“Do you think the menu composition is going to resonate with the local community?”
“We need a name, what do you think we should call ourselves?”
We chose the tuna tostada, hummus with tofu churros, pasta sheet, smoked leg, and the duck pizza. It’s a tapas style sharing menu, which removes unnecessary formality – precisely what the Serb and I need in our relationship.
Overall the food was a triumph of fusion and creativity. The churros were inspired – little sticks of tofu with a crunchy bite and soft fluffy insides. The smoked chicken leg had an incredible texture and crust, with the harissa spice tingling on your tongue. The tuna tostada was fresh, tangy and lively. The flavours were playful, bright and well balanced for the most part.
The duck pizza was so-so, I think they could probably move towards global flatbreads, like Galettes or Pide for example, and own that space a little more. There are a lot of people doing excellent pizza around town at the moment. The pasta sheet dish, their version of a deconstructed ravioli, was a disappointment. The parmesan broth turned the dish into a watery ricotta mess and trying to fish the pasta sheet from the broth was like trying to extract a bit of eggshell from a cracked egg. Just when you think you’ve got it, it gets dragged back down again. It was a little of style over substance for me on this one.
The guys behind Kizmet have understood the mood of the market and created a real egalitarian space, where Dior is as welcome as Giordano, and flip-flops sit side by side with Louboutin. The pricing is reasonable for its Opera District location and the service team are helpful and switched on.
Kizmet is fresh, relevant and on point. It has restored my faith in the industry, and if this is a sign of what’s to come in 2019, then it’s going to be an outstanding year.
Dubai Opera District
Lunch for two – 354 AED
I’d like to end the year looking back over 2018, as a reminder of what was important to us, what was talked about, discussed and celebrated, both locally and internationally in the F&B industry. I decided to put together an A-Z of 2018 as a year end review.
Thank you for joining me these last 12 months, it was a challenging year, but I look forward to a new and positive 2019, and may all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions!
Dubai likes nothing more than to celebrate accomplishments at every opportunity, and quite right too. However, industry award shows have long been viewed through a sceptical lens and taken with a pinch of salt. The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance. The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide. To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors. 50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid. The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male. If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.
According to the US-based Beverage Marketing Corporation, the UAE has one of the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world. A hugely debated topic this year was the menu cost of imported bottled water, which seems to get more expensive with every new opening. I think I saw one artisanal water on a menu that had a bank-sponsored payment plan attached. As calls for filtered tap water grow louder, can restaurants give up the healthy profit margins of imported water and respond to their customers’ needs?
2018 was the year of closures and not just in Dubai. As eating habits change, and technology continues to disrupt, many establishments found themselves having to close their doors. Some closures were neat and dignified, and others were prolonged and painful, but ultimately, the circle of life continues.
We are dealing with a monster of our own making. There is a terrible discount culture across the whole city, with restaurants finding themselves having to run multiple discount programs for an assortment of credit, loyalty and membership cards, vouchers and dedicated discount websites all eating into restaurants profit margins. This, in turn, forces up menu price, and the vicious cycle continues. A couple of real-life examples – one restaurant discounted almost 40% of their revenue, either through membership cards, or media and influencer freebies over the course of a year. They unsurprisingly had to close their doors. It’s not unheard of for restaurants to be running anywhere between 11 – 22% reduction in their revenue thanks to their discount programmes. Surely, restaurants would be better off lowering their prices and scraping this unhealthy discount policy?
Today’s customer is looking for an experience they can emotionally connect to. However, the majority of restaurants in Dubai struggle to provide experiences that resonate. Undertrained staff, ill-conceived menus, and lazy management are the main culprits for mundane and average experiences.
Finally, farming has taken off in the desert! From hydroponics and vertical farms in Al Quoz to oyster farms in Dibbah to rice paddies in sand fields, it seems that the desert continues to provide sustenance to its inhabitants. Chinese scientists have already started harvesting rice in diluted sea-water with aspirations to cover around 10 percent of the UAE with paddy fields, and agreements have been signed in implement desert soilisation technologies in the Al Ain desert. We currently import 80% of our food supplies, but the country aims to produce 60 % more food in the next 30 years.
Few chefs would admit to producing dishes specifically with Instagram and social media in mind, but the power of these user-led marketing tools is now impossible to deny. In a highly competitive restaurant market, getting your meticulously constructed dishes snapped and shared by a key influencer on social media can see your profit margins boom, and this is all the more likely to happen if your food has a visible element helping it stand out from the crowd. While contemporary chefs go on and on about wanting their ingredients to shine, and reflecting the highly hashtag-able concept of ‘authenticity’ through their food, who is going to say no to effective, fast-paced free advertising?
Everyone is seemingly celebrating the arrival of the home-grown restauranteurs, after decades of imported franchises and soulless hotel restaurants. However, let’s not forget that Dubai has been home to hundreds of home-grown independents since it was a small creekside village. A trip across the creek and a wander through the old streets of Deira and Satwa will educate you on the original home-grown restaurants. Iranian, Indian, and Arabic restaurants that have been serving customers for decades. Not everything is on Instagram and Facebook.
What a year for influencers – a prominent local chef got into a public spat with a well-known food critic, and another successful restauranteur was blackmailed and threatened when he refused to offer a free birthday party to an influencer. Many of the influencers refuse to acknowledge they are paid or given freebies by restaurants, and the whole environment is a lawless, chaotic and untrustworthy arena. However, love them or hate them, influencers are here to stay. Luckily, there have finally been some governmental controls imposed that hopefully will provide some boundaries and keep some of the ‘blaggers’ in check.
A restauranteur friend taught me a word, which I think was perhaps the word of the year for many restauranteurs in 2018. The word is Jugaad. The Oxford dictionary definition is a “flexible approach to problem-solving that innovatively uses limited resources.” However, it seems much more than that. Jugaad is a new way to think constructively and differently about innovation and strategy. It’s a way of maximizing resources. It is about businesses adapting quickly to unforeseen and unfavourable situations in an intelligent way. It means thinking frugally and flexibly. However, most importantly, Jugaad is about encouraging, perhaps even demanding innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit – something the F&B industry is well versed in.
Kitchens without restaurants are becoming more and more popular in 2018, with Deliveroo launching their Editions – otherwise known as Dark Kitchens – industrial kitchens that pump out a kaleidoscope of cuisines, based on big data analysis and market opportunity. The Noodle House also created a solo kitchen, to serve its expat suburbia fan base as a delivery model and preparation kitchens provide meal plans, both pre-cooked or pre-portioned with easy to make instructions.
Landlords need to focus less on lording it and focus more on becoming partners for their F&B tenants. Profit is important, but never underestimate what a popular and successful restaurant can do to a community. It raises community well-being, creates a sense of place and belonging, and encourages residents and businesses make that place their home.
Dubai has close to 260 people per restaurant (compared to 420 people per restaurant in the US). There are 138 hotel projects currently underway with an average of 5 restaurants per hotel. Dubai sees a rate of four new restaurant openings per day. These are some pretty hard hitting statistics – let’s hope population growth and tourism continue to support this supply.
Three things are certain in life – death, taxes and new Dubai restaurant openings. Despite all the warning signs and the struggles and complaints of high business costs and over-saturation, restaurant groups are still opening spaces, still looking to steal market share, and still investing in new greenfield sites. As I finish this article off, Emerald Palace, Bluewater, Caesar’s Palace and W Hotel are all launching their considerable restaurant portfolios. It reminds me a little of the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python. The Dubai market is Mr. Creosote, all the new openings are John Cleese and we are just a “wafer-thin” mint away from exploding.
The most significant disruption to the restaurant industry at the moment is the online delivery movement. This new delivery space is exploding right now. Deliveroo, Uber Eats, CarremNOW, Carriage, Zomato, and Talabat are your culinary drug dealers, promising to scratch any itch you might have. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Poke Bowl and Falafel sandwiches? You got it. Burger and Sushi burrito? On its way – don’t forget to tip your driver. The ordering counter of a modern Dubai restaurant has more screens than the launch room of KhalifaSat.
Restaurants will start figuring out ways to serve that magical sub-150 dhs meal experience in 2019. Since the beginning of our species, humans have been connecting and socializing around food, the collection, preparation and consumption of it. However recently, prices have been getting quite punchy, and as a result, more and more people are eating at home. 2019 will see a significant market correction and the rise of the better-priced restaurant meal. There is a battle raging between restaurants and online food delivery and at the moment, delivery is winning. 2019 needs to find a better balance.
Quality and lack of it has been a big topic in 2018 and will continue to be one in 2019 as well. We are very good at hyping up an opening and a new restaurant, but the proof is in the pudding. If we are going to be one of the most expensive eating out cities in the world, the quality of the experience also needs to be the best in the world. Start by creating a proper career path for service workers, so they commit to this industry. Train them, test them, empower them and hold them accountable to your standards. Stay true to good ingredients and honest, genuine hospitality, and you won’t go far wrong. Focus on quality, throughout the entire customer journey.
Rise of the Chef
Thanks to popular publications such as The 86, (haha!) there is a new found love affair with the “homegrown” chef. There are a growing number of locally based chefs who are making Dubai their home for their culinary careers. There has been less focus on these absent celebrity chefs and more emphasis on the real chefs that are behind the line 6 nights a week, cooking great dishes and serving great food. There is also a super exciting movement of young Emirati talent starting to do great things in their kitchens too.
The whole #stopsucking movement really took off this year, with Jumeirah Restaurant Group, Gates Hospitality, and Freedom Pizza all committing to removing single-use plastic in their operations. I even came up with some solutions myself in the absence of straws. Feel free to implement them if you want.
- Restaurants hire extra staff with tiny ladles to pour beverages into customers mouths at regular intervals throughout their meal.
- You can buy your own reusable straw and keep it in your handbag or suit pocket. They can be retractable and customised, or in true Dubai style, made from precious metals and “strajazzled.” Totally made up that word.
- Dubai invests in a massive Dabbawalla style delivery service, that moves hundreds of thousands of personal straws around Dubai every day, with unerring accuracy.
I believe our current culture is to actively search out like-minded people and connect with tribes that resonate with our beliefs and pleasures. There are no longer mass groups of normal consumers, only millions of individuals, millions of small factions that share some commonality with each other, yet think differently, act differently and consume differently.
Tribes. It’s an important word because the restaurants that will succeed are the ones that understand the importance of their tribes and communities and the role they play in them. Those operators that resonate with their neighbourhoods, identify with their tribes and connect with their customers on a deeply personal level, will win. A restaurant needs to play a central part in a community, and operators need to understand this, reflect it and fulfill their customers’ needs.
The F&B industry has been under significant pressure in 2018; there is no doubt about it. In these challenging economic times, I hope that, as an industry, we remain ambitious and positive, but do not allow greed and panic to sully the fantastic progress and advances we have made. Being under pressure can bring out the best in people and companies, spur them on to innovate and double down on their core values and integrity. Don’t let pressure and panic turn your ambition to greed.
We all knew VAT was coming, but for some reason, none of us really believed it would be implemented. Sure enough, January 1st, 2018, it arrived as promised, but it took several months for people to realize its real impact on their spending. 5% on almost everything, from phone bills to electricity bills, to groceries and gas. What I think was most frustrating was that many retailers, restaurants included, took the opportunity to hike up prices by 15-20% and hide behind the VAT excuse. Anyway, taxes have arrived in Dubai, and they are not going anywhere.
Let’s start by calling it for how it is – globally, in the very best examples, women are underpaid, under-promoted and held to ridiculous standards. In the worst examples, they are subject to sexual harassment and blatant discrimination. There are always outliers, but for the most part, these observations hold true, especially in F&B. So, please remember that any woman working in the F&B industry probably has as much, if not more grit, determination, and resolve than her male counterpart. It is likely she has been teased, touched and tormented by co-workers and customers alike. Malicious or not, it is the same; it happens every day, and nevertheless, she persisted. So, I would like to shout out to all the women in our great industry – the chefs, sous chefs and commis, all the bartenders, cocktail servers and waitresses, all the hostesses, and supervisors, all the managers, and leaders that bring such balance, strength, and vitality to our industry. Thank you.
Just want to mention that Dubai is a truly inspiring city for accepting other cultures, customs, and people. The Burj Khalifa acknowledges Pakistan Independence Day and celebrates Divali, Ramadan, and Christmas with incredible light shows. We have mosques, churches, and temples. There is even a minister of Tolerance, and Sheikh Mohammed explained that when the Arab world was “tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world.” In a world where walls are being built, and we are being turned against our neighbours, it’s important to recognize that we are all “same same, but different.”
Collectively, You are almost 50,000 strong, you read, share and comment on my reviews, you come to my Supper Clubs, read my publications, and you have been incredibly motivating and inspiring. Truth be told, I am constantly surprised with the commitment from my readership to support FoodSheikh, especially when there are seemingly a million other things that one could choose to pay attention to. It would be short-sighted not to feel blessed and grateful that good people like yourself decide to read my work. It’s been such a fun ride, and I’ve learnt plenty along the way, but I’m going to let you into a little secret. I’m just getting warmed up. I have so much more planned and I want to get bigger, better and more exciting. So, please, keep being you, because you are awesome.
Zuma celebrated its tenth anniversary, and I was offered an opportunity for an exclusive feature or interview with Rainer Becker, the founder. I had a few questions, but my main one was based around a new Dubai industry word called ‘ Zumaof’ This was my question – ‘Zuma is regarded as a legacy restaurant here in Dubai and has become synonymous with high profile success and longevity. Consequently, regional F&B investors are all looking for the next “Zuma of [insert obscure/obvious cuisine here].” Is there a magic formula to Zuma and what would you say to those investors and restauranteurs who are looking to create the next “Zuma of..”’ My questions were unfortunately returned unanswered, but I was asked to come and Instagram their anniversary party instead. You win some and lose some. Happy New Year.
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Silvena Rowe needs little introduction. She is a critically acclaimed chef, author of award winning cookbooks, food columnist for The Guardian and regular TV guest of the BBC and founder of Omnia Baharat and Omnia Gourmet here in Dubai.
In possibly the most important interview of her distinguished career, the enigmatic Silvena Rowe talks to FoodSheikh Media about Dubai, her passions and achievements, her hopes and fears – and superfoods and Botox.
The ship traveling from South America to Europe was carrying precious cargo, and it wasn’t pirates, weather or scurvy that the captain was worried about. On this voyage, time was the enemy. The year was 1559, and the cosmopolitan cities of Europe had developed an obsessive-like infatuation with what was tucked away in the hold of this vessel. It wasn’t gold, or spices, tobacco or precious textiles, although this trading ship probably carried those as well. It was a divine fruit called a pineapple that had the captain praying for strong easterly winds. Being able to land unspoiled pineapple ashore brought in a pretty penny. Europe’s obsession with pineapple lasted for over 300 years. I hope the avocado doesn’t last that long.
Back in 1493, Christopher Columbus bought back a consignment of pineapples from South America to Spain. Out of the dozens he stored very carefully in the bowels of his ship, there was just one sole pineapple that survived the long, hard journey. This solitary fruit made its way to King Ferdinand of Spain, who declared that its flavour ‘excels all other fruits’ and almost overnight the pineapple sent Europe into frenzied raptures. It was like the Beatles landing in the USA. To put it into perspective, Columbus also brought back tomatoes from the New World, but it took the tomato a full two hundred years between landing in Spain and appearing in a printed recipe. I bet the Association of the New World Tomato Growers were super jealous of their pineapple counterparts.
However, for over 100 years, Europeans tried in vain to grow these exotic, sweet fruits in their allotments next to their turnips and potatoes. However, due to the specific climate needed, it was virtually impossible and fast ships and favourable weather conditions remained one of the most reliable ways to get your hands on such a fruit. Such was the magnitude of growing pineapple in England, that should anyone succeed, paintings were commissioned to celebrate their momentous achievement. See, even before Instagram, people liked to capture incredible moments in their lives and pretend it was the everyday.
King Charles II used the pineapple as a political tool. The British Empire’s ability to obtain these fruits from their colonies asserted English ascendancy across the region. In perhaps the first recorded piece of fake news, in 1675 Charles II commissioned a painting of himself being presented a pineapple by the Royal Gardener. Of course, at this stage, the pineapple was still not being grown in northern climates, and this was effectively just savvy PR.
It became a cold war between the Dutch and the British, on who could successfully cultivate this king of fruits first. The Dutch being natural farmers, had the advantage, but the British had a fantastic sense of self-entitlement and stubbornness, so this battle raged on for years and years.
Finally, the Dutch managed to figure out a way to mimic the warm and humid climate needed to grow this fruit. Special buildings were erected, called Pineries, that were designed specifically for growing this spikey fruit. Imagine if they had fallen in love with Kiwi fruit instead. Growing a pineapple was arduous and expensive work – the Pinery had to be carefully attended to for at least three years before the plant gave any fruit and each plant produces just one pineapple per year. That is their yield. Such was their scarcity and value, they were the Elizabethan day Birkin Bag – everyone wanted one, but only the very rich and famous could afford one. There is evidence that a pineapple would sell for upwards of 36,000 AED. Not even Waitrose could get away with those prices.
Posh aristocrats and colonist would boast of their wealth by throwing crazy lavish dinner parties, invite all the 17th Century influencers over and then show off by having butlers announce the arrival of a pineapple on a lavish display which would remain as a centrepiece for the rest of the evening. The pineapple, with its tangy-sweet flesh, exotic skin and crown like head were soon recognized as a symbol for wealth, hospitality and status. In fact, today it remains the official symbol for hospitality. Such was their demand that rental shops popped up, where wealthy socialites could rent a pineapple for an evening, and they would attend a cocktail reception dressed to the nines while proudly cradling a slightly overripe, squishy pineapple in their arms. Although, I’ve seen a few people do that at a Dubai brunch, to be honest.
Pineapples even appeal to mathematicians as well, as the hexagonal eyes of the pineapple follow the Fibonacci sequence, otherwise known as nature’s secret code. This sequence is said to govern the dimensions of everything from the Great Pyramid of Giza, to seashells and broccoli to our magnificent pineapple.
Pineapples had been hidden from the Old World, and therefore there was no mention of this fruit in any classical texts or scriptures. You see, other fruit had some pretty bad PR over the years – the pomegranate had a rough time with its association with Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld and become known as the fruit of the dead. Nothing killed a 17th Century party faster than bringing out some Fruit of the Dead shooters. Even the humble apple was associated with temptation and the fall of man. In fact, Apple and Evil are the same words in Latin. “Would you like some “Evil Pie, Mamsir?” Figs usually point to sinfulness and lust, and the Elizabethans thought tomatoes were red because they were poisonous.
Luckily the pineapple arrived in the New World with a clean record, no embarrassing old tweets or Instagram photos in its history and so the hoity-toity of society could press their own meaning onto this beautiful untarnished fruit.
As pineapples grew in popularity and value, the fruit started being etched into wood panels, plates, headboards, wallpapers, carved into the end of silverware, all to impress guests and elevate status. Wedgwood, the makers of fine china, started using pineapple themes in their porcelain and stone pineapples were carved into the sides of stately homes. In the 1770’s it had entered into pop culture vocabulary, as a way to offer a compliment or commendation. It was used for anything that was the best in class. Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 stage comedy The Rivals, describes someone as “the very pineapple of politeness.” Even today it is used – ‘Idris Elba is the very pineapple of sexiness.’ OK, maybe it isn’t, but I think it deserves a comeback.
But nothing good lasts forever. (Avocado and acai bowls watch your back) The 1800’s were the best of times for the pineapple. By the end of the century, the Age of Sail was in decline, and steam-powered ships meant pineapples became more commonplace and less valuable. By 1900, a man named James Dole started pineapple production in Hawaii under his company Dole Food Company. He was the one that stuck this King of Fruits into a can, dissolving its value even further. By 1918, Jim Dole could produce one million cans of pineapples per year. In 1954, it became a bit part in a Pina Colada cocktail, in 1962 it was put on a pizza, and its fall from grace was complete.
The pineapple of today is so very different. It is used on phone covers and pool inflatables and shares the same space in Instagram culture as flamingos and cacti. It is used as a visual narrative for some far away tropical place, or casually thrown in a pool somewhere hot and steamy as an aspirational image. You’ll see pineapples being carved at Halloween or held aloft on sun-burnt shoulders at music festivals. You’ll find gold versions in many a millennial home, along with fairy lights and a drinks cart. You’ll find them on scarves and dresses, notebooks and pens. (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen anyone?)
The pineapple of today is perhaps a stronger symbol of hospitality, inclusion and a brighter beacon of friendship and unity. But next time you see a pineapple, remember this story.
Remember how revered and mighty it once was.
Remember it was the ‘King of Fruits,’ and there was “no nobler fruit in the universe” than the pineapple.
I think after partnering up with JLT Dining once again for their annual micro-community JLT Restaurant Awards, I subliminally influenced myself to return to JLT for a quick lunch the other day.
The Serb and I headed to Cluster F, home to nineteen restaurants. Cluster F is perhaps the most densely populated area of JLT for food places. In terms of restaurant density, if JLT is the Lake District, then Cluster F is Manila.
We obviously weren’t going to eat at all of them, but we were heading to a restaurant which sounds like an SEO Bot chose the name for them based on Google algorithms. Favourite Choice.
Their full title is apparently, Favourite Dubai Best Choice Restaurant JLT Number One. They shortened it to Favourite Choice. You might not have heard of them, but that’s because they quietly opened their doors back in March and have been discreetly getting on with it ever since. It’s about time they got a little attention.
As is expected from JLT restaurants, Favourite Choice is a small place tucked around the side of the HDS building with around 35 seats both indoor and outdoor. One whole wall is covered in green foliage wallpaper, and there are sea green upholstered banquettes and playful table decorations like pineapples and leopard salt and pepper shakers.
We were greeted by a friendly server who took us to our table by simply turning around. The other tables were full, with local business people from around the area. With a two-course business lunch for 47 dhs on offer, it’s no wonder they were busy.
Our server handed us a menu each and stood there, waiting to see if we would order immediately. Clearly, they are used to regulars knowing what they want. Clearly, she had never met The Serb either, who takes so long that by the time she has chosen what movie to watch at the cinema, it has already been released on Netflix. I indicated she should come back in a few days for our order.
The menu is fantastic – one of the most fun and interesting menus I’ve read in a while. It is a menu with considerable thought and talent behind it. The ingredients are varied and exciting, and the flavours different and appealing. It takes you on a fun, entertaining journey of discovery and there is clearly a lot of love and personality in the place. You really feel it, not just in the menu, but the tone of voice, in their signage and in their staff.
Soups have names like Red Velvet Soup and Same Same But Different, and their salads have names like Back To The Roots, and Don Vito Goes Japan. They are fun, inventive and creative. Don Vito goes Japan for example, is a tomato carpaccio on smokey baked eggplant caviar with a ginger soy sauce and garlic chips. They also have a grilled teriyaki chicken with sweet’n’sour cucumber & spinach called Chicken In The Kitchen.
After a sense of discovery that we shared together, we were eventually ready to order. It was One Night in Bangkok, with a Dolce Vita, Dressed in Red. The Serb and I both sniggered at our order and congratulated ourselves on how clever we had been. I’m sure the server also thought we were clever, but as a true professional, didn’t show it.
Because of the small space, the staff of three engaged in a constant dance of avoidance, moving gracefully around each other, like some Filipino Swan Lake with plates and glassware, serving and clearing tables. They soon swanned over to our table to serve our dishes.
The Dolce Vita was a goat’s cheese salad with figs, celery and green apples, pomegranate and grapefruit, drizzled with a tangy raspberry dressing. It was well constructed, and the combination of sweet figs, bitter grapefruit, and creamy goat’s cheese was delicious.
The Dressed in Red was a beetroot risotto with white truffle oil and parmesan. It was filling and had a great flavour; the parmesan created the creaminess, and the earthy beetroot was sweetened by the toasted pine nuts. However, risotto is all about consistency and texture and for me, Dressed In Red needed more stock and more stirring, I think.
The One Night in Bangkok was a peanut chicken wrap with cabbage, mushrooms, pineapple, coriander, sesame, and satay sauce. Sounds chaotic, confusing and captivating, not unlike a real night in Bangkok, in some ways. The flavours were strong, the mushrooms and pineapple working well together, with generous amounts of chicken and a confident peanut sauce.
We finished with Santa’s Choice, two warm walnut cookies and a small jar of cold milk. The cookies were filled with liquid Nutella. I don’t need to say anymore.
Overall, Favourite Choice restaurant is a little diamond in the rough – a bold and brave menu, in an environment that has a lot of soul and character. It is almost as if the menu deserves a more spacious restaurant and kitchen to breath and grow and mature in.
Cluster F is very lucky to have you, Favourite Dubai Best Choice Restaurant JLT Number One.
04 88 34174
Lunch for Two – 140 AED
It’s mad what’s going on in our industry at the moment. It’s just one thing after the other. There is so much change and drama, it’s like some weird episode of Games of Thrones. Game of Stoves, The Red Catering. I don’t recall a time when so many important topics and issues were being written and debated about in such equal parts celebration and condemnation and with such vivacity.
The F&B industry was once a golden unicorn galloping through the world’s high streets, retail centers and strip malls, pooping out glittering franchises, venture capitalist dollars and unsustainable accelerated growth throughout the lands.
Restaurants were sitting pretty, and EBITA was king. Demand was high, sentiment was strong, and there was boldness and courage to try anything, because, despite conventional wisdom, it worked. If you’ve ever spent 10 Euros on a bowl of cereal at Cereal Killer Café, in Dubai Mall, then you’ll know what I mean.
Gosh, what a difference an election can make. Which election, you ask? Pick one. Anyone will do.
In the past, the issues that most restaurants typically deal with were a few overcooked steaks, some light pilferage and a few questionable kitchen hygiene habits that needed correcting. But today, we are having conversations that are life-changing, necessary and difficult. We are struggling with a sexual harassment cancer that has been allowed to fester and grow throughout our great industry. When the most dangerous thing in the kitchen is no longer the meat slicer, but an empty walk-in fridge, you know change needs to happen.
Industry giants such as John Besh and Mario Batali are being called out and held to account for their behaviours and perhaps we are all complicit in allowing a ‘Bro’ mentality to thrive.
We are also grappling with demons of addiction and mental illness, with more and more chefs speaking up about their issues. Vice’s Matty Matheson openly talks about how, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, he suffered catastrophic heart failure at just age 29. David Chang has opened up about his fight with depression, and even Gordon did a documentary about drug use in his restaurants. Pretty bleak stuff. However, support groups such as Ben’s Friends and Chefs with Issues have launched, providing much-needed help and support for those who no longer need to suffer in silence and the industry leaders need to start having more of these honest conversations with their teams. There is so much more work to be done here though.
We have lost some of the world’s greatest culinary storytellers – AA Gill, an irreverent writer of truly incandescent prose, showed us how exciting food and travel could be. Anthony Bourdain, with his ability to showcase extraordinary diversity and find common ground over a simple meal, connected with us all on a profoundly personal level. Most recently, we lost Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer from LA, who was a conduit for bringing the City of Angels closer together.
Maintaining Our Standards
Our industry standards, our infallible benchmarks, those accolades that every professional strives to attain are in danger of losing their credibility.
The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance. The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide. To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors.
Even Tourism Australia paid 600k US$ to host the 2017 ceremony of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Sure, these institutions are not charities and taking revenue is fine, but if accepting vast amounts of money from the tourist board puts them under pressure to hand out stars and awards, then it raises significant questions.
The 50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid. The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male. If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.
Circle of Life
As Gaucho goes into administration and Cau closed all 22 outlets with immediate effect, we are reminded of how closely connected we are as an industry. It was encouraging to see the outpouring of support and sympathy across social media as the news broke. Companies like D&D London reaching out to offer employment opportunities for ex-staff of Cau is heartwarming and shows the very best of our industry. Hawksmoor, the steakhouse group, also extended their help to those who lost their jobs and offered a free round of drinks to all Cau gift card holders, who couldn’t redeem their cards due to the closures.
Dubai is shedding its skin, closing some legacy places, such as The Agency, 360 and Hakkasan. Yet, Massimo Bottura, Akira Back, and Todd English are all opening new places this year, and the circle of life continues.
On a Lighter Note
However, it’s not all drama and chaos in our industry. Some order in our world has been restored. NYC has finally banned the use of activated charcoal in food and drink items. This “Goth food” has been finding its way into ice cream, cocktails, burger buns, juices and even pizza crusts in recent years. However, it seems consuming too much of the stuff can result in things like dehydration, constipation, and black tongues. We’ll all have to go back to scrapping burnt toast, like in the good old days.
The Museum of Ice Cream has also felt the wrath of the authorities down in Florida. They have been fined for their selfie-friendly rainbow sprinkle room. As visitors leave the ‘museum,’ they take with them hundreds of plastic sprinkles that end up in Miami’s waterways and streets and drains, causing environmental hazards. Perhaps they should all “double-shake” before they exit. Or the museum should install a walk-on vibration platform. Just make sure the setting is on “vicious.”
For those of you who don’t know, The Ice Cream Museum is a series of pretty rooms in pretty colours based on ice cream and candy themes. Tickets for The Museum of Ice Cream are 38 US$.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, is a highly curated collection of over two million works of significant historical importance. Tickets to the MET are 25 US$.
A Leader for our Time
I think the need for leadership in our industry has never been stronger than now, and it’s time for the industry leaders, regardless of where they sit in the food chain, to stand up and provide a voice of reason, support, and clarity for the rest of us.
We are an industry that needs a steady hand, and some credibility and confidence injected back into it. We all know this industry is special, filled with some of the most talented, honest and hardworking people you could find. We all know our industry will emerge, stronger, cleaner and better for all this turmoil and chaos. We know all this, but sometimes we need to be told this and reminded of the way.
It’s hard to find a decent Friday lunch in this city, as most restaurants opt to throw ridiculous over the top brunches instead of a simple a la carte menu. However, mall restaurants don’t typically do brunches in Dubai. Perhaps it is a directive from the Ministry of Tourism to protect innocent tourists from being exposed to the decadent gluttony exhibited in the usual Dubai brunch. So, if you’re looking for a low-key weekend lunch, might be worth heading to a mall. Which is precisely what we did.
Gia Ristorante is part of the same portfolio that has Markette, Two at Symphony, Candylicious, Angelinas and Social House. Strangely, all these restaurants can be found in the Dubai Mall only. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but it’s as if there is some sort of link there.
Gia is an Italian restaurant, founded in Indonesia, open in Dubai Mall. That’s like a Mexican inspired Taco joint from Toronto opening in Dubai Marina. It’s what I call a Dubai “Special.”
Gia is a word that can be pronounced many ways – with a soft G, hard G, High I, low I, it offers multiple ways to get confused. However, we were informed at the door that it was pronounced Guy-a . That doesn’t really help either.
The menu follows the tried and trusted ‘Italiational’ menu and offers no real surprises. However, that is quite sensible for a Dubai Mall, Fashion Ave location. There are appetizers, soups, salads, pizza, pasta, main courses and sides and the dishes have been created with an understanding that their customers are likely to be from hundreds of different countries.
We ordered bruschetta to start and share and then, like uneducated savages, we went with pasta for our mains. We ordered the spinach fettuccine with wagyu meatballs, the spinach, and ricotta ravioli and the penne chicken ragu. Two of those three dishes are decidedly absent from a traditional Italian table. I told you we were savages.
The Serb did exceptionally well, as the menu had three languages to navigate and usually her patience is tested at simple menus that dare to use words rather than pictures.
I placed the order with our affable waiter who gravely warned me that the fettuccine was green because it contained spinach. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for the original guest complaint that created the need for that stark warning. Maybe someone went on a Hulk rage. I nodded my understanding to our waiter who looked genuinely relieved at my response and left to punch in the order.
Gia is a very agreeable space – lots of natural wood, ribbed glass partitions and a beautiful glass-encased show kitchen that looks like Dr. Who’s Tardis has landed in the middle of the restaurant. In this case, it would be Medico Chi’s Tardis. In Italian homes, kitchens play centre stage, so it was nice to see Gia’s kitchen being given the same importance. They also have a great little outdoor terrace with the mandatory olive trees, overlooking the fountains that must be in high demand.
It wasn’t busy when we visited, and the ambiance suffered a little from this, although it’s a nice sized restaurant and small enough to feel intimate and included, despite not being full.
I have come to terms with the Dubai bruschetta and have accepted the fact that it will never taste as good as ones in Tuscany. It’s about provenance and terroir and mood and emotion, and it’s impossible for Dubai restaurants to replicate that. Gia’s bruschetta suffered the same fate. The homemade sourdough bread was good, but the tomatoes were watery and diluted, both in colour and flavour. It was almost as if they had been frozen. However, combined with the fresh mozzarella, olives, and capers, it was a fresh, clean and well balanced few bites.
The spinach fettuccine arrived in the promised colour. I thought about complaining to the waiter that it wasn’t green enough, but I fear it would have been a complaint too far for him. The pasta was cooked well, probably a touch softer than in Italy, with the merest hint of spinach flavour. The Wagyu meatballs were a disappointment. Mixed with too much bread and other fillers, they became chewy and lost the umami flavour that I was expecting. If Wagyu is proving too expensive, drop down to prime or choice cuts, would be my suggestion. However, the tomato sauce was delicate, quite sweet and fragrant.
The penne pasta was good, but to be honest, you can’t really go wrong with chicken, mushrooms, and cream.
Ravioli, the only traditionally Italian dish we ordered, dates back to the 14th century and is more often than not, filled with ricotta, spinach, and nutmeg. Gia’s ravioli were delightful stuffed discs of deliciousness, in a thickened butter sauce, served with parmesan crisps. They were generously filled, although I would have appreciated a little more ricotta to spinach ratio. I’m your food cost’s worst nightmare.
Gia’s pasta is all freshly made, and their ingredients are of high quality. The staff are friendly and fun, led by a switched-on manager who spends quality time with her tables. Overall, a safe, reliable Italian go-to and probably the best Italian in Dubai Mall right now.
Fashion Ave, Dubai Mall
Lunch for 3 – 344 AED
This is exactly what makes Dubai so, well, Dubai. La Carnita is a Mexican street food inspired restaurant and bar, from Toronto, that has just opened in Dubai Marina. Isn’t the journey of food amazing? That’s like finding a shawarma inspired restaurant and lounge from Milan, in Singapore.
La Carnita is downstairs in the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Marina, having taken over the old Ynot? space, who I guess, finally got their answer.
Walking into La Carnita, you are blinded by a sizeable backlit signboard saying, “Kiki Loves Us.” The Serb asked me who Kiki was, and I promised her I didn’t know.
The vibe – it’s urban and edgy and very “street,” whatever that means in Dubai. Edison light bulbs are still in fashion it seems, and they have put some of the booths in cages for extra security. I guess the streets can be pretty rough in the InterCon. The artwork is impactful and unique. The main feature wall is a large gritty black and white image of what appears to be members of a gang driving to a gun battle. Either that or its the staff transport on a bad day. The music is a mixtape of genres but quiet enough to be able to hold a conversation. The lighting is dim but bright enough to be able to read menus. Which is what I did. The Serb had already ordered and received her wine and was too busy to bother herself with a menu. She, once again, left it up to me to decide. If only she did that for everything else in our lives.
The menu fits comfortably onto one page, which immediately scores points for me. Overly large menus make me suspicious. The menu is almost identical to the Canadian venues, which not surprising for a franchise model. There are starters, tacos, mains, and sweets.
Bish. Bash. Bosh.
Simple. Solid. Street.
We ordered the three dips and chips and the Mexican street corn to start. I was worried that the table was going to be too small for all the dishes, but the team did a great job in spacing the delivery of the courses. The Mexican corn looked great, and the server suggested we might need to wear gloves to eat it. I immediately thought how difficult it would be to eat a corn on the cob wearing boxing gloves, so I declined. I’ll take my chances if anything happens. As it happens, the corn was great – a nice topping of crema, añejo cheese, with a kick of chilli powder.
Tacos, like pizza and burgers before them, are becoming a global cuisine and I think people aren’t so worried about staying true to origin anymore. Bring on the crazy flavours, experiment with sauces and toppings, try different formats. It’s how foods evolve, after all. La Carnita’s taco menu consists of nine choices, ranging from crispy cod with a Voltron sauce, (It appears that Voltron, otherwise known as Defender of the Universe, has launched his own sauce range) to a grilled chicken with pineapple and jalapeno salsa and even a crispy cauliflower taco with charred pepper hot sauce.
We were informed that the tacos were tiny, our waiter making a circle with his fingers about the size of a one dirham coin to prove his point. He also informed us they arrived solo, and we should order a whole gang of them. He’s absolutely right – these streets are no place for single tacos to be wandering around. We (I) went for three – the Pollo Frito, chicken with a peanut lime hot sauce, the Mexican beef chorizo, with mango salsa and habanero mayo, and the crispy Oaxaca cheese taco with chipotle sauce.
By this time, the Serb had finished her Pinot Grigio and complained that it was off because there were no bubbles. The fact that she thought she had ordered a glass of Prosecco isn’t the surprising part in this. What’s impressive is she still sat quietly and finished it despite thinking it was off. That’s the Slavic perseverance coming through.
The tacos arrived on a tray altogether. They were much bigger than a dirham coin, thankfully. The toppings were generous, and they looked lively and fresh. Chef Lara Said has a serious culinary background – Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, LPM, La Serre, Jean Georges, and Il Burro are to name a few kitchens she has worked in. They say you sling tacos, in the same way you flip burgers, but I can’t imagine Chef Lara doing any kind of slinging – she’s far too refined for slinging. However, she has a cracking grasp on flavour and texture, and it really comes through in her execution of the recipes. All the tacos were on point – flavourful, balanced and delicious.
For mains, we tried to order the beef short ribs but once again our server gave us fair warning and informed us the Carne Asada, or ribeye was the better option. Despite not being able to size tacos correctly, he seemed like an honest kid, so we went with the ribeye.
We were not disappointed. It was a good cut, well cooked, with a sharp salsa Picante that was balanced out by a smooth black bean crema.
However, for me, the winner for me was the Pollo Frito –hot strips of chicken, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, a squeeze of peanut lime hot sauce, finished with a squirt of thick cultured cream, lightly done and delicately favoured. A formidable few bites.
La Carnita also has a solid bar experience to it, and it could act as a great social hangout for those people trying to get off the mean streets of the Marina. The staff were really very good – bags of personality, and I almost wanted to ask them to come hang out with me after the meal. They were having fun with their tables, engaging, chatting and laughing. It was refreshing to see.
Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by La Carnita. Who would have thought it – a Canadian taco joint in Dubai.
InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Marina
Dinner for two – 383 Dhs
As is typical for many young recently graduated kids, Saud Al Matrooshi had no idea what he wanted to do. However, food always cropped up, again and again, like some career guidance counsellor, giving a nudge here, a poke there, guiding him to a seemingly predetermined path. A path of food and kitchens and creativity and discipline.
It’s a familiar story, his love for food can be traced back to his childhood, where his dad was always in the kitchen cooking meals for the family to enjoy. His father was a family man and knew one of the best ways to bring his family together was over good food. The kitchen was a center of the Al Matrooshi home and Saud was to learn that food was to keep coming back into his life, like a calling.
For a while, Saud wanted to be a pilot – a glamourous job, lots of travel, get to fly a plane, the perfect job for him. But while at the aviation college for the entrance exam, he wandered over to the Century Village across the road and watched as people were enjoying their day eating, laughing and connecting. Again, he felt the pull of the food industry.
He discussed this desire with his father, who was not entirely supportive. You need to get a proper job, was the reply. A proper job. None of your cousins or family are chefs, this is not a proper job. You cook at home, for your friends for your family, but not as a job. A chef is a simple job. Too simple.
So, Saud went on to graduate in Communication Technology, but the allure and appeal of a chef still called his name. A bit like The Force calling Luke Skywalker. The more he researched the role of a chef, the more he learned that a chef was an important job, highly revered in the West. It was not a simple job, his father’s words ringing in his ears. Despite working fulltime, making documentaries in the Seychelles, for the Seychelles Tourism Board, he still wanted to get into the kitchen. It was like an itch he needed to scratch.
Even during his years in the Military, which he describes as some of the best times of his life, he laughs at how bad the food was. “It wasn’t meant to be good, this is the army,” he explains, with a smile on his face. However, he couldn’t help himself and made some basic but impactful changes to the catering. They eventually put him in charge of the catering, and he became known as the food guy throughout his division.
He was finally given an opportunity to get into a professional kitchen, but it was clear he wasn’t going to get any free rides. He spent four months as a training commis in the Grand Hyatt, peeling potatoes, boiling water, mopping walk-ins. I asked him if he was happy doing the grunt work.
“Yes, I was more than happy. I was finally learning,” he said.
I asked him where his initial motivation came from to embark on this four-month training. He explained that every time he cooked for someone, he was told how good his food was. “If it’s good, it can be better, and for it to be better, I need to learn,” he says. “I love being in the kitchen, I love the smell, the heat, everything about it.”
After his four months of training, and even more enthused, Saud moved to the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, where Chef Max, his first professional mentor, put him on another training programme. This time it was for four years. Working in stewarding, butchery, storekeeper, inventory, service, you name it, Saud did it. It gave him a holistic and detailed overview of an entire operation.
The journey Saud took meant he had to break down a few barriers, but he was ready for it. There is a quiet determination about him. He is a man with resolve and purpose.
One example, during his time in restaurant service, he once served the table of one of his relatives, who was a senior government official. Shocked at seeing Saud bringing over his soup, he took him to one side and asked if anything was wrong. He asked if he needed any financial assistance, offering him a proper job. A proper job.
Also, he knew his co-workers were wary of him as well. “Yes, there is a barrier. I’m a local. They’re all scared of me, and I wanted to break that barrier down. So, I told them, listen, we’re brothers, I’m here to learn.” It was only after he managed to break that barrier, did he really start to learn.
After four years, he became the Assistant Executive Chef.
He found comfort in food. He found himself in food. Not just eating food, not just cooking food, but all aspects of it, from inventory to stock taking to ordering. At school, Saud failed maths miserably, again and again. He was useless at numbers and calculations, but he became a procurement manager for Al Futtaim restaurant division because, with food, numbers started to make sense. His currency is kilos and litres, pallets and packets.
During our conversation, Saud casually drops in further evidence of his drive, determination, and love of F&B. “I once owned an American diner in Garhoud,” he casually remarks between sips of espresso, “It’s closed now.” His hand gestures implied it was a long time ago. He also is the co-owner of Food Box, a sushi place in Ajman, where he made his ROI in just twelve months. He also has an active Snapchat account with thousands of avid followers who watch as he cooks family dishes and visits restaurants on a regular basis. Because of this, he gets invited to international cooking competitions and funnily enough, Emirates Flight Catering job interviews.
Saud Al Matrooshi is the first Emirati chef to work for Emirates Flight Catering, and he’s been given a big job.
What is immediately clear is that this isn’t a token role handed out because he has a blue passport with a Golden Falcon on the front. He wasn’t hired because they thought he would be a good poster boy, although, by chance he certainly is. Saud recalls having to cook dishes for a panel of EKFC experts as part of the interview. “I think they were all surprised at how well I spoke about food, they wanted to check if I could actually cook it,” he explains.
He served them some of his signature dishes and distinctly remembers what was on his menu. He served a zesty salmon tartare with chive infused cream, date syrup glazed short rib machboos and a peach and cream tart.
After the tasting, he was told to go home. Confused and curious about their feedback, he asked the Chef what they thought of his cooking. “Look,” the chef told him, pointing at the table, “your plates are all empty. I think this is a good thing.”
Soon after that Saud was offered a chef role at EKFC.
It’s a title he’s earnest about. “People are abusing the title,” he explains to me. “If you are not a chef, don’t call yourself a chef. If you don’t have the credentials or the professional experience, you’re not a chef. If you turn up at a restaurant pretending to be a chef, without the proper food safety training, you could end up poisoning people. It’s like me going onto social media, calling myself a doctor and then giving out advice. It’s almost criminal.” It’s evident Saud’s protectionist mentality is born from years of hard work, failure, struggle, learnings, and graft. It is inspiring to see such passion. A chef is a title Saud has worked very hard to achieve, and it’s a title he’s learnt to respect.
Saud has been representing his country for years, through the military, international cooking competitions, making documentaries, but nothing quite as emotive and popular as representing Emiratis, and their food on their national airline carrier. His social media feeds are full of requests for more Emirati cuisine on the EK flights. It’s a different kind of pressure, but one Saud is ready for. “I want to make my countrymen and women proud, but I also want to make sure we’re representing the hundreds of other nationalities that fly Emirates every day.”
For an average person, the interview would end there. A new job, head down and crack on. But Saud is far from average, and he is always moving forward and pushing boundaries. He explained what else he wants to do.
“I want to build a platform, where young Emiratis who are really ambitious, who really want to explore cooking more, can go for guidance and advice. I also want to build a platform for existing Emirati chefs – we don’t know each other, we don’t have the opportunity to meet and connect, and I want to change that.”
Saud is ambitious, confident and hungry to learn. He is passionate about what he does and wants to show others the possibilities that the kitchen can offer them.
“If you do what you love, you will wake up every day, feeling fresh, ready and you’re always going to have fun. Your job, if you are passionate about it, will become like your favourite game.”
Saud Al Matrooshi is Executive Sous Chef at Emirates Flight Catering, and he wants you to know that it’s a proper job.
First, let’s start with the big news – GRIF has a new logo. The dripping purple strawberry of 2018 has been retired and we have a new candle/lightbulb, apple/pear hybrid thingy going on. You’ll have to ask their branding partner, Insignia why they seem to have such a vicious vendetta against fruit.
Anyway, GRIF Society, is the most important and complete community of industry decision makers, experts and operators on the planet. Probably. We gather for many reasons, mainly for fear of missing out, getting gossip updates on who is now working where and why they left and to see how many business cards we can collect in 90 minutes.
But we also meet to connect as an industry collective and so we met for a concise two-hour industry update at a reconfigured Westlodge restaurant at the Marriott hotel. Jennifer said it best in her intro, that these few hours are important for us to take a collective breath, look around and take stock of what the larger industry is doing. I couldn’t have said it better myself. So, how is our industry doing?
Here it is in a nutshell.
According to Muhammad Ali Syed at Mingora Consult and of no surprise to anyone in the room, the Dubai F&B market is performing poorly against a soft global backdrop. Average Dubai sales data shows a negative decline on last year, although some operators are finding ways to win. The new leaders of F&B are Marketing Directors (Something I wrote about here a while ago) and we must fight for our regular customers.
Duncan Fraser Smith and Darren Tse updated us on EXPO 2020, one of the few MENA projects that is confident enough to put an actual opening year in its title. Everything at EXPO 2020 (apart from the liquor license) is about legacy and longevity. Over 200 F&B outlets will be available for the Expo, and more importantly, there will be another mall there as well. Can never have enough malls, in my opinion.
Ronald Huiskamp from H-Hospitality took us on a quick global tour of who’s doing what and well. In Dubai, however, fine dining is dying, rent is still astronomical, profitable life cycle is between 3-4 years and we are still in love with large 170-seater restaurants for some reason. Ronald is also taking us all for lunch in Amsterdam next year.
Dubai’s finest F&B thinkers, Emma Banks, Ravi Chandran, Kieran Mallon and Andrew Morrow spoke with Naim Maadad about the Industry Think Tank Initiative they have been developing over the last year. They have established a mission statement and objectives and are finding ways to encourage honest and frank dialogue about difficult subjects. Well, Naim is, at least.
Finally, Duncan returned with Adrian Azodi from Deliveroo, who spoke about the Dark side Kitchens that are successfully bringing more food options to more people across the region, providing great partnership opportunities for many F&B operators.
We then moved upstairs to Hotel Cartagena for some networking and what happens in Hotel Cartagena stays in Hotel Cartagena. Thank you to Atelier EPJ for hosting us and on behalf of GRIF, I’m sorry we left the team of Westlodge with only about 8 minutes to put their restaurant back together before their first guests arrived. It won’t happen again.