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Dubai – The Hungry City

Just a few years ago, as one stepped onto the land of this strange new city, there was a feeling of hope and excitement for the future. This was a young town, a settlement really, that was rich with opportunity and fertile with growth. You could look across the noisy arrivals hall as hundreds of foreigners flocked to this infant city, papers in hand, hoping to forge a new life. Hundreds of thousands of people, all nationalities from far-flung corners of the globe were bringing with them their culture, religion and cuisines. Strange languages and smells were everywhere, but the energy was almost tangible. It had taken a long time to get here, and looking across the skyline, there was construction as far as the eye could see. Investment flooded in from foreign lands, and the world’s tallest building started to reach towards the heavens.

Trade was brisk, and as the city grew in both size and population, it seemed everything was possible for this young urban metropolis. As more and more nationalities arrived, they brought with them the only thing that could remind them of home – their food of wonderful flavours and textures, exotic ingredients and exciting recipes. This was a city built on food and everything that comes with it. I am, of course, speaking of New York at the turn of the last century but you would be forgiven to think I was describing Dubai in 2004. The similarities are fascinating.

Food was and still is an integral part of defining New York, not just as a city, but as a community, as an expression of its history, an acceptance of change and integration, and that is exactly the role food is playing in Dubai today. Historians will look back on the history of Dubai, and a clear theme will be the role that food played in defining whatever Dubai becomes.

Why is food so important to a city like New York or Dubai? Food is the single great unifier across cultures. Our food culture maps out who we are, where we come from, and what happened to us along the way. What we choose to cook and consume is a result of everything that has come before us, a reflection of our experiences, and our ancestors’ experiences — the people we’ve become friends with, what we’ve learned and where we’ve been. We’ll always eat things that have meaning to us, and restaurants take that even further – they define and reshape neighborhoods, they inject vitality into communities – like Ravi did for Satwa or Nobu did for Tribeca.

You are what you eat.

Food is our identity, and this is so important for cities like Dubai that are host to so many visiting nationalities. Restaurants become particularly important when any one of us becomes part of a displaced community, even a voluntary diaspora like for many of us in Dubai. Food becomes the last trace of culture that we discard. Certain aspects of our maternal culture will be diluted almost immediately because of the need to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream audience. However, because food is something we engage with three times per day, it is the most emotive and the hardest to let go.

From the Brit who squeals in delight at Marmite in Park and Shop, to the Indian who brings in his Tiffin boxes to the office every day for lunch or from the Filipino who queues up at Jollibee’s for her fix of chickenjoy, to the Emirati who rushes home to share ‘goozi’ with his family, – every nation on earth gravitates back to their food heritage, back to something that reminds them of who they are, where they have come from and more importantly, where they belong.

Dubai’s Third Place.

A third place is often seen as an essential part of any community. It is the place, after the home and the office, that humans need to function as a civilized society. Walk around Dubai and you will see these third places everywhere you look – from the backstreets of Karama to the landscaped streets of the Arabian Ranches, you will find them. They are the hairdressers and the barber shops; they are the nail spas and the communal parks – and they are, of course, the coffee shops, shisha cafes and restaurants.

Coffee shops are a huge part of Arab culture. They are a natural evolution of the Majlis, that Arabian third place where relationships are forged and friendships maintained. Starbucks is the market leader in terms of number of cafés, with about 75 in Dubai. However, that’s less than 4% of the total number of listed coffee shops in Dubai.

There are an estimated 10,000 restaurants in Dubai, and with a population of 2.5 million people, that is 7.5 million meals that need to be produced every single day, either in a kitchen at home, or in a restaurant – that’s just to cater for the residents and citizens.

Furthermore, I haven’t even factored in the three meals needed daily to feed the 13 million tourists that visit every year – but that’s what the malls and hotels are for.

Imitate or Innovate?

Dubai has one of the highest F&B brand saturations in the world, however, what does that really mean? Dubai has an appetite for international restaurant brands, and despite being heralded as a major food city – a foodie’s paradise – some might argue that it is just a shimmering city of simulation and imitation and others might disagree and claim something more substantial is at play. Is Dubai a landscape of barren brands or is there a hint of innovation and culture bubbling up?

Let’s science this a little. Currently, three of the top chains in terms of number of restaurants are Subway, with approximately 100 restaurants, KFC with about 66 and MacDonald’s about the same, all in Dubai.

Now, I’d like to put that into perspective – for every one MacDonald’s in Dubai, there are thirty-six Indian restaurants, there are nineteen Arabic restaurants, and there are seventeen Chinese restaurants. The international chains might have the fancy billboards and the prime locations, but they are in a sense, overshadowed by these restaurants that provide a grounding point for people yearning for a taste of their culture. The restaurants and brands we are exposed to on the radio and social media and magazines are but a superficial drop in the cultural pool of the restaurant industry.

Original thought hasn’t existed in the F&B industry since a caveman decided to try suck milk out of a buffalo. He was the first original thinker and since then, we have been copying, sometimes improving, but always imitating one another. There have been some candidates for original thinking – some would say Ferran Adria and El Bulli came close, and some say we regressed about four thousand years with the Paleo diet.

Dubai’s need for imitation in the restaurant world is often frustrating. All the press releases, advertising copy and the menus I read, all boast of restaurants being inspired by a New York eatery, a Chicago restaurant, a Parisian tea shop or a Melbourne café. What’s wrong with being a Dubai inspired restaurant? By the way, a New York deli in New York is just called a deli and a Chicago steak house in Chicago is just called a steak house.

Dubai is like a teenager, mimicking and copying until their own identity is formed and established. Unlike buildings that can materialize overnight, or economic cycles that rise and fall every seven years, cultures and identities are formed over decades and centuries.

If I was to travel to New York, or Chicago, or Paris or Melbourne, I wouldn’t find restaurants there that boast of being Dubai inspired restaurants. Perhaps not now, but I guarantee (because I am highly likely to be dead and won’t care) that in 100 years from now, some new urban city will be making plans, not for the worlds tallest building, but for perhaps, the first clean energy city, and hundreds and thousands of foreigners will be flocking in, hoping to find fortune and opportunity – and some restaurant will open with the tag line “A Dubai inspired restaurant.” and why stop there – a Satwa eatery perhaps, a Jumeirah Juice Bar or even a Barsha bakery. That is how cities create their culture and their sense of identity – through food and restaurants.

Stay Hungry, Dubai.

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