The restaurant wasn’t hard to find; it was a short walk from the couch where we had spent a rather fulfilling and productive day finishing off Netflix. All of it. As we walked into the empty, quiet dining room, I whispered to The Serb, “It’s a Thursday night, where is everyone?” She looked at me and said, “It’s not Thursday.” I had no idea what day of the week it was. It was like that awkward week between Christmas and New Year.
We had to seat ourselves, which was fine as there was only one table available. It was one of those communal tables that could seat eight. I would have much preferred a table for two. I leaned across and told The Serb, “I hope no-one else comes, otherwise we’ll have to sit next to strangers.” She said nothing. Maybe she couldn’t hear me through the mask I was wearing.
The restaurant had an open kitchen and an adjacent lounge area. The fit-out was pleasant enough, a passable mix of IKEA and Marina furniture, with a warm, homely, residential feel. It was one of those restaurants that makes you feel right at home.
I was excited about the meal to come despite having eaten 18 times already that day. I had decided to dress up a little for our first restaurant reservation in what seemed like ages. On the other hand, The Serb had decided to take a more relaxed approach to fashion and had changed from her daytime pyjamas to her nighttime pyjamas.
The service was very subtle – almost to the point where it felt like there wasn’t any.
The entertainment was a large television (could be larger, if you asked me) in the lounge area, showing beautiful screensaver montages of mountains and cityscapes and arctic tundra in high definition drone footage. It was super relaxing and a nice touch.
I reached over the table display; a decorative bowl with two dried, hard limes, some keys and a few Post It notes and went to hold The Serb’s hands. Except she was busy sanitizing them, so I played with the two limes instead.
The Serb chose the starter, which was a dry, burnt dough derivative, that I believe was meant to be focaccia, judging by the Paul Hollywood recipe print out that I spotted on the kitchen counter. It was served with chunky, fork-mashed chickpeas mixed with bottled lemon juice. A distant cousin thrice removed to the hummus family, I think. It was terrible. No wonder it was in isolation. It should have stayed there.
The Serb excused herself and went to the restroom. I took the opportunity to assess my mental wellbeing and sanitise my hands. She came back, with a proud look on her face. She leaned in and whispered in case someone overheard us. “They have a shelf full of toilet paper! I put two rolls in my bag, just in case.” These Serbs are pragmatic, that’s for sure.
The main course was a zero-waste dish, utilizing the best (and last) bits of several pasta bags found at the back of the shelf. A mix of spaghetti, fusilli, orza and three random tortellini, mixed with freshly tinned Tuscan tomatoes. I was informed that it was an authentic Northern Italian dish. It was garnished with a Saltbae flourish of dried Italian herbs – a secret blend from Chef Schwartz. I felt the Saltbae flourish was un-necessary and quite reckless especially in these times of heightened hygiene.
The dessert was a romantic sharing dish, decadent and rich. Half a jar of Nutella. With two spoons. They tried to upsell a jar of creamy peanut butter as well, but we declined, saying we needed another reason to return!
As we wandered back to the couch, we spoke about our plans for the next day. The Serb was going to write her memoirs and I was going to figure out what this tik tok game was all about.
Till next time, stay safe, stay at home and order direct from local restaurants – they need your support more than ever!
These few months before summer are the restaurant industry’s magic months. It’s when they are at their best as an industry, making as much revenue as they can to see them through till September and the new “season.”
It’s tourist season and “Dubai Inc” is at its most glorious with desert safaris and dancing fountains and quaint Abra trips. It’s the season of events and festivals and concerts and we are reminded briefly why Dubai needs both an opera house and a Coke A Cola Arena.
It’s when St Patrick’s day weekend gives a green jolt of commerce to many bars and clubs across the city and everyone suddenly discovers their long-lost Irish heritage for 48 hours and forgets everything else after that
It’s when every restaurant offers a generous Ramadan Iftar spread and stay open into the early hours as modern-day majlises for all nationalities.
Alfresco dining is king, beach clubs are for the princes and queens and Friday brunches are full to kingdom come.
However, none of that is going to happen this year. An already fragile industry has been rocked by the necessary but devastating measures that are being taken to reduce the spread of the Corona Virus.
Make no mistake, this is a once in a generation event that our kids and grandkids will speak about in the same way we speak about the Great Depression, Spanish Flu.
As I type this, bars and clubs have been shut in the capital, and I presume soon in Dubai too. Gyms and cinemas have just been ordered shut, as social distancing measures kick in.
There is no global appetite to be a tourist at the moment, but even if there was, you couldn’t get into Dubai, as visas are no longer being issued.
Hotels have already announced strategic closures of some properties and major events have been postponed until further notice. Schools and universities are closed, and it appears we now need to take this “social distancing” very seriously.
I’ll admit having championed going out and supporting local restaurants, as recently as last week but a lot of changes can happen in a pandemic week. Defiance is not the answer here. We are not fighting something that responds to defiance and boldness of character. A virus doesn’t care. Especially this one.
Enforced restaurant closure is a very real scenario and I fear it is not a matter of if, but when restaurants will be asked to close. Many business owners are torn between voluntarily closing and holding on until authorities make the call for them.
However, a few restaurants have already started to close their dine-in, subscribing to the philosophy of doing too much is far less risky than doing too little.
Others need to remain open for a chance to survive. There are nine thousand restaurants in this city and the majority of them operate financially on a week to week basis. Closing for an undefined period is a nightmare scenario.
My fear is this – if restaurants do have to close, many will not open their doors again.
Restaurants are a cash business, and without people coming through the door, the cash will run out fast. The fall out will be immediate and immense. Families will suffer, both here and abroad where relatives wait for monthly money transfers to survive.
So, I reached out and asked the restaurant community how they were feeling and what they were getting ready for.
Some had a better grasp of the situation than others, but overwhelmingly the answer was “We don’t really know.”
The first thing that struck me about the conversations I was having with operators and owners were their priorities. Faced with an uncertain future, they still put hygiene and guest and staff safety and reassurance as their number one priority. Extra training on hygiene habits. More contactless moments. Elbow bumps and training on symptoms.
Some businesses are talking to their banks and landlords – asking to benefit from the hundred billion (with a b) dirham Central Bank stimulus package by deferring payments and cheques.
Everyone is looking to increase their delivery business. If people are self-isolating, then let’s take the food to them, seems to be a clear strategy for many. Some restaurants are upping their delivery capabilities with the hiring of extra drivers. Those that don’t deliver themselves rely on the third-party delivery apps and face a battle with the commission rates and low margins that come with those partnerships.
Despite the USDA announcing, “we are not aware of any reports at this time of human illness that suggest covid-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” drivers are being instructed to not touch the food bag, asking customers to remove it themselves. Who’s laughing at that drone delivery idea now, huh?
The delivery platforms really need to engage in dialogue with their restaurant partners and offer real, tangible financial support during this time. They need to understand the situation and reach out to their partners with workable solutions.
The landlords need to show compassion and play the long game. Suppliers, banks and the entire eco-system need to come together and try to minimise the damage these coming weeks and months are going to bring.
Restaurants, I urge you to maintain your standards, treat your staff fairly and show good business ethics as well. Reach out to your communities and competitors. Show kindness and support.
Stormy waters make for excellent sailors and as a good friend of mine said of his restaurants in London – “It’s not business as usual, but at least it’s business.”
Let’s all stay in business.
Full Disclaimer – *This article was based on NPR’s excellent podcast, Planet Money and their recent episode called The Trouble with Table 101, which can be found wherever you get your podcasts from.
Take a seat.
There is an Indian restaurant in New York City called Adda. It’s a small restaurant with a long and narrow dining room. The food is worth traveling for and nothing on the menu costs more than 75 AED. Unsurprisingly, the narrow dining room fills up fast.
However, this isn’t a story about their Dahi Batata Puri, which bursts in your mouth like giant caviar. This isn’t about their Amul Cheese & Chili Naan either, that people travel great distances for. This isn’t even about the James Beard award they picked up either.
This is about their tables. Well, two of their tables. One is a small four top tucked into a tight enclave that used to be a mop closet; somewhat cramped, a little claustrophobic.
The other is table 101. A large high table, right in the window, big enough to seat 8 people who can look over the restaurant from their exalted position. It’s the top table, taking up the best real estate in the restaurant. It is also the worst table in the restaurant with the lowest spend per head.
Ironically, the cramped mop closet table is Adda’s best performing table in terms of average check. Customers who sit there, consistently spend more than other customers on other tables. Same menu, same prices, same service, just a different table.
Any good restauranteur knows how their tables perform. They know the romantic tables and the tables that are best for groups. They know which tables are for families with kids and which are for solo diners. Each table has certain characteristics that very subtly affect customer perception and behaviours. One table might have an AC duct directly above it. Another might catch a whiff of the kitchen every time a waiter walks past. Another might feel the cold winter air with every swing of the front door, or one might be slightly too close to the bass speaker. But as Planet Money host, Dan Pashman says, “The key for any restaurateur is you’ve got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you’re open.”
The mop closet table is a high performer because it is what’s called an anchored table. According to Stephani Robson, a restaurant psychologist, academic and senior lecturer at Cornell University, customers prefer tables that are anchored; up against a wall or in a corner. Those tables in the middle of a dining room are too exposed and some primal instinct in us means we like to protect our space.
Stephani has plenty of insights into restaurant design psychology. According to Planet Money, one study she did suggested that if a restaurant plays faster songs, diners finished their meal almost ten minutes earlier than compared to when slower music was played. Great for improving that table turnover. Other research also suggests that people might spend more per minute when listening to faster music. (I hope Dubai restaurants don’t all upgrade their playlists to hardcore extratone electronic dance music after this.)
On the surface, table 101 should be the best seat in the house, but due to several subtle psychological cues, it is actually the worst.
For starters, it is the only high-top table in the restaurant, which alienates the people who sit there. They don’t feel part of the restaurant and it makes for an uncomfortable experience. Chances are they might only order some drinks and snacks and then move on to somewhere else.
Next problem is that it is right by the window and front door, both of which create exposure issues. Customers like to have their own space, with a certain perception of protection. Table 101 has none of that. It is open from multiple sides and is too revealing and unprotected. If you sit there, you are clearly at risk of attack from wild animals or delivery drivers.
The final problem is that it is a table for 8 people and unless a group of 8 people arrives, table 101 is never going to be utilised fully. Remember, you’ve got to get the most out of every table, every seat, every minute that you’re open. Also, communal tables, although they look great, just don’t work. I have yet to see a busy communal table in any restaurant in Dubai. The best example I remember was More Café’s communal table in Al Murooj Rotana back in 2006, but even then, it was usually more empty than full.
So, in a busy restaurant like Adda, where, according to Adda’s founder, Roni Mazumdar, each seat is worth approximately 265k AED per year, every empty seat has massive financial consequences.
This is why Roni was more than happy for Stephani Robson to apply some psychological red
esign to table 101, to see if there could be any improvement in its performance.
Here’s what Stephani did, according to the Planet Money podcast. She built a 42-inch high pony wall perpendicular to the entrance that offered certain privacy from people who walked into the restaurant.
She removed the high 8 top table and replaced it with three low tables instead. However, she had to lose one seat in the process. Roni wasn’t particularly happy about this, but Stephani was willing to bet that the remaining seven seats would make up the shortfall and actually improve revenue.
They ran the new configuration for a month and compared figures pre and post the redesign. Four weeks of customer spending at table 101 before the renovation, and four weeks after the renovation.
Remember, the key metric in a busy restaurant when is trying to maximize sales is spend per minute.
Firstly, they looked at the lunch numbers. At lunch, after the renovation, the check average went up, but so did the time spent at the tables. Customers spent more, but they also stayed longer, meaning the key metric, spending per minute, didn’t change enough to be particularly interesting.
However, the dinner shift was a different story.
At dinner, the average spend per head went up from AED 135 to AED 168. That is 33 Dhs extra per person, which is statistically significant. In the words of Stephani herself, “It’s major.”
Also, because the new tables were smaller, people were quicker to leave (smaller groups eat quicker than large groups,) and Roni had better flexibility. He could pull a couple of tables together for a larger group or keep them separate for smaller groups.
The impact this had on the spend per minute metric was substantial. The spend per minute went from 1.80 AED to 2.50 AED. That is 70 fils extra per minute. That is huge.
Roni did some quick calculations and assuming that these results hold through the entire year, Adda will make an additional 66k AED extra per annum, just by making a few tables more flexible and comfortable.
Roni said it best when reflecting on this little experiment.
He said, “We sometimes get caught up on counting every inch, but maybe the answer isn’t just about that extra table, but the quality of the experience that can make a significant impact.”
I agree – the quality of the experience will always make a significant impact on how your restaurant performs.
However, my biggest take out from Planet Money’s podcast is that you can eat at a James Beard award-winning restaurant in New York City for 168 Dhs.
Now go download that electronic house album.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Meet Brian Frange AKA Dr Apple, the world’s leading apple reviewer. Brian has shared his top 5 apples with us, so before you put that plastic tube of rocket apples in your basket, recall Brian’s wise and slightly irreverent words. Enjoy!
TOP 5 APPLES
#1 SWEETANGO – THE PINNACLE OF APPLE-LANDIA
Genetically engineered to snap like a sweet piece of celery, this apple, available only in September and October (if we’re lucky) in certain super markets is the best apple ever to grace the world of Gods and men. If this was the apple that tempted Eve in the garden of Eden I wouldn’t blame her; for the taste of just one SweeTango is worth living through 1000 painful childbirths.
#2 SNAPDRAGON – THE KHALEESI OF APPLES
A shocking newcomer from what is normally the putrid cesspool of apple hell known as New York State, the SnapDragon is no SweeTango but it’s good enough to make the Top 5. It snaps, it’s sweet, it’s got a good name. SnapDragon: The Khaleesi of apples.
#3 HONEYCRISP – THE FATHER OF ALL GOOD APPLES
The new kid on the block in terms of well-known apples this go-getter went from specialty store to supermarket mainstay in no time. A fan favorite likely to soon overtake the serviceable Gala and belligerently disgusting Red Delicious as ‘most in-demand’ apple, this sweet snappy savior can be credited with bringing apples back into the discussion as a relevant fruit, as well as injecting its genes into some of the best apples man has to offer (including the #1 SweeTango).
# 4 PACIFIC ROSE – NEW ZEALAND’S FINEST
Another apple hailing from New Zealand, this mix between the humble Gala and rare Splendor is a sweet, crisp Godsend that I believe is capable of bringing joy to even the most despondent and jaded of all humankind. A true blessing in the apple kingdom.
# 5 ENVY – A WORKHORSE LUNCH APPLE
Yet another New Zealand apple makes the list, making New Zealand officially the best apple country and New York the worst apple state (in case you were wondering.) New Zealand has a knack for taking pure shit apples and mixing them with OK apples to create great apples. The Envy is no exception, taking the rotting garbage that is a Braeburn and mixing it with a decent Royal Gala to make something that cracked the Top 5.
Check out more apple action at Brian’s website www.theappleist.com or on his instagram page @brianfrange
Souk Madinat is my go-to place for whenever I need a jar of sand with a camel scene in it or my picture taken with a blindfolded falcon. On this occasion, I didn’t need either, but I did need to take The Serb out for dinner as it felt like we hadn’t been out since 1989.
As I walked through the winding streets of the souk, I reminisced out loud over all the restaurants and bars that have come and gone over the years.
I pointed out the good ones that are missed – The Agency, Jambase, and Rivington Grill. I pointed out the ones I wouldn’t miss. Dome, Pacha restaurant, and Frioul De Luxe, for example.
I pointed out Folly, by Nick and Scott, which is probably the Souk’s gold standard in F&B at the moment. I pointed out Trader Vic’s and Times of Arabia and told The Serb that they were there before the Souk was built. I’m pretty sure she believed me.
I did all this because I was horribly lost and didn’t want The Serb to notice.
The third time we passed the man who paints names like Aleksandr and Hildegard in animal letters, the Serb stopped, looked at me, and said. “We’re lost, aren’t we?” I nodded silently, relieved to share my burden with someone.
Eventually, a wonderfully kind, but totally silent housekeeping man led us to our destination, where a hostess greeted us with enthusiasm set to ‘tourism level.’ Which is to say she was very bubbly and smiley.
We were at Americano, a new retro American diner that had opened in the old Japengo space. It is not, as The Serb thought, a coffee bar serving watered-down espressos.
I had decided on Americano earlier in the week and had been singing its namesake song by Holly Johnson ever since. It was on my favourite compilation album when growing up – Now That’s What I Call Music 15. Released in 1989, which, if you remember, was the last time The Serb and I had been out for dinner, I think.
Americanos – Blue Jeans and Chinos
Coke, Pepsi and Oreos – Americanos.
Movies and heroes in the land of the free
You can be what you wanna be.
Inspiring stuff. I wonder what Holly would think of today’s USA. I digress. It was a weekend night, and we walked in without a reservation. There were plenty of seats available, so we annoyingly took a six-seater booth for all two of us.
As we relaxed in our mammoth booth, we had an opportunity to take a good look around. The interiors are great. Excellent patina effect on the tiles, beautiful retro detailing around the bar and booths, and a great open kitchen at the back. Americano visually checks all the boxes. It has kind of a speakeasy 1920’s feel to it, which would explain all the smoking inside the venue because that is definitely not 2019.
The menu is americano diner but only through a few of its classics, like mac and cheese, hotdogs, and burgers. I’m not sure where the beetroot hummus, Japanese robata grill, and fish and chips fit into retro americano.
Then again, this is a retro American diner in a purpose build faux-traditional Arab market with man-made water canals, in a city forged from the desert. We don’t have time for purists here. They also called their French fries, chips, which is a subtle nod to America’s founders and heritage.
The Serb looked over the menu and explained to me that because this was a classic American diner menu, it was essential to order the classics. I agreed wholeheartedly with her. She ordered the Classic Americano Burger. I totally didn’t see that coming.
I ordered the southern fried chicken with sage and garlic mayo with a side of mash potato.
We also went with the charred cauliflower because I fell in love with this surprisingly versatile vegetable at Lowe. We added a prawn taco too, as I wasn’t sure how long it would take us to find the car again, and I was worried about sustenance.
Americano’s service still needs to find its feet. It is pleasant and friendly and perfectly fine but doesn’t have the comfortable, natural feel of The Meat Company, for example, which is another restaurant from the same group.
The service at Americano was like a new pair of Levis 501’s. They fit right, look good, but need some time for the denim to soften and become really comfortable.
The food arrived in good time. A thick slice of charred cauliflower was sprinkled with popped quinoa and pine nuts and covered with a spiced labneh and sumac mayo. It was good. The cauliflower was soft but not overcooked, and the flavours balanced well.
The prawn tacos arrived in a patriotic Statue of Liberty taco stand, and in some ways, those two tacos at the base of Lady Liberty represent everything that makes America great.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and in return, I will give you cultural appropriation of your cuisine.
I would have preferred the tacos to be a little more delicate and subtle. The plump, pink prawns sat on an avocado salsa in a soft taco shell. The prawns were surrounded by crème Fraiche, which squirted out the back of the taco with every bite. Unfortunately, some squirted onto Lady Liberty’s face, which was mortifying for all three of us. However, despite being overstuffed, squirty, and a bit clunky, they were also quite delicious.
The burger and southern fried chicken arrived, along with the mashed potato, and they offered us a complimentary mac and cheese too, much to the Serb’s delight.
“They know who you are!!” The Serb stage-screamed at me from 30 centimeters away. You see, the Serb is waiting for the day we can be recognised in a restaurant. I sometimes think it’s the only reason she is still with me.
The burger would have been great, but for the stringy, over salty beef bacon that clung onto the patty. Beef on beef is like denim on denim. It may seem like a good idea on paper, but it’s really not. I have yet to find decent bacon that isn’t pork.
The fried chicken reminded me more of a Schnitzel than southern fried chicken, although it was beautifully cooked. The batter stuck to the meat like a shower curtain to wet skin. It was crunchy, and the chicken inside was juicy and moist. However, there was no seasoning that I could detect. Southern fried chicken is rooted in West African heritage, and you know those boys would be throwing in some spices and seasoning when frying up their chicken.
Americano will do very well for the hungry Souk Madinat crowd, who are craving reliable food and some inventive after sun beverages.
For the rest of us, it’s definitely worth a visit next time you are getting those blindfolded falcon photos done.
I recently read one of those “day in a life” articles about a restaurant manager. It was aspirational, motivating and slightly unbelievable.
“What a load of codswallop,” I said to myself as I knocked back my wheatgrass booster shot and transitioned smoothly from a handstand scorpion to the one-handed tree pose.
Let me tell you what a real typical day in the restaurant industry is like. Written with a little tongue in cheek.
You sleep through your alarm. Or perhaps you forgot to set it. Either way the result is the same. Eventually you open your eyes and realise you overslept. This doesn’t bother you as much as it should. Fourteen-hour days will do that to you. You smell vaguely of kitchen grease, cigarette smoke and general human exploitation. None of which are your fault. A shower is needed, but not a shave. You can get away with it for another day.
Your fridge is empty, which shouldn’t surprise you. It doesn’t. There is left over Lebanese cheese bread and a half full (keeping things positive) diet coke on the couch. A breakfast of kings. You add some milk into your coffee. You only realise after the first mouthful that the milk is fizzier than the diet coke. You take another sip anyway, because coffee.
You arrive at work, hoping the closing shift didn’t F&^k anything up. They did, of course. A credit card terminal wasn’t closed properly, a liquor cabinet was left wide open and inventory wasn’t done. You check who was on closing last night. It was you. You give yourself a verbal warning.
Three staff have called in sick. You try to find replacements, but no-one is answering your call. You borrow a prep cook’s cellphone, so they don’t know it’s you calling. Eventually you convince a runner to pick up an extra shift. One of the sick calls was actually just late. He was late because he had to queue for his cold brew coffee. You question him whether he values his cold brew more than his job. He genuinely takes a long look at his coffee and says “Yeah, kind of.” You kind of also agree with him and go in search of some coffee.
You try to get the team together in an energetic and motivated pre-shift huddle. You try. The truth is, a cutlery shortage during a rush is the only time the team comes together with any real energy and motivation.
Doors open and guests start to arrive. You do a quick kitchen inspection. You eat a mozzarella stick. You walk the floor, checking on tables, mainly to make sure none of corporate are in house.
You hear a waiter tell a table that it’s her first day on the job. She has been working there for 3 years already. She gets better tips that way. And customers forgive her when she forgets their order. Which is regularly. But she is always on time, so there’s that.
You deal with a boozy lunch table that complain and tell you the following three truths. 1. They know/are the owners. 2. They are going to write about this on TripAdvisor. 3. They are never coming back, and neither is anyone else they’ve ever known. You say a silent prayer that the third one is true and comp their mozzarella sticks.
Some of your regulars arrive. By the way, if you’re a regular at a restaurant, you have a nickname. You smile at Vegan Lady with Big Hair and have a quick chat about fish with Fish Guy and head back to the kitchen to check service flow. You eat another mozzarella stick.
You order a duty meal and hide in the office to answer emails. You also spend your time posting a wheatgrass shot that you claim you drank that morning on Instagram.
The restaurant is in full swing and you flail around trying to keep the wheels from falling off. It is reactive, urgent and stressful work. Everyone’s got a floorplan until a 12 top of tourists arrive. You eat another mozzarella stick from the kitchen.
You finally say goodnight to the last guests and start closing procedures. You sign off several portions of mozzarella sticks under a promo code.
You get home late and put Ugly Delicious on Netflix. You fall asleep before it loads and forget to set your alarm.
Your Fat Pants Restaurant. (a place where you go without worrying about what you look like)
Marina Bonita has been here for 17 years – she’s seen it all before and doesn’t stand on ceremony for anything – she’s seen high heels and flats, board shorts and suits – as long as you are enjoying a quesadilla, some freshly made guac & chips and some fajitas then you are welcome here.
That’s where I found myself on a recent Friday night, sitting in their little roadside terrace in a Batman T-Shirt that I wore to bed the night before. The Serb was wearing a T-shirt with a mayonnaise stain down the front and her sweat pants that she has never once broken a sweat in. The point is we were super comfortable and because of that, we were able to gorge ourselves without distraction or commotion. I recommend you go big and tuck into the Chimichanga – A deep fried burrito with melted cheese and refried beans. It’s a dish about as Mexican as Donald Trump. However, it’s still 400 grams of deep-fried awesome.
Dine Like a Monopoly winner (a place where you go to spend the big bucks)
La Petite Maison
As we all know, DIFC stands for Dubai International Food Court; a district for premium restaurants with a few financial offices scattered around.
La Petite Maison’s menu is an advert for what is arguably the finest cuisine in the world and certainly the most celebrated. Originating from the southern city of Nice, ‘Cuisine Nicoise’ is a very particular type of cuisine – it is traditional French cooking, blended, evolved and simplified by Mediterranean ingredients and influences. The food is mouth watering and moreish, flavourful and fresh and served with panache and professionalism.
There are very few restaurants that maintain such impeccable consistency in service, atmosphere, and food quality. I think it is relatively easy to get it right for the first six months, but to be able to perform at such a high level for seven years? That’s what La Petite Maison has done, and that’s impressive and worth every dirham they charge.
Your Guilty Pleasure (a favourite hangout where you go to sin)
Sixteen years ago when I first came to Dubai, I lived on Al Diyafa Street, and on my first night, I stopped off at Al Mallah restaurant and ordered juice and a shawarma. There was nothing fancy about this place – plastic chairs inches from a noisy street, with grumpy waiters who do an excellent job of ignoring you.
However, none of that mattered when they bought me that hot, carb-loaded, garlic-laden shawarma and a thick juice cocktail. I was instantly hooked, but it took me another few years to evolve my choices into something rather spectacular and sinful.
So, if you find yourself on 2nd of December Street, alone at one in the morning, look for the famous green neon Al Mallah sign and pull up a plastic chair. Order yourself a cheese man’ousheh shawarma. Succulent, grilled, marinated shawarma chicken sliced fresh off the flame, wrapped in a fresh, hot kashkaval cheese man’ousheh, dripping with garlic sauce. Tell them Food Sheikh sent you. They’ll have no idea what you mean, but if enough of you say it, who knows what will happen!
First Chef is the title given to the first chef to enter the kitchen in the morning, running the breakfast shift. As in,
“Who’s the First Chef tomorrow?”
“I am, Chef!”
“Well, don’t be F&^%king late like last time.”
It was Oxford, 2001 and I was a Chef De Partie in a well-known French bistro and bar. We used to pump out 300 + meals a night, everything from chicken liver pate to crab tarts to cassoulets. I was on grill section – steak frites, grilled chicken, Toulouse sausage, tuna, salmon – there was a lot to manage. I also didn’t have control of the final dish; I was just a part to the end product. The sausage, for example, was served with pommes puree, which came from another station, and my seared tuna had to make its way to the salad section for the Tuna Nicoise. As my items usually took priority, all other chefs had to work to my schedule, making the pressure that much more. However, the general rule of thumb was don’t overcook or undercook anything, and you’ll live to cook another day.
Our first chef was a young Egyptian French guy called Atif. I remember distinctly his arms and hands were covered in scars and old burn marks that told his story of behind the kitchen line. As the First Chef, he would arrive at 5 in the morning, to prepare for his breakfast shift. Breakfast wasn’t too busy, but we did serve as the breakfast room for the small hotel that was directly above us. There could be around 80/90 people coming down for breakfast on some peak days, plus some random walk-ins.
I used to arrive around 10 am for my shift and would always catch the tail end of his. He would often help us out with mis-en-place for the lunch shift. Atif took life at a certain pace. He was a big weed smoker, often chopping his buds on the same chopping board and with the same knife as he would chop the mushrooms for a full English breakfast order. He was unhurried and chilled about most things, but also acted with brutal efficiency and precision. It was almost as if he never wanted to exert any energy that was not absolutely essential. Atif was a pretty talented chef but never wanted to be anything other than the First Chef. The general consensus was because he was so lazy that he didn’t want the stress and high pace of a busy Friday night.
I recall he was helping me pour a large stockpot of boiling water down the sink. I lost my grip on the handle as we raised it to the sink. Boiling water drenched my apron across my entire groin area. Within surprising speed and accuracy, Atif somehow grabbed a small paring knife and sliced the apron strings and pulled the boiling hot apron fabric off me before it soaked through to the skin. In hindsight, he could have stabbed me instead, which would have been a really bad day – third-degree burns and a small vegetable knife hole in my back.
However, the best story I remember about him was when we were expecting to be particularly busy for breakfast. I took the early shift to support him and learnt a very valuable lesson in laziness.
I watched in amazement as he meticulously set up the continental breakfast buffet in the restaurant. I had never seen such attention to detail and high-quality food. The fruit in the fruit salad looked as if they had been sliced by a computer guiding chopping knife. The bakery section was generously filled with croissants, pain au chocolat, and Danishes, all baked to golden perfection. Artisanal breads, warm bagels, jams, soft French butter all shone under the restaurant lights.
The cold cut meats were individually rolled, folded and stacked like some origami black belt had been bored. The cereal boxes were aligned with military precision. Fresh from the oven granola sat in polished glass bowls. Ice in the orange juice jugs tinkled gently, as drops of condensation slowly trickled down the glass.
The aroma of hot fresh coffee percolated the air. Creamy home-made oatmeal sat in a warmer, honey, cinnamon powder and chocolate bits tempting you to take a bowl. Ribbons of bright yellow scrambled eggs, folded with crème fraiche, sat in a polished chafing dish.
And there was Atif, the chef famous for doing only the bare essentials, creating this masterful display of a truly outstanding continental breakfast buffet. I was speechless; it wouldn’t have been out of place in a royal palace.
As the first customers entered the restaurant, Atif grabbed his kitchen towel and walked back to the kitchen.
“I’m going for a smoke – call me if you get busy with orders.” And just like that, he disappeared down the stairs and out the back of the kitchen.
I jumped behind the line and waited for the al-la-carte orders to come flooding in, anticipating the whirl and buzz of the kitchen printer. Nothing happened. Ten minutes went by, then twenty, and then thirty minutes, and the only order was two medium poached eggs.
I stuck my head into the dining room and grabbed a waiter as he rushed by.
“How busy is the restaurant?” I asked
“We’re full,” He replied, hurriedly.
“Then, why is no-one ordering anything?” I asked
“Because they are all going for the buffet.”
The whole breakfast shift went by with a minimal amount of orders. By the time breakfast had finished, I had cooked maybe six orders and a refreshment of the scrambled eggs – hardly enough to break a sweat. I turned off the hot lamp and went in search of Atif, who hadn’t made a single appearance. He was in the break room, feet up, cigarette in hand, watching breakfast TV. He looked at me with a little smile on his face. “Busy?” He asked.
He knew exactly what he had done, and it slowly dawned on me, the sheer brilliance of his laziness. By making the buffet look irresistible, he knew no one would order al la carte, preferring the buffet instead. By spending 45 minutes in the morning, making it look good, meant he could spend the next 2 and ½ hours watching TV and drinking coffee.
“Remember,” he said, “lazy people will always find the best way to do something. I go home now.”
I have a lot of books in my collection. I also own a kindle, but there is something magical about a physical book – the texture of the paper, the tangible nature of them offers a longevity that E-books don’t have. Also, according to a recent study, print books are better at conveying information.
If you want to start a food library, I can recommend these five books to start. I have them all on my book shelf. I refer to them frequently and they and they are often bought as gifts as well. Yes, I’m super fun at parties.
Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
From one of the very best storytellers of our time, Kitchen Confidential became required reading for every young chef busting their balls in kitchens around the world. Bourdain exposed the brutal truths of kitchen work in a piece of work that remains as iconic as it is important.
Counter Intelligence – Jonathan Gold
Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence is a compendium of his greatest restaurant reviews. Over 200 concise and quite brilliant reflections of LA’s restaurant scene. His work is inspired and even after 18 years this book is the gold standard in prose and acts as a reference for any aspiring food writer.
Fashioning Appetite – Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity – Joanne Finkelstein
This original, clever book explores the roles restaurant have on our society, through the lens of a social scientist. Why is society so attached to participating in this public display of private moments? This book goes some way to explaining why, as consumers, we have fetishised what it means to dine out to the extent that in order to be pleased with our evening and, frankly, ourselves, our restaurant experience needs to be stellar. A heavier read, but an essential one for me.
White Heat – Marco Pierre White
Published in 1990, this is more than just a cookbook. It has become one of the most enduring, classic food publications of our time. An endearing blend of outspoken opinion, recipes, industry anecdotes and some iconic photography by Bob Carlos Clarke, who makes White’s kitchen at Harvey’s look like a war zone.
Setting The Table – Danny Meyer
The reference book on hospitality – a must read for all aspiring restaurant professionals. Danny Meyer helped create a new ethos of dining in New York and is one of the world’s most successful restauranteurs. In ‘Setting The Table’, he delivers a memoir-cum-business manual that mixes relatable object lessons in hospitality with snippets of his fascinating autobiography.
Zabeel House Hotel is located in the Onyx Tower, in the Greens. It’s the kind of uber-cool, chillaxed hotel where you don’t know if that’s the doorman running to open the door for you, or a guest late for a meeting.
We walked into the lobby, and I looked for some signage for Lah Lah. The Serb immediately approached someone to ask for directions, which is very pragmatic and a last resort in my book. However, it’s quite useful. Lah Lah is on the fourth floor.
As we walked to the elevators, the Serb looked back and said, “I hope that lady works here.”
Lah Lah is up on the 4th floor, round a tight little bend to your left. The terrace was closed because it’s an inferno outside. The bare, warped, dusty furniture we could see through the window was living proof of the harsh realities outdoor furniture face every summer.
Lah Lah is a pan Asian restaurant, serving food from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. This means a menu of rice rolls, dumplings, soups, wok dishes, noodles and Haagen Dazs Sorbet.
There was no-one at the entrance, so we wandered in, hand in hand, on the hunt for someone who could help us. We got as far as the walk-in freezer in the kitchen before we found someone.
No, that’s a big fat lie, but we did almost make it out the other side of the restaurant before we met someone who showed us to an empty table. We assumed he worked there.
The service was functional, but little else and certainly not reflective of the self-proclaimed “community hotel” label they’ve given themselves. Restaurants miss a trick when they don’t make an effort to connect with their guests, and in this market, it’s almost suicidal.
I learnt more from their Instagram and website than I did from actually visiting them. I couldn’t tell you what Lah Lah meant, because no-one bothered to explain it to us. Maybe they don’t know.
Also, they grow organic vegetables, and we could pick our herbs from their “living” dining table to flavour our food. I got that exciting titbit from Google, which was not the name of our waiter.
I flagged our waiter down to order some drinks. He stared at us, nodded once, and wandered off. Maybe he wasn’t a waiter, but a guest on the way to the bathrooms. You can never tell in these kinds of hotels.
Lah Lah was quiet for lunch – a few business tables here and there, but mostly empty. The décor is a mix of modern murals with traditional trinkets. There is a pleasant residential feel to it, with a backless bar and plenty of natural light.
The Serb and I hadn’t been out for quite some time (ask the Serb about that), so once again, my enthusiasm dictated our ordering.
We ordered the vegan rolls, corn fritters, duck gyoza, BBQ rib bao, the satay chicken skewers, and a berry blast. I reeled this list off to our waiter who wrote nothing down, seemingly committing it to memory. I was seriously beginning to think he was really a guest, who was too far committed to this charade to come out with the truth.
Our food arrived in no particular order, but the flow and timing were spot on. We got the two vegan dishes first- the vegan paradise and corn fritters. Perhaps vegans are known to be always hungry, so their food is prioritized in the kitchen.
The vegan rolls were made of avocado, quinoa, cucumber, and pumpkin. They were average, and the drizzled relish was nice. However, the corn fritters won the vegan battle – greasy, hot little fried disks of corn and tofu with the chunkiest peanut sauce I have ever seen.
Next up were the chicken skewers which were dry, rather dull and a bit meh. Luckily the duck gyoza potstickers swooped in and saved the day. Crispy gyoza skins, stuffed with aromatic, flavourful duck meat and a sweet, sharp soy sauce. Simple but delicious.
The BBQ ribs to bao buns ratio was crazy – eight ribs for just two buns. There was no way I could fit four ribs into a single bun. I tried though and judging by The Serb’s expression, maybe a little too hard. The ribs were great, although the BBQ sauce was a touch too sweet for me. A good BBQ sauce is tangy and should confuse your taste buds.
“Do you think the staff will start singing and dancing soon?” The Serb asked, with half a duck gyoza impaled on a chopstick.
“Why would they do that?” I asked carefully, pretty sure I knew where this was going.
“Because they do in the film,” she replied. I was right. She was thinking of Ryan Gosling again.
No-one stopped by to ask us how the meal was, but to be honest, I wasn’t expecting anyone to.
Lah Lah is a reasonably good hotel restaurant. Overall, the quality of the food is strong enough to warrant a repeat visit, but I hope that Lah Lah at night is a little more engaging and “community” friendly than lunchtime Lah Lah.
As we left, I’m pretty sure I saw our waiter pick his car up from valet.
Food. It’s bloody complicated. Its impact reaches every single living thing on the planet. Religion, land, money, and even Dubai fitness influencers can’t hold a candle to the influence food has on this planet. We are a community of 8 billion people, and food is our biggest vice.
There is no doubt in my mind that our species has given nothing positive back to this planet. We are acting like hyperactive children in a playground. Sure, the see-saw might be working now, but eventually, it’s going to break. The ironic thing is, if we did act a little more like our children, we could probably fix this planet.
Therefore, I have recently been trying to make better, more ethical choices in life.
For example, in the rare times that I remember a reusable bag for my supermarket shop, I tut judgmentally at the person in front of me for using plastic bags. Yep, I am delighted to get on my high horse, whenever I can.
I installed an under-sink water filter from Liquid of life, but that was because those six-packs of Masafi are bloody heavy.
I try to eat less beef as I have a hygienic issue with the amount of cow flatulence in the world. If we can breed a fart-free bovine, I would happily eat beef every day.
I haven’t eaten foie gras for years, because, holy sh*t, poor geese. Nutella leaves orangutans homeless. Sausages equal instant cancer, and sausage cancer is the worst.
But now that I am an adult and can sit in front of a computer screen for 16 hours a day, I took the opportunity to explore this topic further.
I wish I hadn’t.
There is an internet thing where you google “Florida man” and then your birthday and post the first headline that appears. It seems a Florida man is doing something newsworthy every day of the year. Mine is, and I kid you not, “Florida Man arrested for hanging on traffic light and sh*tting on cars passing underneath.”
Inspired by my Florida man, and combined with my new ethical standing, I invented an internet game. Google search “The dark side of [enter favourite food item here]”, and you will almost be guaranteed of a result. However, as I mentioned before, I wish I hadn’t.
First up on google was avocados. Smashed, baked, guac, with eggs, in smoothies, these versatile fruits have taken the world by storm in recent years. They are like the Ed Sheeran of fruits. Slightly odd-looking, but smooth and delicious on the inside. However, in Pecora, Chile, avocado production is causing a massive problem. In Chile, it takes on average 320 litres of water to produce one avocado. One. Single. Avocado.
Rivers have dried up, and groundwater levels have fallen, causing regional droughts as farmers struggle to respond to the insane demand from the west for smashed avo on toast. In comparison, a tomato takes just 5 litres, and an orange takes 22 litres of water. So, that’s me off avocado from now on.
Nuts were next on google — amazing little things, full of good oils and fats and a good source of protein. There was even a Harvard study that said eating nuts decreased mortality rates by 20 percent. Alas, no, take your nuts off the table. California, which produces 82 percent of the world’s almond supply, suffers regular droughts and you can blame the almonds, quite frankly. A single almond takes 4 litres of water to grow. Imagine a Pecora avocado and almond nut smoothie – just a cool 360 litres of water used for that little morning pick-me-up. A packet of filter-free Lucky Strike might be a better choice at this stage.
Cashews used to be my favourite nut, but nut anymore. They are now my nutenemy. Between two layers of their hard shell is a vicious acid that is causing permanent damage to the hands of the ladies who work in the cashew factories. No-one has time for cashew acid.
Next up on my Google search was coconut oil – the healthiest way to fry your eggs, surely. Pah – it’s stuffed with saturated fat. About 90% saturated fat, which is the stuff heart diseases love. Butter is only 64%, as a comparison. So, that’s coconut oil kicked to the curb.
I googled pizza, because, surely pizza is safe from the dark side. No, pizza is going to hell too. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are about 8,000 wood-burning pizzerias producing almost a million pizzas per day. These pizzerias use 18.5 acres of forest every month, to keep up with demand. That’s 14 football fields of forest every month gone from the face of the earth, thanks to a Hawaiian with extra cheese.
Quinoa is rocket fuel for hipsters, millennials, and vegans the world over and a healthy replacement for junk fast food. Before we got our greedy little hands on this miracle grain of the Andes, quinoa was a staple food item to the people of Peru and Bolivia. However, thanks to our crazy demand, prices have tripled, and many Peruvians and Bolivians can no longer afford to eat their staple food. In a horrible twist of fate, imported junk food is now a cheaper option.
Farmers markets, we love them. We love that feel-good, farm-to-table feeling and brown paper bags of slightly disfigured tomatoes and courgettes and small jars of local honey. Think again – your farmers might not be so local. Thanks to the inflated, privileged prices of farmers markets, farmers are travelling great distances with their products to make more profit, leaving their own communities hungry and without food.
The more I googled, the more depressed I got. The poke bowl, farmed salmon, cheese, eggs, it was never-ending, and no food item was safe.
I typed one last food item into google but couldn’t bring myself to hit search. I couldn’t do it.
I am all for ethical eating and desperately want to do my part to help save the planet, but there are some things I don’t want to know. Some things need to remain pure and sacred; otherwise, what is it we are living for?
So, please, for the love of God, don’t google Shawarma. Let’s not ruin it. I don’t think I could handle it.
The role of the restaurant maître d’ is slowing dying. It has become a critically endangered species in the industry, and it should come as no surprise that it’s one of the most challenging positions to fill in a restaurant. It takes years to accrue the skills needed to be a maître d’. Not only do you need someone who has high-level technical skills and an in-depth knowledge of food and beverages, table service, management, organization, event planning, and time management, but you also need someone who has charm and charisma, a love of service and a genuine heartfelt sense of hospitality and kindness. You show me a restaurant with character and loyal clientele, and I’ll show you a talented maître d’ that runs it.
In an earlier life, I worked at an iconic hotel in Washington, DC for a few years. My family, duty-bound, visited me while I was there. They made two trips, with about 18 months between the two visits. On both visits, we dined at the Willard Room, the hotel’s historic fine dining restaurant, run by the legendary maître d’, Francisco.
Our first meal was made memorable by Francisco pulling out all the stops to make a colleague’s out of town family feel special. He fussed over us and flirted with us and whispered secret anecdotes about the history of the great dining room we were in. He had this old school authenticity that elevated every interaction.
The second time, we walked in without a reservation. Francisco recognised my family immediately, gave a little clap of genuine delight and greeted them individually by name. He danced us to the same table we had on our first visit because he remembered we liked the view. He informed us that he had the Châteauneuf-du-Pape in stock this time and would be delighted to bring us a bottle. He recalled what we ate last time and recommended similar dishes. He was charming and engaged and attended to our table like an artist attending his opus. He was the last great maître d’ that I ever worked with – part gate keeper, part confidant, part concierge. He was the heart and soul of the restaurant.
Sadly, over the years, this position has been replaced by a host or manager who merely makes the rounds at the end of a meal – a ticked box on a check list. The responsibilities have been diluted across several different positions in the restaurant.
Baring a few outliers, it seems the great relationship building skills have been largely forgotten, with a reliance on technology that provides us with speed and efficiency, but often at the cost of quality and authenticity. I’ve yet to see a social media strategy that alone creates long-lasting relationships with their customers. Social media can create awareness, but the real connection is built face to face.
I am a massive advocate for restaurants and food businesses upping their game when connecting with their audience and community, and I urge them all to look within their organisation to see where their heart and soul is. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a maître d’ is an old-fashioned role of an old, stuffy fine dining era. The title may be antiquated, but I would argue that the responsibilities are needed more than ever now.
MacDonald’s have recently spent $300 million acquiring a tech start-up called Dynamic Yield. This technology and its “decision logic” will change the drive-thru experience. As an example, Macdonald’s will scan your car plate, recall your order history, and offer up a screen with your favourite order before you even open your mouth. CEO Easterbrook calls it “mass personalization.” We’re no longer human, but a binary code of behaviour traits, habits, and statistics. Can anyone say Black Mirror Season Now?
Technology and algorithms and A.I are all very impressive and can tell us a great deal about our customers and their habits. However, they can’t tell us everything. They can’t tell us how each guest is feeling at any given meal. They can’t tell us if they’ve had a bad day, or what they are celebrating for, or commiserating over. Life can get messy sometimes, and technology does not work well with human emotions.
Because that’s what it boils down to – an emotional connection, making us feel truly included and welcome and part of something special.
Francisco used to tell me, “make every single person who comes through that door feel like they’re the only ones, and they will always come to see you.”
That’s what a good maître d’ will do. It’s a shame there aren’t many left.
Pizza is possibly one of the greatest things to ever come out of a cardboard box. It is a single object, no complexity to its makeup and has no liquid components to spill, unlike curry. It doesn’t degrade much in quality, even when put into its delivery box and driven through Dubai traffic for 40 minutes. Unlike breaded or fried foods, which suffer tremendously from car sickness and arrive soggy, emotional wrecks.
Pizza is a perfectly portable food; it doesn’t need a knife and fork, it can be reheated multiple times without a discernable loss in quality and by changing the toppings of vegetables and meat, it can easily be a single-dish meal that makes the entire family happy. Or just you – no one is judging.
Yet, this is not about the pizza, but the vessel in which it arrives at your doorstop – the humble pizza box. Typically, in my haste to get to the pizza, I usually don’t stop to appreciate the box in which it comes in. The box is the unsung hero of the pizza experience. Everyone focuses on the pizza and that little dollhouse plastic table that unexplainably comes free with some pizzas.
No one ever cares about the box. Even Detective David Mills in the movie Seven only wanted to know what was in the box. However, there are a few pizza joints that have been using the pizza box as a canvas for more than the ubiquitous cheerful chef running across the box carrying an oversized pizza clipart.
Globally, there have been some amazing examples of awesome artwork, with some pizza places collaborating with famous artists for limited edition pizza boxes. I have my favourites – One is a Japanese Domino’s pizza box, one is the Pagliacci Sasquatch pizza box and the other is the Ed Hardy illustrated box for Tony’s Napoletana Pizza in San Francisco.
However, looking locally, there is one Dubai based pizza place that is also creating fun and fresh pizza box artwork. Pitfire Pizza are leading the way in rotating box art and work with some of Dubai’s best known and unknown artists. Their inspiration is to give people a “little artistic solace and good vibes injection every time they order.”
They have partnered with local artists like Dina Sami @creativebeingdina, Paul Bruwer of @thedominodubai, and Jelena Vucicevic from @tobemadeofdarkness. Even Bill, co-founder of Pitfire Pizza personally created one of their earlier designs. He assimilates, gets inspiration and then creates. His mind in an encyclopedia of visuals, according to his partner.
For founders, Michelle and Bill, it is all about collaboration. Through their artwork, they hope to remind people about the power of collaboration. They say that collaboration “is the best way to progress. If you find the right individuals to collaborate with, you can elevate your business while focusing your energy on what you excel at. Whether you are in the restaurant business or not, we hope this can be a reminder that together we can do so much more.”
Have a look at their pizza box artwork below.
I’m going to be straight up with you. With so many well-known chefs in the kitchen, I was expecting a little more drama. Something to write about, you know. Take Nick and Scott, for example – both from the Gordon Ramsay school of cooking – you would think they could have mustered up a minor meltdown. No. Not even a finger raised in anger. They were as chilled as a Cheshire cat on a Friday afternoon. With all the ICCA students helping out in a unfamiliar kitchen, you would expect at least one minor workplace incident, but there was nothing. No burnt fingers or grated knuckles.
For one sweet moment, I thought it was going to kick off. Word came from the kitchen that Greg Malouf, the oracle of Middle Eastern cuisine, had rejected the falafel, as it wasn’t up to standard. This was fantastic news – the menus had been printed, and it was too late to come up with something else. This was the drama I was looking for. Maybe Greg would throw falafel mix at Mohammed Orfali and mayhem would ensue. No, of course not. A simple phone call, new ingredients on the way and they would make it again. Problem solved without a blood vessel bursting. I sulked back upstairs, bitterly disappointed with their professionalism.
No one screamed, no one cried, and no one walked out after throwing their apron at Tom Arnel. I would love to say that Chef Reif sabotaged Chef Liz’s dessert by swapping the vanilla extract with soy sauce, but I would be making that up completely.
In fact, 20 minutes before their guests were due to arrive, they found time to drink coffee, hang out for selfies and chit chat about blast chillers and convection ovens. Where was the panic and mayhem that would have made this article dramatic and exciting?
Well, dear readers, you can blame the chefs, because they smashed out a four-course menu for 150 odd guests without really breaking a sweat.
If you were there, you know how good the food was. It wasn’t fancy, pretentious or pompous. It was classy, authentic and bloody delicious. The menu really was a collaboration between all the chefs, and we wanted to try put Dubai on a plate.
They took flavour inspiration from the region and garnished it with international influences. They chose the best ingredients possible, including as much locally grown produce as they could get their hands on, and applied a variety of cooking techniques and methods to them. From the finesse of the hen egg with sumac, Medjool dates and malt vinegar caramel to the DIY, spice rubbed backyard roast lamb, all facets of Dubai’s lifestyle were represented in the menu.
As Tom mentioned in one of his speeches, Dubai is a city that embodies the ‘anything is possible’ mentality and makes it a contagious mindset.
The whole event was the result of unparalleled support and a coming together of scores of industry professionals, who put aside personal agenda and stepped up to support this event in the name of Dubai Cares.
Vegetables and produce from Emirates Bio Farm, cucumber and basil gelato from Canvas Gelato, Mardar farms and Meat and Livestock Australia for the lamb, Flying Elephant for the audio visual and stage, Fink 22 for the amazing artwork, 3 fils for the drinks, Mirzam for the chocolates and specialty coffee and the list goes on and on.
Last night, the Tom and Serg team welcomed into their house, the whole of Dubai, figuratively and almost literally, and Matt, Alex and the team were the perfect hosts, efficient, hospitable and gracious.
Let’s not forget what EAT DXB’s mission is. EAT DXB works on three core values – Celebrate, Support, and Strengthen. We believe the food and beverage dynamic is the heartbeat of Dubai. It is a true reflection of the spirit of the time and place. Dubai is a collection of districts, a melting pot of cultures and a series of moments. It is a mass of moving parts with millions of heartbeats, stories, and memories, all colliding and crashing into one another.
Yet it is food that is our union, and restaurants are the great connectors between us all.
EAT DXB is a collection of like-minded individuals who want to make Dubai an even better place, through the creation of a thriving F&B industry. With a focus on everything local; restaurants and their customers, business owners, and their landlords, suppliers, and chefs, our community is concerned with the relationships that affect us all.
Last night was the start of EAT DXB. Tonight, we deliver EAT TALKS, an evening of storytelling and discussion, and tomorrow we continue developing our voice and community. We look forward to going on that journey with you all.
Sorry again for the lack of drama. Although the charcoal octopus looked pretty dramatic, so there’s that.
Her name was Beasty, which I think was an ironic nickname, as she was anything but. She took me on my first real food adventure, proving that if you look hard enough, you can find adventure in the most unlikely of places.
The year was 2001, the place was Oxford, England. She was on the same university course as me, and we did group work together on some of the modules. She was street smart; I was book smart-ish. We were both well-travelled, and both loved food. However, the difference between us was she had explored, whereas I had just visited. She could tell you where the best brochettes in Fez could be found, or who sells the freshest Trdelnik in Prague. She knew where to go for Falafel in Borough Market or Räksmörgås in Stockholm’s Östermalms.
However, nothing about her was boastful, and she never tried to paint herself in a superior light. This was in a world before Instagram, and so her narrations of the dishes were the only way she could story tell her experiences. Beasty was and remained one of the original and purist foodies I have ever met. She wasn’t all high or mighty either – she also knew the best full English was at St Giles Café and the corner shop Spar sold a pretty good samosa in a pinch.
So, when she announced that she was taking me for lunch on Saturday, my heart beat a little faster. It was like going to The Louvre with Tom Hanks.
“We’re going for Yum Cha,” she said. “But we have to get there early because they get super busy and sell out quick. You’re gonna love it, I promise.”
“We’re going for what?” I asked. She had already hung up.
Throughout the week, I was trying to research more about this Yum Cha, but because I didn’t even know if I was saying it right, I had no idea where to look. Plus, I was a student, internet cafes ruled, and we still played snake on our Nokia phones. This was pre-Netflix, and I don’t think the term foodie had even been invented yet.
I saw Beasty again mid-week, briefly at a lecture and casually asked where we were going again for lunch as if I had forgotten and just remembered in passing.
“Yum Cha,” she said again. “Tea and Dim Sum,” she explained as if that should clear it all up. I was none the wiser. I had genuinely never heard of Dim Sum before. My food experiences had been restricted to British pub food and Lebanese and high street “Ethnic” cuisine. Mutton korma with mango chutney and sweet and sour chicken and prawn crackers was about as exotic as it got.
Little did I know this was going to be one of my most powerful food memories. A meal of the strange and unfamiliar. An experience that took me to faraway lands and exciting prospects. Languages, smells, sounds, flavours, and textures that were all alien to me and my mind and mouth tripped over each other, trying to comprehend everything.
I can’t even remember the name of the restaurant – Hidden Dragon Opium Bar, or something like that. I have vague recollections of a small entrance, through the back of a laundromat, past tattooed old men playing with dice and snakes. Of course, my memory has clearly been influenced and diluted over the years – this was Oxford, England – the City of Dreaming Spires. There is no way they have laundromats there.
The room was chaotic and loud, hot, and full of character and movement and smells. We sat at one of the few remaining tables, and I let Beasty take the lead. From the kitchen, a lady wheeled out a trolley of bamboo containers so tall, she could barely see over them. Beasty flagged her down like a trader at an auction. There was a flurry of conversation, a mix of English, and what I could only assume was Cantonese. It was a short, violent exchange ending in smiles and several seemingly random bamboo baskets being placed on our table.
“Har Gow, Xiaolongbao, Shumai, cha siu bao,” she said in a high pitched shrill and placed four different baskets on the table.
Beasty put one hand on the lid of the bamboo steamer baskets and looked at me dead in the eyes. “Before we begin, I have something important to tell you,” she said.
“Chopsticks,” she announced, holding up her set, in case I was not familiar with them. “A few rules you need to know about chopsticks. Never stick them straight down into your food. It’s considered bad luck. It resembles incense sticks for the dead and will bring bad health.”
“Don’t bang the sticks against your bowl,” she continued. “Beggars used to do this for attention, and it will bring poverty to your family.”
“Always eat the last grain of rice in your bowl. This means your future wife will have smooth, perfect skin. Never lean across the table for food. Serve tea to others before yourself. Never take the last dim sum without permission and don’t use your hands.”
As I sat there in front of those towers of bamboo containers, trying to remember all these rules, Beasty poured me the first of many cups of fragrant, floral jasmine tea. It was light, clean and refreshing and a million miles away from the milky Tetley’s or Lipton I was used to.
I lost track of how many different Dim Sum we tried, but four stuck in my memory, and I can recall how they looked and tasted, with considerable accuracy.
Har Gow is the purse shaped shrimp dumplings, with perfect pleating, evenly crimped along the edge. They had smooth, tacky skin, with a fleshy shrimp filling that was toothsome and lusciously tender.
Shumai was a meaty, crowd-pleasing little open-faced dumpling, with minced pork, shrimp, mushroom and bamboo shoots. A thin egg dough wrapper with an orange garnish dot of crab roe and carrot top. This dumpling was bouncy, fresh, and slightly sticky with delicious juices that coated your mouth.
The Cha Siu Boa blew my mind. Maybe it was all the antioxidants coursing through my veins from the tea, but I was in awe of these little clouds of perfection. Soft, pale, steamed bread buns, (steamed bread, what a time to be alive!) ever so sweet with piping hot, sticky sweet BBQ filling. Even today, they still provide me with a considerable amount of satisfaction when I tear them in half.
I broke a cardinal rule by reaching over to grab another one. Beasty stabbed me in the back of the hand with her chopstick.
The Xiaolongbao to this day remains my favourite. I had never experienced anything like that before. A pork and crab soup dumpling. So many questions raced through my mind, as the gyoza skin burst in my mouth and the hot, salty soup coated my tongue and throat. Who makes these? How did you get the soup in there? Why have I never had these before?
The trolley kept on coming, the bamboo basket towers depleting as they made their way across the busy room. Our teapot was refilled continuously, and the noise was relentless. It was a blurry few hours of sensory overload. It was magnificent.
We stumbled out into the murky sunlight and walked back to the bus stop. I felt as if we had returned from somewhere exotic and alien. I felt like we had been part of a secret club. I felt we had been on an adventure, and it was then I realised the power of food, with its ability to transport you thousands of miles with a single mouthful.