Industry perspective into culinary habits that will be big this year.
The UAE’s culinary business is experiencing a growth spurt. It is almost as if the industry has somewhat entered its teens when we expected it take some more time. If reports are to be believed, about 20,000 F&B outlets are expected to ‘shroom up by 2020. Such reports are not surprising. Think of UAE as your home kitchen. When more guests turn up, you just make some more food and serve your guests. The numbers of tourists flocking to the UAE sees a healthy year-on-year growth. Hotels are expanding their chains and restaurants. Eatery chains are opening newer outlets in newer malls that grow faster than the palm trees. Stand-alone eateries and food entrepreneurs see this as a growth opportunity to increase their capacity. And so, the country’s kitchen, as it were, is expanding.
UAE is a hotspot of culinary conquests. It is the star attraction. Residents and tourists alike, love eating out and why not! When you can get food from the world in a span of 50 kilometres or thereabouts, food becomes the main attraction. Accessibility to the global palate is easier than getting a visa to go for a holiday. Think Argentinian to Japanese – and all that is available, in full authenticity.
All this has led to a large influx of global culinary masters. Whether starred or yearning to have the Bibendum’s mark of excellence, they all make sure that they have a UAE presence. It could be argued, over some single-origin coffee and focaccia, that the usual map pegs are giving way to opening up in the glittering UAE. Georgio Locatelli, Gary Rhodes, Nobu, Gordon Ramsey, Atul Kochchar, Heinz Beck, Vikas Khanna, Yannick Alleno, Vineet Bhatia and Jamie Oliver are some names that reinforce the belief as high as the Burj that Dubai is quickly becoming a culinary epicentre.
In this Middle East Milan, the melange of such culinary brands helps hotels lure more and newer guests. Global chains are swimming the seas to set shop here like Joe’s Crab Shack did when they opened their 131st store and the 1st overseas restaurant in the Dubai Mall a few months back. I see that the burgeoning food industry has also given rise to the new breed of food journalists or bloggers who are becoming a force to reckon with, Darth Vader notwithstanding. Adding in more gourmet force, digital platforms allow restaurants of all hues and pockets to list and get reviewed – all of this feeding into the big churning bowl of the culinary kingdom in the UAE.
With the last few years being spectacular in this respect, 2016 begins on a happy and hopeful note of newer food experiences and newer entrants into the market. This is an attempt to tap into the top 5 trends of this year.
#1. RISE OF THE CASUAL SMART DINING
Fine dine does not find favours with many, mainly because it is a starched and stiff affair. These days, people want to go to a restaurant, however posh, to have some good nosh, enjoy the ambience without having to worry about which service fork to use or if their cufflinks are secretly kissing the meat gravy.
Casual Smart Dining restaurants are a sub-niche between the fine dining restaurants and casual dining eateries. The cutlery remains classy while the ambience is slightly more relaxed. Many restaurants are working that extra mile to give value for the dirham spent in eating.
Head chef at the multi-award winning Italian seafood restaurant Bice Mare at Souk Al Bahar, Leonardo Maltese feels “You expect guests in formals to turn up for a fine dine restaurant. But again, you cannot be rude to a patron who may turn up in a hoodie. At Bice Mare, every guest who walks is given the same attention and care so that the experience is memorable and the taste will transport them to the south seas of Italy.”
Can’t argue with that.
#2. STREET FOOD GOES CHIC Street food has a huge following. After all, it is food that is made for the working class. Look up the cultural history of food and you will see how a certain breed of eateries opened up across the globe that catered to middle class people. It is what is known as the Quick Service Restaurants. Easy to make food that could be consumed on the go became a rage. Restaurant grew in operations due to popularity and less wastage of resources. What is cooked is served and finished. But the hidden hurdle was that of unhealthy food. Deep fried, slathered with fat and preservative laden condiments didn’t help the gastro gizzards of the consumers; not to mention processed meats.
But now, street food has been adopted by the high street. High end restaurants realise the popularity and taste profile of such dishes and have gladly given them a healthy make-over for the discerning diner to savour the taste and yet not compromise on health. Little wonder that Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna’s one year old restaurant Junoon at the Shangri-La, Dubai serves up a street food brunch that showcases the length and breadth of Indian street food without the need to have antacids. The eggplant chat is a favourite of mine.
The very vibrant restaurant Nine7One at Oberoi Dubai has dished out the very popular Street Art Brunch that houses global favourites. You could be choosing your tacos one moment, and munching on fish and chips on the next. You could be negotiating your chopsticks over your favourite sushi or dipping into a bowl of Thai noodle soup with ‘everything in it’.
If you prefer some theatrics with your food, then Tresind at Nassima Towers, Dubai is your destination where the shy executive chef Himanshu Saini serves Indian street food in a boisterous manner, replete with liquid nitrogen and chutney gels to suit your dormant artist.
If you are not the sorts to saunter into 5 star properties, then bespoke cafes like The Sum Of Us, snuck into Trade Centre or Tom and Serg, tucked away in Al Quoz could be your preferred haunt to have healthy options of simple and humble street foods. The way I see it, there is going to be more street food that will be elevated to high-wire status by many restaurants in the months to come.
#3. FOOD ON WHEELS
Calling on the local Favreau. Just last year, local boy Jassim Najjar returned from the US. He was besotted with food trucks, “I’d just graduated and come back with this idea to have my own food truck. I fell in love with them while I was there – obsessed, actually.” Jassim helped his overweight chef brother lose weight and they decided to put it out on the menu of their food truck called f!T!
Food trucks are no longer just a fancy idea and are a trend that is catching on in the region. Most food trucks started out serving just sandwiches and burgers for consumers on the move. Today, more complex dishes are being added. Gourmet food trucks are starting to appear as part of the evolution of the new culinary trend.
Meet the owners of GObai, the brainchild of Cara Davies, woman entrepreneur, and her business partner Kevin Vaz, who decided to transport some Goan street food flavours to the emirate. “Dubai is such a melting pot of flavours, so we couldn’t help but give the food a Dubai twist, but it’s essentially traditional Goan food,” says Cara.
Dubai residents would have seen fancy and funked up food trucks in Emaar Boulevard, JLT Park, Kite Beach or Zabeel Park. Food trucks reach out to food lovers, with diners enjoying their favourite food sitting not in a brick and mortar restaurant but in the setting they choose to.
Cara says, “It is an initial step in opening up the Middle East market to this global phenomenon of food trucks. It will take some time to have this developed to scale the markets in the US or UK, but currently it is a great way to cater to the Dubai foodies.”
With the interest in food trucks, riding the high wave, companies are branching out into 360 degree B2B models where food entrepreneurs can get a truck from under a single roof – designed, fitted out, with licences procured as well.
Food trucks are now beginning to be seen in various events, be it the Art Fair at Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi or the brand new food truck brunch at the Emirates Golf Course, Dubai.
Moral of the story, this mobile model of food is going to catch on like wild-fire with food enthusiasts choosing to put in money in food trucks while restaurant chains see this as a popular model to reach out to patrons and potential customers.
Honk if you want to join in the convoy!
#4. SUPER FOODS LEAGUE
Here is a word that has garbed up as a super-hero in the dietary domain. Nutrient rich food items that are healthy (naturally) and sometimes help medical conditions are called Super Foods. Keeping in mind the first part, can also make a potato a member of this league. To demystify super foods, it is something that helps lose or control weight with some additional features like improving bodily functions. While I do feel that ‘super foods’ is as much a marketing gimmick as Valentine’s Day, I do appreciate the goods that have come on to the table. I bet my last dirham coin that you would have heard of quinoa, blueberries, kale, goji berry, wheatgrass, chia seed and many more.
I see the rise of carefully put together ingredients that are carefully grown, keeping in mind the generally unhealthy standard of living that most of us have. So be it fresh salmon or eggs that give Omega 3, or exotic acai berries or seaweed for that matter, more and more restaurants are dishing out to the latest living demands.
I do not mind it at all, after all cocoa powder is also considered to be a super food!
#5. MOLECULAR DE-MYSTIFICATION
Herve This may not be too happy knowing that molecular gastronomy is slowly making an exit. Known as the father of molecular gastronomy, Herve had visions of ending world hunger with chemical compounds becoming the ingredients of the future. While most of us may not understand the ‘why’ or ‘what’ behind molecular gastronomy, it is basically changing the physicality (and chemical composition) of food to manipulate taste and texture.
Here is the UAE, we have felt like being on the sets of the Terminator when liquid nitrogen was used to play around with hydration of ingredients. Undoubtedly there is more MG than gimmicky food presentations – it is the careful studying of food texture and presenting it in a form un-thought of. Mint chutney became globules, sorbets became spheres, savoury became mousse, condiments became edible dust and so on. Avant-garde restaurants experiment with the texture of food, replicating it to look like stones etc. It made the chef and artist and scientist.
Michelin starred chef Vikas Khanna, who runs a successful modern Indian restaurant called Junoon in New York and in Dubai has dabbled with this arm of cooking. However, he sees a change in trends. He states, “It was done over a decade ago. It was very exciting to experiment with food. However, kitchen craft is bending towards cuisine that is simple and organic, in its natural true form. I feel people will ultimately gravitate away from it.”
My recent meeting with one of the most critically acclaimed chefs in Britain, Michelin star chef, who is successfully running Benaras in London and Rang Mahal in Dubai, Atul Kochhar echoes similar sentiments. “I am not sure consumers feel very excited having chemicals put in their food to replicate the taste. As it is the world is fighting a war against additives and harmful chemicals. Not sure, if they are keen to have a chemical powder that tastes like a curry or chocolate on their plate,” feels Kochhar.
Have a delicious 2016!