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Dinner is served. Is Dubai becoming the culinary capital of the world?
A playground for global F&B brands and celebrity chefs, it’s a place where cuisines from around the world – from Syrian and Filipino to Japanese and Uzbek – can be experienced in so many ways
If you are a foodie, there are a thousand itineraries to eat through, each telling different stories about what and how people in Dubai eat and why. Here’s a condensed tour of a long-time resident and food connoisseur.
Start with grilled halloumi, eggs to your liking, and pillowy pita bread for breakfast at The Farm. Jasmine tea smoked wagyu beef ribs at Hakkasan can come next, followed by a righteous bowl of pho at Hanoi Naturally en route to Kite Beach, where Salt’s truck is parked for the afternoon. End the day with a ticketed tasting menu at the Trèsind. Exhilarating dishes, including a striking plate of amuse-bouche of arugula pani puri, will arrive in rapid succession.
To fully grasp the arc of Dubai’s rapidly growing food scene, you have to explore more. For the last six months, Expo 2020 showcased the larger cultural conversation around food amid a world of innovation and future thinking, with over 200 dining options that served an array of local favorites, haute cuisine, sustainable eating, and experiential dining. Now, Dubai Food Festival is celebrating the emirate’s vibrant gastronomy offerings as people rediscover the city differently.
The city’s food culture thrives on plurality. About 85% of Dubai’s population are expats, lending it a dizzying mix of cuisines. Once-quiet neighborhoods have become restaurant destinations, and a sense of pride in uniqueness has seeped into the city’s marrow. From Dubai Marina Walk and Downtown Dubai to 2nd December street and Al Karama – the city gives a glimpse of how its many rooted expat communities cook remarkable foods.
Every cuisine is served to food lovers here – Uzbek, Syrian, Italian, French, Persian, hyper-regional Indian, and Pakistani. They have worked out a succinct identity. Some of the world’s best-known Michelin-starred chefs, including Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsay, Jason Atherton, Kim Joinie-Maurin, Giorgio Locatelli, and Massimo Bottura, have set up shop in the emirate.
Food writers, industry experts, and influencers have latched on to the adjective “exciting” to describe the evolving tastes in the city.
“It has been so exciting to see the city’s culinary scene come of age and set the benchmark. Dubai’s discerning audience of different nationalities and palates makes the F&B sector exciting and constantly evolving,” says Mario Faria, Head of F&B for Le Gourmet.
Not so long ago, the city’s food scene was dominated mainly by foreign celebrity chefs. The culinary range has dialed up since. “Gone are the days where you could fly in a chef who has written a book or opened a famous, even Michelin-starred restaurant or two,” says Yunib Siddiqui, CEO, and owner of Jones the Grocer. “Today’s Dubai demands much more than this — a celebrity chef with millions of gushing followers and perhaps a Netflix series under their belt. Even that might not be enough because Dubai has witnessed such a radical expansion across such a wide culinary range that consumers could flit from place to place enjoying great food 365 days of the year.”
THE BIG PICTURE
This March, Michelin announced the arrival of its guide in Dubai. Inspectors have started visiting and rating restaurants across the emirate, and the selection of restaurants lauded with Michelin stars will be announced in June. One Dubai truism – streetside shawarma stands and homey Iranian kebab houses will still stand tall alongside.
“Already one of the world’s most popular destinations, this latest accolade for Dubai is also recognition of its emergence as a global gastronomy hub. With Dubai home to thousands of restaurants serving a variety of cuisines from fine dining to street food, and talented chefs, the Michelin Guide Dubai will provide a fresh perspective and new insights into the diversity, creativity, and multi-cultural nature of Dubai’s culinary offering,” said Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, in a statement.
Case in point: Syrian expat Mohammed Orfali’s Orfali Bros Bistro, which he opened in 2021 with his two pastry-chef brothers, was ranked sixth in the MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022. Many of his dishes evoke Aleppo, from shish barak and Imam bayildi, and foodies are lapping it up.
“This diversity is the reason why celebrity chef-led restaurants compete with homegrown chains. This dichotomy inspires industry professionals like myself to strive for excellence. The beauty of this city is that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from…if you make magic in the kitchen, you will find an audience and success,” adds Faria.
The F&B industry, which represents more than 10% of GDP in Dubai, employs more than 200,000 people, with over 20,000 food establishments operating across Dubai. F&B trade in the UAE reached over $20 billion in the first nine months of 2021; the full-service restaurant revenue in the UAE is expected to reach $2.34 billion this year. High income, a cosmopolitan environment, and diverse dining choices drive growth. Global F&B companies see Dubai as a base of operations to expand their presence to the rest of the GCC region, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar.
“Dubai averages 100 new openings of cafes and restaurants every month, always bringing new culinary and cosmopolitan experiences, which always helps existing restaurants and cafes create new and creative ideas to enhance the consumer’s dining experience,” says Faria.
DESIGNING AN EXPERIENCE
Ultimately it all boils down to what restaurants sell. And, it is not just food. In the last few years, restaurants have been designing a whole experience strategy. Eating out can be theatrical. To add to the sense of drama, Sublimotion turns the restaurant into a stage, with diners as the audience. You can have a palate tingling ten-course dinner, which is a closely guarded secret, amid a 360-degree theatrical performance. A team of designers, engineers, magicians, illusionists, and actors work behind the scenes.
At Noire, you will have to wear night-vision goggles and dine in the dark to ignite all your senses. It makes you appreciate the different flavors and textures of the special menu. Or at Dinner in the Sky, you can have afternoon tea 50 meters high, enjoying the amazing Dubai Marina and sea view in the sky,
“There has certainly been a rise in experiential dining with all kinds of options such as dining in the dark or theatrical performances associated with each course. With a roster of global brands continuously planting their flag in Dubai, consumers are spoilt for choice,” says Siddiqui.
In Dubai, operating a restaurant is more expensive than ever before. But the city remains a breeding ground for ambitious food experiences. Dubai offers the best of both worlds — high-class luxury dining and inexpensive restaurants rooted in expatriate communities, but industry experts say communities need more accessible licensed quality dining.
“There is an imbalance between licensed high-class luxury dining and quality community dining,” says Siddiqui. “This is partly driven by the asset owner’s pricing model and what they think an F&B operator can generate in revenue, making it hard to build a risk-sensitive business case irrespective of the type of offer.”
The aspirational part of Dubai’s food culture had always looked at New York and London. Pulling off fanciness with substance. Navigating a wave of changing customer trends and behaviors, it proved to be more nimble than New York.
“With tourism and real estate representing about 20% of Dubai’s GDP, it goes without saying that intense development and global marketing for these sectors drives a desire to visit and invest in Dubai, which attracts F&B brands. The infrastructure is built to high standards. London, New York, Dubai said in the same sentence just ten years ago would have sounded strange, now it’s de rigueur,” adds Siddiqui.
Dubai is constantly changing from month to month. So many restaurants! Exciting? Perhaps a more apt superlative like delectable is warranted.