The Middle East has long been a location for cultural exchanges and culinary diversity. In recent years, the region has witnessed a surge in global culinary pop-ups, where international chefs showcase signature dishes to local audiences in collaboration with some of the best regional talent. However, behind the scenes, these activations can require months of planning between the local team and the international guests.
With several high-level collaborations in the past year, the team at one Michelin-starred Ossiano, located at the Atlantis Dubai, has hosted a range of global talent. In approaching the process, Grégoire Berger, Chef de Cuisine, Ossiano, explains, “We choose the chef as per their identity, based on their cooking style, the cuisine, and the restaurant. We want to ensure they fit and give the best return for the restaurant and guests.”
MONTHS OF PREPARATION
The planning and preparation of these events can sometimes start months in advance. Per Berger, “We have a preliminary call three months before the event, then continue to be in touch. We get to know each other, we speak about the menu, and we come to an agreement about the dishes. We want to respect the chef’s identity and create a unique menu for collaboration.”
From a technical standpoint, Berger continues, “Each chef usually arrives around five days before, and we do a mockup of all the dishes together. We never tell guests who is doing which dish; this is intentional so that the guests can feel it is an authentic, collaborative menu.”
Things have changed from the beginning of these activations, as Berger recognizes, “We now have an excellent flow for collaborations, so it’s less challenging as we know it’s about getting the right timing, the right pace, and bringing out the chef’s identity. The challenge for us is that people must love the menu.”
And finally, how does everyone walk away knowing the dinner was a success? Berger answers, “When we have a room full of guests who are blown away – that feedback is important to us. It signifies a successful collaboration. Also, we want our regular guests to have new experiences.”
CELEBRATING CULTURE AND CUISINE
At one Michelin-starred Tresind Studio, Chef Himanshu Saini, corporate chef for Passion F&B and the executive chef of Tresind Studio, has a similar method when deciding which chefs to collaborate with.
“All of us on the team have our favorite chefs, but we work with the ones who see us as equal irrespective of stars, position, or age. These collaborations celebrate culture and cuisine and combine two worlds and philosophies.”
“In approaching the menus, we follow a standard model of doing five courses and two snacks each. We first let the visiting chef decide on their menu, then work around our menu, ensuring the proteins and ingredients are not repeated. Once they arrive here, we do the tasting together, share our inputs and then improvise and decide the flow of the menu.”
In creating these menus, Saini takes a holistic approach. “There are two challenges; first, to ensure the chef and their team are comfortable in our kitchen. We must give 100% support regarding service, ingredients, equipment, workspace, and tableware. Secondly, we have set up the challenge for ourselves to create a new menu for these collaborations where the cuisine of the visiting chef can inspire one or two dishes to ensure cohesion in the menu. For us, it’s always about building confidence, sharing respect, and exchanging knowledge, philosophy, and principles with and without food or a restaurant.”
SIMILAR CULINARY PHILOSOPHY
With a recent acknowledgment as #1 on the 50 Best MENA list, Mohammad Orfali, Executive Chef of Orfali Bros, seeks out chefs “with a similar culinary philosophy and a passion for creating innovative dishes. We must also have good chemistry and work well together in the kitchen.”
Supporting Orfali’s team is Zoe Bowker, founder of Luxeology PR & Consulting, who coordinates with the Orfali Bros team on several levels. “While it’s great to collaborate with chefs whose cuisine is similar to that of the host chef, culinary contrasts can also create great results, pushing the boundaries of both teams and creating a truly unique dining experience for guests.”
Bowker explains, as the menu comes together, “The host chef will work with the visiting chef to create a menu highlighting their styles while also complementing each other. They consider factors such as seasonality, whether ingredients can be sourced locally or need to be brought in with the team, and each other’s cuisine styles. Collaborations are no easy task, but they can also be fun.”
Having attended several global culinary activations in other cities, Bowker adds, “A successful collaboration dinner is one where guests rave about the food long after the event has ended. On the kitchen side, success can also include exposure to new techniques, ingredients, and inspiration and building new networks and connections.”
In his approach, chef Orfali works to set up the menu with the visiting chef “by discussing our styles and techniques, favorite dishes, and ingredients. From there, we brainstorm ideas and create a menu showcasing our strengths while considering the timing, staff, and space limitations. The dishes must flow well together and tell a cohesive story. The biggest challenge is integrating our kitchen team with the visiting chef’s team, and cooking another restaurant’s recipes, with new ingredients and techniques, in a tight space on a tight timeline.
Chef Orfali says opening the kitchen to another chef allows one to learn new techniques, taste new ingredients, and develop new perspectives on food. “It can also generate excitement among your regular diners and help build relationships within the industry.”
Collaborations are sneaking into the Qatar market as well. The most recent one is Dario Cecchini, who has been doing a pop-up at the Mondrian for a few months. “We’ll see more and more of these activities in the coming months, as the Qatar culinary scene is trying to boost itself after the World Cup,” says Rachel Morris, a food writer based in Doha. “People will bring guests chefs and guest concepts to hotels. We are increasing interest in global concepts, as this is a mobile market.”
In addition to individual culinary dinners, there are broader regional events, such as the Dubai Food Festival, where chefs from all over the world participate alongside local restaurants and concepts. The festival has numerous events, including pop-up restaurants, cooking workshops, masterclasses, and street food markets. Jeddah Season, held in Saudi Arabia, attracts food lovers from all over the country to experience the unique flavors of the world’s cuisines.
As the Middle East continues to evolve as a culinary hub, residents and visitors can expect to see more and more global pop-ups in the coming months.