Vegetarianism on the rise in The Maldives? Michelin-star chef decodes the culinary trends in food tourism

Award-winning Chef Fabrizio Marino of Atmosphere Kanifushi, home to the only contemporary, Michelin-star, vegetarian restaurant in the Maldives talks about his culinary rendezvous with the greens


Yasmin Mustafa

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Published: Fri 1 Dec 2023, 5:02 PM

In 2022, the Maldives ranked as the sixth most popular destination for Emiratis to explore, according to YouGov’s Travel & Tourism: Brand & Destination Rankings, reflecting the island's growing appeal to locals and UAE residents alike.

As outbound UAE travellers increasingly find their way to the azure beaches of the Maldives, resorts are seizing the opportunity to push culinary boundaries. Atmosphere Kanifushi led the way back in 2013 with the opening of the Maldives’ inaugural vegetarian restaurant. This culinary evolution signifies a warm embrace of diverse cultures and a spirit of gastronomic exploration, with guests flocking to these serene islands in search of culture, novelty, relaxation, and, of course, delectable local cuisine.

However, transforming vegetarian fare into a Michelin-star-worthy sensation, from taste to presentation, is no small feat.

Award-winning Chef Fabrizio Marino
Award-winning Chef Fabrizio Marino

A hyper-awareness on sustainable living

In a world increasingly inclined towards mindful living, the third edition of the Just Veg festival stands as a golden opportunity for UAE-based leisure seekers to embark on a culinary journey that celebrates the art of plant-based dining. Guests can indulge in a fine vegetarian dining experience and be treated to stunning vistas of the blue horizon; playful cameos by dolphins add a touch of magic to the moment.

Khaleej Times participated an exclusive culinary celebration that took place from October 20 to 26, 2023 at Atmosphere Kanifushi. We met award-winning Michelin-star Chef Fabrizio Marino at the waterfront Just Veg restaurant to know more about his nature cuisine and calm kitchen philosophy, the redeeming feature of vegetarian cuisine and what makes Just Veg a special place in the Maldives to have your greens.

You’ve been a longstanding mentee of the legendary Swiss chef Pietro Leemann, who opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe that won a Michelin star. How has that informed your culinary style?

Chef Pietro Leemann is an undisputed master of the natural cuisine movement in Europe. His way to operate in the kitchen always promotes a free mind approach to creativity and a no-stress life in the kitchen among the chefs, and people running the kitchen. Basically, he energises the chefs’ inner power to understand and apply a calm and thoughtful work. Working with him gave me the opportunity to discover many beautiful, simple and unusual culinary architecture.

A lot of your dishes stem from the ‘natural cuisine’ movement philosophy that respects nature and pays homage to its flavours. Can you tell us more about this?

Respecting nature is understanding it and act as a part of the natural cuisine movement. It would engage chefs in that form. Colours, shapes, flavours and consistencies are manifestations of nature itself. The light touch and preservation of these qualities makes sense of harmony in the mouth that can be received as a new taste, but that everybody knows from birth.

Vegetarianism has gained a lot of mainstream popularity in recent years, and it’s also considered as a more sustainable choice. How have you seen this shift as a chef?

Gradually people are getting more sensible and aware that the heart has a close circular system that is not infinite. A vegetarian lifestyle is one of the several active participations to sustainability. I realised that especially young chefs demonstrate a big interest in this new vision. They are so pleasantly impressed from the taste and sensation that vegetarian food can give. So, this realisation is the main goal and vegetarianism is a way to get it and share with others.

The Maldives is a place usually known for seafood. How did this partnership of the first-ever veg restaurant take place 10 years ago?

Yes, the Maldives is a place known for seafood and it is known for the veggie fine dining as well. Now many resorts offer plant based menus. It was nine years ago in September 2014 when I was sous chef at Joia in Milan, an email appeared on my laptop. A nice project was taking place in the Maldives where a vegetarian restaurant on a beautiful island was ready to host a western chef to promote a new western vegetarian cuisine. I was ready! I brought with me recipes, equipment and a huge dose of enthusiasm. Now after many years of collaboration with the local chefs and managers, this project is well visible through the stylish menu, the name of the dishes in it and from the careful service that young and joyful waiters make in JV.

How does the culinary landscape in the Maldives differ from Italy?

Many influences from abroad came into the kitchens and meet there in the Maldives. Maldivian, Indian, Sri Lankan, Asian and western chefs are populating the most beautiful islands in the world. Ingredients from all over the world and huge financial power make possible everything. The style that come up is an international standard, very different from the well-known Italian culinary culture.

What are the most important culinary trends you’ve witnessed in the Maldives?

Maldivian food is something so fresh, simple, juicy and precious to me. Coconut, tuna and reef fish plus few vegetables are the bases of this country's meals. Historically and even now, we can recognise the Indian touch that prevails on all the other trends using many spices and sometimes long and complex preparations.

How do you innovate and diversify the vegetarian options for travellers coming to the Maldives?

Ingredients in my cuisine are used as potential to create a dish concept which is particularly dear to me in that moment. Before starting a new working session in the Maldives, I call and talk about/share that concepts/ideas. Then with the culinary team, we start searching the right ingredients among the local and international markets. Our choice is predominantly oriented to the very local items, so we start to reduce the complexity of the dishes to the perfect transformation. It means the perfect idea for Just Veg. All the dishes are really made in the Maldives.

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