Cooking Up a Storm
Young, hot and blazing a new trail for traditional food, these Dubai-based chefs are turning up the heat in more ways than one
Celebrity chefs are a dime-a-dozen in Dubai. Blasphemous, I know, but you know it's true. In fact, at the pace the dining scene is evolving in this fair city, it won't be long before chefs here start earning their own Michelin stars and taking the culinary scene to new heights. Surprisingly, it's not fancy-pants molecular gastronomy shindigary, or old chefs trying to re-invent themselves, although that does happen. Young chefs are increasingly going back to their roots and not just keeping traditional recipes alive, but taking the whole rustic, fresh, moreish and home-grown concept to an enthusiastically eager crowd craving substance over novelty. We spoke to some of these culinary wizards to find out what makes them tick, why they do what they do, and why their food is important to them.
Roberto Segura, Head Chef, The Act, Shangri-La Dubai
Chef Roberto Segura is the equivalent of the Peruvian culinary ambassador in Dubai. In fact, pretty much any Peruvian-themed restaurant basically consults him to get it right. He's worked in Peru - of course - Argentina, Chile, Mexico, the US, Dubai, India and Turkey and has spent the last ten years passionately imbibing Peruvian flavours into every place he's been.
Roberto started cooking when he was just 11 and says he still remembers the day when he found a recipe book at home and decided to give it a try. He found a recipe of chicken and tomatoes and went to the corner market, recipe book in hand, and innocently asked for all the ingredients on the page, in the exact quantities listed. The grocer laughed at him, but politely bagged all his ingredients. Roberto then cooked the dish for his parents and although it wasn't great, his parents, because they're parents, said it was delicious. And thus started his journey towards culinary prowess. When I asked him what he had to say about Dubai's increasing exposure to Peruvian food and cuisine - from quinoa appearing on pretty much every menu across town to the handful of Peruvian restaurants that have opened recently (including the most recent Coya at the Four Seasons) - he had this to say:
"I guess people in Dubai think it's trendy, but today's Peruvian food actually had its origins about 500 years ago, and came about as a result of all the cultures and peoples that immigrated to Peru - the Japanese, Chinese, Africans and other South Americans. When these people migrated, they also brought their food cultures and produce with them. Local Peruvian food itself is a mixture of the foods from the highlands, the coasts, the jungles etc. When all these migrants came, it became an even bigger melting pot.
"The explosion in Peruvian food going outside Peru started about 10-12 years ago. In fact, Peru has one of the highest number of students training in culinary arts in the world. Everybody wants to be a chef and it's very encouraging. Our cooks started to really invest in the cuisine and say, 'Hey, we have all of this great produce and flavours and we should take this to other parts of the world'. We have a beautiful mix of bio-diversity that enables us to have the kind of ingredients we have and that's what helps make our food so fresh and enticing.
"Peruvian food is not similar to anything. It's very unique because it's a mix of Japanese, Chinese, African and South/Central American influences. When you go to the coast, it's like Japanese food, in the central areas it's like Mediterranean, and in the highlands it's like Mexican food. Most people ask me what Peruvian cuisine is about or what it's similar to, but I just say that it's very unique."
Prabakaran Manickam, Area Head Chef-UAE, Tribes
Chef Prabakaran Manickam is one of the gang at Tribes at Mall of the Emirates. Although he's the head chef for other restaurants under the Food Fund International brand, he feels most at home rustling up traditional recipes from the African continent at Tribes, amidst the vibrant coloured shields and steel drum music that gives this restaurant such a charming vibe.
There really is a dearth of good restaurants in Dubai serving up traditional African food, so Chef Praba, as his staff call him, took it upon himself to be the guy to keep some of these recipes alive and well in contemporary Dubai. From the delectable prawns of the sleepy Mozambique coast to the yams of the bustling centre of Accra, to the braised oxtail of the farms of South Africa and, not to forget, the Kenyan and Ugandan specialities, this place is an ever-growing list of things to try.
For Chef Praba, it's where he always thought he'd be and when I asked him how he came to love African food, this is what he had to say:
"When I left my hotel management/culinary school in India, I knew I wanted to do something different. There are so many Indian chefs in India and I didn't want to be part of that same old mix. I had a particular interest to work with meats, and that's when I applied to The Meat Co. My family wasn't vegetarian, but no one worked with meat. When I came here, I was put under the tutelage of our South African executive chef and I fell in love with African cuisine and meats, in particular. Every cut and part of the animals we use is different and we try to use everything - including the tails!
"When we opened Tribes, we wanted to bring African food to people in Dubai, and keep the recipes mostly intact, with a contemporary twist. Almost all our staff are from the continent and we've actually taken recipes from their hometowns - and homes - and incorporated them into our menu, with a modern feel. During my travels and training with the recipes too, it was such a wonderful experience learning about all the nuances of African cuisine from the coastal food of Mozambique, to the slow-cooked oxtail from South Africa and the flavours of Kenya and Uganda.
"We're very proud to be able to preserve some of these recipes and it's really sad that so much remains lost or unexplored. Sometimes, I get immigrants from Kenya or Nigeria - in fact, I'm actually chasing a customer now for a recipe of a particular dish he brought from his home - who share their recipes and we spend time with them to learn the recipe and bring it to our patrons. It's a wonderful way of engaging with our diners and a great learning experience for the whole kitchen staff as well."
Himanshu Saini, Executive Chef, Tresind
To say that Chef Himanshu Saini is a visionary would be an understatement. Arguably one of the best Ind-ian chefs outside of India, his precocious and jovial banter is just as disarming as the food he concocts with his team of cooks - pretty much one from every state in India. At Tresind, located at the Radisson Royal hotel on SZR, Himanshu gets a practically unrestricted licence to reinvent Indian food - that oh-so-stubborn and rigid of cuisines with their myriad ingredients and spices. But it's time someone did, if only to disrupt the norm of that beloved word many Indians cling to and pepper conversations with: tradition.
Himanshu, who doesn't like being called "chef" - even by his staff - says that he didn't always think of being an Indian chef, because 'Indian chefs are not cool'. In fact, he feels that 'traditional' Indian restaurant kitchens were never really cool. It's not fun, the presentation is usually nothing special, it's often bulk cooking of heavy (to digest) food, with cream and butter, and the recipes are quite rigid. That, coupled with the fact that India has never had an Auguste Escoffier (who literally wrote the book on French recipes like Hollandaise and Béarnaise) to standardise Indian food, has really made Indian food stagnate. So when I ask him about his journey, from making Maggi noodles when he was around 10 years old - experimenting with all the different flavours available, creating his own and adding various leftovers to his concoctions - to turning the tables on traditional street food, aka chaat, he had this to say:
"When I was a kid, being an Indian chef in India was not a great career option. And very rarely - only if someone lived and grew up in Italy or France - could an Indian chef become a great Italian, French or Chinese chef. So, right from the get-go, I knew my limitations and what I could and couldn't do with food. What excites me today is the creativity and modernity that can be brought to Indian food. And what I do at Tresind, which is playing with people's food nostalgia, really allows me to experiment and re-imagine Indian food.
"My mom is a very good cook and that kick-started my love for food. I started with Maggi noodles and graduated to more complicated things. The thing about Indian food is that there are so many different types, and everyone's version is different. You have a sense of flavours as a base, but then it's a very thin line between fusion and confusion. You can't just put things together and hope for the best. The ingredients have to complement each other, the flavours have to marry - and that's a tricky challenge.
"I would never follow a recipe in Indian cooking, because that's just not the way Indian food works. It should only be used as a reference. The rest has to come from the heart and hands.
"Personally, I don't want to be a celebrity chef, lending my name to restaurants and barely cooking in the kitchen. I want to be in the kitchen, cooking and feeding people. I want to offer the best of everything from all over India, which is why I have a team of cooks from all over India, who bring with them their cultures, food, tastes and experiences. The day you start roaming around in the restaurant, away from the kitchen, you become part of management. I don't want that.
"I'm very excited about what's happening with Indian food now. People have woken up, and modern Indian food is the new trend. In Dubai itself, you have Vineet Bhatia, Sanjeev Kapoor and now Vikas Khanna, and all of them have their own takes on modern Indian food. And that's the best thing that can happen to Indian food. Preserving the traditional flavours, but giving a modern, contemporary look and feel to it. It's what Indian food needs to become and that makes it a very exciting time for Indian chefs to become cool!"
Omer Ozkan Cam, Chef de Cuisine, Ottomans, Grosvenor House Dubai
Food at big family gatherings is usually the grease that keeps the family wheels turning smoothly, and for Chef Omer Ozkan Cam, it's where his passion for cooking bore fruit. Often, inviting neighbours and friends over to the Cam household for impressive lunch or dinner spreads, was the gateway to the family's penchant for cooking. It became a sort of tradition and it wasn't unusual for people to commend the parties and compliment the chefs, including young Omer, who enjoyed cooking with his family.
Today, while at the helm at Ottomans, Chef Omer is all about preserving the nomadic heritage of Turkish food and mixing in influences of palatial grandeur, like the slow-cooked stews and braised meats from the Sultan's kitchen. Of course, with more and more of Dubai's residents dining out these days, he says he has ample opportunities to play with Turkish food. And as fine dining gets reinvented across the world, the next generation of Turkish chefs, like Omer, are all waiting to add their own twists to old-style Turkish food. In fact, many culinary schools in Turkey are doing rather well, with an increasing number of eager young chefs. Still no celebrity or Michelin-starred Turkish chef, which Omer thinks is a crying shame, but he hasn't lost hope yet ("Maybe it'll be me!"). But for chef Omer, there are some things that remain very Turkish, like the high quality ingredients, subtle spices and fresh flavours. When I asked him about his influences, he says:
"Vineet Bhatia! His passion and excitement for traditional Indian food and taking them to the next level with his contemporary approach is really fascinating. I've watched him work and it's truly exciting. It's the sort of thing I want to do with Turkish food and try to bring to the diners at Ottomans.
"Traditional Turkish food involves a lot of slow-cooked stews, casseroles and braises that reminds people of home-cooked, hearty food - food and nostalgia go hand in hand. That is one of my biggest inspirations now and it's a constant quest to experiment with traditional Turkish dishes, and come up with innovative and contemporary dishes.
"At the moment, I think people are eating smaller and healthier portions at restaurants, and I believe that, in time, there will be less heavy three-course-meals and more tasting menus that allow guests to share and try lots of flavours and dishes all in one meal. I absolutely love the food scene in Dubai. With new restaurants and concepts popping up all the time, it's so easy to find new interesting food, cuisines and flavours - not just for the residents and tourists, but also for chefs like me."
Reif Othman, Executive Chef, Zuma, DIFC
Where do you even begin when you're tasked with dissecting the illustrious career of one of Dubai's most talked about chefs? For starters, when I ask Chef Reif Othman about his 'celebrity' status and whether he thinks of himself as a celebrity chef or whether he wants to be one, he says, definitively, no! In fact, it's the furthest thing from what this Javanese culinary maestro wants. His place is in the kitchen, just like when he first started out:
"I first started cooking at the age of 14, helping my mom in the kitchen. I would cut and wash vegetables, make pastry and bake for lunch and dinner. My first kitchen experience too was with my mom, in her food stall, preparing our traditional Javanese cuisine food (a mix of Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine).
"After school and during the summer holidays, I would always help my mom with the cooking. I realised that I loved it and wanted to learn more. I secretly joined Shatec, a culinary school in Singapore to further increase my knowledge. My dad was extremely angry when he found out that I'd dropped out of university to pursue a profession in the culinary industry. He challenged me, telling me that I would get nowhere - but this only drove me further, to prove him wrong. Today, I am proud to say that my family is very happy with my achievements."
His achievements, apart from numerous awards and accolades, including this year's most coveted 'Chef of the Year' award at the BBC Good Food Middle East Awards, mostly stem from taking authentic Japanese cuisine and giving it a contemporary twist. It's modern Japanese cuisine, inspired by the informal Izakaya style of dining that Rainer Becker, the creator and founder of Zuma - and an invaluable mentor to Chef Reif - wanted to bring to a wider audience. The flavours may, therefore, be more robust than those you will find in Japan but, nevertheless, preserve every bit of the deliciousness.
"I love all kinds of food and find inspiration from every cuisine," says the chef. "Most chefs do. Being part of the Zuma team, particularly, means I have the opportunity to travel and visit the other Zuma restaurants. This just reinforces the quality and consistency of our food and menus and allows us to share ideas. I must emphasise that Zuma's signature dishes have all been created by Rainer Becker. I'm just an executor!"
Keeping up with the trends is key and Reif is happy that consumers are becoming increasingly more health conscious and produce-aware. He feels optimistic that this will gain momentum and increase in years to come. "But that's where the challenge lies. Food in Dubai has improved tremendously. With great produce now available in the city, some of the world's best restaurants are opening here. This is great for our guests, as it raises the bar and challenges the industry to take culinary standards to the next level."