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UAE gastronomy dines out on global attention

Homegrown chefs are becoming stars on the world's culinary stage

UAE restaurants Orfali Bros Bistro
Mohamad Orfali of Orfali Bros Bistro in Dubai is among the local chefs putting the UAE on the international food map

The UAE food scene has gone global in the past 18 months, with international recognition coming from the Michelin Guide, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and Gault&Millau. 

All at once, restaurants that were little known outside the Emirates’ burgeoning foodie community have been starred, ranked and talked about. Getting a reservation at my favourite spots has never been so challenging (I’ve selfishly noted).

Both Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and Dubai Tourism have worked tirelessly to promote the UAE cities as culinary landmarks.

No longer just a market for fun-hunters and sun-punters, the UAE is now billed as a foodies’ paradise. 

Abu Dhabi has announced a new $100 million Culinary Investment Fund to bring more iconic brands to the UAE capital, adding to the likes of Zuma, LPM and Nusr-Et.

With the World Food Travel Association estimating that a third of all tourist spending goes towards food and drink experiences, it’s a market worth going for. 

But what will really help turn the UAE into a hub for gastro-travellers is building up our food scene from within.

On the recent Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants list, it wasn’t international exports taking the plaudits, it was local joints.

The top 12 restaurants were all homegrown, including numbers 1 and 2, Orfali Bros Bistro and Tresind Studio. We don’t need to import five-star dining experiences – they’re already here.

Bringing in big-name chefs from abroad who visit twice a year and are never in the kitchen won’t truly enhance the UAE’s culinary reputation. Growing talent from within will. 

If I’ve watched Chef’s Table and want to eat Massimo Bottura’s food, am I going to Dubai to try Torno Subito or am I going to Modena to dine at his baby, Osteria Francescana?

If I’m a fan of Gordon Ramsay, am I going to Las Vegas or London? But if I want Himanshu Saini, I have to come to Dubai for Tresind Studio.

To know he’s in the kitchen cooking for me and I have the opportunity to interact with him is what makes the experience special – as well as the incredible meal.

UAE restaurant foodTresind Studio
Michelin-starred chef Himanshu Saini of Tresind Studio in Dubai

So let’s build our local legends into international superstars. As a gateway from the Middle East to the rest of the world, the UAE has a chance to forge a unique identity on the world’s food scene. 

Let’s work with global media to put our chefs on a pedestal. The fact that Dubai Bling has trended for weeks on Netflix indicates an appetite for UAE-focused content, so perhaps now is an opportune moment to showcase local restaurateurs.

A Dubai-based Chef’s Table, for example, could prove popular. Imagine Hattem Mattar telling stories by the grill, Reif Othman being his inimitable self, and Massimo Vidoni sprinkling truffles everywhere. Now that would truly put the UAE on the food tourism map.

But the UAE food scene still has some way to go despite massive strides taken in the past couple of years.

We need to invest heavily in local farms and produce. I’ve seen first hand the quality of homegrown brands like Dibba Bay Oysters and Emirates Bio Farm who have shown the huge potential the region has – but with more than eight million tonnes of food imported into Dubai alone in 2021, we’re a long way from sustainability. 

The Michelin Guide returns to Dubai for a second year on May 23. How many homegrown restaurants will it recognise, and how many will be international?

The last iteration saw two celebrity chef venues gain two stars, but no local brands. This prestigious ranking event will give us the greatest insight into the sustainability of the UAE’s foodie tourism dream. 

Simon Ritchie is communications director of Yolk Brands, an advisory member of Dubai Restaurants Group and former editor of leading regional hospitality titles