A look at the UAE's love of French cuisine
Chefs say popularity of high-end French food will soon spread to GCC
With high-end French cuisine flourishing in the UAE, regional chefs hope it won’t be long until the effects are felt across the whole of the GCC
French cuisine – so revered by gourmands that it has been added to the UNESCO intangible heritage list – has always been difficult to do well in the Middle East. It relies on using the finest, freshest produce, which has not always readily available here.
Recently in the UAE improved supply chains and high profile chefs and restaurant concepts like Pierre Gagnaire, Yannick Alléno, La Petite Maison and Traiteur have entered the market pushing French cuisine to international standards. However, elsewhere in the region it still lags behind, despite increasing demand.
At the end of 2011, Euromonitor reported that in Saudi Arabia, European full-service restaurants (FSRs) saw the strongest current value growth in 2010 over the previous year, with sales rising by 12%.
This was despite the channel seeing the lowest outlet volume growth in the year at just 1%. European FSRs benefited from their sophisticated and premium image, ‘with French cuisine proving particularly popular’, the report said.
Despite the growing demand, Alexander Stephan, sous chef at Cristal restaurant Al Faisaliah Hotel Riyadh, says there is a problem in Saudi in that diners are not properly educated on what true French cuisine is.
“Many customers are mixing up opinions of French food with other European cuisines,” he reveals.
“A popular thinking is also that French cuisine means smaller portions, which it doesn’t. You’ll only be served smaller portions if you are ordering three or four or more courses so you can enjoy them all.”
Stephan believes it is the regional chefs’ duties to “show customers real French cuisine, wherever possible”, but laments the fact that there are as yet no strictly French restaurants in Saudi Arabia.
It’s a similar case in Doha, Qatar, where there was no category for French restaurants at the recent Time Out Doha awards.
Instead, Le Mer at Ritz-Carlton Doha, which serves French seafood, picked up the award for best romantic restaurant.
Even though one of the most famed French exports is its pastries, pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton Doha, Jerome Bertoumieux, says this area of the cuisine is one that chefs are happy to fuse with international influences.
“Before I moved away from France I thought French pastry was the best in the world,” he admits. “But now I work with so many different nationalities and see so many different things that I am not so sure.”
Bertoumieux says that the pastry offerings from the US, like cheesecakes and cupcakes, are having a big impact in Doha. “And I have to say, I think they’re pretty good too.
“The customers love them, so there’s no way I can stick to creating French pastries.”
Over in Dubai, however, it’s a different story. French cuisine is proving so popular that three-star Michelin chef Yannick Alléno opened his restaurant STAY last year, showcasing traditional cooking methods reinterpreted in a contemporary fashion.
The restaurant, which serves risotto to guests in a hollowed parmesan, and traditional dishes like degustation of lamb, joins Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire in raising the bar of high-end French cuisine.
Traiteur restaurant at Park Hyatt Dubai has followed the trend of the rise in popularity of French food and in 2009 rebranded from a restaurant that served modern European cuisine to specifically French cuisine.
Since then it has won numerous awards, especially for its revamped brunch, which now mainly consists of live cooking stations.
Executive chef Michael Clinton believes classic French dishes cooked in a traditional style will never fail, but does admit that food fusion is a great way of showcasing different ingredients. “Using fragrant ingredients like lavender as the start of a basic dish is something that is very en vogue,” he says.
At Traiteur he doesn’t have problems sourcing ingredients and cites Fresh Express and Classic Fine Foods as the best suppliers for top-line French products.
Frederique Simon, business development manager for supplier Chef Middle East, admits 25% of the company’s portfolio is made up of French produce.
“French cuisine is about quality,” she says. “But it is also expensive. However, all the restaurants in the UAE have made an effort to introduce an affordable menu so that people can sample the high-end cuisine.”
The restaurants realise that expense cannot be spared when buying French produce, as Alexander Stephan admits.
“We don’t base our profitability on percentage of food cost – that would be a great mistake. Conventional hotels and restaurants can run their food costs on 25-30%, but when you are running a five-star operation your food cost can go to 40%, 50% or 60%.
“Profitability should be coming from the number of times our guests come back.”
Home of the luxury brand
Marion Morand, senior account manager for Sopexa, in charge of organising Apéritif à la Française – an annual Dubai event held designed to promote French food and culture, agrees.
“French cuisine has a very positive image generally in the GCC, but sometimes can be perceived as complicated and expensive or out of reach. Basic French cuisine is simple, delicious and healthy,” she says.
Habib Bahri, Middle East brand manager for Evian knows French brands do well here because of the quality of the products.
“There are a wide variety of products linked to France’s natural resources and rich gastronomic heritage,” he explains.
“In the specific example of water, Evian and Badoit are both natural mineral waters that emerge with a unique and balanced mineral composition and that is from natural filtration through the French Alps for Evian, or Southern Loire region for Badoit.
“These products are also brands that are constantly innovating to meet customers’ needs in packaging, innovation or services.”
The French franchise
Given all of the above, lower-end restaurants such as Paul bakery and restaurant and Pascal Tepper are also thriving in the GCC.
This year, Paul has announced expansion plans in new markets Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Oman, as well as five new outlets opening in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Cairo.
Pascal Tepper is also eyeing 20 outlets in the next three years.
Managing director of Atlas Hospitality, Siegfried Nierhaus, reveals: “We have growing demand in the Middle East for the Pascal Tepper French bakery franchise concept which we will soon be launching.”
But why are these bakery concepts so successful? Christian Salloum, brand manager for the Middle East, says it is the convenience of the concept that is one winning factor.
“Paul is a concept where you can dine all day long with the variety of food and drink. Desserts have a good market share across the region. Moreover it’s the careful selection process of our locations.”