Burning issue: The rating race

Is the Middle East ready for international F&B ratings?

Does the Middle East have the volume and consistency in its F&B to justify the arrival of international ratings?
Does the Middle East have the volume and consistency in its F&B to justify the arrival of international ratings?

With an emphasis on original concepts and the slow rise of chef-driven restaurants in the Middle East, is this region ready for international rating guides, asks Caterer Middle East?

If 2013 is anything to go by, the Middle East F&B scene is bursting at the seams. There have been countless numbers of restaurant openings — not just international brands but locally born ones as well.

The region also features brands from some very well-known chefs around the world — think Richard Sandoval, Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, and more. Not to mention the return of chefs like Jason Atherton to Dubai.

Restaurants like Zuma and La Petite Maison have made international waves by being listed among the top 100 World’s Best Restaurants. Chefs are starting restaurants, rather than the restaurant bringing in a chef — Mohammad Islam, for example, has opened his own concept, Atelier M in the Dubai Marina.

Izu Ani has created the rival to La Petite Maison, La Serre Boulangerie & Bistro. Ex-Zuma chef Colin Clague has attached his name to the new brand Qbara. Darren Velvick has arrived at Table 9.

Essentially, this region is slowly gaining recognition across the world. However, those indulging in the ‘eating out’ circuit know often too well that while restaurants may have a superb menu and chef at the helm, the front-of-house service standards may fall short.

So, is the quality and consistency good enough for international rating guides like Michelin to take notice? And are there any cities in the region that even deserve international ratings to descend upon it?

DO CULINARY CITIES EXIST in this region?
Qatar-based Hospitality Development Company head of human resources John Khan, who has previously worked as a head hunter for Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay, says it is obvious to him that Dubai is deserving of being called a ‘culinary destination’ at this time.

He adds: “However I also believe Doha is well on the way to compete for that title. Doha is witnessing rapid development within the F&B sector and the market is starting to evolve from fast food into higher quality dining. The local consumer is becoming more educated in food and is in turn demanding a better product overall.”

The Cutting Edge Agency managing director Duncan Fraser-Smith says that while there has been a growing move towards establishing culinary destinations in the Middle East, he doesn’t think the region matches up to the likes of London, Hong Kong or Paris.

“Are we there yet, in a position where people will choose to come to a particular city just for its food on offer? Not as yet, however, we are trending in that direction. Obviously we have some amazing dining venues in cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kuwait; however, we are still in need of locally developed destination outlets to drive consumers to the cities.”

He further points out that with the development of new locally created concepts that push the current boundaries of repetition and replication, certain cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi will cement their place as culinary destinations of the future.

Chef and restaurateur Nick Alvis, who previously worked with Gordon Ramsay, agrees, and says about Dubai: “There are so many restaurants here in the city, possibly too many, although saying that I am not sure there are enough at the right level to call Dubai a culinary destination just yet. Dubai is still quite young and I feel it still needs more individual restaurants that are trying to do their own thing without a brand behind them.”

Maki Restaurant Group founder Mohamad ‘Oliver’ Zeitoun also discounts the view that only Dubai is a culinary destination, citing other cities in the region that are worthy of the badge.

“The Middle East definitely has more than one culinary destination to boast. I would say that Dubai takes the cake as far as number, quality, and variety are concerned. Additionally, and surprisingly enough, Kuwait has established itself as a viable culinary destination simply because of the noticeable surge of a multitude of both local and international F&B concepts.
Some of these concepts have been started in Kuwait by local culinary visionaries who successfully exported these concepts to the rest of the region. Manama, Bahrain has also witnessed the invasion of high end restaurants throughout the past few years, making it a preferred destination for many Gulf nationals. Simply because of the fact that authentic local cuisine has been very difficult to duplicate outside of Lebanon, add to that the number of high-end, quality restaurants available in the city, Beirut easily qualifies to join the pack.”

InterContinental Dubai Festival City’s Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire executive chef Olivier Biles points out that he has travelled to most of the gastronomic capitals around the world and says Dubai has nothing to be envious of.

Biles adds: “Dubai is definitely a real gastronomic place such as the likes of Hong Kong, London or Las Vegas.” Biles is familiar with Michelin-starred environments with his boss being a three-starred Michelin chef himself.

WHERE WOULD IT BEGIN?
But why would an international rating such as Michelin even venture forth into the Middle East? The region needs to meet certain criteria — volume and type of diners for example, for them to consider it.

Fraser-Smith says: “Firstly I believe the pre-requisite for Michelin to look at any city or region is a minimum number of outlets that would qualify for Michelin stars. Has any one city consistently hit the standards required? It is hard to say given the requirements for consideration, specifically the star rating, focus purely on the cuisine.

“Consistency is a key qualifier; consistency in the preparation, production and delivery of food and the quality of the ingredients that are utilised. The Middle East is establishing greater supply chains for quality product, both local and international, which bodes well for future reviews.

“We have some truly amazing restaurants in the region that would be benchmarked against the best in the world. Regionally, I believe, we have the scope to have a Michelin Guide for the GCC or broader and then as the cities continue to develop their offerings, books would be produced that specialise on specific locations.”

Khan thinks that, if international ratings do enter the region, it will be through Dubai. He adds however: “We should not forget that Doha has seen an encouraging increase in high profile names entering the scene recently, and this trend appears not to be slowing down in the near future.

The challenge within the region, or at least within Doha is that we have some amazingly talented chefs leading some great restaurants, however the brigades that they generally have to work with may not possess the skills and experience that they are used to working with, this can add a significant amount of pressure for one person to handle.”

Alvis explains: “Dubai is definitely on course and if Michelin was to release a guide on Dubai, then I think that it would be more of a combined UAE guide, or Middle Eastern cities. Something like that would make more sense as it will be many years before we can ever compete with the likes of London, Paris or New York, due to the history of dining out in those cities.”

He continues: “As far as qualifications go, the Michelin guide adapts to whatever part of the world the guide is based on, but as a chef working towards Michelin stars in many restaurants I think that the focus has always been on quality and consistency, so it is all down to the individual restaurants performance. I do not really see a reason for Michelin not to publish a guide other than their historical roots, which could possibly hold them back.”

IS THERE AN AUDIENCE FOR IT?
But is the audience there for such ratings? Khan isn’t so sure. He says: “In order to justify a Michelin publication specific to the region I would imagine a wide variety of high quality establishments would be needed as well as local consumers who would utilise the guide; I believe across the Gulf there are now a high number of restaurants which would qualify to be mentioned in the guide, however the Gulf is very transient and I am not sure whether the region would have enough stability within the local community to attract and retain a sustainable customer base.”

Fraser-Smith says that one of the missing elements in the dining culture in the region is a completely independent, internationally recognised reviewing system for restaurants that not only provide the highest accolades but constructive criticism as well.

“Dubai is moving on from the perpetual brand importation to a more locally focused development of cutting edge F&B. International chefs are choosing Dubai to set up completely new offerings outside their existing stables of concepts, and local restaurant developers are looking new and exciting concepts that cater to more than just the culinary senses. This is where the food direction needs to move in order to justify, and more importantly qualify for, an international rating system such as Michelin.”

Zeitoun, however, thinks Dubai is ready. “Dubai has without a doubt hit the standards needed for the Michelin star guide to enter the city.

What helped achieve this status is not only the top-quality restaurants that opened their doors to eager gourmands in recent years, but also the local environment which created a friendly medium for business through regulations, trade zones, ease of travel, tourist attractions, and general infrastructure. Where else in the Middle East can you go and find an outpost for the legendary, three Michelin-star Pierre Gagnaire?”

Biles agrees and says he believes that if there is one area where Michelin guides are missing, it is the Middle East, especially cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “We could easily have one book referencing restaurants from Dubai and Abu Dhabi together, based on the model we have found in Spain/Portugal or Hong Kong /Macao.”

CAN IT HELP THE REGION?
Khan says: “With the Expo 2020 and World Cup 2022 I would have to say that the Middle East is definitely becoming a hot spot for tourism; the addition of a Michelin guide could be well timed if introduced in the near future.”

He adds: “International ratings can only help the local industry as being recognised as a serious contender for cuisine. We can clearly see that the Gulf is developing into a destination for both business and leisure therefore acquiring international recognition for gastronomy would certainly support the region in becoming a travel hotspot.

Also, many expats who reside within the Middle East generally opt to travel away to see family and friends; it would be good to see this reversed by attracting more family and friends to travel into the region to visit instead.”

Biles agrees: “Having international ratings will definitely bring more connoisseurs’ eyes to the region, bring more competition and push everyone to increase the level of service and high quality of food.”

Fraser-Smith also concurs with Khan and Biles. “An international ratings system will ultimately recognise a new the city or region as playing on the same culinary fields as the established ones. It brings healthy competition and quintessentially lifts standards in service and delivery as the chef, restaurateur and operator will never know when or if they will be reviewed.”

However Zeitoun cautions: “Getting international ratings will certainly help many F&B establishments be set apart from the rest, but will also hurt others that will be lowly-rated. It will put into perspective the difference between top F&B establishments and ones that aspire to be labelled as such.”

DOES IT HELP CHEFS?
Ratings can have a dark side — hopes of winning a nod, pressure of holding on to a star if one is received, and complacency after winning accolades are all caveats to beware of.

Khan says: “In my opinion stars are a double-edged sword; they can obviously add value to a business by recognising it as a place of excellence, however such an establishment usually has very high running costs and significant pressure of maintaining the rating.

“In addition such places face manpower issues as employees can be attracted to work for the establishment simply to get the Michelin experience; this can increase the staff turnover.
“Finally, should the rating fall it could severely damage the business.

There is of course the story of a famous chef who handed Michelin back his stars as he felt it was of no real benefit! Also, some operators place more value of casual dining as it has the potential to enjoy a healthier sustainable customer base than that of a fine dining establishment.”

Khan of course, is referring to Marco Pierre White in the above example. But this begs the question: who craves the stars? Chefs or diners?

“Both, as stars will push chefs to excellence, and excellence brings clients, who are looking for outstanding culinary journeys and know by the stars that they will not be disappointed,” explains Biles.

Fraser-Smith add: “Chefs strive for that first star and then double the efforts to maintain or acquire another, since you are only as good as your most recent review.”

He continues: “The Michelin star concept is extremely important to both chefs and diners. For chefs, it is a sign of both quality and coveted-status. It places them in a league of their own, and sets their culinary prowess apart from the rest of their peers. It simply makes them way more marketable, and certainly cascades this marketability to any restaurant they attach their name to.

Alvis concludes: “All chefs dream of Michelin stars at some point in their career and it would be nice for chefs and restaurants here to be globally recognised.

“Michelin is definitely important; it really creates interest and brings business. It would help the F&B scene if taken seriously, but if it’s not here then we can’t worry about it. In all honesty it can be a burden for chefs to maintain [stars], when what is most important is happy guests filling your restaurant.”

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