Comment: Making the cut

Zoe Bowker dissects the reasons behind the failure of the region's restaurants to impress global gastronomes

Zoe Bowker
Zoe Bowker

As a Tastemaker for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, I’m often asked why Dubai currently has no restaurants that made the cut for the top 50 list — or the 51-100 list — in 2017. Being fortunate enough to be able to experience the very best restaurants around the world on a regular basis, for me, the reasons are all there in plain sight.

The votes that decide which restaurants are at the top of their game are cast by a mix of food writers, global gastronomes, and chefs who are handpicked in each region. These experts certainly know a thing or two when it comes to good food, all travelling regularly to explore both legendary and up-and-coming venues. It’s no mean feat to grab the attention and approval of these well-travelled food enthusiasts — the experience must truly have the culinary ‘X factor’.

As a region, we must pique the interest of these experts and encourage them to visit and explore our gastronomic wares. That’s not easy when, as a city, we aren’t yet known for having a dynamic culinary scene. The experiential, experimental, and progressive multi-sensory style of the world’s most captivating eateries is only just beginning to emerge here, with tasting menus at The Experience by Reif Othman, Folly by Nick and Scott, and Carnival by Tresind hinting that Dubai might be starting to embrace modern cuisine in the degustation format.

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As it stands, the scene has a reputation for being ‘style over substance’, all sparkling chandeliers and sky-high prices that would have most visitors choking on their burrata. We’re known for our celebrity chef-led concepts and imported copies of foreign eateries. These concepts, while admittedly commercial (and one cannot ignore that this is of huge importance in a city where rents can kill an establishment in a heartbeat), are not furthering innovation in the regional culinary scene, in fact quite the contrary. But that’s not to say a franchise concept cannot make it on to the list. Dubai’s much-loved previous top-100 occupants, Zuma and La Petite Maison, are both imported concepts.

So what will it take for a Dubai eatery to make the cut? There are many factors shared by those that exemplify the finest of fine dining. Firstly, you won’t see large, 100-cover establishments on the list; a top spot will much more likely cater to just 30 or 40 lucky diners each service, with some venues so exclusive as to have room for just 10.

Secondly, every last detail must be meticulously selected to create a bespoke environment befitting the food on the plate. There will probably be more people in the kitchen than in the dining room, calmly crafting an intricate journey to be marvelled at by the world’s ever-growing band of hard-core foodies.

Finally, the restaurants that make the list have what I call, a ‘sense of place’. It’s an intangible feeling conveyed by the venue that instantly transports you somewhere special, that gives you a peek into the mind and heart of the chef. When it’s right, somehow you just know that your experience is going to be a memorable one from the moment you set foot in the establishment.

All these factors aside, the cold, hard truth is that the difficulties and costs involved in setting up a restaurant in Dubai are prohibitive for young chefs wanting to open their own restaurant. Whilst in most cities a young chef could start a small restaurant in an affordable area of town and grow as their reputation does, this is just not possible in Dubai, especially when it comes to having a licensed venue, integral in the fine-dining category. I’d love to see more initiatives that foster the development of Dubai-based chefs by assisting their professional growth with staging opportunities in the best kitchens around the world, while also making it easier for individual chef-led concepts to open innovative eateries.

If, as a region, we can learn to put heart and soul into our restaurant concepts — from the venue, to the menu, to the service — and start creating more unique, inspired dining experiences, then it will be only a matter of time before we see Middle East-based venues cracking the top 100 again. Then we’ll have a reason to invite the world over for dinner.

Based in Dubai, fine dining, travel, and luxury specialist, Zoe Bowker, is an Official World’s 50 Best Restaurants Tastemaker and founder of Find her on Instagram @Zoe.Bowker and Twitter @zoeskaidra.

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