Cuisine Focus: Spanish

Caterer speaks to regional chefs about Spanish cuisine's challenges and popularity

A spread of traditional Spanish dishes at El Sur.
A spread of traditional Spanish dishes at El Sur.

How popular would you say Spanish cuisine is in the Middle East?

Miquel Alvarez, chef, Al Hambra, Madinat Jumeirah: I believe traditional Spanish cuisine is getting more and more popular each year. Spanish cuisine is known for being laid-back and relaxed, just like Al Hambra and we’re finding that more and more guests are looking for that casual dining concept. We have also had an influx of Spanish chefs in this region which makes the experience as authentic as possible.

Francois Roldan , executive chef, Casa De Tapas, Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club: Spanish cuisine is becoming more popular in the region simply because people are now looking for authentic experiences and Spanish food prepared with rich, vibrant, intense flavours — is all about making the best of local produce.

Omar Shihab, general manager, Boca: Spanish cuisine has been gaining a lot of momentum and popularity in the last five years. I recall it going from two outlets in the country to seven in 2014. This year alone we saw three new Spanish restaurant openings in Dubai with no sign of slowing down as we continue to hear of Spanish concepts, both home-grown and imported, planning openings in 2018.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez Hernandez, head chef, El Sur: I believe that Spanish cuisine in now incredibly popular in Dubai, with Spanish restaurants opening at an accelerated rate in the city. With Dubai residents choosing Spain as their holiday destination of choice, many expats crave the tapas and paella that they enjoyed during their vacation, so they flock to Spanish restaurants for the food that holds spectacular taste, as well as memories.

Oscar Bigorda, head chef, Toro + Ko: Spain has been at the forefront of modern gastronomy for many years, but I have seen a recent awakening to Spanish cuisine in Dubai in the recently. Restaurants are now are offering more than just paella and are demonstrating Spain’s diverse food landscape. It suits the casual dining movement in Dubai right now as well; it is great quality food, that doesn’t need to be expensive and is perfect to share.

Have you noticed any trends in Spanish cuisine?

Miquel: Spanish cuisine is very popular and is continually evolving. Foodies continue to expect innovative cuisine but with top quality produce. The sharing concept has exploded in this region which is perfect for our home country. It also has many similarities to the local cuisine here in the UAE.

Roldan: The current trend in Spanish cuisine is to use organic ingredients and to offer healthier choices in both food and beverages.

Shihab: We see octopus featured heavily on menus. Boca has two dishes of its own, the signature grilled octopus on a bed of warm potato salad topped with air dried beef, and a newly introduced sandwich of chopped grilled octopus and stracciatella cheese in a warm ciabatta. A trend that Boca started in 2014 is the casual self-service pintxo concept. A northern Spanish concept where speciality bars are lined up with a plethora bites with a pick (pintxo) inserted in them.

Hernandez: Spanish food surpasses all trends, Spanish gastronomy is the ultimate rule breaker when it comes to innovation, whilst always respecting tradition and classic flavours. Lots of chefs, of all nationalities, emulate much revered restaurants such as three-star Michelin rated El Bulli located in Catalonia run by chef Ferran Adria, which was named as the world’s number one five times.

Bigorda: More and more these days you are seeing artistic spins on presentation, a very traditional recipe is brought back to life by using new techniques or serving the dish in a different way.

What are some challenges you face when it comes to Spanish cuisine?

Miquel: Although the quality of produce is getting better and better, I would say one of the main challenges we face is sourcing the same produce that we would get back in Spain. There is also still a lack of awareness and understanding towards Spanish cuisine and what kind of dishes to expect, so we need to continue to educate and inform consumers and our guests.

Roldan: I think there is no particular challenge for Spanish cuisine in terms of preparing the food. The real challenge should be in making sure that a restaurant delivers a true Spanish experience to a diverse customer base without compromising on ethnic flavours, character, and techniques.

Shihab: It is hard to maintain a tapas bar highly stocked with fresh ingredients ready to go when you don’t have the steady volumes and the market is generally not ready for that. Finding the right staff of course remains the biggest challenges especially on the more junior and entry level roles. There has always been many Italian and Asian restaurants but finding skill-sets specific to Spanish cuisine on a junior level remains a big challenge.

Hernandez: Showcasing the roots of Spanish culture is tightly bound with showcasing the Spanish cuisine itself. The Spanish culture embraces an all-encompassing, social dining experience like no other. Spanish people are incredibly interactive and open which you can see in a traditional taverna in Barcelona, for example, people eat and drink whilst standing, allowing them to interact with each other whilst enjoying their freshly prepared tapas.

Bigorda: It can be a challenge to get Spanish seasonal produce, with such a range of ingredients from the Mediterranean best used at different times of year, you can’t always get what you want. But Dubai does have very good suppliers which does make my life easier and everything that we receive is top quality.

Is it easy to source the ingredients that you need?

Miquel: With the increase of Spanish cuisine restaurants in this region, there is a higher demand for local Spanish produce and more and more suppliers are visiting to bring the produce here. Some traditional Spanish dishes where we can’t get hold of the right produce, we’ll find alternative ingredients that are just as good.

Roldan: Not at all, we pride ourselves on delivering a truly authentic Spanish experience and we look to use traditional ingredients to provide a real taste of Spain. We are passionate about using Spanish ingredients so we work very hard to source these. Sometimes products are just not available locally and some very traditional ingredients are not available for import which can make this process a challenge.

Shihab: At Boca we try to use a mix of local and regional products as well as imported ingredients from Spain. The biggest challenge will always be sourcing fresh ingredients at the right price to introduce them to clients.

Hernandez: It is relatively easy to source quality ingredients as there is a well-established network of suppliers that have a wonderful array of products. The challenge however, is finding the balance between excellent quality and a fair price.

Bigorda: The product quality and offering has grown significantly in the past few years in Dubai. Spanish restaurants and products are in a high demand in the region. Suppliers work very closely with the chefs to get us what we need.

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