Growing up

As the farming market matures, why aren't more chefs buying locally?

Reports, Ingredients
Baker & Spice's Yael Mejia.
Baker & Spice's Yael Mejia.
Pepper plants. [Salata Farms]
Pepper plants. [Salata Farms]
Marriott's Christian Biesbrouck.
Marriott's Christian Biesbrouck.
Cauliflower growing. [Salata Farms]
Cauliflower growing. [Salata Farms]
Tomato vines. [Salata Farms]
Tomato vines. [Salata Farms]
Baker & Spice at Dubai's Souk Al Bahar.
Baker & Spice at Dubai's Souk Al Bahar.
Bushes of basil. [Salata Farms]
Bushes of basil. [Salata Farms]
Baker & Spice, Souk Al Bahar.
Baker & Spice, Souk Al Bahar.
Reports, Ingredients

As the Middle East’s farming market matures and expands, isn’t it time for chefs and purchasers to investigate more environmentally friendly produce supply solutions?

Using locally-grown produce is a practice that has long been admired in culinary hubs around the world.

Drawing on the very best of local produce, renowned chefs and restaurateurs have emphasised the freshness and traceability of their food as a major selling-point on their menus.

At first glance, the Middle East might look like it could not support such initiatives: covered in sand, with scorchingly hot summers, the immediate impression is of a fairly hostile environment.

Indeed, the assumption that there is a dearth of local produce here is sustained by the region’s status as a major importer (around 80% of Dubai’s foodstuffs are imported, according to Dubai Municipality).

But Middle East farmers beg to differ. In the UAE, Salata Farms uses hydroponic technology in order to grow fresh produce all year round, resulting in an array of salads, vegetables and berries.

Meanwhile farming organisations Abu Dhabi Organic Farms and Mazaraa employ the ‘Full Cycle of Organic Farming’ in their farming methods, using the waste of their own livestock as compost for the produce grown there.

The groups’ owner and founder, Khaled Butti Al Shamsi, explains: “I did extensive studies to start this operation and used the assistance of many professionals internationally known in the field to progress with my passion for healthier farming. Finally we became the first internationally certified local organic farming producers.”

Another firm driving demand for local goods is Nassar Al Refaee Trading Company (NRTC), an importer and exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables that boasts more than 35 years’ experience supplying the region with quality products from the UAE and the Middle East, as well as further afield.

Managing director Mohammad Nassar Al Rifai explains: “NRTC leases farms in Liwa to grow vegetables such as cucumbers, capsicums, tomatoes and various salads and herbs. We follow good agricultural practices to grow seasonal produce and to meet local demand.”

So the producers are there — but is the region’s F&B industry making the most of its local suppliers?

According to Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay sous chef Sam Alex, regional farmers have raised their profile over the past couple of years, and buyers have responded.

“Since the resort operation started in January 2008, we have seen the availability of locally grown items increase — and at the same time local demand has increased, which means the supply has become more varied.

“For example, two years ago locally grown mangos made up 10% of what was available on the market, while 90% were imported. Today, local farmers are producing over 20%,” Alex says.

However Kempinski Ajman executive chef Didier Gusching — a firm believer in the environmental, financial and taste benefits of growing and buying local produce — believes more chefs need to wake up to the advantages of sourcing locally.

“It is exciting to see producers pushing the limits and producing some of the finest ingredients available today in the region,” he comments.

“But what’s on offer will automatically improve and evolve if we show more interest and increase demand.

“Most of us are not even looking for local products — we sometimes focus on the least expensive imported items rather than favour quality. This approach drives quality down.

“And this is the true importance of local produce,” he continues. “If chefs here embrace this fairly cheap but high quality alternative, they will keep costs in line and dishes will taste how they should!”

Since her arrival in Dubai, Yael Mejia, chief executive of Foodcraft Solutions and brand consultant for Baker & Spice — whose Dubai outlet, located in Souk Al Bahar, recently hosted the UAE’s first Farmers’ Market — has been shocked by the F&B industry’s approach to home-grown produce.

“It’s depressing seeing how few chefs here draw on local resources,” she says. “OK, maybe you used to have to import things in this region; but so what? The world is a different place today — global warming, carbon footprints, these things are real. What is it that people can’t be bothered about, why isn’t it their responsibility?

“At Baker & Spice, our suppliers are the local farms; whatever they grow, we use,” she explains.

“And the fact they can’t guarantee one item to us for 365 days of the year, that to us is an exciting notion. It means we need to think, on a daily basis, about what we’re doing; to reinvent the food, rather than being slaves to a menu that is written in stone and has to be fulfilled come what may.

“To me, that makes our lives far more interesting, challenging and exciting; every day is a different adventure.”

Kempinski’s Gusching is similarly regionally-minded: “If you look, you can find virtually everything nearby — rocket and most salads, onions, shallots, sweet potato, cauliflower, carrots, papaya, tomatoes, aubergines, figs, oranges; many things can be grown in this region and they are all good.”

At Oman’s Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay, the menus reflect what is commonly available in the local market — notably fresh seafood — as well as produce from the resort’s own organic garden.

“Some products are always imported, such as Wagyu beef, because they are simply not available here,” notes Alex.

“Occasionally, depending on seasons, we may have to import some vegetables and fruits. However most of the time we receive around 70% of our usage from local suppliers.”

Courtyard by Marriott executive chef Christian Biesbrouck explains that in addition to the property’s own kitchen garden, its supplier partners ensure “many of our items come from neighbouring countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Syria”.

However Biesbrouck notes that the menus are “very diverse”, which means products must be sourced from all over the world.

According to Neil Wilkinson, sous chef at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, the top priority is always quality.

“Whether local or imported, fresh produce must be of the highest quality to complement dishes,” he asserts.

“We do prefer using quality local produce and keeping food miles to a minimum, but there are many instances when quality and availability mean we do import produce.”

Meanwhile Okku Restaurant and Lounge founder Markus Thesleff emphasises that the brand “strongly believes in supporting local producers”, but says the Japanese outlet does not currently purchase produce from the local area.

“We have tried — especially for organic produce, which is extremely high on our wish list — but there does not seem to be any supply, and when there is it is neither consistent nor HACCP-approved. Therefore technically, it is not supposed to find its way into DTCM-regulated or five-star hotel supply chains,” he explains.

“We have been in contact with Nazwa Organic Farm, but they simply don’t have the quantities available; so right now we are still looking around to see what alternatives there are.”

In addition to the taste benefits associated with local fresh produce — as Kempinski’s Gusching notes, “there can be nothing better than the flavour and fragrance of freshly harvested fruits or vegetables which have been naturally ripened to perfection, rather than picked months in advance and kept in chillers” — there are the pecuniary and environmental benefits to think of.

Salata Farms managing director Thomas Schwarz explains: “Local production enables chefs to buy fresher produce, year round, at better prices than imports, while also lowering our carbon footprint.”

Marriott’s Biesbrouck claims that while some local produce is competitively priced, it can be expensive — and that quality and consistency are also issues. “In future, it would be good to see this farming done on a greater commercial scale, where the quality is maintained and the costs come down,” he asserts.

Highlighting the environmental benefits of locally grown goods, Kempinski’s Gusching says: “The point we are trying to make is that many things can be grown all around the region and that they offer a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to importing.

“Challenges remain however with a problem of volume and quality control,” he admits. “The next step will be to push producers to understand the needs of the best establishments in term of consistency, calibration and ripeness.

“Furthermore, aside from a handful of great farms, there are still many examples of usage of taste enhancers or irrigation from contaminated water,” Gusching adds.

“But I believe this will be corrected very soon, thanks to the growing involvement of the governments to assist producers in learning and understanding what can be achieved.”

However Baker & Spice’s Mejia remains concerned that, despite the region’s high profile F&B industry, environmental concerns don’t seem to factor into the equation for many Middle East purchasers.

“There are a few chefs here that are making an effort, but it’s astonishing how few,” she asserts.

“And I find the fact that this region’s produce is being flown to Europe during the growing season and the equivalent thereof flown back here, totally ridiculous,” Mejia adds.

“Tomatoes and cucumbers grown here are far superior in every way to imported versions. But when you walk into supermarkets, what you see are perfect-looking tomatoes which are water-logged, have no flavour, and basically do not deliver on any level.

“What they do have is staying power; they will sit happily looking very glorious on a shelf for two weeks.

“So essentially, we’re sending superior products to Europe and getting an inferior product flown back here which costs the earth — firstly in your pocket, and secondly in terms of the environment.

“There is no justification in importing produce if it is being grown well nearby. And it’s not a matter of money; it’s a matter of either ignorance or simply not being bothered,” she insists.
“For chefs and purchasers to just carry on business as usual, as if nothing is happening to this world, is immoral — I don’t know how else to put it.”

Considering why so many outlets still rely on imported produce, Kempinski’s Gusching points out that when a new chef coming here asks colleagues about where he can find fresh ingredients, the answer is invariably “that everything can be found through the network of suppliers that bring in anything you want”.

“The current system is dominated by strong importers that do an amazing job in bringing quality products from around the world. They have been here for many years, have a good logistical set-up and offer a constant and fairly reliable service,” he observes.

“Furthermore, most head chefs are not Middle East nationals and feel comfortable with products they know.”

However Gushing believes that, as local resources improve, chefs need to start making an effort.

“It is true that picking up the phone is much easier than waking up early to go to the market, but this is what our job is all about: fresh ingredients and taste,” he says.

Abu Dhabi Organic Farms and Mazaraa’s Al Shamsi believes more education for the region’s F&B operators could make a big difference.

“From a survey we did across people from various backgrounds, cultures and educational levels, we found that imported fruits and vegetables were perceived to be better than locally grown options. And that is simply due to a lack of understanding regarding the benefits of local purchase,” he asserts.

NRTC’s Al Rifai agrees that the lack of restaurant managers or chefs purchasing local or regional produce “could be because of a lack of awareness about what is available”.

“I hope events such as the Farmers’ Market change that perception,” he says. “Although I also don’t think there is enough supply at the moment to meet local consumption demands.”

This is a valid point; indeed, Salata’s Schwarz says keeping up with demand is the firm’s biggest challenge — although he adds it’s “a nice problem to have”.

“We are responding to this by expanding our capacity, details of which will be announced later in the year,” Schwarz reveals.

It seems that there is still work to be done by the region’s farmers, regarding the volume and consistency of produce. But at the same time, there is more going on in the world of local farming than half the buyers in this region would believe possible.

Indeed, when asked in Caterer’s online poll this month about whether they used locally-grown produce, a majority of 34% admitted they had never looked into local options, instead relying on what their suppliers offered them.

Baker & Spice’s Mejia hopes that when the outlet’s Farmers’ Markets start up again, at the beginning of the autumn growing season, chefs will be first in the queue.

“If the restaurants here want to talk the talk about offering the best and being environmentally aware, they need to walk the walk as well,” she concludes.

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