Dubai Food Festival: Fun, Feast, & Fervor

It’s finally the time when a world full of the most glorious food is only a fork or a spoon away. With businesses in the culinary space having to combat the COVID-19 impact for over 12 months, Misbaah Mansuri delves into what the eighth edition of the ongoing Dubai Food Festival (DFF) means for the culinary community

A parade of gold amuse bouche regularly passes through Dubai’s kitchen doors, as do gold-dusted burgers and gold cappuccinos. It is no wonder then that Instagram is bloated with the Emirate’s most outlandish and expensive edibles, often coiffed by famous fingers from ‘Salt Bae’ to CznBurak.

While the lauded gourmet put a face to fine dining in the region and attract its share of fans, the region’s greatest gastronomic achievement is in its diversity. It’s an exciting time for foodies as the Dubai Food Festival that shines a spotlight on this diverse gastronomy scene is underway and running till April 17, Saturday.

The ongoing edition features specially curated menus at Dubai Restaurant Week, exclusive culinary adventures for a limited time, Michelin-star experiences, and gourmet-themed foodcation deals at top hotels combining people’s love for food and holidays. Furthermore, keeping Covid-regulations in mind, DFF this time is more spread out and less location-based.

Keeping the relevance and importance of DFF for the culinary community, Aspire catches up with culinary maestros from both participating and non-participating restaurants in DFF on how the food extravaganza affects their culinary brands, the importance of food festivals for positioning the Middle East on the global F&B scene and more. Could it be the promise of a better tomorrow with the three-week event throwing spotlight on a sector that the pandemic has hard hit?

A FEAST FOR ALL THE SENSES

Thai restaurant Thiptara located inside Palace Downtown, is considered one of the most iconic restaurants in the city. As one of the restaurants participating in the Dubai Food Festival, we chat with Mark Kirby, Head of Hospitality, Emaar Hospitality Group, on how the brand’s participation in DFF over the years has impacted the footfalls of the restaurant, big crowd-pullers planned this year and more.

What are you looking forward to at this edition of the Dubai Food Festival?
As always, we are looking forward to lots of interesting dining options and culinary experiences. This edition has many new restaurants, new menus from the usual restaurants, and lots of great offers for residents to enjoy. As the dining culture continues to develop in Dubai, particularly in the last few months, it’s great to see so many of the outlets participating this year.

With the restaurant participating in DFF, how does it impact the footfall or brand image?
During DFF, we see many first-timers to our restaurants and outlets and of course our regular guests. With DFF flowing into Ramadan this year, we are very excited to see how that will pan out for our Iftaar & Suhoor hosting venues, especially since there were no Ramadan celebrations last year. This year is going to be very special for guests as well as restaurants and hotels.
Mark Kirby, Head of Hospitality, Emaar Hospitality Group
Tell us about the restaurant’s game-plan for DFF, signature specialties, or highlights planned that you think will be the big crowd-pullers this year?
At Thiptara, our set menu with one starter, one main course, and dessert is priced at AED 250. Some of the signature specialties that will be a huge crowd-puller include the award-winning Som Tum Thai (authentic Thai papaya salad), our most loved dish, the Gong Phad Med Mamueng, which is stir-fried prawns with dry chilis – a must-try for all Asian food lovers and those looking to experience the taste of authentic Thai food.

What according to you is the biggest draw when it comes to the Dubai culinary scene?
The extensive variety and the numerous options in the city regarding food options – whether it is a small eatery, fine dining, or a celebrity-chef-operated restaurant that you’re looking for, there’s always something new to experience and new menus to savor in Dubai. The ever-changing, ever-evolving dining options keep residents and tourists coming back for more. Whether you are looking for a weekend outing, a celebration, or an important meeting – you’ve got the places and food to choose from. With so many new restaurants opening throughout the year and new menu options – guests are always spoilt for choice.

Share any Covid-fuelled culinary trends you’ve seen gaining momentum in the last one year?
We’ve seen many of our guests now chose vegan and dairy-free options over the previous year. People are more conscious of their food choices, are more curious to learn about several preparations, and keen to understand the culture behind every cuisine more than ever before. With this in mind, we have a dedicated Salad Bar, a vegetarian set menu, and a selection of healthy takeaway options at our hotels.

Tell us about your most memorable DFF incident, if any?
During the previous editions, our chefs used to do live cooking at the beach canteen, located on Kite beach. A lot of experimentation and fusion within different kinds of ingredients was something they’d all play with and develop unique flavors from around the world. The food served and the experience of our live cooking stations is definitely one of my favorite memories from DFF, and we hope they will be brought back in the future.

How important do you think are food festivals like DFF for positioning the Middle East on the global F&B scene?
Dubai Food Festival has gone a long way in establishing UAE as a food and culture destination on the global stage. With a collective government collaboration and a dedicated food festival that runs for three weeks every year – it is a clear message that Dubai is an important destination for F&B experiences. While many residents may not have traveled outside of the UAE due to the pandemic, I am certain they haven’t missed out on food from every possible country because everything, absolutely everything is available in Dubai.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Several restaurants might not be participating in the culinary extravaganza but look forward to the celebration of food in all its forms and the push it can provide to the culinary industry overall. Pradeep Jethani – Partner – Bombay Borough, Indian Bar & Eatery, DIFC, Dubai opens up on best memories at the culinary festival, foods that evoke cherished memories, and more.

What are you looking forward to at this edition of the Dubai Food Festival?
After a hectic 2020, I am really looking forward to this year’s DFF as several bespoke dining experiences, and gastronomic activities are going to be at DFF. As a food lover myself, I look forward to trying them all.

While the restaurant is not participating in DFF, how does it impact the footfall or brand image? Is it still beneficial regardless of whether one is participating or not?
As long as life goes back to normal and people go back to routine lives, the industry benefits. Not all deserving brands take part, but as a whole, all will thrive.
PRADEEP JETHANI, Partner - Bombay Borough, Indian Bar & Eatery
What according to you is the biggest draw when it comes to the Dubai culinary scene?
The cultural diversity of Dubai. With over 200 nationalities living in Dubai and each bringing a taste of home with them. Many expats have opened up their own restaurants or brought franchises of family restaurants, making Dubai’s dining scene a melting point of all cultures.

Share any Covid-fuelled culinary trends you’ve seen gaining momentum in the last one year?
I’d say Dalgona coffee. I think it attracted most of us mainly because it’s made from simple ingredients and didn’t require much kitchen education to prepare.

Tell us about your most memorable DFF incident, if any?
My most memorable DFF moment goes back to 2019, sharing an ice cream with my wife at the Etisalat Beach Canteen and strolling by the beach.

For most of us, certain foods evoke some cherished memories; what would be one in your case?
I am a big-time foodie, so it’s a bit difficult for me to choose, but if I had to pick, I’d surely say our homemade caramel custard certainly brings back many memories for me, and I really cherish them.

How important do you think are food festivals like DFF for positioning the Middle East on the global F&B scene?
I think food festivals are essential to have as it’s an excellent platform for both home-grown and international Chefs to showcase their talent and bring out healthy competition. With the growing popularity and demand for wider culinary variety, international food chains and Michelin starred chefs from the West are exploring the possibility of opening a restaurant in Dubai, which puts the Middle East as a hot market to expand an F&B business.

COOKING UP A CELEBRATION

What’s interesting is the festival’s increased emphasis on home-grown cuisine this year. DFF has teamed up with Zomato to spotlight eateries serving up satisfying home-staples at affordable prices. The 2021 hidden gems list includes a variety of cuisines just waiting to be discovered, covering every cuisine from Emirati and Indian to American and Lebanese. Lisa Knight, co-owner, Cafe Isan- a Thai street food specialty eatery that is participating in DFF as a part of the home-grown cuisine initiative shares the restaurant’s game-plan for the same, Covid-fuelled culinary trends, and more.

What are you looking forward to at this edition of the Dubai Food Festival?
We’re huge fans of the hidden-gems series – it’s lovely to see independent restaurants getting on the map. We were fortunate enough to host an exclusive Tom Yum Masterclass in association with Ripe Market as part of the “Made in Dubai” series which was hugely exciting for us.

With the restaurant participating in DFF, how does it impact the footfall or brand image?
The masterclass we hosted was part of the excellent “Made in Dubai” campaign, which celebrates home-grown heroes or heroines, as in our case. We also took part in a yet-to-be-released video produced by Time Out Dubai for DFF, where top Chefs of Dubai recommended their favorite budget takeaways. Yes, we definitely think the festival benefits the entire F&B scene here – largely because it gets more and more inclusive each year.
LISA KNIGHT, Co-owner, Cafe Isan- a Thai street food
What according to you is the biggest draw when it comes to the Dubai culinary scene?
It’s changing and becoming more diverse! Earlier it was fine dining and celebrity chefs’ but now home-grown casual street food chefs’ and former home cooks’ are making a splash. Diversity is a real cause for celebration.

Share any Covid-fuelled culinary trends you’ve seen gaining momentum in the last one year?
DIY cooking kits and a wider appreciation for street food – i.e., good value and great food are both gaining momentum

Tell us about your most memorable DFF incident, if any?
Winning Time Out Dubai’s Best Thai awards for two consecutive years – both years have been in association with DFF.

For most of us, certain foods evoke some cherished memories. What would be one in your case?
Traveling in a 4×4 across Thailand, stopping off at a roadside hawker for Gai Yang and Som Tum (papaya salad and sticky rice). Farm fresh and fabulous. I also left my Louis Vuitton sunglasses at the cart and a year later returned, and the lady recognized me and handed me back my glasses. I’ll never forget that!

How important do you think are food festivals like DFF for positioning the Middle East on the global F&B scene?
Absolutely fundamental! The profile of the F&B scene here is steadily rising and diversifying – and quite rightly so. We appreciate the innovation and creativity that goes into DFF each year, and this year the shift to largely virtual was seamless.

CELEBRATING CULINARY AND BEYOND

To add more value, especially this year, the Dubai Restaurant Week has been extended by 17 days. The sub-event within DFF is an opportunity to dish out culinary offerings that tantalize tease buds, letting fans enjoy lots more with offers ranging from set meals from top restaurants to half-price deals. Even restaurants that aren’t officially taking part in the festival are leveraging the celebrations and playing their part by dishing out various deals and organizing food halls during these times. Like every year, food and culinary enthusiasts hope that DFF, the only city-wide festival in the entire Middle East continues to regale foodies and manages to put the city’s extraordinary food scene right in the spotlight for the whole world to see.

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