The creme de la creme of the world’s culinary scene descended on Abu Dhabi ahead of the inaugural Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants awards on Monday.
Some of the biggest names in global dining, including the World’s Best Pastry Chef Will Goldfarb, Mena’s Best Female Chef Tala Bashmi, and winner of the Foodics Icon Award for the Mena region Kamal Mouzawak, spoke to 300 excited foodies at the pre-event #50BestTalks.
The interactive afternoon, held at Yas Marina Circuit, included a mix of live interviews, presentations and discussions with the culinary stars who spoke of food’s power at uniting communities across borders.
It is the first time the World’s 50 Best Restaurants group is putting together a list for the Middle East and North Africa, meaning the outstanding restaurants across the countries in the region – from Bahrain and Iraq to Oman and Morocco – will be recognised during the grand ceremony at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers.
Bashmi is one of the chefs hoping her restaurant, Fusions by Tala in Bahrain, will make the list.
“As restaurateurs and chefs, we’ve all been working towards a platform that will allow us to showcase ourselves to the world,” said Bashmi, whose cooking focuses on modern interpretations of Middle Eastern dishes. “We just needed that little beam of light to shine on us and give us that opportunity, because there’s so much greatness in the Mena food scene.
“We’re finally getting the recognition that we deserve and are being put on a level with other chefs who we’ve always looked up to. I’ve always wondered: ‘Am I good enough?’. Now I have 50 Best telling me I am.
“Aside from that, food is an incredible way to connect people, and this is what we’re seeing at the #50BestTalks – people coming together and sharing their food, their culture and their story.”
Also at the event was UAE chef Izu Ani, formerly of LPM and now at the helm of several restaurants in Dubai, including Mediterranean-inspired Gaia. Throughout his 20-year career, Ani has united the region through food and spoke passionately about the potential it has to bring people together regardless of their background.
“Food is the story of our culture, and the Mena region has so much depth and so much flavour,” said Ani. “When you come to this region, you get an incredible culmination of flavours and histories in one place.
“The food carries a story, from where it started and how it started, and that’s the joy of food.
"Food is not [only] about sustenance; it opens our eyes to the world.”
The sentiment was echoed by Mouzawak, who spoke of his efforts to empower Lebanese communities through food. As well as setting up an emergency community kitchen in the aftermath of the deadly blast in Beirut in 2020, Mouzawak runs a series of restaurants across Lebanon that train, employ and champion local women as chefs.
“Good food starts in the home when you invite people to eat and enjoy what you cook. This is the basis of hospitality,” he said. “When you feed someone, you give a piece of yourself to that person. Food is about connecting, it’s about sharing and it’s about inclusion.”
Star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table Goldfarb, famed for his restaurant Room 4 Dessert in Bali, delivered a heartfelt presentation about the healing power of food, inspired by his own health struggles.
“I was diagnosed with soft tissue cancer in 2008, and after radiation and surgery, I went straight back to my old lifestyle and was constantly in and out of hospital,” he said. “Since 2017, I’ve been in a constant state of recovery, starting with the food I eat.”
His innovative approach to dessert creation is combined with his passion for the people of Bali, which also led him to focus on feeding his local community during the pandemic.
“First we heal ourselves, then we heal our team, then we heal the land and then, finally, we heal our communities, simply by cooking a hot meal for them every day,” he said. “Our Room 4 Community project cooks 50,000 meals a year and almost 100 per cent of the food we’ve cooked has been given away.”
Goldfarb has cultivated a 2,800-square-metre garden at his restaurant in Ubud, with 120 medicinal plants that he uses in the restaurant's dishes and drinks.
“Food has incredible healing powers,” he said. “When we have a problem, we cook our way out of it. This is why we all do what we do – to feel that connection with people. There is nothing better than that.”