Nader Al Aisari has cooked for royalty, generals and celebrities, but serving potentially millions of people over the space of six months at Expo 2020 Dubai is his biggest gig yet.
This is why the Omani chef was one of the first to arrive at the Rising Flavours dining hall on Friday.
It was 7.30am and, as fellow cooks began to amble to the hub, located at Jubilee Park, Al Aisari was sitting in the back seeking guidance.
“I read the Quran and I fired up some Luban, an incense I brought here from Oman,” he tells The National.
“It helps settle the mind and keeps me focused because this is really the biggest thing I did, food-wise, in my life.”
It also helps him deal with unforeseen circumstances arising from any restaurant opening, such as when, after a gust of wind ruined the store’s signage, Al Aisari could only find enough letters to form his first name.
It is a blessing in disguise as the solo moniker matches Al Aisari’s hip take on Omani cuisine. On offer are sharing plates of shuwa, a slow-cooked marinated lamb served with a decadent home-made tamarind sauce, arugula salad with home-grown pomegranates and oven-roasted mini shawarmas.
“We sold out our first batch already and preparing our second round,” he said on Friday afternoon.
“What I have been seeing is people, from customers and staff, recommending others to come here. It’s the kind of word-of-mouth you will find at markets.”
Al Aisari's initial – and serendipitous – success augers well for Rising Flavours, a showcase of the region's best young entrepreneurs and celebrity chefs.
He was invited to the Expo after the success of his home kitchen in Muscat, and joins 10 other GCC chefs including the UAE's Musabbeh Al Kaabi and Hattem Mattar, as well as Bahraini Roaya Saleh.
The dining hall hints at the tremendous food options that will available during Expo 2020 Dubai.
More than 200 restaurants will be on-site, serving everything from Manuka honey and premium lamb from New Zealand to Kenyan goat stew and the Estonian pavilion’s comfort fare of cod with potatoes, sour cream and dill.
With many venues and the second floor of Rising Flavours yet to open, the Expo's culinary potential is gut busting.
The 'world’s biggest food festival'
But where to begin on a site bigger than both New York’s Central Park and Disneyland?
As anyone experienced with tackling an epic buffet will tell you: you need to be strategic and play the long game.
To savour the international flavours at the site, it’s best to make several visits to Expo.
For Expo first-timers, the best option is to head straight to the operational food pavilions on site.
In addition to Rising Flavours, there is Alkebulan, the dining hall dedicated to modern and traditional African cuisine.
Located in Jubilee Park and a 10-minute walk from Rising Flavours, you will find 10 African chefs – from Cameroon to Ethiopia – serving signature meals.
With the UAE's African food landscape slowly growing, this hub provides ample opportunity to explore innovative dishes or fresh takes on familiar concepts.
The latter is found in Sweet Ophelia's, a fun and funky Afro-Asian concept where noodles and dumplings are served with zesty West African spice combinations including cinnamon, cardamom and bay leaf.
Flavours big and small
The Future of Food: The Epochal Banquet, a dining concept exploring futuristic cuisine, is yet to open, but right now the other food hub to attend is talabat kitchen.
Named after the online delivery platform, the area represents more than simply the site's greatest culinary hits (such as Kababji Grill, Poke and Chick N Co), it also provides a peek at the future of dining halls; there's a robot barista set to serve customers in the ensuing months.
The terrace, overlooking Jubilee Park, also makes for a perfect dinner spot for families during the winter.
As for the Expo's hidden gems, you need to escape the main thoroughfare and head to the side streets where arrows will direct you towards food and beverage options.
In the coming months, these paths will host the UAE debuts of international venues such as the US burrata bar Scarpetta Mercato, the modern Korean cuisine of Kojaki and Lebanese fusion from Beirut's Baron, but it's also home to a home-grown hero.
Perhaps no place personifies the industrious spirit of the UAE culinary scene than Bur Dubai’s Ravi.
Heartwarmingly, the Expo’s big stage hasn't overshadowed the much-loved eatery's pop-up. Its space in the Opportunity District is simply decorated in its trademark white and green, and the service is typically Ravi-style.
The menu of rice, curry and roti dishes are rattled off by waiters and you can expect a Dh25 chicken biryani dish to arrive in less than five minutes.
Recipe for success
With what’s available and still to come, the Expo is not only set to become a haven for culture lovers but could serve as a case study for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs on how to succeed.
This is why Abdullah Manoun, the Lebanese executive chef behind the Saudi pop-up Chef Duha in Rising Flavours, is spotted checking out some of the venues around Jubilee Park.
“It’s not about competition but you do need to know what is going on and what people are gravitating to,” he says.
“A lot of restaurants have come to the Expo with a clear goal in mind and that is to build a fan base and find investors. That’s the mission and you really don’t want to lose sight of that.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Al Aisari. He describes the event as a launch pad to fulfil his ambition.
“Expo is essentially a hustle in its own way. You come here and you need to make things happen. Not only am I here to represent my talent and beliefs, but that of my country’s food heritage, too.
"It’s not so much a pressure, but all the motivation I need to keep going and serving the people the best of myself and my culture.”
More information is available at expo2020dubai.com