Ahead of the unveiling of Mena’s 50 Best Restaurants in Abu Dhabi on Monday, celebrity chef Ali Ghzawi says he hopes the 2023 list includes more venues offering Middle Eastern cuisine.
“A lot of the concepts from last year’s list were not Middle Eastern,” he tells The National at a pre-awards ceremony event on Sunday. “That made me question: is this how it’s supposed to be?”
Ghzawi, who won Top Chef Middle East in 2019 and is a contestant in the upcoming All Stars version of the show, is referring to the debut of the Mena list by the World’s 50 Best group. Topping it was 3 Fils, which offers Asia Pacific-inspired food, followed by Japanese restaurant Zuma, both in Dubai.
He said the list, which included an array of cuisines, from Latin American to Indian, should be “90 per cent Middle Eastern”.
“If you are coming to the Middle East, you need to have the best Middle Eastern food. I don't want to see another sushi brand, wok place or steakhouse making it to the list,” says the Jordanian chef.
This declaration is not part of some inherent prejudice, the Jordanian chef clarifies. He even admits there might not be enough Middle Eastern concepts that are so “different and special that they can be recognised”.
The onus, he says, is also on the chefs. “If we don't have aspiring chefs introducing their own culture, then I'm sorry it's not going to happen. We need to help World's 50 Best make the right decision.
“It is a must for Middle Eastern chefs from this region to excel and do things differently. It's our time now. We finally have World's 50 Best and Michelin Guide in the region, so now is our time to do things right, and not to have another sushi place or serve any other food that could be found and eaten anywhere else in the world.”
'Every dish has a story'
Ghzawi's passion is best demonstrated in Alee, his restaurant in Amman. The fine dining venue serves authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, pays homage to the diverse produce and herbs found in the Levant, and has garnered plenty of rave reviews.
Ghzawi, who began his culinary journey by selling sandwiches to his friends when he was a teenager, trained as a chef at the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and worked at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Enoteca by Paco Perez in Barcelona, before returning to Jordan to start his own venture.
His flagship restaurant takes a sentimental approach to Middle Eastern cuisine, where every dish represents a story from Ghzawi's childhood.
“A popular popsicle when I was a young boy used to be one with mango on the outside and vanilla within. At Alee, we have a dessert inspired by this memory from when I was 6. We created a vanilla and rose water pudding with fresh mango sorbet and blossom water,” he says.
“I have people at the restaurant who are in their 50s and 60s who, when they eat it, say: 'Chef, that took us years back in time.'
“Food should never be complicated, it should be true. At Alee, we like to keep it smart and simple, but also elevated, upscale and proudly Middle Eastern.”
Scroll through the list below to see the spots on Mena's 50 Best Restaurants list 2022