"This is scary. I don't know what's about to happen tomorrow," says Mohamad Orfali, one-third of the trio behind Dubai's Orfali Bros Bistro, moments after topping the Mena's 50 Best Restaurants list in Abu Dhabi on Monday.
Mohamad, alongside his brothers Wassim and Omar, received the accolade to thunderous applause at the ceremony, which took place at Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers.
Although the restaurant, which is known for its fusion cooking, had already gained traction after being ranked sixth on the inaugural list, rising to the top this year still seemed to fluster the trio.
"So many restaurants lost their businesses, their teams, because of the pandemic. Our aim was just to protect ourselves and keep going," Mohamad, the eldest of the three, says.
"Even from last year, we never thought that we would be included in a World's 50 Best list," he adds.
He revealed his immediate thoughts were: "Do we deserve this?"
"We are a small concept, a bistro, with marble tables, you know, very casual dining."
The Jumeirah restaurant, which describes itself as a "neighbourhood eatery", beat a host of fine-dining venues in Dubai, including Michelin-starred spots Ossiano at Atlantis, The Palm, which came fourth, and Tresind Studio, which came second.
"When they announced us and Tresind Studio as the top two, I wished for them to be first, because they just deserve it," says Mohamad, with a quaint humility and a joyous sigh.
'We are a family'
Mohamad believes it's the team that makes them stand out from the rest. "They are my colleagues, my friends, my family and we always believe in everyone."
The familial bond does not end with the three brothers, it extends to other staff members, he says. They ensure a "happiness culture" that translates to the service as well as the food, he says.
"Our food is very emotional," Mohamad says while explaining "nafas", an Arabic term referring to an energy that some chefs and home cooks utilise to try and make their meals exceptional. He says it alludes to their passionate relationship with food and cooking.
"We put nafas in our food, and the customers return the energy to us," he adds. "You feel it. Maybe it's the music, the service, or just the food, I don't know."
The award impact
Although Mohamad says they "don't work for awards", he recognises their benefits to the business.
"After our recognition last year, we started seeing different clients from different places, real food lovers, who would travel all the way from Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico to the US and the UK and across the Middle East," he says.
"We started seeing more sophisticated guests. We were hosting chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, which honestly made our lives even more challenging," he adds with a chuckle. "When these people visit, I always feel like I'm in an episode of Masterchef or Top Chef."
This has allowed them to further reflect on their cuisine, which has been described as "fusion" or "borderless". For Mohamad, Orafali Bros Bistro is a representation of the community.
"We make the food that we love to eat." He says their criteria for food is simple: "Ingredients, then taste, taste and taste."
He's adamant that this year's feat will not change any of the core values of the Orfali brothers, be it their focus on flavours or their nafas-infused service. "We will keep the same the spirit, the same soul."
Scroll through the gallery below to see all of the restaurants on the Mena's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list