Around the world, brunch is synonymous with many things. It’s that leisurely meal between breakfast and lunch; it’s poached eggs, avocado, waffles and pancakes; it’s a catch-up with friends after a long and stressful week. For some in the UAE, though, brunch takes on a life of its own.
In the UAE, brunch is something quite unique
Here, it can mean seafood, steak, Chinese or sushi. It can be in the morning, the middle of the afternoon, or well into the evening. Brunch is no longer just a fusion meal; it's a culture. And as with many aspects of life here, that culture is laced with opulence, indulgence and generous hospitality. Every Friday and some Saturdays, restaurants across the country transform into lavish banquet halls, with cuisines from around the world, offering enough food to leave even the most ravenous of diners bursting at the seams.
As Andre Gerschel, director of operations at Baker & Spice, says: “Brunch has become more of a daytime party than the leisurely late breakfast it is elsewhere.” Mathias Piras, Middle East operations manager at Coya, adds: “It is different, but that’s good – it suits the lifestyle here. In the UK, for example, brunch is not this free pouring; you maybe get one welcome drink. Here you have refreshments throughout and you’re served foods you may not have with a regular meal, and that makes guests feels special. Then there are the entertainment options. Coya, for example, has a live band for its Abu Dhabi brunch and a DJ in Dubai.”
It's obviously a formula that's working. The appetite for brunch is strong. A quick glance at Google Trends shows that, since its records began in 2004, brunch-related searches in the UAE have more than quadrupled, peaking in late 2018, at a time when more eateries than ever were offering brunch.
Boycott brunch then buckle under the pressure
Then there was the arrival of the London Project at Bluewaters Dubai, which initially planned to boycott brunch altogether. "At the London Project, we like to look at everything differently and we believe there are enough venues in Dubai catering to the brunch crowd from all types of cuisines and every type of budget," the restaurant's founder Stephen Valentino told The National at the end of 2018. Yet, fast-forward six months, and the restaurant is already on its second iteration of a Friday brunch offering.
So, what is it about brunch that makes even resistant restaurants bow to the pressure? “Brunch will always stay in fashion, no matter what,” says top UAE chef Reif Othman, who has run kitchens everywhere from Zuma to Play. “It is a bruncher’s paradise here. With too many places offering brunch, guests are spoilt for choice. It’s a good way to socialise, and you get a selection of food and beverage packages that are great value for money.” He does admit, though, that the disadvantages of such a meal are “not knowing if the food is fresh or it’s been prepped one or even two days in advance.
Further, all those buffet-style brunches come at a cost. Across the UAE, each individual wastes 197 kilograms of food a year, according to a report released this year by Dubai Industrial Park and The Economist Intelligence Unit. The largest chunk of that, the research says, comes from the hospitality industry. And in 2019 – in a world where food waste looms heavily on the global agenda – can unrestrained brunches really go on as they are?
Now's the time for conscientious consumption
Fortunately, a glimmer of change is on the horizon. A handful of restaurants are beginning to regain control of the unstoppable brunch beast, taming unruly portions and reining in bulging variety to curate a slimmed-down offering that takes things back to quality, not quantity. The words "a la carte" are becoming better acquainted with brunch menus, and it's a change that is also going down well with diners.
"The lavish displays of food at brunches, especially buffet concepts, can result in increasing amounts of food waste," says Rupesh Shetty, general manager of Hakkasan Dubai at Atlantis, The Palm, which launched its first Friday brunch earlier this year. "We have taken the decision to move forward with a table-service approach, in order to reduce the food going to waste and to enhance the guest experience." The Hakkasan team also want to put conversation back on the table, allowing guests to sit back and enjoy each other's company, rather than wasting time browsing the buffet table. "We have received an extremely positive response," Shetty says. "The quality of food paired with a sustainability effort has been a success."
Likewise, Coya offers a buffet-style section only for its appetisers; the rest of the food is prepared upon order. "People tend to eat more of the starters at brunch," says Piras. "For those who want mains, they will be freshly prepared and served to the table, so you don't have to stand back up to pick up your food. In this way we kill two birds with one stone – we reduce waste and ensure quality.
“A brunch should not be taken lightly, as it is sometimes,” he adds. “It’s important to choose the right products, and not to cut corners when it comes to quality – otherwise there is a risk of losing what’s good about brunch. If you’re getting a buy one, get one free meal, it’s a question mark. If a restaurant can have such a good deal with so much food and drink, logically something is missing.”
In the past 12 months, more and more brunches have been opting to change up the traditional buffet format the UAE has become so well known for. At the top end of the scale, The Loft at Dubai Opera seems to have hit the perfect balance when it comes to quality and quantity. The menu consists of a selection of starters and main courses served to the table, while food stations dotted around the venue offer extra side dishes, all cooked to order. Popular new brunch offerings from Mix by Alain Ducasse, Flair No 5, Seven Sisters and Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen follow a similar format, encouraging guests to order a la carte and sharing dishes.
Combating food waste
Hotels, too, are beginning to take on more responsibility, with many working with government food banks to redistribute leftovers. Meanwhile, Emaar, Majid Al Futtaim and Rotana are among the major chains to pledge to cut down on the amount of food ending up in landfill. JA Resorts and Hotels is leading the way when it comes to curbing food waste in the UAE. The group has been trialling special technology, devised by food waste prevention company Winnow, which allows it to log and weigh the food going to waste from its buffets, helping chefs to prioritise and scale back on certain dishes.
"Financially, as a business, we need to combat food waste," says Rob Cunningham, vice president of food and beverage at JA Resorts and Hotels. "Also, consumers are becoming more conscious. The reaction [to the initiative] has been very positive; it hasn't affected the choice or variety we offer at our buffets, but it means food is fresher and we can produce a sensible offering."
Winnow's technology helped JA Resorts and Hotels reduce food waste by 81 per cent during a pilot at its Jebel Ali hotel in Dubai – the equivalent of 35,000 meals. The technology also helped limit food waste at iftar buffets in Ramadan, and will be used to control brunch offerings going forward.
So is this the future of bridging the gap between the UAE's love of brunch and the indulgent habit's impact on the environment? Cunningham thinks so. "The consumers want to see environmental awareness at the forefront of operations, and the UAE is very proactive about limiting what ends up in landfill. I think more businesses will move towards similar initiatives; it's something I am seeing all over the world."
Whatever your view on brunch, we can all agree that it's a trend unlikely to go away, but one that all of us – restaurants and consumers – need to treat with an added layer of responsibility. The steps towards change are there if you look for them, perhaps marking the start of a new phase for this much-loved weekend tradition.