From veganism to going organic: How UAE restaurants are responding to the latest food trends

We look at some of the big buzzwords in food right now – and find out how restaurants in the region are responding to shifting trends

Vegan Veggie Bowl, Tom & Serg, Dubai (Courtesy: Tom & Serg) *** Local Caption ***  Vegan Veggie Bowl, Tom & Serg, Dubai.jpg
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Now and again, if a piece of my writing has angered, confused or even resonated with a reader, they feel compelled to let me know. And one in particular, a good friend of mine, wrote to me a couple of weeks ago to register his disgust at my use of what he referred to as "the Q-word" in my weekly column about getting fit.

“I refuse to knowingly enter any establishment that lists quinoa on a menu in any stripe: there are limits to my tolerance of fad-foods,” he said, I hope, in faux jest, before adding that he believed that, if we were meant to be vegetarians, “we would have three stomachs and no incisors”.

After I fired back a suitably pithy reply, his words got me thinking about the plethora of recent fad diets. Take the so-called "clean eating" movement that's wielded so much influence on people's dietary habits over most of the past decade. It's an almost cultish belief system centred around eating only pure, natural products.

One of the countless advocates of clean eating was Jordan Younger, a New York-based wellness blogger whose raw vegan diet was inspirational to her tens of thousands of loyal Instagram followers, who in turn became loyal purchasers of her cleanse programme. Known as The Blonde Vegan, she promoted a way of eating that she has long since turned her back on, having become seriously ill as a result of following her own advice. Her hair began falling out and her skin took on an orange hue thanks to all the raw sweet potato and carrots she'd been consuming in an ill-judged quest for food purity. She eventually decided to level with her followers and confess that she'd got it wrong, and you can imagine the outrage this caused.

Clean eating, despite all the medical and scientific evidence available, which debunks most of what it stands for, doesn’t show any signs of going away. At the time of writing, the hashtag #eatclean was attached to nearly 50 million Instagram posts, although there has seemingly been a shift from raw veganism to foods, including meat and dairy, that are not considered processed.

Buzzwords have a habit of creeping into the vernacular, and all of a sudden everyone is talking about the latest thing. And the one we're hearing and seeing an awful lot of right now is "wholesome". Good old, honest-to-goodness wholesome food. It's a phrase that makes many of us feel all warm inside, as though it's the best possible way to ingest anything, whether food or drink. We have an understandable yearning to find the cleanest, most wholesome way of living and, increasingly, that means organic produce that's traceable, sustainable and cruelty-free. And who doesn't want that?

'A restaurant shouldn’t change its concept to keep up with trends'

The region's restaurateurs are fighting to keep several steps ahead of the competition. That word is appearing more often on menus and promotional material for eateries around the country, although each appears to have its own interpretation. What else is doing the rounds? Vegan burgers (actually, anything vegan is now entirely fashionable, and chefs are being forced to include animal-free dishes), street food (another one that's open to interpretation, but generally the term is applied to casual dining with a rustic regional bent), edible ­insects, zero-waste cooking, as well as sustainable and traceable foodstuffs.

Chef Luca Tresoldi, of The Artisan Italian restaurant in Dubai, adds that: “This year’s trends generally fit into larger movements around healthy eating, with a greater emphasis on vegan cooking and curative foods, and concern for the planet through sustainable practices. Some items on previous years’ trend lists have gone truly mainstream: avocado toast, poke, food in bowls, fried chicken, truffles, kale, the growing acceptance of farm-raised fish, Brussel sprouts, customisable fast food and upscale vegan cooking. Consumers have an unprecedented ability to access information about products and share this information via social media, making it more challenging than ever for companies to manage messaging.” 

Wholesome food options include avocado on toast. Courtesy Comptoir 102

Naim Maadad is the chief executive of Gates Hospitality, which includes venues such as Dubai's Reform Social and Grill, the French-themed Bistro Des Arts and The Black Lion, which specialises in street eats and evening brunches. He reasons that food trends have always been around – and with more than 25 years in the industry, half of them spent in the Middle East, he's better placed than most to comment on the matter. "These are nothing new," he says, "they haven't just turned up overnight, nor are they unique to our region. But a restaurant shouldn't change its concept to keep up with trends."

Rather, he advises, it's best to embrace these culinary shifts by adding relevant dishes. "Every brand has a life cycle it goes through. It needs to invigorate, imbibe and rejuvenate itself with the times, but never lose focus on its originality and individuality," he adds. "Food trends should never overtake the concept – regular menu changes should feature it, but not encroach it totally – that way the brand doesn't lose its individuality."

'We are seeing a much larger selection of organic and sustainable produce options'

Scott Price, chef patron at the Folly by Nick & Scott restaurant in Dubai, says he’s adapted to shifting demands already. “We have 24 dishes on the current menu, seven of which are vegetarian and we have also introduced a limited vegan menu, as we have had a lot of requests. We have always made sure that we put as much time into the no-meat, no-fish dishes on our menus to give all of our guests a selection of interesting and exciting flavours to try.”

Wholesome food options include grilled Brussel sprouts. Courtesy Scott Price

And that, at the end of the day, is all most diners are keen on: a selection. It’s not much fun for non-carnivores who sit down in a fancy restaurant, open a menu and discover there’s only mushroom risotto or veggie burgers to choose from.

Sacha Daniel, group operations director at Solutions Leisure, which operates Asia Asia and The Atlantic, says the group has seen a very definite swing, with customers becoming more educated and careful in their nutritional choices. “With a closer watch on what they are eating, we are seeing a much larger selection of organic and sustainable produce options made available to consumers, including in supermarkets. In addition, restaurateurs are fast-gaining access to a wide selection of organic farms and supplies, an option that was not available to us a few years ago.”

He says that even at STK, the group's steakhouse venues in Dubai, there are vegan options creeping in. Not that vegetarianism and veganism are trends as such, but they're lifestyles that are becoming increasingly prevalent as consumer awareness increases, and if businesses – food stores and restaurants – don't adapt to these shifts, then they'll be missing out on significant revenue streams.

Daniel says that locally sourced ingredients are on the rise, too. “We have just introduced Dibba Bay oysters from Fujairah to STK. We met with the owner and did a thorough tasting, and are currently planning on a location visit with the chef to understand how the oysters are produced. Traceability is extremely important.” He cautions, however, that as with all trends, there is often an increase in prices as demand goes up. “If you want to eat healthy, it costs more.”

But more and more consumers are ­adapting to the idea that health is more important than wealth, and are able to justify the extra spend because of long-term effects. Food fads have come and gone, some are still with us – for every fondue craze there's an Atkins diet, for every plan-based exponent there's a low-carb, meat-heavy regime, each with their devoted armies of followers. Still it's heartening to note that, when we decide to dine out, the choices available to us are becoming ever wider.