It's the faint yet undeniable aroma of woodsmoke, along with a chorus of goat-like bleats and the tinny squawk of a chicken or two, that offers the first indication that there's something ever so slightly unusual going on behind the gates of Hattem Mattar's villa in Al Barsha, Dubai.
Past the gates is an urban smallholding and a real sense of rural life, thanks to the vegetable patch, chicken and rabbit runs, resident goats and grassy thatches. A pile of logs, a smoke pit and two barbecues, meanwhile, allude to the fact that this is where the Mattar Farm Kitchen came into being. The restaurant is a home-grown, family-run smokehouse, specialising in handcrafted Texan-style barbecue meat (primarily brisket), cooked low and slow, until tender, melting and delicious.
An early interest in cooking
Mattar, who is of Canadian, Egyptian and Emirati heritage, grew up in the UAE with stints of his childhood and adolescence spent in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait. Despite being at the helm of the Mattar Farm Kitchen, he admits that he is not a professionally trained chef.
“When I went away to university, I remember being at the airport in Dubai and telling my mum, who made the most amazing Egyptian soul food: ‘I can’t wait to eat what I want, when I want,’” he says. “Three weeks later, I called her up telling her how much I missed her meals and asked her to teach me everything she knew.”
While his true interest in cooking came later, as a teenager, Mattar already had an enterprising nature. At high school, he was the proud peddler behind Dubai's first hot-dog concession stand. "Every week, people would gather at the old softball diamond to play baseball or softball, but there was nothing to eat. So I got permission from the municipality to set up my stand and sold hot dogs, Coca-Cola and my mum's marinated chicken sandwiches. That season, I made enough money to buy a scooter and a Hugo Boss suit."
Finding his passion
It wasn't until relatively recently, though, that Mattar discovered barbecue cooking was where his true food passion lay. "As an Arab man, you have to know your way around a grill, but it was only about five years ago, when I won a competition run by Weber Grills, that things really started to happen," he explains. By coincidence, around the same time as his competition victory, Mattar found himself in Houston, Texas, where he tried authentic barbecued brisket for the first time. "It was incredible," he recalls. "I kept going back to this one smokehouse. At the end of the trip, I begged them to let me buy a whole brisket, and I took it back to Dubai with me, frozen and vacuum-packed in my suitcase."
Fast-forward a few months, and after several more visits back and forth to the United States (complete with accompanying cases of smoked meat), Mattar decided this was something he needed to learn to cook himself. He went straight to a man at the top of the brisket game: Bryan Bracewell, a third-generation pitmaster and owner of Southside Market & Barbecue, the oldest smokehouse in Texas.
“To my surprise, Bryan agreed to let me apprentice under him. I had a full-time job at the time, a family and responsibilities, but this was just something I felt I had to do,” Mattar explains. “I remember I asked Bryan how long it would take to learn the craft, and he just replied: ‘You asked to be an apprentice – I’ll tell you when you’re done.’”
A learning experience
The experience was immersive, involved 5am starts and 2am finishes, and saw Mattar perpetually swathed in a fug of smoke (“You can’t get rid of the smell even if you shower – you’re pretty much sweating smoke,” he says). As well as giving him unrivalled insight into the art of smokehouse cooking, the experience was a humbling, life-changing one.
“I’m Arab and I look Arab. Politically, things weren’t great at the time, and this wasn’t cosmopolitan Houston, it was a little Texan backwater, but I was never made to feel anything but welcome. The only thing I have in common with the guys from the smokehouse is that we cooked together, but I still go and see them every time I’m in Texas, and they introduce me to people as their friend from Egypt.”
Finally, in a movie-like scene, Mattar recalls how one day Bracewell told him that his work was done and he knew enough about American barbecue cooking to venture out on his own. "When I was leaving, he hugged me goodbye and I told him that when I opened my own smokehouse it would give me the greatest pleasure for him to visit. He patted me on the back and said: 'You might just be the first Arab pitmaster.'"
Return to Dubai
Those words stuck, and Mattar returned to Dubai on a mission, seeking out wood suppliers, proper charcoal, and butchers or producers who could get him the right cut and quality of beef. He then set about grilling hundreds of kilos of meat on his small Weber Bullet barbecue in the pursuit of brisket perfection. “It took me a long time to get to the point where I was replicating what we’d made in the smokehouse. Every week I’d feed my friends, and while they’d happily eat the food, they weren’t blown away by it, so I kept going,” he remembers. “I had two freezers full of meat at one point, and there was no commercial objective behind what I was doing, I was just so involved in the idea.”
Gradually, things started to fall into place and Mattar realised he could really be on to something when each weekend more and more people – friends of friends, friends of friends of friends and comparative strangers – began to descend on his garden parties in search of what was becoming known as Mattar Farm meat.
“At this point it wasn’t just Texan food we were making; we were putting our own spin on it, using my mother’s spices and my father’s culinary ingenuity. Things gathered enough momentum that people started telling me I should open as a business,” he says.
While the process of officially setting up and registering the business, and getting municipality approval to trade, was an "arduous" one, it proved fruitful in the end. The financial backing, which took the idea from dream to reality, was secured via a handshake after his investors tasted the brisket for the first time – no Excel sheet or business plan required.
Finding success in the end
A year or so on, and the Mattar Farm Kitchen is, by all accounts, going from strength to strength. The company’s custom-built commercial smoker is capable of cooking a metric tonne of meat at a time (the trusty original Webber Bullet is still around, but doesn’t have to work as hard these days). Brisket is their bread and butter, but the chefs now also barbecue chicken, turkey, lamb, sausages and ribs. Mattar concedes that the labour-intensive experiment of smoking a whole camel is likely to be a one-off.
Online delivery orders are booming, and the kitchen has catered for parties, awards ceremonies, dignitaries and for private-jet passengers. It also has several collaborations with high-end UAE restaurants lined up for this year and plans to expand Mena-wide.
Reflecting on the past few years, Mattar says that while he's wary of resorting to cliches, he feels blessed to be doing something he loves. "We've had such an amazing reception, and I don't think that's just because we're a smokehouse," he says. "We're a third-culture kitchen, situated in the UAE, using a technique that has its roots in the American South, but is infused with local spices. The Mattar Farm was originally created to feed the Mattar family, and we still run things the same way. It's just that now, that family has grown."