How is anyone supposed to find a decent restaurant these days? Chefs are “handing back” Michelin stars in rejection of the fussy service its inspectors insist upon; most food bloggers will say anything for a free meal; and it was recently revealed that up to a third of TripAdvisor reviews are fake.
Even restaurant critics are a jaded bunch, admits Giles Coren, who at 49 is one of United Kingdom’s youngest. “I’ve felt since I started, that restaurant criticism is in a bit of a rut,” he says. “Some people, naming no names, will actually complain about the acoustics. It’s all sort of [adopts pompous voice]: ‘Delicious veal but I couldn’t hear myself think because there was no carpet’.”
It is this sort of stuffiness that Coren is hoping to undermine with Truth, Love and Clean Cutlery, a guide to the best ethical and sustainable food experiences in 45 countries, which launches on November 1. Along with the respected food editor Jill Dupleix and a team of local editors, he has listed restaurants that not only serve great food, but think about their wider impact on the world.
“There are lots of different elements to the criteria for these restaurants,” explains food writer and Foodiva founder Samantha Wood, who edited the UAE section of the guide. “Outstanding food, also quality of service and atmosphere, and then there’s sustainability, caring for the environment, taking care of their own people and what they are doing for the local community.”
"Not the sort of thing that's at the front of Gordon Ramsay's mind when he opens 45 restaurants wherever," quips Coren. But it is notable that in a scene dominated by hotel restaurants and celebrity chefs, the five UAE eateries that made the cut for Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery are all home-grown concepts.
Of these, Wood believes, Baker & Spice has been the most influential. “They are very much the pioneers here when it comes to local, organically sourced produce,” she says.
That was thanks to the vision of Yael Mejia, who founded the cafe chain in 2009. “She was one of the first people to say: ‘Not only are we going to buy local, but we’re going to encourage farmers to grow more. If the fish doesn’t come from the Arabian Sea, we’re not going to be using it’,” explains brand director Andre Gerschel, who took the reins when Mejia retired two years ago.
This conscious approach can be seen in every detail of the Baker & Spice operation, from the filtered water guests drink down to the reclaimed-wood tables at which they sit. But that still wasn’t enough for Mejia, who established the first farmers’ market in the emirates seven years ago. “The idea was mainly to educate people that there’s a lot of good work in vegetables and farming right here in the UAE,” explains Gerschel. “People perceive it to be a desert, but it’s actually quite humid, with plenty of arable land.”
According to Wood, the non-profit farmers’ market has transformed the restaurant scene. “They bring in all the different farms, so there are fruit and vegetables, chicken and eggs, but also cheesemakers, honey producers – a nice range of produce. As a result, not only does the general public go there, but chefs will go as well and take on that supply directly for their restaurants.”
BB Social Dining is certainly making good use of local growers, listing among its suppliers Badia Farms, a horizontal farming enterprise (“It has to do with hydroponics,” explains Wood). Dishes include a hyper-trendy vegan bao bun stuffed with braised jackfruit and tempura vegetables, and reusable takeaway boxes are coming soon.
Meanwhile the TL&CC entry for Boca, a Mediterranean tapas restaurant in DIFC, notes that its head chef limits the quantities he buys, preferring to sell out of certain dishes rather than waste anything. Also selected are 3 Fils, a Singaporean and Emirati owned modern Asian restaurant that donates food packages to labour camps during Ramadan and is committed to minimising food waste. "They are one of the few restaurants here that will buy a whole tuna and use that whole tuna," says Wood. Folly, meanwhile, is a highly creative modern European in Souk Madinat that offers plenty of choice for vegans and vegetarians among its "pick and mix" dishes.
For Wood, all five show how the Dubai dining scene is beginning to mature. “I’m very passionate about supporting concepts that are home-grown. We have a lot of celebrity chef concepts here, but what we’re now seeing is a move away from them towards concepts that are actually developed here.”
While Wood admits that she “struggled” to find suitable restaurants in the other emirates, she is optimistic that the guide itself may bring about further change. “Books like this are a great idea because obviously when it comes out people will think: ‘OK, why didn’t I make the cut?’”
The world edition is joined by simultaneous editions published in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, and Wood is hopeful that in years to come, there could be a stand-alone UAE guide. Certainly, the appetite is there among consumers, suggests Baker & Spice’s Gerschel. “People are much more conscious of what they’re buying. It’s not just about one-use plastics, ingredient transparency has become more of an issue – I do think people ask more.”
“Millennials have made restaurants different,” agrees Coren, who has seen the silver service and snooty waiters of old replaced by a simpler, street-food influenced style. “Of course, the old people who don’t recycle and drive awful cars can keep carrying the Michelin guide around. But for the rest of us, this is the only way a restaurant guide could be now.”