A chef in a turban making pizza for a crowd of kids and parents smack in the middle of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair? When I stumbled into the show kitchen at last year's fair, I was surprised. And pleased. Well, sure, I thought, as I sat down next to a grinning mum with two little boys, who looked as if they could barely believe their luck. Cooks and books: a natural fit. "One of our main aims is to bring publishing professionals from different countries together and encourage business as well as cultural exchange," says Claudia Hanauer, a programme manager for Kitab, the joint project of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
"What could promote this better than cooking and cookbooks? Talking about food means talking about one's culture, which means hospitality - to sit together at a table and eat is a great starting point for understanding and collaboration." This year, the second for the show kitchen, there are even more starting points: nine chefs doing 27 presentations over six days in the book fair's professionally outfitted, working kitchen. And talk about cultural exchange: there's Arabic cooking with television's Suzanne Husseini, Jessie Kirkness Parker (A Taste of Arabia), and Bahrain's Mona al Hassan; Malaysian cuisine with Chef Wan and vegetarian fare via Gabriele Kurz (from Magnolia at Dubai's Al Quasr).
Then there is Chef Chakall from Portugal and Argentina; Salma Hussain, a specialist in Mughal cooking; James McIntosh, the London home economist and food blogger, and Yasmine Olsson, who brings her version of light cooking from Iceland. A special two-hour show called Taste of Ambassadors features the cooking talents of the Turkish, Argentine and Swiss ambassadors to the UAE, with the UN's representative serving as sous chef.
While the offerings are international, great efforts have been made by the organisers to "think local". Husseini is from Dubai, Parker lives in Abu Dhabi and many of the sous chefs working the various events in this year's kitchen are from the region. "We invited chefs from Abu Dhabi and Dubai hotels to show what is cooking in local pots," Hanauer says. "It makes the fair belong to us." The pots are bubbling and simmering with new dishes this year. "We can't do long recipes, obviously," explains Monika Krauss, Kitab's general manager. "Our chefs make recipes you'd want to try at home, something for the senses.
"And again this year, there's something for kids: six morning sessions with special tables at which to work. The show kitchen is something fun in the centre of the fair. It's the hub. You come for the cooking shows, but then you stay and browse, end up buying a book or two, listening to an author. It's like a domino effect." Whether it's art or business or cooking that's being showcased, "there must always be a bridge to books", Krauss says. This year the show kitchen is flanked by an exhibition displaying 650 books from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (just held in Paris) and a cookbook store run by a local bookseller.
"We want people to be able to take a little bit of the chefs home with them this year," Krauss says. Chakall was a presenter some of last year's attendees might have liked to take home as a personal chef. "Chef Chakall could not only cook divinely, [he also did] magic tricks, making the salt vanish and telling jokes in half a dozen languages," says Alexandra Bueltemeier, the head of programmes for Kitab, who organised last year's kitchen.
Chakall is thrilled to be back in Abu Dhabi for this year's fair. "It was great!" he said last week by phone from his home in Lisbon, where he writes cookbooks and hosts a television show. "I found people very receptive. I could have fun with them, keeping in mind always the cultural sensitivities." Although not Arab, he lived for eight years with a Lebanese family in his native Argentina. "I feel quite at home in the Middle East," Chakall says. "I very much love the food, the hospitality and the language."
At the show kitchen last year, Chakall wove Arabic into his Spanish-accented English, saying he believed "speaking the language is a way of showing respect to a culture". Will he be cooking Arabic food this year? "I don't know what I'm doing this year," he laughs. "I do 150 live cooking shows a year - in English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. I buy all the ingredients myself, but don't do prep beforehand. That's what I like: the spontaneity."
No wonder Chakall, with his trademark turban, is such a crowd-pleaser. "If a chef is ego-driven, people will run. I try to bring the kitchen down to earth. There are no tricks, no secrets," he says. "If you get famous as a chef, lovely, but it's luck as much as anything." And while the former journalist loves to cook, he's interested in many other things besides food. He brings (and plays) his own music to cooking shows. "And sometimes," he says, "I dance."
Husseini may not dance while dicing tomatoes or sautéing garlic, but she does bring cooking firmly back to earth. "I make food as it should be: not fancy-shmancy, but cooker-friendly." Husseini, who calls herself "a Canadian-Arabian", grew up in Ottawa. She inherited her love of Arabic cooking from her Palestinian mother. "This is my passion, my heritage and my comfort, and I'm proud of it." Husseini, who has lived in Dubai for the past decade, hosted the most popular cooking show on the Fatafeat channel until recently. "I've always cooked and I've always been a teacher. Give me an audience and I'll teach," says Husseini, whose first cookbook, Everyday Arabic, will be published by Motivate Publishing this spring.
"Do you think every Arab woman is born with a spoon in her hand? Nah! Why assume that everyone knows how to make hummus? We're not all born cooks." But, she believes, we can all become cooks. "Food gives so much pleasure. It's the one universal. Food connects you with memory. The best meal you probably ever had was at your mother's table. It's the food you long for. When I demonstrate a dish, hopefully I'll remind you of your own traditions. You're going to get up off the couch and go into the kitchen and cook."
Her own tradition, she believes, is not celebrated nearly enough. "The TV chefs on Arabic TV are always making something with a béchamel sauce. But, hello! Why don't we dig into our treasure chest?" Believing Arabic cooking has fallen into a rut - "I've had it up to here with mezze," she jokes - Husseini wants to give people "a taste of our huge, wonderful, diverse cuisine". "Huge, wonderful, diverse" nicely describes the experience in store for audiences at this year's show kitchen, which was built in a warehouse in Musaffah long before the show's start date.
"The physical work is mainly done by the technicians and stand builders, with sponsors bringing in the ovens, steamers and mixers later," Hanauer said when it was being built. The team then had just 72 hours to build the show kitchen - in fact, the entire book fair - at Adnec before yesterday's launch. "We start from the bottom up." Sounds a lot like cooking. For more information about the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, visit www.adbookfair.com . Go to programmes and then to cooking shows for the complete show kitchen schedule.