Life in Dubai: Lofty ambitions, fine dining
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Life in Dubai: Lofty ambitions, fine dining

THERE are plenty of international cities out there pulsing with commercial opportunities and home to thriving expat communities. However, few are as audacious as Dubai when it comes to pushing boundaries and setting new limits.

If it isn’t flashy and flamboyant, then it isn’t worth doing in Dubai. This is an unabashedly materialistic city, where the biggest celebration of the year is a no-holds-barred shopping festival (the world-famous DSF). And since the unveiling of Burj Khalifa, Dubai literally stands taller than any other city on earth. Likewise, developers aren’t content with building posh residential estates on the mainland – they create islands in the shapes palm trees or even continents to hold them.

With that in mind, the thriving expat community based here includes some of the world’s wealthiest citizens, and they have grown accustomed to the glitz and one-upmanship that have made Dubai famous. They browse top designer brands in the Mall of the Emirates, dine in restaurants owned and operated by celebrity chefs and party in the hottest nightclubs in the Middle East.

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A waitress serves snacks at At.mosphere, the world's highest restaurant in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Pic: AP.

The dining scene is a particularly dynamic sector of life in Dubai. Just a few years ago, food and service quality lagged behind the city’s other commercial offerings. But as the expat community grew, so did demand for high-quality, international cuisine. This city is not in the habit of turning away well-meaning big spenders. If residents wanted better dining options, they would have it – and in short order, at that.

The good news for hotels, restaurants and patrons is that Dubai’s lenient immigration laws means that the best chefs from all over the world can work here.

“We benefit from the immigration policies of the region, which allow us to recruit colleagues from all over the world,” says Executive Chef Mike Borsdorf, of the Grand Hyatt Dubai.

The downside, he says, is that hanging on to highly trained employees is a challenge, as working in Dubai opens up substantial career opportunities around the world. This, in turn, is good news for culinary students in Dubai. For chefs like Borsdorf, the challenge is retaining those fresh graduates that they train.

“I personally would love to see more local nationals approach us and consider making a career in culinary operations,” he says.

Fine dining in the desert
Located on Jumeirah Beach, the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina is one of Dubai’s most talked-about places to stay. Its set of cafés, cocktail lounges and fine dining restaurants play regular host to Dubai’s wealthy and well-connected socialites. Executive Chef Stephane Buccholzer cites a 500 percent increase in food quality in Dubai over the past five years.

“Dubai is still a growing market in terms of the food industry,” he says. “Customers are more demanding and are looking for better quality and service.”

That, combined with this city’s drive for breaking records and reaching new heights, presents fantastic opportunities for up-and-coming culinary students. Buccholzer says that “innovation and creativity [in the Dubai culinary scene] are beyond what you can imagine. Anything is possible, and novelty comes into play on a daily basis, but the key to success isn’t to make it overly complicated, as you will scare or confuse your clientele.”

He has a point. In a city where proprietors will line up thousands of sandwiches just to get some publicity, the urge to stand out can easily go too far. Buccholzer’s solution: “Recreate simplicity.”

He adds: “Today’s customers are looking for high-end, laid-back quality. They aren’t interested in stuffy fine dining or an overly complicated experience. Instead, they want a quality product prepared perfectly with decent service. They are ready to pay for quality, but they aren’t interested in cheap, average or overpriced lengthy meals.”

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Pic: ICCA Dubai.

Heartfelt hospitality
This five-star culinary explosion has also caught the eye of students across Asia. An increasing number are showing up to learn the culinary arts under world-renown chefs. They learn their knife skills in local culinary schools, then intern in some of the most famous restaurants in the world. For these students, learning the culinary arts in Dubai puts them on the fast track to a dynamic career. Graduates are routinely picked up by local hotels and restaurants where they gain essential experience.

This opens doors to restaurants anywhere in the world and presents interns and graduates with unrivaled opportunities.

“Fresh graduates have a wide range of opportunities and choices of segments, as the trend in this industry is for people to always try and do better than others, or even better than they did yesterday. Inventions are limitless,” says Emiliano Bernasconi, Executive Chef at the Armani Hotel Dubai. He also points to the sheer number of restaurants in Dubai, opening up great career opportunities for chefs.

Bernasconi is in peak form when talks about the role that the heart plays in his industry. “Learn as much as you can about the technical [aspects of the culinary arts], but you can only get better by learning about other people. Students need to prepare so that they are ready to serve people, ready to host people. The key to hospitality is the people, not the building or any other physical factors. The feeling that you give to other people is the most important thing.”

These are particularly insightful, grounded words, considering that they come from the chef that oversees the At.mosphere, the highest restaurant in the world (perched high in the Burj Khalifa).

ICCA Dubai
Dubai is clearly trending toward becoming one of the world’s preeminent fine dining destinations. At the same time, it is also emerging as one the leading places for culinary students to learn alongside leading chefs. The International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA) is a leader in this department, offering students an integrated approach to chef training that sees them spending significant time outside the classroom in real working kitchens learning management skills and production techniques.

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Culinary students at ICCA Dubai. Pic: ICCA Dubai.

For many culinary arts students, the chance to learn in Dubai is all about getting out on the floor in real five-star restaurants and working under the supervision of leading chefs. ICCA’s Work Experience Placement Program offers just that. It is a one-year program that places students in paid positions across a network of Dubai’s leading restaurants. These are located in some of the finest luxury hotels in the world. Needless to say, graduating from a one-year program with endorsements from these restaurants and chefs puts ICCA graduates well ahead of the pack.

Emiliano Bernasconi has plenty of good things to say about value of this learning approach. “When students fail to follow instructions or a recipe in school, there are not many consequences. But during an internship, they will realize that every failure has a big impact on hotel and restaurant operations,” he says. But he is quick to point out that failure is really just postponed success. He likens it to getting lost on the road. “You’re not really lost; you’re just exploring a new route.”

Beyond its mainstream chef training courses, ICCA also offers a range of other culinary programs. These include courses for serious amateurs who want to hone their culinary skills, as well as life style classes for those who want to improve their skills in the kitchen.

Competitive drive
Much of Dubai’s growth in the culinary sector can be attributed to the city’s competitive spirit. Max Venturelli, executive chef of the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa says that, “Guests are nowadays travelling more often and to different destinations. Customers have higher expectations, and this creates a new sense of competition amongst us chefs.” He emphasizes the perks that diners enjoy when chefs compete. “This is actually very positive, as I notice the presence of new food items now available in the market … [G]reat new cooking techniques are now bringing different perspectives to the culinary world.”

World records are broken here on a regular basis, with some of the most outlandish happening on the front lines of the hospitality and tourism industry. Just consider the Burj Khalifa (aka Burj Dubai), currently the world’s tallest building at 828 meters. Even the spectacular fountains fronting this building are record holders, designed by the same team that brought the world the famous Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.

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Pic: AP.

The list of records goes on in this superlative city. The Dubai Mall is the biggest in the world in terms of area, and inside this sprawling commercial complex is the world’s biggest aquarium. Dubai also unofficially introduced the world’s only seven-star hotel. The hoteliers at the Burj Al Arab downplay this notion (since no such rating actually exists). All the same, it has caught on in tourism circles. The point is clear: for service and facilities that exceed all expectation, no one can compete with Dubai.

There’s no doubt that the competitive spirit in this city is contagious, and the residents and tourists reap all the rewards. Diners have exponentially more options than ever before, as executive chefs constantly work to attract and delight the discerning clientele who frequent their restaurants. This drive has fundamentally transformed the face of dining in Dubai. The fact all this came to pass in just a few short years is probably a record in itself.