The people, places, flavours and trends that have played a role in making Dubai a dazzling dining destination.
It’s an oft-repeated statement: what has taken other places decades, Dubai achieved in record speed. And the food industry is certainly no exception. In the past few years alone, hardworking chefs and restaurateurs have built a reputation for the city as one of the world’s leading gastronomic destinations, making it home to some of the world’s finest restaurants.
But where did it all begin?
Right by the Dubai Creek, apparently. Uwe Micheel, one of Dubai’s most respected culinary personalities came here in 1993 to open the first European-style fine dining restaurant, Le Ciel, in the then-InterContinental Hotel (now Radisson Dubai Creek) and brought his Michelin-star pedigree to the city. Soon after the debut of the French concept, the first high-end Japanese restaurant opened in the same hotel, triggering a fondness for contemporary Japanese that has yet to slow down.
Chef Uwe has been energetically championing Dubai as a culinary hub ever since he made it his home, and is a long-standing president of the Emirates Culinary Guild.
“Back then, we used to go to cities like Hong Kong or New York for inspiration. Now people are coming here to learn,” he says.
Since the early 1990s, the opening of more and more five-star hotels was accompanied by an increasing number of upscale restaurants, bringing variety, diversity and quality to the city’s culinary offerings.
But it was in 2001, when British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay opened his first international restaurant at the Hilton Dubai Creek, that the city was placed emphatically on the global map. Though Verre closed in 2011, Ramsay has returned to the city with Bread Street Kitchen, and his legacy continues to inspire a spate of top chefs from around the world to open restaurants in the city.
Blue-chip restaurants, such as Zuma, La Petite Maison, Jason Atherton’s Marina Social, Coya and Hakkasan, are just a few of the buzzing, internationally acclaimed venues worth getting on a plane for.
Meeting a need for a growing industry, the first professional culinary institute – the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA) – opened in 2005. Though he prefers to stay behind the scenes, the school’s unassuming director Sunjeh Raja may be one of the most influential people in the industry, guiding new generations of chefs through his curriculum.
Building on this momentum, the growth in Dubai’s food scene has been at its most dynamic in the past five years or so, with seismic shifts taking place in the landscape and its offerings.
Certain areas in the newer part of town have emerged as culinary hotspots, offering a counterpoint to the atmospheric older parts of town such as Deira and Bur Dubai. These include Downtown Dubai, DIFC (the home of high-end dining), Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach Residence and Jumeirah Lakes Towers (where many small independent restaurants can be found).
One of the most important trends is the growth of everything “homegrown”, and a burgeoning sustainability movement that has brought seasonal, local, and organic offerings to grocery stores and restaurant alike. Against the grain of international chef offerings and popular global chains, a new breed of creative, original, born-in-Dubai concepts has popped up around the city.
From the influence of Australian Tom Arnel and his Spanish partner Sergio Lopez, who between them created a hipster café culture in the desert, to the outdoor farmers’ markets that crop up in the cooler winter months, the drive for fresh, ethical eating has captured an audience in Dubai.
Key in bringing Dubai’s vibrant culinary culture to life are the annual food festivals. The first Taste of Dubai was held in 2005, while the inaugural Dubai Food Festival in 2014 took things to the next level by bringing a greater array of foodie events under one inclusive umbrella, and introducing creative new concepts to the city’s calendar. Today, as more innovative experiences (sky-high dining, anyone?) pop-ups, markets, and star chefs continue to make Dubai their home, things look set to only become bigger, better and tastier.
From celebrity chefs to affordable eats, Dubai is a foodie's paradise. Don't miss the 2020 edition of the Dubai Food Festival, which takes place from 26 February to 14 March.