Greasy chicken wings and limp burgers are a thing of the past as American Cuisine undergoes a glamorous makeover. Catering News investigates.
How popular is American cuisine in the Middle East?
Andreas Haugg, executive chef, Ted’s American Diner, Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara: Doha is growing at a rapid pace and the city has a multinational population. The demand for American-style food is growing, with large franchised restaurants having been around for a long time, and with more on the way. What seems to becoming more trendy are the 1950s and 1960s style American diners. People get excited about listening to rock n’ roll music and seeing collectables from that era.
Matthew Dahlkemper, executive chef, Firebird Diner by Michael Mina, Four Seasons Hotel DIFC, Dubai: It is becoming increasing popular, with the trend of the moment really focused on shakes and burgers, however, I don’t think it is fully understood. American food triggers a feeling of comfort for most but internationally, Americans are often known for hamburgers, when there is so much more to it. American cuisine is extremely regional and I would love to see more of that understanding. For instance, the delicious lobster tails from Maine, New England are on our menu, and they are a real must-try item.
Debrup Mitra, executive chef, JW’s Steakhouse, JW Marriott Hotel Dubai: Most people think of fast food like burgers and sliders, hot dogs, chicken wings, fried chicken, corn on the cob, various kinds of popcorn and potato fries when they think of American food and this type of food is extremely popular among children and teenagers in Dubai. Tex- Mex cuisine, which is a mixture of Texan and Mexican cuisine, and mainly includes nachos and salsa, quesadillas, buffalo chicken wings, batter fried calamari and shrimps, are also believed to be a part of American cuisine and these things have gained immense popularity over the years.
Grant Ballinger, chef de cuisine, Market Kitchen, Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi: There are few upscale American restaurants in UAE. I think it’s a misconception that all American cuisine is fast food and steakhouses. American cuisine still needs to find its deserved place in the Middle East, and thanks to restaurants like Market Kitchen, people have started realising that there is a lot to discover when it comes to American cuisine.
Have you adapted American food to suit local tastes?
Andreas: We have created a lamb kofta burger. We freshly bake our burger buns every day using zaatar in the dough, the sauce is made with laban, and the burger patty has Middle Eastern secret spices to make the perfect Ara-American burger.
Matt: We want to cook authentic American food while catering to the needs and wants of our local clients, so we have taken the decision to create authentic American recipes, cooked as they would be back home. People seem to be less adventurous with certain foods, but I have no problem with pushing the envelope.
Debrup: We haven’t altered any traditional American tastes to suit the local palette. In fact, American tastes are well accepted in this region and people love the unique smoky, barbeque flavours.
Grant: We are always trying to adapt local flavours into our cuisine, for example the sautéed shrimps served local yoghurt labneh has been a success among our clientele. Furthermore, for iftar during Ramadan 2016, we are featuring Market Kitchen signature dishes with Arabic influences. For example, in the iftar menu, we have shorts ribs mixed with local hummus and our signature dessert, salted caramel sundae mixed with hallawa.
What are the key trends emerging in American food?
Andreas: Wood-smoked meats are definitely something hot off the grill at the moment.
Matt: I see American food chains wherever I go here in Dubai. I can’t speak for the rest of the region, but people seem to really enjoy quick-service concepts.
Debrup: American beef is gaining popularity at steakhouses. Beef is emerging as a celebration protein and although people talk about not eating too much red meat, when it comes to a good quality steak most guests can’t resist. Amongst the American range of beef available in the market, the certified Angus beef is superior.
Grant: We are seeing more and more diner concepts in the UAE. The trend is to take the customer on a journey, not only with the food, but through décor and atmosphere. Also, the business lunch or express lunch is popular. You find a lot of restaurants adopting this concept to cater to busy executives.
Where do you source produce for your menu?
Andreas: We get our items from specialty suppliers in Doha.
Matt: Our produce comes from all over the world. Local produce exists, but it is not always the quality we are looking for during certain times of the year. I try to focus on regions and seasonality in parts of the world where I know it is strong.
Debrup: The prime ingredients are from the USA and we have our local suppliers import these items for us. Our American meat supplier is FANTCO, based in Dubai. We also source from Chef Middle East and MH Enterprise, which deliver most of the dry products among other ingredients.
Grant: We work mainly with local suppliers, all of whom are based in the Middle East Region. We believe in the quality and freshness of local produce.
What products do you find challenging to source?
Andreas: It is challenging to import products that are not readily available in the local market. As Ted’s serves top quality food, we want to source authentic American products.
Matt: American beef is a luxury here. It takes me a few weeks to get it, but it is so worth it. A lot of vendors say they sell American beef, but it is commodity boxed beef, which is something I would expect to see in your average supermarket back home. Fortunately, I have found a good line on Creekstone Ranch, which is a relief.
Debrup: There are no challenges in sourcing good products here in Dubai. Our suppliers have good connections and networks and most of the ingredients are always available. At times, halal certification on specific products or brands could be challenging, but we do get alternative brands with the necessary certifications.
Grant: Seafood it’s still a challenge as we are always seeking freshness and quality. However, we are in collaboration with some great suppliers who support our choices and help us to provide the best quality food to our customers.
How do you see your menu evolving over the next 12 months?
Andreas: We are focused on regionalised American state cuisine, for example Texas BBQ southern fried chicken.
Matt: We are trying to find new ways to elevate the food while staying true to our core values and cuisine. My goal is to educate people on how much more there is to American food, despite the bad reputation fast food has given us. We will try a lot of things over the course of the year. Even after just two months of operations we have changed things drastically. I can only imagine where we will be in 2017.
Debrup: Menus need to be changed regularly so we study the market and competitors in terms of pricing and menu variety. Every restaurant has its own set of core dishes and if we ensure these are maintained well, customers will come back for them. At JW’s Steakhouse we do have a lot of these signature dishes. Even if we change our menus and refresh the offerings, some of these core popular dishes are still available for our guests. Our menus have a section featuring the steak of the month and daily specials. If there is something interesting in the market, for example during a certain season, we’ll trial it first in these sections before putting it on the main menu.
Grant: Our menu is designed according to the seasons, so we change it four times a year. This October we are looking to go back to our roots in Market Kitchen and celebrate the dishes from the heart-land of Texas.
What is the future for American food in the region?
Andreas: Healthification of fast food has arrived because consumers are demanding to know what is in the food they are eating. Higher quality meat, organic products and healthier options will be in the minds of chefs.
Matt: I believe American food will continue to grow, not only in the Middle East, but globally. Hopefully places like Firebird can illustrate a better, more refined approach to what is perceived as American food globally.
Debrup: American food is changing from fast food to a more refined meal. I feel that burgers will change to steaks and healthier American corn-fed fried chicken could replace fried chicken. Children are developing healthier eating habits, and the new generation will influence the development of American fast food.
Grant: American food needs to move away from its image of being junk food or fast food. The flavours of American food are very powerful. It needs to be balanced with a healthy approach, which we believe is booming now in the US.