As Taste of Dubai celebrates its 10th year, Catering News examines the importance of food festivals for positioning the Middle East on the global F&B scene.
Since Gordon Ramsay burst onto the Dubai restaurant scene in 2001 with the opening of Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek, the UAE has been steadily building its profile as a culinary hotspot, and today boasts its fair share of Michelin-starred chefs, some of whom – such as Gary Rhodes – have even made Dubai their home.
And 2017 is a milestone year for the country’s growth as a foodie hub, being the 10th anniversary of Taste of Dubai, a three-day festival celebrating some of the emirate’s most popular restaurants. Since it was established in 2007, Taste of Dubai has gone from showcasing 10 restaurants and attracting 10,000 visitors, to 24 restaurants reeling in 30,000 visitors.
Explaining this growth, Chris Fountain, managing director of Turret Media, the organisers of Taste of Dubai told Catering News that Taste is simply a showcase of the rapid development of the emirate’s F&B scene. “It’s getting bigger every year but the main change is the restaurants and chefs being presented.
“We remark each year on how eclectic and fast-paced Dubai is, and we know the amount of development that takes place. Taste is a reflection of what is happening at a certain point in time within the F&B sector in the city, and I think that’s one of the key attractions for visitors.”
“Food festivals are a great opportunity for venues to showcase their personality to guests and put a face to a name, allowing us to educate them on our offerings and unique selling points and answer any questions they have” – Paolo Bellamio, executive chef, Pierchic Dubai
Another draw is the line-up of A-list chef names Taste of Dubai attracts to the market each year, with this year’s line-up including Michel Roux Jr, Luke Thomas and Eric Lanlard, among others. “Dubai has become a destination for leading chefs around the world,” explains Fountain. “If you look at Nathan Outlaw who was a chef at Taste of Dubai, he is now running a restaurant in Burj Al Arab, which makes the landscape even more exciting and appealing.”
Following several successful editions of Taste of Dubai, the government launched Dubai Food Festival in 2014, with Taste now dovetailing into the last weekend of this. Saeed Mohammad Measam Al Falasi, executive director, retail and strategic alliances, Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment (DFRE) explains: “Over the past 18 years we were focused on the shopping festival – the retail sector rather than the food sector. However, we realised how diverse the city is with over 200 nationalities, so there’s a lot of diversity in the food sector we can celebrate. Food and beverage has become one of the most interesting sectors of retail in Dubai and studies have shown it could reach $13 billion by 2018.”
Last year Dubai Food Festival welcomed 40,000 visitors and DFRE expects to see a further 5% growth at this year’s event. “It has grown dramatically and has put the name of Dubai out there, making Dubai Food Festival one of the most important festivals of the year,” adds Al Falasi.
In addition, the Etisalat Beach Canteen – one of the key attractions of Dubai Food Festival – has grown three-fold since its inception in 2013 when it had just 12 outlets, and as a result it has moved location to Sunset Beach for this year’s edition.
“I’m blown away by the number of participants this year,” comments Al Falasi. “We now have more offers in terms of F&B, a lot of food trucks, a dedicated family area for entertainment – so definitely it will be one of those not-to-be-missed attractions.”
“We remark each year on how eclectic and fast-paced Dubai is, and we know the amount of development that takes place. Taste is a reflection of what is happening at a certain point in time within the F&B sector in the city, and I think that’s one of the key attractions for visitors” – Chris Fountain, managing director, Turret Media
As well as reflecting the existing F&B scene, food festivals can serve to highlight opportunities and shape trends. For example, according to Al Falasi, the Etisalat Beach Canteen has propelled the growth of food trucks in the UAE. “When the Beach Canteen started, it paved the way in terms of regulations for food trucks and that’s one of the reasons the trend has grown since then.”
And testament to this growth, another foodie festival – Eat the World DXB – was introduced last year to provide a platform for local and international food trucks and restaurants to showcase their offers.
Explaining the objective of the event, the organisers commented: “It’s a weekend-long celebration of the best street food from all over the world. Not only do we have local food trucks serving up delicious fare but we’re shipping over trucks, traders and hawkers from the US, UK and Singapore too. The idea is to showcase all different types of street food while creating a public experiential event with chef demos and workshops that the public can get involved in.”
Dan Shearman from British food truck, The Roadery made an appearance at Eat the World DXB this year showcasing the Dubai-inspired ‘BURG-Khalifa’ burger, which comprises four layers of Wagyu beef patty, ethical duck fois, saffron mayo, truffle cheese and a 24ct gold bun for AED 230. Having last visited the region two years ago, he was excited to see the growth of the food truck scene this year. “On our first visit to the UAE two years ago, the food truck scene was very small. Eat the World DXB has been a catalyst in starting a real trend in local food trucks, which is great to see. We’re very excited to see this develop to the level it has back in London as the years progress,” he stated.
Another international player who attended Eat the World DXB reveals that the festival provided an excellent opportunity to scope out opportunities in the UAE market and test the water with their brand. Eric Silverstein from San Francisco-based The Peached Tortilla, commented: “I felt this was an incredible opportunity to get our food out to the people of Dubai.
“At the end of the day, the more exposure our product and brand can get around the world can only lead to good things. I’d never been to the UAE before and wanted to check it out. This festival allows us to see another market and figure out what works and what doesn’t work; it gives us a chance to see if we can expand into other markets.”
In addition to providing excellent opportunities for international brands, food festivals are important for highlighting local brands and raising awareness of a country’s food heritage. This year marks the second edition of Dubai Food Festival’s Hidden Gems initiative, which helps to showcase local brands and Emirati restaurants via a competition whereby the general public vote for their favourite ‘hidden gems’ on the Dubai Food Festival website. “It’s not just about the five-star dining experience; there are a lot of family-owned and smaller restaurants popping up around the city that really provide a niche experience, whether Emirati or Egyptian,” comments Al Falasi.
“This year we are putting even more focus on [Hidden Gems] and we’re hoping the initiative will grow. I think having initiatives like this is what’s really going to help put focus on local restaurants.”
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s Flavors Festival has been specifically created to showcase local and Emirati restaurant brands. Majid El Hamamy, general manager of Line Rise Exhibitions, which organises Flavors Festival comments: “We aim to bring much-needed exposure to the UAE homegrown F&B scene and contribute toward the successful establishment of unique food concepts in the UAE.
“Homegrown brands face tough competition on the market, competing with well-known, international, and fine-dining brands, food concepts and fast-food chains. Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of food events in the UAE, but few of them are dedicated to providing a platform to the homegrown set-ups to create awareness of their brands and build their profiles.
“Flavors Festival is an opportunity for local F&B businesses to further their visibility and exposure in front of a captive audience in a fun, entertaining and engaging way,” El Hamamy adds.
Emirati restaurant, Seven Sands, is participating at Dubai Food Festival’s Beach Canteen this year and executive chef Bassel Ibrahim expects it to offer an opportunity to raise awareness of Emirati cuisine and profile local homegrown brands. “Our aim is to bring Emirati cuisine to visitors and residents of the UAE. The cuisine has traditionally been limited to Emirati households where recipes have been handed down from one generation to the next. Dubai Food Festival gives us the opportunity to bring Emirati food to a wider and very dynamic audience,” he comments.
“Dubai Food Festival is a fantastic local initiative that not only promotes popular international brands, but also gives local brands a chance to demonstrate innovative and exciting food options to residents in a welcoming, social setting.”
“Dubai Food Festival has really positioned the city and it is getting global attention as more Michelin-starred chefs open restaurants here. We’ve found that people travel to try different food and experiences and we want to use Dubai Food Festival as a platform to encourage that” – Saeed Mohammad Measam Al Falasi, DFRE
Eat the World DXB exhibitor Ahmed Hassan of Wingsters added: “We were keen to promote our homegrown brand and unique flavours among the international vendors.”
It’s easy to see why consumer love food festivals – they can meet their favourite chefs and can enjoy a one-stop-shop visit to the top F&B concepts in the city. However, food festivals are arguably even more appealing for chefs, who get the chance to engage directly with customers – something they often miss out on when busy in the kitchen.
Pierchic executive chef Paolo Bellamio, who is taking part in DFF’s Beach Canteen for the first time, is looking forward to having the opportunity to speak to a large volume of customers directly. He comments: “Food festivals are a great opportunity for venues to showcase their personality to guests and put a face to a name, allowing us to educate them on our offerings and unique selling points and answer any questions they have.”
Bharat Talwar, head chef of Downtown Toko – who is also taking part in the Beach Canteen – agrees that direct customer engagement is a key benefit. “It’s rare to be able to engage with guests directly and I find this very valuable. It allows me to gauge market opinion and it sparks new ideas.”
Bellamio also thinks that food festivals can make high-end brands such as Pierchic, more accessible. “It happens often that people read about a restaurant on paper or on a screen, but food festivals give us a shot at taking the personal approach and introducing the concept to people who may not usually be our target,” he adds.
Meanwhile, for smaller businesses, the main benefit of food festivals is plain and simple: exposure. “Being a small, independent business, it’s very important for us to be involved in the right events and have support from other local businesses,” says Teejay Asciak of Cheeky Italian, which participated at Eat the World DXB in 2017.
“I’d never been to the UAE before and wanted to check it out. This festival allows us to see another market and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. It gives us a chance to see if we can expand into other markets” – Eric Silverstein, The Peached Tortilla
From a tourism perspective, Dubai’s growing food festival scene is providing an important platform for positioning the emirate’s offer according to Al Falasi. “Dubai has raised the bar when it comes to dining experiences; we’ve really opened people’s eyes in terms of what’s available in this city.
“Dubai Food Festival has really positioned the city and it is getting global attention as more Michelin-starred chefs open restaurants here. We’ve found that people travel to try different food and experiences and we want to use Dubai Food Festival as a platform to encourage that.”
However, a key question is whether the buzz around the UAE’s food scene can persist beyond festival season, which runs throughout the spring
. Al Falasi comments: “I think we really need to support the F&B sector in the city and bring to life what Dubai has to offer. We need to use the food festival to drive and promote Dubai further.
“The voice of food won’t quieten down at the end of the festival. When we’re talking about tourism, we’ll talk about food as an important highlight of the city and we need to keep talking about those restaurants throughout the year, not just during the festival season.”