Home > The Critic > Getting sustainably sussed

“Nowadays customers want to know exactly where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” explains Chef Dirk Haltenhof. The German national and Pro Chef, ‘Chef of the Year 2015’ finalist has over 15 years F&B experience across the world. He’s seen sustainability take root in Europe and Asia and now he’s tracking the trend in the UAE.

“At the Madinat Jumeirah we’re committed to following sustainable practices and implementing them in all our restaurants and wherever else we sell food,” he claims. He is a voluntary member of the resort’s Green Globe committee – the global standard in sustainably-minded hotels – and regularly takes his chefs on trips to the market to help them connect the dots between producer and plate. “When we come back we brainstorm all of the new, unique things we have found and how we could support things from more local areas,” Haltenhof explains.

Sustainability is something the authorities are trying to support from above. This January marked Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. Hosted by Masdar, the event hosted the 9th World Future Energy Summit (WFES) 2016, the 4th International Water Summit, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, and the 3rd EcoWASTE, held in partnership with Tadweer, the Centre of Waste management in Abu Dhabi.

Continuing the momentum from the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week was a platform for turning global climate change goals into actionable regional policies. And although Paris can feel a world away from the Middle East, the initiatives introduced at COP21 should change how local chefs approach sourcing. Importing clams from Nova Scotia when there are perfectly good ones in Fujairah does not exactly tick the sustainability box.

Luckily, there is a local community to advise on such matters. Slow Food Dubai is a non-profit, member-supported international organisation. Founded in 1989, it aims to preserve local food traditions, reviving people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world – helping diners make informed choices on the food they eat. It does this in a number of ways, from giving kids a chance to grow, cook and eat their own vegetables, to encouraging food business owners to source from local and regional farms and promoting those producers and establishments to diners.

One key legacy from the work of Slow Food globally is the so-called Ark of Taste which travels the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet. It is an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats, now numbering over 2,020 items.

It was created to draw attention to the existence of these products, highlight their risk of extinction within a few generations and to invite everyone to take action to help protect them. In some cases this might be by buying and consuming them, in some by telling their story and supporting their producers, and in others – such as the case of endangered wild species – this might mean eating less or none of them in order to preserve them and favor their reproduction. For example, there are nine entries from Egypt in the Ark, from the Egyptian honeybee to Oasis rice.

Slow Food’s Snail of Approval award provides F&B establishments with a way of demonstrating that they align themselves with the sustainability movement. It helps show residents and tourists to Dubai which businesses are maintaining good, clean and fair standards, to the best of their ability.

La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie is one of the most recent recipients of the Snail of Approval. The award is a catalyst for improvement. All restaurants bearing the badge must sell food that comes from, and contributes to, ecological and cultural systems that are good, clean and fair.

Slow Food is shaking sustainability up on land while the authorities are tackling things at sea. In the UAE, 60% of the total catch is made up of species that are fished beyond sustainable levels. It’s a worrying statistic, but in 2010 the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) jointly launched the Choose Wisely campaign to combat the crisis. The programme is aimed at educating consumers to help them make better choices, and arming chefs with the knowledge to steer clear of endangered species and include more abundant fish in their menus.

The Choose Wisely campaign is supported by the UAE government too, who have implemented a federal law regarding catch sizes of fish, particularly affecting hammour. Chefs and consumers alike are being better educated about endangered fish, but it’s important that suppliers are receptive to the message. Ultimately, it is their task to be the advisor on what’s good and economically priced and what a client may comfortably put on a menu where supply is guaranteed. Some do this better than others.

UAE-based Wet Fish works exclusively with suppliers who source fish using sustainable and responsible methods. Through the creation of their own calendar detailing the seasonality of different species, the company helps chefs use the right seafood at the right time and resist exploiting species that are spawning so that the breeding cycles are allowed to run and fish may flourish. Needless to say, they don’t supply baby hammour.

Over the past few years the UAE has experimented with the idea of sustainability; such initiatives as Slow Food and the Choose Wisely campaign have certainly helped. However, if Chef Dirk Haltenhof is right, 2016 is the year when the concept will really take root. But for this to happen it requires a concerted and centralized effort from every area of F&B: the supplier, the chef and the consumer. There are many F&B trends to hedge your bets on this year, but we believe sustainability is the one that will stick. Happy sourcing!

In your opinion, what was the hottest F&B trends of 2015?
1. Fast paced comfort food versus hybrid restaurants. Think less fancy but still flavourful fast food outlets: Sushi Samba, 800 Degrees, Shake Shack, Dim Sum and foodie hybrid offerings such as Korean Bistro.
2. Fusion mezzes (i.e. avocado, hummus and beetroot) and Arabic inspired tapas/sharing style dishes.
3. Vegetable based ice cream: pumpkin, beetroot, carrot, avocado, lettuce, cucumber, soy and olive. This has been particularly popular in Japan, the US and Europe.
4. The use of tech gadgets to support quick and easy ordering – suitable for fast food and beach outlets.
5. Healthy bites i.e. the multi grain burger and avocado club.
6. Cocktail hybrids – beverage lists became more creative.
7. No white sugar in anything and the need for alternative sweeteners. There’s a huge backlash against sugar at the moment – everyone is fearful of it.
8. Seaweed demand was strong in 2015, in all shapes and flavours.
9. Traditional Hawaiian poke was popular.
10. Fermenting ingredients.
11. The brewing of artisan beer.

What was the most overrated industry initiative?
Gluten being declared as evil and everyone calling everything ‘organic’. I keep on telling people that both things are pretty much nonsense!

What new demands did you notice from customers?
They wanted to know exactly where their food comes from, if it’s good for them and how best to eat it.

How much did suppliers improve their service and deliver more original, quality produce?
We had to suspend several of our suppliers because they weren’t compliant with our standards. But the others improved a lot last year, from warehouse upgrades to production kitchens. Naturally, we support those who can fulfill our requirements more than others.

Do you see more opportunities for local produce?
Yes – there’s certainly the demand for it. However, it can be dangerous because some things don’t make sense to produce here. A pumpkin or melon needs so much rainwater to grow and nutritious soil, which we unfortunately don’t have. There are some products which are suitable for growing here and the outcome makes it worthwhile.

What F&B staple should now be retired?
Auf Wiedersehen chafing dishes! For me a personal goal is to improve the brunch idea; we are working on concepts to cater for 700-800 guests without using chafing dishes. I hope to have it ready to launch by this summer.

What, in your opinion, will be the hottest F&B trends of 2016?
1. Using chickpea pasta or similar alternatives instead of the regular stuff.
2. Spelt, barley, chia, chickpeas, and of course quinoa (in all colours) is trending.
3. Healthy alternatives in fast-paced restaurants, such as plant based products and healthy fats etc.
4. Root vegetables are back on the plate as never before, ideally with the business card of the farmer. Celeriac, kohlrabi, Romanesco and baby beetroot will all be popular.
5. Dry aged meat and the comeback of more unusual cuts.
6. In Dubai the sustainable movement is moving ahead, something we can be grateful for.
7. Healthy kids menus.
8. Pop-up restaurant concepts, perhaps featuring known chefs.

Here at the Madinat Jumeirah we have a ‘trending’ committee, which shares the latest trends, or inquiries of our guests. These are constantly updated and considered for new menus, brunches or even banquet events. They’ll keep us on trend throughout 2016!

What are the underdeveloped areas of the market and which cuisines are underrepresented?
Korean, African, South American.

What key plans do you have for developing your property/ies?
Oh my! To create culinary stories that make sense and are sustainable, innovative and tasty, both for the young and old. We are going to introduce an educational and fun cooking class unit for all ages. It will be available for internal guests as well as UAE residents.

Are customers changing in terms of their demands and knowledge levels of food?
In Dubai, always. Every quarter is a bit different to the year before.

What F&B staple is missing from the local scene?
Emirati-inspired fun dining. We need to give guests fun-dining experiences to ensure they talk about it and, more importantly, come back.

Is the era of all-day dining coming to an end?
Nobody wants to call their outlet ‘all-day dining’, but a three-meal-a-day or ‘world cuisine’ restaurant is still kind of necessary in a resort. But I think it’s better to create restaurants that serve what is currently interesting. For example, concepts like Fume are a very good, but it will take hoteliers more time to accept this as an alternative to all-day dining.

What change would you like to see in the Middle East’s F&B market?
Sustainability. I’m already working on my personal sustainability projects, but I also volunteered to be part of the Green Globe committee in Madinat Jumeirah. The resort is currently the only multi-complex with sustainability certificates across all areas.

What it means is that we’re committed to following sustainable practices and implementing them in all our restaurants and wherever else we sell food. It involves finding suppliers who are willing to go the extra mile. We also need to tell our customers about the good things we’re doing and educating our guests about the good things we’re doing.

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