“I think the UAE food scene is amazing. It’ll take a year to go around each and every restaurant,” says French celebrity patissier Eric Lanlard, owner of Cake Boy and author of several books, including the recent Chocolat. “I think we are much more dramatic here about the venue and decoration — which I like. I like a bit of glamour”.
We were talking over a sumptuous new afternoon tea he launched at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray earlier this month. Individual racks full of hors d’oeuvres including salmon, chicken sandwiches and filo pastry tarts, a plateful of warm scones, tiny eclairs and cakes — all table staples at an English tea service, had been served.
The twist came in the filling, each with its own tongue-twisting Turkish name, in keeping with the ambience and decor of the hotel. While the tart had feta cheese, spinach and pine nuts, the chicken sandwich was sumac-spiced with herbs served on onion bread, and the salmon included smoked anchovy, horseradish, sour cream and lemon.
There was also a miniature Turkish ice cream waffle cone. And to top it all was the “perfect ending inspired by Eric Lanlard”, an orange blossom financier, a new creation by the pastry chef who has been living in Britain for the last 20 years.
“In the Middle East, I know they like their French patisserie so it was just a question of combining edible perfumes and local flavours of the region with a tradition such as English tea and giving it a different dimension,” explained Lanlard, who has cooked for celebrities, including Madonna and Elton John, but would love to cook for Catherine Deneuve because for him “she’s the iconic French beauty. She’s stunning, classic. She’s what France is all about and she still looks unbelievable”.
In town after five years, Lanlard was quite taken in by the changes in the city.
“First time I came to Dubai was for the opening of the Burj Al Arab. At the time they were promoting the Palm and I thought this is never going to happen. And five years later I’m here”.
With newer horizons to conquer — Lanlard is one of the passengers on the Virgin Galactica — he took off on topics closer to his heart, mainly, food.
British cuisine is not just fish and chips and shepherd’s pie:
That’s what it was when I came to the UK 20 years ago. The food was very disappointing and I almost turned back. But today, I believe, London is one of the food capitals of the world. And because everything is copied in Dubai, Dubai will be the next.
What the French believe — and I can say it because I’m French — is why do we need to change? We are the best. In London, they never say that. They embrace all the ambience from everywhere. It’s very cosmopolitan with creative chefs from all over the world. They don’t get told off for not using the classic or anything. They are always experimenting.
You can innovate with chocolate
There’s always some new combination to make it work better. Who’d have known that white chocolate worked wonderfully with citrus fruit? There’s always something new, something exciting going on and that’s why I love my job because if everything had been done, I would have given up a long time ago and I have been doing it for 25 years now.
I think everybody loves chocolate. But people are always a bit scared to use it because it is a complex ingredient. There are a lot of books on cooking with chocolate but these are more “look” books. You pick one and the pictures look really good but you’ll think ‘No way I can make that’, no matter how good a cook you may be. Also it’s no use if you buy a book which tells you to buy expensive or difficult-to-find ingredients or equipment. So with Chocolat, I wanted to do a book that was accessible, somewhere where you look at the pictures and think it looks glamorous but not so complicated. It gives you knowledge that us chefs would know but the public wouldn’t.
Chocolate can be savoury
It’s very easy to do. It started as a savoury item. If you take away all the sugar and sweetness from it, it can be very bitter and dark. In Mexico, you’ll find a lot of savoury dishes cooked with chocolate sauce. Venison works very well with chocolate. I’ve just been to South Africa where and had a white chocolate risotto with blue cheese. It was mindblowing, though I thought it would be sickly. In London, at a sister property, we’ve just launched a chocolate afternoon tea that serves savouries such as macaroons with chocolate venison and chilli jam.
Cooking for the stars
People think if you are cooking for stars they are going to be really difficult. Actually it’s quite the opposite. However, I’m talking of A-list celebrities and not Z-list celebrities — we don’t deal with those kinds. They don’t want to pay, anyway. The A-list celebrities are really busy people who don’t have time to mess around even if it’s their wedding. The decision will be taken quickly and they don’t have time to change their mind 10 times. What people don’t know is most A-Listers are very foodie. People smirk when I tell them I made cake for Elizabeth Hurley. They think ‘as if she eats cake!’ Trust me, she loves her food, she knows her food.
Being a TV show judge
What really matters is the taste of the cake. That’s how we became popular in the UK because we make cakes that look as nice as they taste. Earlier people didn’t care what went into the cake as long as it looked beautiful. They’d say they wanted a cake in the shape of a Ferrari or a Lamborghini and I’d ask what would you like inside and they’d go ‘well, a sponge’. A sponge?
All set to fly into space
That’s what happens when you drink too much champagne! It happened seven years ago. I met this sales person who’d just moved to Virgin Galactica and she invited me to dinner. I knew what she was doing and I told her it’s not going to happen. I’m happy to listen to it but no. It’s crazy money. But of course, before dessert arrived, I’d signed everything. It’s very exciting, though. So far, I’m the only chef going up in space. And maybe I’ll try making a souffle or something. That will be great because it won’t collapse.
It’s coming closer now and has been a long yet fun process. You are like a part of this little family of Virgin’s that will go up for the first time and, hopefully, come back.
Eric is in demand worldwide right now because baking is becoming bigger not just in the UK but everywhere. Lot of projects in pipeline, so there’s going to be a lot of travelling in the next six months, from Australia to Italy. We’d love to have another Cake Boy baby.
For the UAE? I’d say just watch this space.
Don’s miss it
The Jumeirah Zabeel Saray’s Ottoman afternoon tea takes place every day from 2-6pm in the Sultan Lounge, Dh155 (Dh255 with bubbly). Call 04-4530000.