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Meet the Emirati saviour of snacks

Esam Al Obthani was studying at the Canadian University of Dubai when, bored of its food and eyeing an opportunity, he bought the campus canteen. Craig Hawes sits down with him to talk business and food

Esam Al Obthani
Image Credit: Dennis B Mallari/GNM
Esam Al Obthani enjoys introducing expatriates to Emirati dishes and tastes.

What was the main reason for you buying your former university's canteen? Was it because you wanted to improve the quality of the food for future students or did you see a good economic opportunity? Or both?

When I started at my college, I was having difficulty finding the food of my choice in the restaurant or nearby areas. The available choices did not live up to the students' expectations at all in choice and quality. In 2007, the number of students had increased to 400, which ignited my business mind. I talked to our respected president, Dr Karim, and he gave me all his support, which was so kind of him. 

You're 32 now and you were still a student at the university when you bought the canteen. That must have meant you were able to listen closely to the students' nutritional needs and preferences. Has it been a good learning experience for you?

Being a student you know what they want, and that was my biggest advantage. It was a great learning experience as I was setting up a business from scratch. I did all the work myself - from administration and HR, to finance and purchasing - to make sure that I learnt the whole process. Looking back, I understand what I did right and wrong, which made me a better decision maker. 

You were a student, a business owner and also working for your father at the same time. How did you manage to combine all these things?

It was really hard, but I believe with the grace of God I didn't disappoint anyone who trusted me. I used to visit the restaurant early every morning on my way to work. My classes were from 3-7pm, which helped me to schedule my timings to balance all three commitments. 

One of the several restaurants you own sells Emirati food. Is local cuisine something you are passionate about, and would you like to better inform the public about Emirati food?

We are fortunate to have all kinds of international cuisines in the UAE. But there is little exposure to local food. I was interested to open a restaurant with quality local Emirati food at a reasonable price. It was also my intention to introduce expatriates to the local dishes and tastes. My second restaurant venture is on Jumeirah Road near Umm Suqeim Clinic. It's called Al Mallas. 

What is the tastiest Emirati dish that everyone should try once, and what ingredients are in it?

Chicken machboos. It's made from a mixture of spices, rice, chicken and vegetables. It's tasty like your mum's cooking. 

With obesity a major problem in the region, are you doing anything at your restaurants to encourage healthy eating?

In my opinion, the problem is laziness not the food. We prepare the food with the best possible ingredients and there is always a quality-check procedure. We prefer to grill or boil rather than cook with oil so it's healthier. We make sure that everything is fresh.

The form 

If I wasn't doing this, I would be a sales manager of a company

A person who's had a big influence on my life is my brother Adnan

A fictional character after my own heart I am a very bad viewer or reader of fiction. I like reality

A word or expression that I use a lot Alhamdulillah 

Something that I always travel with is my BlackBerry