Dubai: Those aspiring to be the Nigella Lawsons and Jamie Olivers of the UAE have, until recently, been limited by a lack of available ingredients.
Their celebrity cookbooks may promise delightful meals if the recipes are followed, but what do you do when the carefully sourced ‘Fines De Claire' oysters, usually supplied by the Rungis market, cannot be bought here?
And what is the point of referring to the famous patissier, which lays claim to the 1955 recipe for your after-dinner slice of Opera cake, when nobody at your UAE dinner party has ever heard of it?
Life in the kitchen is, however, about to become a lot easier.
The French department store Galeries Lafayette, last week opened Lafayette Gourmet, a 3,000-square-metre emporium dedicated to high-end food products.
Located on the third floor of the Dubai Mall-based department store, Lafayette Gourmet is a more ‘modern' version of the original Parisian outlet, says Pascal Abchee, general manager of Galeries Lafayette.
"For those who know [gourmet stores] in Paris and London, it's comparable. But in Dubai, we've brought it to an international level. We've set a new standard."
Alongside luxury foods imported from around the world — think mussels from Scotland, oysters from France and lobsters caught in the Atlantic Ocean — are counters serving ready-to-eat dishes from completely diverse cultures — South-east Asian, Indian and Japanese, to name a few.
One of the store's attractions is its very special home delivery service: not only does Lafayette Gourmet deliver the food, it also sends over a chef to cook it for the customer, should they so desire.
Andrew Joyce, culinary director of food and beverage at Galeries Lafayette, believes this service will be one of the store's unique selling points. "People coming in at the moment are mainly curious," he said. "But I've done three functions already, from paella to quiche, all with tailor-made products, ranging from Dh45 to Dh100 per head."
The concept of selling high-end food has always been a part of the plan for Galeries Lafayette in the UAE, says Abchee, but the food emporium wasn't opened at the same time as the rest of the store on May 17, 2009. Abchee explains that he first wanted to see how the main store weathered the economic downturn, and it was only last September that he began planning for the food outlet.
"We were convinced that Dubai would overcome the situation, so we took the decision to proceed with the investment. There's a stress test to apply when you're in deep crisis. In September Dubai was in the worst situation ever known, we looked at the impact of that crisis and felt the market was reactive, that things were still happening and that there would be a recovery. We felt that Dubai was behaving responsibly. Then it just took us a couple of months to get everything ready."
Lafayette Gourmet isn't alone in attempting to fill a gap in the market for high-end food products. In September last year, Australian gourmet outlet Jones the Grocer opened a 444 square metre outlet in Abu Dhabi, selling hard-to-source items such as sherry vinegar, as well as other products like its own in-house ketchup and mayonnaise.
It's that attention to detail that sets it apart from supermarkets and other food outlets, say the owners. Business in the first year "has been good," says manager James Wamae, "and acceptance from our customers — who are 50:50 expats and Emiratis — has been very successful".
The concept of the store is based around fresh, simple but high quality basic ingredients, and has been successful enough for the owner, Yunib Seddiqi, to plan for two more stores in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai in the coming year.
When the store opened in September 2009, "there wasn't anything that fitted the mould of what we wanted to do. It was going into virgin territory," said Seddiqi. "Now we don't have any room to sit in the store."
However, these are not the first gourmet food shops in the UAE. A previous attempt to tap into the market, the Gourmet Station outlet introduced by the Landmark Group, came up against two major issues: reliability in sourcing of the products and the location. The store in the Oasis Centre opened in 2007 and was rebranded into a cafe this summer.
"The Oasis Centre wasn't the right place for a gourmet store — it had the wrong demographic," said Naved Daulatshahi, deputy general manager of the foods division at Landmark Group. "There was not enough demand among the customers, who are mainly low-to-middle market shoppers."
There are no plans to reopen the concept elsewhere. "The business model isn't what we're looking at right now," Daulatshahi added. "I think, as always, the challenge is bringing the right product.
"The product and sourcing, to ensure there's a steady supply, continuity - that's the challenge. That's where I think we went wrong. But I think with the opening of the Lafayette Food Hall, I know it's early days, but it's doing really well."
That issue of sourcing is partly why Joyce is getting his products on a twice-weekly basis from the massive Rungis market in Paris, which until now has mainly supplied high-end restaurants, not retailers, in the UAE. Jones' Wamae agrees that without a constant eye on sourcing, a gourmet food business will ‘crash and burn'.
"We source from Australia and other markets. As part of the whole customer experience, it's critical that we don't take anything if we're not sure we can get it in again."
Australian chain in Dubai
The Australian gourmet food outlet, Jones the Grocer, will open three stores in the coming year, one being on Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai.
The Dubai outlet will be about 580 square metres in a spot opposite Times Square Centre, on the ground floor of a new building, and is expected to open towards the end of January. That's Jones' only plan for Dubai at the moment.
"The bulk of the expansion is in Abu Dhabi," confirmed the owner of the franchise in the UAE, Yunib Seddiqi.
"We're not going beyond one store because we're not sure where that market's going, and we don't spread ourselves. We'll look at other sites subject to the performance of this store."