Where's it from? Chefs at some of the biggest fine dining restaurants in town are switching to local sourcing for their ingredients and cuts. And it's going down well with patrons. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: It’s all turning local… even at the finest restaurants in the UAE. And they – and their clients - are just fine with the change.

Buying local not only saves costs for F&B businesses, it boosts the entire ecosystem and showcases the development of regional farming. But it all came together after the pandemic struck and forced restaurants to consider options other than importing.

“When we were in our pre-opening phase and researching the Dubai supplier market, I was surprised to find out how dependent the supply chain was on imports and how little choice of local product there was,” said Steven Nyugen, the Chef at Indochine. “So we sourced from Australia, France, and specialty seafood from Japan.”

But then the pandemic struck and Europe was hit quite hard, and Indochine’s supplies from France and Spain were halted. Much the same happened with supplies from the US and Australia, which affected their protein and meat supplies.

That’s when they took a chance on local suppliers. “There is incredible potential in the local market that is really untapped at the moment,” Nyugen said. “I think the major hurdles are marketing and distribution.

A lack of awareness

Indeed, specialty food producers and suppliers are out there, but it’s just that they will need to gain more visibility. Some restaurant operators are trying to mitigate that by striking special deals, including helping with the costs and logistics, with these farms and suppliers.

It wasn’t the pandemic that triggered Palazzo Versace Dubai to look seriously at the local market.

Mansour Mermarian, Director of Culinary, at the luxury hotel says he’s been championing their cause for some time. “Unless there are exceptional cases of a rare delicatessen, cheese or truffles being required, we buy only locally,” he said. “There are some fantastic entrepreneurs in Dubai with well put together farms and plantations.

“The pandemic actually pushed us to be more creative and focus on the basic ingredients to create dishes. I found the best oysters and seafood at Dibba Bay - and we stopped importing from France for our brunches.”

Palazzo Versace Dub
Serve 'em fresh... and serve 'em local. UAE farms and specialty food suppliers managed to fill the gaps caused by import disruptions. But these farms and their produce could still do with some heavy exposure. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Quite the change

If you’ve ever - fine - dined out in Dubai over the last decade, you were most likely biting into imported cheese, meats and even tomatoes. The Dubai F&B industry has clearly – over - spent relying rather heavily on imports for ingredients.

Restaurants proudly expressed how their “olive oil comes all the way from Italy” or the “lobster sourced from Canada”. It was seen as a bragging right to have imported ingredients served. Not any longer, by the looks of it.

Adjusting on the fly

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Italian restaurants were among those to feel the pinch when supplies came up short. Chef Francesco Guarracino of Roberto’s in DIFC then had to make some quick-silver adjustments to the menu.

“The most difficult time to source our products was between March and June - with very limited flights, nearly 70 per cent of our products proved very difficult to source,” he said. “We did remove some items and review the menu using the best products available to us at the time.”

Scalini, another high-end Italian eatery at the Four Seasons, also relied heavily on imported fresh produce and ingredients from Europe. They are now working with UAE based suppliers for their cheeses. Take the ricotta for example.

Chef Giuseppe Giampietro realised that the cheese made locally is of the same quality than that imported from Italy. “We found that soft cheeses developed by local suppliers have a difference in quality,” he added. “When importing cheeses, the freezing temperatures in the cargo changes the cultures of the product, which has an impact on taste.

Chef Giuseppe Giampietro

“However, we started sourcing our Burrata and Ricotta locally every morning, and there is a noticeable difference in flavour. We also saved on cost, which was a lovely bonus.”

But downsides too

When COVID-19 hit, local producers began ramping up their harvests. Locally-grown produce is now more in demand as economies began looking for means of self-sustainability.

Although there are some incredibly forward-thinking producers like Emirates Bio Farms, Smart Acres and Badia Farms, seasonality is a big issue as winter is really the only growing season. With the investments pouring into agritech these days, it could bring about changes and a better grip on seasonality challenges.

Here’s hoping that demand for local produce will become something permanent, rather than just a reaction to a pandemic…