DUBAI: I, for one, never thought tomato soup could be white – and yet here I am, enjoying a deliciously creamy concoction that is white in colour but tastes somewhat like a conventional tomato soup. Gary Rhodes, the Michelin-starred British chef behind its recipe, watches my bewildered expression with a smile on his face.
I am at the Taste of Dubai festival located off Sheikh Zayed Road inside a large open amphitheatre in Dubai Media City. The atmosphere is lively and the venue is buzzing with activity as a live band plays music, and people forget their inhibitions and happily tuck in. After all, who wouldn’t? Some of the best gourmet restaurants of Dubai had set up outlets here and you could taste cuisines from all around the world. Would you fancy an appetizer from Italian or Thai cuisine, a traditional British main course of steak and kidney pie, or perhaps an aromatic Indian curry, followed by a low-calorie dessert from Tasti D.lite (as featured in Sex and the City)?
“This got created by accident,” Chef Gary Rhodes says, gesturing towards the soup. “I extracted the juice of luscious, red tomatoes, which, by the way, is perfectly clear, almost like water. I did that to make a tomato jelly. But once I had the juice, I added a little bit of cream to it and the white tomato soup was born. Diners at all our restaurants have loved it. I took it off the menu once – only to put it back by popular demand.”
When asked what the biggest mistake people make in the kitchen is, Rhodes says almost immediately, “They try too hard. A lot of cooks do not understand the importance of simplicity, and how the texture and aroma of a few high-quality ingredients can emulsify into one delectable flavour.” In the profession for nearly 35 years, Rhodes fondly remembers a meal served many years ago to Princess Diana as his best offering to date.
After sampling the soup at Rhodes 2010, I stop for a moment at the cooking class where eager young cooks in the make-shift class (provided with their own cooking table, stove and ingredients) learn how to cook from British celebrity chef Jun Tanaka. Apart from cooking classes by well-known chefs like Tanaka, Richard Phillips, Gary Rhodes, Tim Hughes and Suzanne Husseini, one can also witness demos by other chefs, who demonstrate recipes to large groups of people.
The enticing aroma from Indego beckons me next, and I walk into the Indian restaurant owned by another Michelin-starred chef, Chef Vineet Bhatia, who is also the mastermind behind Rasoi, an Indian restaurant in London. “Indian and Pakistani cuisines are very similar, but Pakistani food is more meat-based, while a lot of people in India are vegetarians,” says Bhatia, commenting on Pakistani cuisine. Indego is one of the few fine-dining Indian restaurants located inside a five-star hotel in Dubai, and has often served dignitaries and heads of state.
On what he enjoys cooking the most, Chef Bhatia responds: “Fish, because it is the most delicate and cooking it is a precise art. A piece of lamb may be marinated with spices and may be overdone or undercooked and still eaten, but with fish, a chef best gets to show off his skill, for it has to be done just right or it can turn into disaster.” I nod knowingly, and he relates the story of a young Pakistani man Ali, who once asked him for a job in London.
“He was a darzi (tailor), and he came up to me and asked me for a job. I put him in the kitchen at Rasoi for odd jobs; he’d cut vegetables, and help in cleaning up. We asked him to prepare staff food (that’s how we start teaching cooking) and he would put meat in a pot and cover it with spices and vegetables and it would simmer into a fine blend of meat and flavours in a few hours. He became quite good at it and would prepare the stew on every weekend. Then the staff asked him, “Chef, kuch aur hai?” He decided to prepare fish, unfortunately in the same manner. The fish was swimming in the water a few hours later,” chuckles Bhatia, and insists that cooking is a journey where you keep learning. The must-add ingredient to any dish for Bhatia is passion, which he explains, brings taste to any meal.
And he’s right, too. Because when I sample the restaurant’s signature dish, deep-fried cauliflower with capsicum in a hot tangy sauce, I realise how a simple vegetable can be transformed into a delightful snack with passion and innovation.
My next stop is Rivington Grill (by Simon Conboy of MasterChef UK), where I am told that the fish and chips with mushy peas must not be missed. I decide to try a piece of the haddock, imported specially from Europe and find that though it is done perfectly, it is decidedly overrated, and I might have been better off opting for a healthier Thai green curry with steamed rice from Mango Tree Bistro.
A little further off I spot a stall selling Pakistani ready-to-cook masalas. “It’s our first year at the Taste of Dubai, and we hope our stall will do well. Pakistani food is appreciated by people from all over the world and our clientele in Dubai includes (apart from Pakistanis and Indians), Arabs as well as Europeans,” the salesman tells me. Unfortunately, Taste of Dubai does not feature a Pakistani restaurant this year, although there is some quality Asian food offered by the Thai, Chinese, Arab and Indian restaurants.
Good things come to those who wait, and it’s not long before I walk across the amphitheatre a few times that I am craving dessert. But when I do, I am on cloud nine as the sinful concoction from Verre, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, melts in my mouth. It’s a light, frothy combination of honey and caramel topped with a citrus-flavoured pulp and crunchy pieces of nuts. The best part about it is that is not excessively sweet, and surprisingly, feels light on the stomach. As I exit the Taste of Dubai, I rue the wasted hours on the treadmill, but decide that the indulgence has been every bit worth it.