Monday, 1 February 2010

He's here, he's there, he's Pierre Gagnaire.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of accompanying Pierre Gagnaire to one of the Emirati breakfasts at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bur Dubai. It was a chance for the legendary French chef to learn a little more about Emirati culture and food. And it was an opportunity for me to stuff myself silly with a load of luqaimat dumplings drenched in date syrup (not exactly a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre with low-fat yoghurt).

I was there on behalf of Esquire magazine in the Middle East, the idea being that the master chef would gain inspiration from his petite dejeuner à la UAE, before returning to the kitchen at Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire to create something suitably impressive from a handful of dates and a bunch of chickpeas.

The breakfasts are held every week to offer tourists and anybody else who fancies it a chance to find out more about the culture and customs of the UAE, while sampling some genuine and reasonably good Emirati food. We sat, we ate and we listened intently...

Reflets' restaurant director Etienne Haro discusses the merits of 'kahwa' Arabic coffee, while monsieur Gagnaire demonstrates how to administer a crafty backhander to the head of a bald gentleman.

Back in the kitchen, chef Gagnaire cowers behind two intimidating-looking bottles of camel's milk...

The chef surrounds himself with an array of traditional Emirati ingredients: chickpeas, dates, cardamom, KFC bargain bucket, Dunkin' Donuts, Vimto.... sorry, got carried away there...

Gagnaire and Reflets' head chef Olivier Biles take to the stove.

Et voila! Eggs Maktoum!

With the pressure off, the lads clown around with a bottle of camel's milk, while PG captures the moment for a photo album entitled "I never thought I'd live to see the day...."

I have to say, I was impressed with the end result. I certainly hadn't imagined that such a hotch-potch of ingredients - chickpeas, dates, honey, camel's milk, coffee, cardamom and a solitary poached egg - could be so, well, interesting. In his own inimitable style, Gagnaire had created something approaching good Emirati food.

Of course, just typing the words “good Emirati food” has caused smoke to come billowing out the back of my laptop. Even the most patriotic local will tell you it’s as rare as braised brontosaurus breast in the restaurants and cafes of the UAE. Mysterious, misunderstood and missing from most menus, it’s a cuisine that the vast majority of non-Emiratis will know practically nothing about.

The best way to discover decent Emirati food it is to somehow blag an invitation into the home of a UAE national. Alternatively, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre’s weekly breakfasts and lunches will give you a full belly and one or two cultural insights to help you understand why you’re eating mini doughnut balls and sweet vermicelli noodles at 10 o’clock in the morning.

Failing that, just grab hold of a Michelin-star chef and see what he can rustle up with a bag of dried fruit, some legumes and the milk of an even-toed ungulate.

See Esquire Middle East, February edition, for the full Pierre Gagnaire story.

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