Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Al Rawabi milk's gotta lotta bottle

It’s the biggest supermarket controversy since Sainsbury’s threatened to do away with the cardboard cereal box. Small children run away screaming when they see it in Spinneys. And grown adults - some of whom are surgeons, hardened criminals and war heroes - weep openly at the sight of it. Well, at the very least, it’s caused a few mumbled remarks and one or two raised eyebrows over the top of 7Days at breakfast. Of course, it’s Al Rawabi’s all-new design 2 litre plastic milk bottle. 

To say that it’s unconventional is like suggesting Gary Glitter might make a poor Godparent. It stands out from anything on the milk shelves like some kind of cubist sculpture, the sort of thing Picasso might have had knocking around his fridge. Such is its post-modern strangeness, it wouldn't look at all out of place on a roundabout in Fujairah.

This is where it all goes abstract - the hole. Jimi Hendrix probably would have had no problem with this, but anyone with small or slightly weak hands and stubby fingers - the elderly, children, the hung over and Jeremy Beadle - would have problems gripping this for a glug of milk. It's about as ergonomic and user-friendly as an ashtray on a motorcycle. It almost guarantees you get more milk splashed on your kitchen tiles and work surface than you do in your mug of tea, which could lead to tears. As a design concept it's a little, well, semi-skimmed - but, somehow, it has charm.

It took me a while before I realised what it reminded me of. Yes, it's a performing seal. Look how it balances this tennis ball, just like a water-park pinniped. Clever Al Rawabi milk bottle, have a sardine.

Then it struck me, anything the Al Rawabi performing seal can do, the Al Rawabi acrobatic bottlenose dolphin can blow out of the water. What a cheeky little fellow. Intelligent too, you know. I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that we'll discover more about the Al Rawabi 2 litre plastic milk bottle in due course, as it reveals its mysteries to the milk-slurping (and work-surface wiping) public of the UAE.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Chanelling Sanjeev Kapoor - an interview with a megachef

Unless you’ve been enjoying some Josef Fritzl-style hospitality in a cellar for the last 15 years, you’ll probably have heard of Sanjeev Kapoor. As celebrity chefs go, he’s quite possibly the daddy of them all. You’d have to take Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali and Rachael Ray, bind them all together with really sticky molasses, zap them with gamma rays and turn them into a single power-crazed mega-chef entity hell-bent on controlling the universe to get anywhere near Kapoor’s astounding reach.

His website gets 25 million hits a month, for a start. His Khana Khazana TV show (which has been running for 17 years and is still going strong) is watched by an audience of hundreds of millions. He’s written more books than Stephen Hawking has read. His rapidly growing restaurant empire (which includes restaurants in India, Dubai and Doha, not to mention more to be opened soon in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and possibly Abu Dhabi) has got Colonel Sanders nervously looking over his shoulder.

There are undiscovered tribes of cannibals in Papua New Guinea who prepare their victims with Kapoor’s ready-to-cook spice mix range, for Heaven’s sake. And to top it all off - just to raise his profile a bit in the Andromeda galaxy - he’s starting up his own 24-hour food TV channel. I spoke to him on behalf of What’s On magazine (see May 2010 issue) about his presence in Dubai, his TV channel and the universal (in his case, probably literally) appeal of Indian food. 

JB: What interested you about the Indian food scene in Dubai?

SK: When we opened in Dubai over eleven years ago, at that time the Indian food market was already crowded. Everybody warned me about it. I saw that there were quite a few places (Indian restaurants) but the quality was not there. So, in terms of giving people a quality option, we opened Khazana. Then we opened Options, which we wanted to make everything better, in terms of profile, positioning and product. In terms of what is available and what opportunities there are in Dubai, I still think it’s a very energetic market, in spite of all the downturns and everything. It’s still a very important market for us, and now we are launching our food products in that market - pickles, ready-to-cook pastes, spices - I think as a market our focus is more more than ever in Dubai.

Is it possible to buy your food products in Dubai now?

Yes, they have already reached there and I think they’re in the shops. I’m not exactly sure where, but they will be available.

Do you have any plans for expansion in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere in the Middle East?

Oh, yes, we are actually opening a few outlets in Bahrain, and we are looking at Abu Dhabi - we have some discussions going on there.

How would you describe your cooking?

Simple and no fuss.

That’s very straightforward!

Yes, it is (laughs).

I’ve eaten at both of your Dubai restaurants and, yes, perhaps it’s simple and no fuss, but it’s very vivid flavours, very evocative food...

Yes, it’s not me, it’s the uniqueness of Indian food. It has this specific flavour, it’s a robust cuisine. And that’s what we try to capture.

So, how do your two Dubai restaurants differ from other Indian restaurants in the city? What’s special about them?

Actually, I’ve not been to too many Indian restaurants in Dubai other than ours, so I really don’t know what’s different - I think it’s for people to decide. We know what we are and who we are, and i really don’t bother about what anybody else is doing. So to be very honest, I have no intelligence about other places, and I don’t try to be different from anybody else. We only do what we believe in. In food, I don’t believe it’s important to see what everybody else is doing. I think you should do what you are good at and what you believe in - I think that’s critically important.

Do you ever stop and pinch yourself when you think about your phenomenal success?

Every morning (laughs)!

Things have grown tremendously since your first TV show in the early 1990s... 

That’s right. I think when you go into anything you never think that you will not be big. You always think that you will grow big. And whether this is big enough, who knows? It may be just the beginning.

Maybe it is just the beginning, because you’re about to launch a TV food network channel in India... 

That’s right. Actually, I started thinking about it about five or six years ago. In India people looked at me as if I’d gone mad. People could not believe that we could do something like this, but I was making plans and talking to different people. I talked to the BBC, I tried speaking to Food Network in the US, and they could not believe that in India there could be something like this. It was something that I had to do, and now the launch will be in the next few months. We have our submissions, we have our content that we’ve started producing. For us it has already become a reality because we have already started everything, but for people to see it will be a few more months.

What kind of food television do people in India want to see?

I think they want to see all kinds of themed shows. The kind of shows that I do are more instruction-based. It’s a “how to” kind of show. But I think that people are ready for more experimental, more reality-based shows - “song and drama” shows. People are thinking what else can be done with food? They are waiting for that. There are a few things that have been tried internationally, like travel and food, we’ll do that. We’re looking at contests, reality-based shows, talent hunts... So I think as we launch the kind of shows we’ll have will be shaped by the reaction we get from viewers. We will learn, and we’ll come to know what will work and what will not. I think we’ll learn from our mistakes.

Perhaps a reality-show to find the best regional cuisine in India, from Goa, to Kerala, the north...

Yeah, I think it would be good to find out how much interest Indian people have in Indian food, but also how much they’re interested in foreign food. You don’t know. That’s what we learn from the restaurants also. Of the top end restaurants in India, not all of them are Indian.

How do you think the emerging middle class in India has affected people’s attitudes to food?

It’s interesting what is happening in India. For the first time the middle class is spending money. They are comfortable spending money. I think, if I look at my parents, they were looking at saving because they started with nothing. People of our generation, and subsequent generations, they have income which they are comfortable spending. They do not have the insecurities that our parents had - they are more comfortable and more confident. That has changed the whole perception and opened a gap in the economy.

Remnants of Kapoor's signature dish of shaam saveera, or spinach koftas in tomato gravy, have been photographed by NASA's exploration rover on the planet Mars. 

Why is Indian food so popular in the rest of the world?

I think it’s the fullness it has, the unique blends it offers. I think one of the basic things with Indian food is the tastes are not subtle - our sweet things are more sweet, our savoury things are more salty, our hot things are more chilli-hot - so even a palate that’s not too refined can easily relate to Indian food. You cannot ignore it - you may even hate it because it’s too strong - but you cannot ignore it. When people get the chance to try it, they talk about it more and they become exposed to something that’s radically different to what they’ve had before. If you look at other cuisines - like Italian and French - when they work with spices and herbs they work in isolation. Whereas with Indian food, in a single dish we could use up to 20 different contrasting spices and herbs. I think that works like magic - it works like modern doctors who for a simple illness might give you eight or ten different medicines in the hope that it would work. I think it’s the same with Indian food.

It’s like chemistry -  all the different ingredients work together...

Yes, that’s right.

Which ingredients couldn’t you live without?

There’s nothing that’s so essential that I couldn’t live without. I’m not that fussy. Of course I have my personal preferences to eat, but first I have to know who I am cooking for. I may like more cumin, more garlic, more mint, more lime, but when I’m cooking that’s not important.

What are the latest trends in Indian food?

I think recently that the kind of food available in Indian restaurants resembles the kind of food we eat at home. I think now more people are trying to bring the taste of home into restaurants, and that’s happening in India also. Also, we have food from different regions in India that hasn’t been exposed to people who live in other regions. There is more interest now in those foods.

Khazana Restaurant, Dubai, 04 336 0061; Options Restaurant, Dubai, 04 329 3293. Sanjeev Kapoor's 24-hour TV channel is set to launch in India, and in a solar system near you soon...

Monday, 3 May 2010

The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants, 2010: As it happened...


Eyjafjallajokull would have been the word on everybody's lips, if they could pronounce it, leading up to the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in London. Fortunately, the Icelandic volcano decided to stop spewing its ash into Europe's airspace in the days leading up to the prestigious event, and the world's best chefs and greediest media were able to convene upon the historic Guildhall for a night that was to signal a new order for the world's top restaurants. Here's how it unfolded.

Ferran Adria of El Bulli arrives alongside Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak, and, as if by magic, some journalists appear.

Heston Blumenthal grabs a cheeky kiss, hoping that journalists and nosy bloggers would be more interested in the man wearing Noddy Holder's trousers behind him. You were wrong, Heston.

Richard Haward's oysters proved a popular source of zinc at the Slow Food Market inside the Guildhall. Special mentions must also go to Oliver's Cider & Perry and Butford Organics for their fine, crisp English perry (both from Herefordshire), not to mention Great Glen Game of Inverness-shire for their dry-cured, oak-smoked wild venison. Needless to say, it was all duly sampled.

Either somebody's wearing a hilarious pair of shoes, or Eckart Witzigmann is merely delighted at receiving the  2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. Rainer Becker, co-founder of Zuma restaurant,  presents the gong to the legendary Austrian chef.

Ferran Adria gets emotional as he receives a special 'chef of the decade' award, sparking a flurry of whispers as to a possible change at the top of the 50 Best list.

And the whisperers were right. Rene Redzepi of Noma scoops the prize as his Copenhagen restaurant is named the best restaurant in the world, 2010.

For a moment it looks like Redzepi has had one of Heston Blumenthal's dodgy oysters, but the Dane is merely showing his gut-felt appreciation for his Gambian dishwasher, Ali. The man whose face adorns the Noma boys' t-shirts was denied a visa for travel to the UK, and was unable to join them for the awards.

Oh-oh! Ferran Adria holds his nose, Heston Blumenthal looks as if he's about to pass out, and (in the background) Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant offers a startled expression. Meanwhile, Juan Mari Arzak chortles cheekily.

"We still on for that Big Mac later?" Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi share a private moment.

Their secret dinner-date agreed, Heston and Rene pose for the cameras...

... and some Catalan bloke crashes the party. The men behind the three best restaurants in the world (that is if you pay any attention to awards ceremonies): Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck (3rd), Ferran Adria of El Bulli (2nd) and Rene Redzepi of Noma (1st).  

The full list is here (1-50) and here (51-100). Sadly, no Middle East restaurants made the top 100.