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Thu 31 Dec 2009 04:00 AM

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Sweet success

As a growing number of highly-skilled pastry chefs take up positions in the region's kitchens, the Middle East is fast becoming a hub of culinary innovation and intriguing design. Ben Watts speaks to pastry chefs to find out what's fuelling the dessert explosion.

Sweet success
Renaissance Dubai Hotel assistant pastry chef Achala Weerasinghe.
Sweet success
Culinary delights on display at a recent dessert demonstration, organised by ingredient supplier EMF Emirates.

As a growing number of highly-skilled pastry chefs take up positions in the region's kitchens, the Middle East is fast becoming a hub of culinary innovation and intriguing design. Ben Watts speaks to pastry chefs to find out what's fuelling the dessert explosion.

As the region's hospitality industry catches up with the high standards set in the USA, Europe and the Far East, one section of the backroom team is beginning to turn heads around the world.

The region's pastry chefs are becoming a force to be reckoned with at an international level, as Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, pastry chef Ajmal Salim is keen to point out.

"Considering how many hotels and outlets there are in and around the Middle East, the standard is incredibly high," says Salim. "I've travelled to America, Switzerland, Europe and Far East Asia, and I know where we stand: we are right there, and we can compete with any other country in terms of our pastry skills."

The region's diners are increasingly expecting to be ‘wowed' by their dessert selection, as well as their main course.

Renaissance Dubai Hotel assistant pastry chef Achala Weerasinghe says it can be hard to point to exactly what the Middle East diner looks for in a dessert, due to the diversity of cultures found in the region.

"All diners look for a dessert that will complement their meal," observes Weerasinghe. "Hopefully they will leave the hotel with memories of rich, sweet, melt-in-the-mouth desserts that make them come back wanting more.

"On an à la carte menu, the desserts have to be able to complement the main courses and at the same time be exciting," he says.

"There are only the adventurous few that will step beyond the norm and try out a dessert that is truly out of this world; the rest always look for that homemade taste."

Daniel Mayor, pastry chef at Radisson Blu Hotel, Kuwait, says that due to the popular tradition of oriental pastries in this part of the world, general demand tends to move towards sweeter desserts.

However his best sellers are bucking the regional trend, generally being of European style and origin.

Mayor comments: "In the pastry shop of the Radisson Blu Hotel, Kuwait, traditional European cakes such as apple pie, sacher cake, tiramisu and berry mousse cake are the best sellers. But I believe this preference is symptomatic of the guests we see coming to the property - in our case, mainly international business travellers.

"I have also noted that desserts with chocolate as main ingredient are very popular, maybe because chocolate is perceived as a luxurious product in the region," he remarks.

Attention seekers

Promoting sweets can be a tough challenge according to pastry chefs; especially with main course menus stealing the limelight.

Renaissance's Weerasinghe says that a pastry chef's artistic touch does this job for him.

"There is only one technique a pastry chef can use to promote their desserts and that is through the eyes," he explains.

"I make sure that the garnishes I use are from fresh and fine ingredients - from the fruits and berries that I use, to the chocolates that enhances the look of the dessert."Radisson's Mayor notes that nowadays desserts have a role to play in advertising the hotel's offering.

"We have regular dessert speciality weeks in our coffee shop reflecting the seasonal tastes and then those specialties are promoted in the local media and within our hotel outlets," he notes.

"We do not really have a dessert menu in our fine-dining restaurant, but a classical dessert trolley is served in our Chinese restaurant."

Food fight

With more and more competitions filling up the culinary calendar across the Middle East, the aesthetics of desserts now play an important role in promoting the innovation of chefs working in the region's kitchens.

Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri's Salim remarks that the region's pastry chefs are now recognised on the global stage for their creative talent.

"I think in this region the pastry chefs are some of the most innovative," he says. "We're definitely on a par with the best in the world; compared to some areas, we are actually further ahead, but if you look at it overall we're right there with any other country in terms of fineness and quality of the products we're producing.

"I think this progress is to do with the exposure this region has had to international influences," continues Salim. "The flow of ex-pats coming into the region, the type of training they've had and also the information they receive.

"Look at the amount of magazines and the amount of information available on the internet, and the competitions and events going on around the globe today; when you witness more inner creativity coming out you want to create more and be more innovative."

Fresh supplies

Radisson's Mayor says even in a developing culinary market such as Kuwait's, a wide range of ingredients can be purchased.

"In Kuwait a good range of pastry ingredients are available, but as soon as you search for something ‘out of the box', limitations arise due to the lack of demand, unrealistic prices and restricted food market supply," he says.

"In developed hospitality markets, this quickly changes due to new demands."

But even when ingredients are hard to come by, it seems many pastry chefs try to avoid purchasing entirely ready-made frozen alternatives.

Renaissance's Weerasinghe comments: "Purchasing frozen desserts is definitely something I try to avoid.

"Our guests at the hotel look for that homemade touch and I make sure that I am involved from start to the finish of every product that reaches the counter at our pastry shop.

"No one can ever be sure of who touches what and what goes where if it comes in frozen, wrapped up in a company logo," he says.

It seems that as long as the region's chefs devote time to culinary creativity, the future of the sweet and dessert segment of the Middle East's culinary industry is assured.

And with consistent supplier support regarding the availability of ingredients, the region has the potential to become a leading light on the global dessert stage.

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