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Fri 9 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Taste tourism

How the Middle East's varied international food and beverage scene could make it the destination of choice for a new breed of food-loving traveler.

Taste tourism
Taste tourism
Ritz-Carlton Doha’s Matthew Morrison.
Taste tourism
Hilton Dubai Creek executive head chef, Scott Price.
Taste tourism
L’atelier des Chefs’ Baptiste Aubour.

How the Middle East's varied international food and beverage scene could make it the destination of choice for a new breed of food-loving traveler.

Over recent years, consumers have shown an increasing interest in what they eat. Thanks to a boom in culinary-related media coverage, learning about food and trying exotic new cuisines has never been more popular.

That means F&B is no longer just a subject for chefs: it now pervades many areas of life outside the professional kitchen, thanks to the rise of culinary fairs, celebrity chefs, cooking classes and farmers' markets around the world.

And according to Arabian Adventures operations manager Luc Delcomminnette, culinary tourism is taking off in a big way in certain parts of the world.

"There are quite a number of experts in Europe and North America, offering those specialised holiday packages," he observed.

"The trend seems to be that today's traveller wants to go somewhere exciting, but they also want to discover a bit more on their trip than just the destination from the traditional holiday perspective.

"So these companies offer trips to the ‘hot spots' for cuisine - France, Italy, Spain, Thailand, India, and so on. The focus is a holiday, but there's a twist: it will incorporate cooking lessons, often in the local cuisine or looking into a distinctly local ingredient; discussions with a culinary professional, who can advise and discuss the particular cuisine; trips, such as visits to local farms, markets and producers; and tastings or special dinners."

So does the Middle East have the potential to become a hub for culinary tourism?

Delcomminnette said he believed so, for two reasons. "Firstly, although many countries - such as the UAE - don't promote their own national cuisine as such, there is a wide interpretation of Arabic food across the region.

"The elements that go into this culinary genre certainly comprise many idiosyncratic elements which would appeal to visitors - for example, catching local seafood, or visiting local date farms, or trying Bedouin-style cooking practises," Delcomminnette remarked.

"But the other element which I think could also be highly appealing for travellers is the fact that we have such an enormous variety of international chefs and cuisines here," he continued.

"One could come to Dubai and, within just one city, experience food and at the same time learn from credible sources about cuisines from different countries around the world.

"So I think, with the diverse options here and the quality of the restaurants, there is undoubtedly potential for packages accommodating people who want to spend their holiday in a top destination and also experience a range of culinary skills and quality restaurants."

It seems that the foundations have already been laid for such packages.

In addition to a multitude of exciting food and beverage concepts, all with their own unique selling points, increasing numbers of Middle East operators are offering creative culinary extras to entice the cuisine-conscious consumer.

At Qatar's Ritz-Carlton Doha, in addition to a wildly successful Festival of the Senses in May - a five-day extravaganza of elements to delight the senses, including cooking classes with top international chefs, specialist wine and cigar evenings, themed club nights and art exhibitions - regular in-house cooking classes are also on offer.

"These classes were launched to give the guests something fun and exiting to do while they are staying in the hotel, as well as to build relationships with our local clientele and make them aware of all of our great restaurants and features," explained the property's executive chef, Matthew Morrison.

"Ritz-Carlton actually established a culinary education centre at our Cancun property, so we are looking to mirror what they did there: we want to create our own culinary education centre and be the first property outside of North America to do this," he revealed.

"The centre would be the first of its kind in the Middle East, offering a wide variety of classes and seminars for everyone, right across the board, from the home gourmet all the way up to professional chef level."

At Hilton Dubai Creek - home to Gordon Ramsay's first restaurant in the region, Verre - cooking classes were introduced to "engage culinary enthusiasts with the Gordon Ramsay food concept in a more meaningful way", according to executive head chef Scott Price.

"Gordon has always been a strong advocate for demystifying the art of good cooking and supports the master class concept in many of his restaurants," explained Price.

"The response to these classes has been overwhelmingly positive, and in fact they have become a legitimate revenue and client base for the restaurant," he added.
"The key point of difference offered through our classes is that guests get the opportunity to experience the heat of a Gordon Ramsay kitchen, and to engage and identify closely with the Verre team and what we do."

Another hotel-based cooking class concept making an impression on visitors to Dubai is L'atelier des Chefs, located at Le Méridien Dubai: a ‘school' for cooking, already well-established in France, Belgium and the UK.

Dubai outlet manager Baptiste Aubour explained: "Our chairman Nicolas Bergerault had the great opportunity three years back to introduce the L'atelier des Chefs franchise to a group of general managers from Le Méridien.

"Eventually it was decided to open the ‘flagship outlet' of this new partnership in Le Méridien Dubai, not only for its location and traffic, but also because of its food and beverage reputation.

"After more than a year of operations in Dubai, L'atelier des Chefs is now looking at expanding the concept to other Le Méridien hotels," Aubour revealed.

All around the region, chefs are similarly optimistic about the future of culinary getaway packages.

Ritz-Carlton's Morrison said he felt there was "great potential" for foodie tourism in the Middle East.

"I think the best way to drive this market is for the restaurants and hotels come up with different food fairs and events together, to drive business for everyone here," he suggested.

"We should also devise offers like a restaurant week, where outlets offer a limited menu at a reasonable price to get guests to come and enjoy all the great things they offer."

At Hilton Dubai Creek, a couple of in-house culinary packages have already been developed - and are working well, according to Price.

"Last year we introduced our Culinary Getaway Package, aimed at visitors from around the GCC who were looking for a culinary weekend escape. The package includes an overnight stay, a three-course à la carte dinner in Verre and a Hilton breakfast the next morning," he said.

"We have now also gone live with our Ramsay's Foodie Weekend Package, which in addition to an overnight stay and breakfast includes a cooking master class with the Verre team.

"The response has been very encouraging so far, and if more outlets join the trend we anticipate a very promising new positioning for the city," Price asserted.

Chefs and operators seem incredibly keen to develop the foodie tourism market: so why have tour operators not yet jumped on the bandwagon?

According to Arabian Adventures' Delcomminnette, it's not that tourism in Dubai is new - but of course it is still a young market compared to the world's long-standing holiday destinations.

"Consequently, so far, the focus of promoting the destination has always been on its primary, existing elements - the beaches, the hotels, the desert and so on," explained Delcomminnette.

"But now the Middle East is getting more and more specialised, the region's cities are looking to attract travellers by offering something more specific."

L'atelier des Chefs' Aubour agreed that the time was right for more targeted tourism appeal. "When you compare Dubai, for example, to other tourism destinations, it does not have the best beaches in the world, nor the most typical desert, nor amazing landscapes. It has had to promote itself by offering something different, playing to its own unique strengths," he observed.

"And what Dubai has understood - and can build upon further in future - is that it is the perfect hub between east and west; hence its current F&B status, offering the best from every part of the world."

According to Arabian Adventures' Delcomminnette, this is precisely the selling point that should be explored when developing culinary packages.

"The Middle East has the image of a truly quality destination, with a great deal to offer visitors," he said.

"And OK, so people may not want to come to Dubai on a culinary package that focuses specifically on French cuisine; for that, they will go to France.

"But if we take the diversity of options here and use that as a strength - or even choose to focus on the broad variety of Middle Eastern cuisine and its local influences - then combine that with the top facilities and attractions that the region has to offer, I think that would result in a very comfortable holiday."

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foodyguy 9 years ago

Culinary Tourism is the way forward, to quote Erik Wolf [president CEO International Culinary Tourism Association] "every visitor will eat and drink at least once aday-food is the only medium the speak to all five sences and is an excellent way to teach someone about your culture."

Being a foodie myself I have followed this movement for a long time. Yes the Middle East does have what it takes, so many of the countries mentioned above are riding on their laurels and will come for a fall sooner or later. Be proud of what is unique and memorable to the Middle East. Sure people who want French food will go to France and this cuisine will not be a good ambassador for your country. When I travel I wish to eat what is usually eaten in that destination-usually there is a story that accompanies a dish and this is enriching and something I will talk about and think about when trying to replicate that recipe myself.
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