Culinary destinations: food for thought

With Australian MasterChef filming two episodes in Dubai there is a clear sense that the city is becoming renowned for its food. Vision explores what it takes for a city become a culinary destination

When the Australian version of hit cookery show MasterChef decided to give this year’s final eight contestants a real challenge last month, it didn’t set them a bush tucker trial. Instead, judges George Calombaris, fellow chef Gary Mehigan and food critic Matt Preston dispatched them to Dubai.

It wasn’t a jolly: the first episode had the would-be chefs shopping for ingredients in a Dubai market before being dispatched on a camel to a desert cooksite, where they had to impress Emirati VIPs with Middle Eastern food. And the following week, they were asked to serve dinner at the Ossiano restaurant at Atlantis, The Palm.

In the end, of course, the show is a bit of fun, but the fact that Calombaris took it to Dubai suggests that the city is slowly becoming renowned for its food. But how might it learn from other culinary destinations?

In the first instance, it’s important to offer something different. When some of the best chefs in Scandinavia came up with a “New Kitchen Manifesto” in 2004, the idea was to “express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate with our region”. It sounds impossibly romantic, but it worked for a restaurant that had only just been set up in Copenhagen.

Noma, (which is an abstraction of the phrase “nordisk mad”, which means Nordic food), began to make waves well beyond the Danish capital and, incredibly, was voted the world’s best restaurant three times in a row from 2010 by Restaurant Magazine. In 2013 it’s at No.2 - the top honour goes to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain - but its impact on the city’s food scene has been immense. There are now 13 Michelin-starred restaurants in Copenhagen.

And the bestowal of a Michelin star is still an important accolade for a restaurant, and thus its home city’s reputation. Perhaps this will be the next stage of Dubai’s culinary journey: a Michelin guide doesn’t exist for the UAE as yet. Tokyo is a classic example of the impact the arrival of the French tyre company’s food critics can have on a city: the first Michelin guide was in 2007 - just six years later it has more three-star restaurants than any other city in the world.

It helps a city, too, if its indigenous chefs make a name for themselves. Lyon has Paul Bocuse, the nouvelle cuisine exponent who did so much to promote the French city as a gastronomic destination. Love him or hate him, Gordon Ramsay is synonymous with London.

Of course, the latter has set-up an outpost in Dubai itself in the past, but for the city to thrive, it has to find its own celebrity chef. And that will come. As MasterChef proves, the venues, the people and the interest in food are already here. It’s now time for the next course.