Meet the world-renowned chef who is baking up a treat in the Middle East

Thomas Keller poses outside his first-ever outpost in Dubai. (Photo supplied)
Updated 18 December 2017

Meet the world-renowned chef who is baking up a treat in the Middle East

DUBAI: For a chef of Thomas Keller’s caliber — he has multiple restaurants with long-held three Michelin stars, has concepts that are regularly rated among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and he has several James Beard awards under his belt — entering a new market is no light matter. With a successful career spanning more than 40 years behind him, and his name firmly embedded in the culinary world’s hall of fame as one of the greats, he probably does not even need to expand across the globe.
However, he has entered the Middle East region for the first time with not one but three outlets of Bouchon Bakery — one in Dubai and two in Kuwait — and he credits this entirely to Mohammed Al-Shaya, scion of the Al-Shaya retail and F&B empire that brought the franchise here.
“He made me come here. His organization and team gave me a great sense of confidence for us to be able to execute what we do at home, here,” said Keller, who made a whistle-stop trip to the region to officially launch the Dubai outlet recently.
“It’s all about relationships for me. Ours began over three years ago and he’s proven to me that not only is he a wonderful human being, we have a wonderful friendship that’s come out of this, but his business sense and ability to perform is unparalleled.”
Keller’s first encounter with the region was, in fact, nearly 10 years ago, when he had come here on a recce trip, during which time he had advised the authorities that they need to invest in farms and education to develop the culinary scene.
While that side of the industry has definitely evolved, he still feels that it might be a bit too premature to think about bringing some of his other upscale restaurant concepts — like The French Laundry and Per Se or even Bouchon Bistro — to the region.
“Right now, this is the right brand for me to put my foot into the Middle East, without becoming too ambitious,” he explained. “A restaurant is very different, you have to get too many different (fresh) ingredients and that requires a lot of time to source from the right people. It’s too early to start thinking about bringing other concepts here. We have to think about building relationships with suppliers, with the farmers and fishermen.”
Describing Bouchon Bakery as a traditional French boulangerie, Keller states clearly that he is not reinventing the wheel. “I’m trying to create a café that you would find in Paris, or Lyon or Marseilles… that’s always been what Bouchon Bakery is about, it’s what you would find in an urban area in France. And it’s nice to see all the little details we worked on come together here.”
All the Middle East-based locations manage to recreate that authentic French café vibe quite successfully — from the elegant, warm décor complete with bistro chairs, coffered walls and vintage lamps to the fittingly-traditional food.
The menu includes delectable pastries, artisanal breads, a selection of salads and sandwiches and mouthwatering macarons (they do gift boxes too) all freshly made on-site, plus Keller’s custom coffee blend created by Equator Coffees and Teas.
Some tweaks tailored to the region have been made, however.
“We’ve made certain modifications and introduced some things specifically for our Middle East outlets,” he said. “The rosewater Paris-brest or the mango éclair, for example, is very regional for us, but apart from a few items on the menu, most everything else is exactly as it would be at home (in the US).”
The standard of food and service is also on par with his international outlets, something Keller appears to be very happy with. “I’m so proud of the quality of work the team here does — the kitchen team, the baking team, the service team — I think they are doing an extraordinary job,” he says. “I had this meal prepared for me by some of our chefs in Kuwait and I was blown away with the food. The chefs here, they get it.”
This humility and generosity of spirit seems integral to the success story of this no-nonsense chef and astute restaurateur, although he puts it down to hard work and dedication. Passing on most of the credit to the team on the ground, he uses the analogy of a sports team to define his trajectory.
“Being a cook is exactly like being an athlete. We practice and practice, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t — but we always want to come back and do it all again tomorrow. Every athlete is emotionally attached to their job — that’s what cooking is like,” he said. “And the other aspect is having a strong sense of collaboration with the team. I believe in recognizing people for what they’ve achieved, because the more elevated you become in your career, your job becomes that of being a leader, of teaching and mentoring and that’s very important. The chefs in my team are better than I am — if they weren’t, that means I haven’t done a good job.”
If his measures of success are a strong team and “giving guests an experience they will remember,” then do the numerous awards he has garnered mean anything?
“I can’t explain why I’ve got all these awards — I go to work, do my job. Someone wants to give me a medal, I say thank you very much and go back to work,” he said matter-of-factly. “But remember, every award that you receive is for what you did yesterday — what are you doing today and what you are going to do tomorrow, that’s more important. We’re working on today and tomorrow.”

Creating a real brew-haha: The trendsetting Jeddah coffee shop

Brew92°: A perfect place to hang out for the day. (AN photo by Ziyad Alarfaj )
Updated 19 July 2018

Creating a real brew-haha: The trendsetting Jeddah coffee shop

  • Brew92° has been generating a lot of buzz since its soft opening in July 2016
  • The team at the cafe sources beans from some of the best growers and suppliers in the world, then roasts them in their own private roastery

JEDDAH: Coffee aficionados in Jeddah have probably heard the name Brew92° whispered in reverent tones as a suggestion for the perfect place to hang out for the day, or just to pop into for a quick caffeine fix.

The specialty cafe has also introduced Saudi Arabia to the world of coffee bean auctions. In June 2018 it paid $105 for a pound of Gori Gesha beans at the annual Gesha Village Coffee Estate auction in Ethiopia, the highest price ever paid for African beans.

Brew92° has been generating a lot of buzz since its soft opening in July 2016, attracting coffee drinkers of all ages to try its consistent and powerful blends. The team at the cafe sources beans from some of the best growers and suppliers in the world, then roasts them in their own private roastery. 

Arab News was given a special behind-the-scenes glimpse of the process to see how the beans are prepared and processed to make the perfect cup of coffee. All of the roasts they create are tasted blind, for example, without the tasters knowing the origin of the beans, to avoid any bias in their opinions on the taste and quality. “There’s no absolute, there are only guidelines,” is the motto the team behind Brew92° live by.

The idea for the place came from co-founder Abdul Aziz Al-Musbahi, who often frequented a coffee shop when he spent a few years in London studying and decided he would like to open a branch in Saudi Arabia. The owner declined to do so but instead offered to teach him all he knew about coffee beans and roasting.

Later, Al-Musbahi met business partner Hussain Ibrahim and suggested opening a roastery. Instead of immediately finding premises and starting work, Al-Musbahi set about finding and recruiting the best talents, before starting to develop the brand. He built and invested in a solid, capable team, the members of which trained with coffee consultants.

“I’ve been in this field since 2005,” said Ibrahim. “What I learned in the two years with Brew92° beats what I learned in the 10 years before it and the 10 years ahead.”

The name of the place, he added, was decided during a trip he and Al-Musbahi took to Dubai.

“The perfect water temperature for brewing is between 90 and 96 degrees Celsius; 92 is kind of in the middle — and it is the year in which Abdul Aziz was born.”

The team’s creative mastermind, Mohamed Bamahriz, has a theory about why the cafe is proving so popular.

“It’s because we’re addressing our customer’s five senses,” he said. 

Bamahriz noted: “We have our customized music playlist based on the time of the day and what sort of ambiance the customer is looking for whenever they come here, be it early in the morning or with slumped shoulders after working hours.”

“We also tailored our decor to be visually friendly and cozy,” he said and added: “Our visitors not only enjoy the coffee, they get to smell it and be completely submerged within the experience.”

“A month from now, we will also be introducing fashionable merchandise, which is something they can touch. We want to create a brand but we don’t want it to be niche and exclusive. Just like (our intention for) specialty coffee when we first introduced it, we want it to be for everyone; we want to create a sense of community and we want to prove that we can all coexist.”

He said that something he loves about Brew92° is that he can look around and see a man wearing a thobe sitting next to another in shorts and a third in a suit, while girls in niqabs sit side by side with others wearing the hijab and those who not — and it does not matter at all because everyone is equal.

The cafe also aims to be a trendsetter, rather than just following them.

“We’ve created quite a bit of hype with our salted caramel drink,” said marketing director Nidal Taha. It is called Halawa Bagara in Arabic, named after the popular caramel fudge that has a special place in the childhood memories of millennials. “We invented it by mixing coffee with it — after all, we’re not a juice shop,” added Taha.

“Many cafes are now trying to recreate it,” said Ibrahim. “Suppliers are bringing caramel sauces from all over the place. Our aim is to make it a signature drink everywhere, just like the Spanish introduced the Spanish latte — we want our drinks to reach the rest of the world.”