RIYADH: Celebrity chef culture seems to be everywhere these days. People are obsessed with big-name restaurants and world-class luxury dining, and Saudi Arabia is no exception.
With at least two Michelin-star chefs opening restaurants in the Kingdom, and yet more making their entry with pop-up outlets and concept restaurants, Saudi Arabia is joining other Gulf countries in taking the leap into gourmet culture.
Several options for upscale dining and premium food are already available in Saudi Arabia, including Asian fusion powerhouse Nozomi, Turkish meat haven Sultan’s Steakhouse, and landmark restaurant The Globe.
Pop-up restaurants, open for a month or so, are a great way for restaurateurs to test the waters for a permanent location.
Three world-class restaurants are already slated to open pop-ups during the upcoming Jeddah Season: Nobu, Signor Sassi and Nusr-Et.
Open for 45 days and offering a limited menu, the concept will help decide whether or not to open permanent locations in the Kingdom in the future.
Successful pop-ups of international restaurants have already seen success, such as those of Urth Caffe, Nozomi and SALT.
“A huge part of entertainment culture in Saudi Arabia is going out to eat,” Faisal Abdulrahman, an aspiring Saudi chef, told Arab News.
“People love restaurants here, and they’re willing to pay a lot of money to eat at the right one. Someone call Gordon Ramsay up. I’m sure he’d be right at home here.”
Celebrity chefs are a TV favorite worldwide. Even before TV and the internet raised celebrity chefs to new heights, Emeril Lagasse and Julia Child were dominating the airwaves with their cooking shows in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Food Network is considered one of the most popular and highly rated TV channels in the world.
In the Middle East, those looking for more localized fare can look to cooking channel Fatafeet (Arabic for “crumbs”), or the cooking segment of MBC’s “Sabah Al-Kheir Ya Arab” (“Good Morning Arabs”).
The craze has continued online: Social media accounts dedicated purely to food are some of the most popular on the internet.
Take Buzzfeed’s Tasty, which boasts more than 100 million followers across all its social media accounts, or contender Tastemade, with roughly half that number of followers but quickly gaining traction.
Even videos that do not feature actual cooking can go viral. A video of Nusr-Et Steakhouse owner Nusret Gokce sprinkling salt sassily over a steak went viral and netted him the nickname “Salt Bae.”
Chefs who have achieved worldwide fame will often use it to open restaurants, mostly in upscale neighborhoods in wealthy countries and metropolitan cities.
In recent years, Dubai has found itself attracting more and more celebrity chefs, with other cities in the region hot on its heels.
Kuwait City, Riyadh, Bahrain and Doha have all seen celebrity chefs interested in opening venues.
Dubai has already attracted the likes of Ramsay, Masaharu Morimoto, Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller.
Riyadh has caught the eye of Noboyuki Matsuhisa, and in Bahrain you can find a restaurant from none other than Wolfgang Puck.
With new restaurants opening all the time, Dubai is quickly becoming an epicure’s dream come true.
Ramsay, for example, is a household name. Famous not only for his Michelin-star food (he has 16 stars altogether), he is also well-known for his TV shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Kitchen Nightmares.”
The former, an actual restaurant in Las Vegas where the show is filmed, has a second branch in the recently opened Caesars Bluewaters Dubai resort.
Ramsay has a second restaurant, a branch of his casual eatery Bread Street Kitchen, at the Atlantis resort on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah island.
He has been extremely vocal about his love of Dubai. He was one of the first celebrity chefs to open shop in the Gulf, with Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek in 2001.
Though Verre has since closed down, his two other restaurants in Dubai keep him coming back often.
“I fell in love with Dubai 18 years ago when we opened up at the Creek,” he told the Euronews TV channel in April. “It is a foodie city for me, highly competitive, great market.”
Ducasse is another hall-of-famer, with 21 Michelin stars, second only to Joel Robuchon’s 31. Ducasse’s restaurant miX Dubai, at the Emerald Palace Kempinski, spreads over three floors and can seat 400.
Dubai hotels are a favorite location for most celebrity chefs looking to open a restaurant in the city, as few restaurants outside hotels are permitted to sell alcohol. But not all chefs see this as a deterrent.
Restaurant mogul Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, better known by his moniker Nobu, has plans to open one of his world-famous hotels and restaurants in Riyadh. The outlet could become one of the Saudi capital’s hottest spots if the plan materializes.
Arguably the best chef in the world, Keller opened two of his world-famous Bouchon bakeries in Kuwait and one in Dubai in 2017. The bakery has remained in Top 10 restaurant lists in Kuwait.
The bacon is halal and no alcohol is used in any of the food, proving that the limitations do not affect Keller’s mastery of his craft.
Fine dining in the Middle East is not restricted to restaurants, as Michelin-star chef Gary Rhodes has demonstrated with his luxury cinema dining experience. ThEATre by Rhodes is an upscale dining experience available in VOX cinemas in the UAE, Bahrain and now Saudi Arabia, with a location in Riyadh and more scheduled to open as cinemas open across the Kingdom.
Featuring plush recliners, a butler service and award-winning food, cinema-goers can skip the normal popcorn and hotdog in favor of foie gras, lamb fritters, knickerbocker glories, and movie-inspired signature mocktails such as the Incredible Hulktini or the Theatre Mojito.
If the Jeddah Season pop-ups are successful enough, more celebrity chefs might be tempted to open shop in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps they will be lured by the new culture of entertainment, tourism and openness.
Or perhaps, as Abdulrahman said, the next celebrity chef to go global will be from Saudi Arabia.
“Let us see what happens when the planned culinary school opens up here,” he added. “A world-famous Saudi chef — if I really hope for anything, I hope it’ll be me, or at the very least, I hope it happens in my lifetime.”